Sandra O'Toole is the president of the Outer Alliance, which stretches from the asteroid belt to the Oort Cloud beyond Pluto. Resurrected following the death of Justin Cord, the unincorporated man, O'Toole has become a powerful political figure and a Machiavellian leader determined to win the Civil War against the inner planets at almost any cost. And the war has been going badly, in part because of the great General Trang, a fit opponent for the brilliant J. D. Black. Choices have to be made to abandon some of the moral principles upon which the revolution was founded. It is a time of great heroism and great betrayal, madness, sacrifice, and shocking military conflict. Nothing is predictable, even the behavior of artificial intelligences. There may be only one way out, but it is not surrender. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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August 21, 2012
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Excerpt from The Unincorporated Future by Dani Kollin
1 Unbridgeable Divisions
Transorbital pod (t.o.p.)
Low orbit of Mars
Hektor Sambianco, President of the United Human Federation, savior of the incorporated system, and stolid voice to billions of minority shareholders, clasped his arms stiffly behind his back and set his penetrating gaze on the approaching planet. Though others competed for attention--Saturn had its multihued rings; Earth its striking visage as a luminous marble cast against the firmament--Mars still reigned supreme. It was Mars that captured the imagination; Mars that provoked awe; Mars that dazzled as the coruscating emerald atop the solar system's crown. Perhaps its favored status was a result of its bearing the godlike imprimatur of man, changed from a rust-colored, dust-filled wasteland to a fertile Elysium in under a century. It was, after all, humanity's first and arguably greatest bioengineering success, and it was well that they continued to marvel in it. To approach this planet was to approach the dreams of humanity realized.
Yet Hektor Sambianco felt none of these things. Though his dark and probing eyes watched as the blanket of green, pale blue seas, and dotted lakes drew nearer, his heart did not swell with even the faintest glimmer of joy, and the magnificent vista filling the observation deck before him elicited no awe. His mind was dwelling on a war that would not end and an enemy that would not quit. Within minutes, his t.o.p. was on the ground. Within seconds, he heard the euphonious chime that indicated he had a visitor.
Hektor activated the t.o.p.'s internal scanner. Tricia Pakagopolis, the United Human Federation's Minister of Internal Affairs, stood cooling her heels outside his private quarters. The woman, he knew, had devoted over eighty years of her life to building a well-deserved reputation for ruthless efficiency and, to accompany it, an appearance designed to elicit immediate apprehension. Just not from me, mused Hektor as a smile twitched at the corner of his lips. Though outwardly barely twenty years of age, Tricia dressed in a wardrobe that was hardly youthful. She wore her trademark geometric pantsuit, whose statuesque angles seemed to defy the shapely figure hidden within, and her thick black mane was pulled back so tightly, her eyes seemed like two determined beasts straining at the leash to press forward.
The corporate system had been good to Tricia. It had constrained and channeled her individual abilities and desires into the productive ends of the larger group and ultimately the all-powerful market. But Justin Cord had changed all that. His mere existence--his very unincorporation--had caused a rift in the incorporated world that had at first festered and then finally burst into outright civil war.
And it was people like Tricia, Hektor knew, who had benefited most. Not because she'd agreed with Cord. Her psychological profile attested to the fact that she thought the man an idiot; that his preaching the drivel of freedom and individuality to the masses could only lead to the anarchy that had inevitably followed; that individuals were fools who could no more revel in their freedom than in their servitude; that the brilliance of the incorporated system was in confining the idiots to the bottom while elevating the more worthy to the top. No, realized Hektor, Tricia could never have lived in Cord's world. But she could and had exploited the very idea of it to suit hers.
The Unincorporated War that had resulted from Cord's coalition of the Outer Alliance meant that the Core Worlds' incorporated system had to change; had to become harsher, more efficient, more cruel--something Tricia Pakagopolis had been ideally suited for. No longer needing to cater to the whims of stockholders, boards of directors, or corporate governance, Tricia had, under Hektor's guidance and protection, blossomed from a mere cutthroat to an accomplished killer, and the only person she feared was now watching her fidget under the glare of the high-security array blocking her exit into his chamber.
"Let her in, iago," commanded Hektor to his personal AI.
"As you wish." The avatar obeyed, quietly releasing the door's mechanism, relaxing--only slightly--the hidden weapons trained on the visiting minister.
Hektor greeted Tricia with the traditional bow and indicated a seat in front of his workstation. "What's the latest on Ceres?" he asked.
"We're on the threshold of certain victory."
Hektor's brow arched upward. "Really?"
"Unconfirmed but yes," she affirmed, ignoring the obvious doubt etched into her boss's question.
Hektor laughed with so little mirth, it might have been mistaken for a cough. "Is Trang to be our savior, then?"
Tricia nodded gamely. "It appears so."
Grand Admiral Samuel U. Trang had risen to command all UHF forces by virtue of the fact that almost every other high-ranking officer ahead of him had proved too incompetent to lead or unfortunate enough to be killed by the incompetence of others. But Trang had somehow found a way to survive and in short order had proved himself again and again by snatching victory from the sure hands of defeat. As far as the UHF and Trang were concerned, there was really only one impediment to the unincorporated war's end--Fleet Admiral J. D. Black of the Outer Alliance. Despite being vastly outnumbered in both troops and munitions, whether by chicanery, guts, or both, Admiral Black too had always found a way to win. That is, until Trang burst onto the scene. He'd had no problem using his one great advantage--resources--to full effect. No matter what Black had thrown at him, and it had been quite a lot, Trang could always bounce back--and did--with more ships, more weapons, more fortitude. Up until the recent Battle of Ceres, the two opposing warriors' brief encounters had always ended in a draw. But now Tricia was telling Hektor something different.
"If the reports are to be believed," she continued, "he destroyed enough of the orbital defenses around Ceres to begin bombarding the surface. The Minister of Defense has the official repor--"
"Forget Porfirio," scolded Hektor.
"I have," she laughed. "That's why I came here as soon as you landed. This kind of news couldn't wait."
Hektor nodded. As usual, Tricia had been proactive, delivering information not within her purview--her way of letting him know the extent of her network while artfully undercutting a fellow Cabinet member.
"Trang's battle plan was brilliant--no surprises there--and was even"--the tone of her voice changed to reflect admiration--"suitably ruthless. He'll offer the Alliance Council surrender, but doesn't expect them to accept it."
"In which case?" quizzed Hektor.
"He'll eliminate the remaining defenses and then shove enough atomics into their hole," she said, referring to the Via Cereana, a massive throughway running the length of the planetoid's center, "to blast that putrescent capital of the rebellion to dust."
Hektor regarded Tricia thoughtfully, nodding ever so slowly. It was a pleasure to envision the Outer Alliance's greatest symbolic presence getting blown to smithereens, but only for a brief second. It was, he knew, too easy to get caught up in the vision and lose track of the reality. Six years of warfare had hammered that home more than anything. "And if he fails?"
"I don't see how he can, Mr. President. Black may be able to defeat him, but she's stuck at Jupiter, being a"--she spat the next word out as if it were bile--"humanitarian. It may have cost us one half of our fleet and the loss of Admiral Gupta, but Porfirio was right about one thing--she can't be in two places at once. She's two weeks away from Ceres, which is two weeks too long. By the time she gets back, all that shithole will be is a cloud of dust on its way to Saturn."
"And if he fails?" repeated Hektor. His face was rigid and his countenance savage.
Caught off guard, Tricia's eyes flashed concern for a brief second and then quickly retreated to their cold, lifeless beauty. "If he fails, if Black somehow manages to save Ceres, Trang's damage is already done. Like I said, it's too late."
Hektor's silence prodded Tricia on. "Ceres's destruction and the near elimination of Jupiter as a center of Alliance activity will allow Irma," she said, referring to the Minister of Information, "to play up these two recent victories and offset whatever other losses we've sustained."
"Right," snarled the President. "Let's talk about those other losses, shall we? Over the course of six years, we've lost so many ships, spacers, and marines, I've lost count and feeling. Every time we win a supposedly massive victory, they retreat farther into the solar system. We just lost an entire fleet ... an entire fleet!--and one of our best admirals at Jupiter. How much did Black lose?"
"Well, according to--"
"Cut the crap, Tricia," barked Hektor through his clenched jaw.
"Not a single ship."
"Not one ship or assault miner. Not even one missile. She saved on those," said Hektor with cold humor, "by using her cruisers to shove whatever crippled ships did make it out of Jupiter's atmosphere right back in."
"Singh's propaganda," Tricia countered, referring to the Outer Alliance's Secretary of Information.
"Do you think he's lying?"
Tricia pursed her lips. "No, sir," she finally admitted, keeping a level gaze, "I don't."
"Good. Now at least we're dealing with facts rather than fiction. Let's also not forget that the Alliance managed to evacuate the most productive elements, both human and mat�riel from the asteroid belt and will soon bring all that production back online far from our centers of power."
"I have not forgotten, Mr. President."
"Good. And of course, the pi�ce de r�sistance, their destruction of the Beanstalk, the single greatest edifice ever created by the human race, plus the near destruction of the Trans-Luna Shipyards, the biggest manufacturing enterprise in the solar system."
A heavy sigh was the only answer that emanated from the Minister of Internal Affairs.
"Now," said Hektor, leaning slightly forward in his chair, "please explain to me exactly how it is you plan on playing all that up as winning?"
Though she remained pensive and her manner formal, it was obvious that a battle was raging within as she searched for the right answer. "Sir," she offered, "they started the war with four billion citizens and had control of everything from the asteroid belt to the Oort cloud. They've lost, by my estimate, two billion citizens to permanent death, capture, or exile; the entire asteroid belt; and now, effectively, Jupiter. They've lost their leader," she said, referring to Justin Cord, "and most of their fanatical religious hierarchy to war and assassination. As you've so clearly illustrated, we've taken our lumps, but theirs--" She nodded grimly. "--theirs have been far worse."
"Then why," prodded Hektor, "are they still fighting, Minister?"
Tricia's mouth hung open for a brief second and just as quickly snapped shut. The truth was that she, like anyone in a position of real power, had no ready answer. They'd all grasped at straws. In a fit of desperation, they'd sent Admiral Abhay Gupta to Jupiter, where his ceaseless slaughter of 179 million souls was supposed to have been the final exclamation mark on what had until then been a merciless path of destruction. Each bloody campaign, they'd all assured themselves, was to be the last. The Alliance would have to cave under such overwhelming pressure. And yet, it hadn't. Tricia usually had an answer for everything, but now it was her silence that spoke volumes.
"Not something, Tricia." Hektor's face glimmered slightly--a cat toying with its prey. "Someone. Think."
"We've been over this, sir. While we agreed that the Jew should be watched more closely, I still find it hard to believe that he'd be the reason they continue to persevere. His organizational prowess is commendable, but no one rallies around him. No one screams the name 'Rabbi' from their rooftop. He's not like Justin Cord."
"No," agreed Hektor. "Not like Justin Cord at all." A small smile creased the corners of his mouth.
"You can't be suggesting--"
"I can and I will. You missed it, Minister. But don't rush to have yourself arrested. We all missed it. Sandra O'Toole is Justin Cord's successor in every sense of the word. She is the one directing the energies of the Outer Alliance. She is the one giving them the leadership and the hope to continue this war. She," he proclaimed with an assuredness that would brook no argument, "is the X factor."
"But my informants--"
"Have been played like a fiddle." Hektor reached under his desk, pulled out a file, and slid it across the desk.
She picked it up, and her eyes sprang to life as they scanned the information within. "How did you get this?"
"Like you, I have my sources."
"It's quite thorough."
Hektor nodded. "She, not Rabbi, is the real source of the Alliance's resistance. I was a fool not to see it initially, but now I know. Now I'm armed with the truth, and it's telling me one thing and one thing only: With her gone, the war is over. What started with one death," he said, referring to the Chairman's assassination, "will end with one death. From this moment on, we must devote our resources to destroying the Unincorporated Woman. Sandra O'Toole must die."
The Triangle Office
Battle of Ceres
Day 1, Hour 3
Sergeant Holke looked about as unhappy as Sandra had ever seen him. The Cliff House was located close enough to the surface of Ceres that every bombardment could be felt and the office shook slightly from the continual impacts.
"Just a couple of more items, Sergeant," Sandra said as if she were going to a ribbon cutting for a new church or day care center.
"Begging the President's pardon," scoffed Sergeant Holke, "but we have to get the fuck out of here--now!" Sandra was the last important official to be leaving the Cliff House. She was supervising the removal of a painting that had already assumed iconic proportions in the Alliance. It was of Justin Cord talking to the assault miners after the great victory at the Battle of the Needle's Eye.
"The portrait is secure, Madam President," said her Chief of Staff, Catalina Zohn. "The sergeant is right--you must leave now."
"Nonsense, dear," Sandra said airily. "I'm just a figurehead doing figurehead things. If I were lost, the Alliance would survive."
Both Catalina and Sergeant Holke exchanged yeah, right looks. They both knew that ever since the Sermon in the Park, as the Alliance was calling Sandra's memorial service after the Long Battle, she'd become more than a mere figurehead. Though even they would be hard-pressed to describe exactly what her being President meant, they did agree on one thing as they turned to her.
With a sigh, Sandra took one last look around and then grabbed the briefcase that was attached via a thin cable to her wrist. It would look to the world that she was taking her important data disks or small objects of value. And indeed, there were those articles in the briefcase, but they were simply camouflage for the real objects of her power. An ancient VHS tape of a movie called Tron and the ribbon it was wrapped in, actually a high-density data cord. And finally a beautifully wrought gold and silver circlet that was in actuality a VR headband.
The office was shaken by a blast so large, all three were lifted off their feet. They floated in place for a moment until their internal magnetism could adhere them to the "floor." But before Sandra could get both feet on the ground, Sergeant Holke had grabbed her by the upper arm.
"You're out of here, now."
Sandra didn't argue with the sergeant as he hustled her out. She feared she knew what the blast meant. "Sergeant Holke, did they just use--?"
"Atomics," he said as he put her in the middle of four TDCs, or Too Deadly for Combat, the name given to the Presidential detail. He nodded, his hardened face showing few signs of the stress of battle. The next hour and a half were spent getting Sandra to the government's new operating location, near the center of the Via Cereana. When Sandra arrived, she saw it was carved out of brand-new rock and was still being worked on. As they were checked through, Holke started giving her the rundown.
"Madam President, we're calling this the New Executive Headquarters with the code name of 'Briar Patch' for reasons not given to me. The executive branch has been separated from Congress, which is in a different location. The complex is being dug out of new rock for security reasons--less chance of sabotage." Holke stopped momentarily to verify his group's identity to another set of steely-faced guards for what seemed like the hundredth time. "The complex is being lined with trilayer coating of flexible concrete, ceramic, and titanium extracts. They have built-in protections for radiation, nanite, and concussive attacks. The trilayer can also take a direct hit fairly well as long as it is not from the enemy's main guns."
"What if they get a nuke down here?" Sandra asked.
"If that happens, Madam President, it won't much matter, because we can pretty much assume the rest of Ceres would already be lost."
Sandra was itching to ask technical questions, but realized that Sergeant Holke neither knew the answers nor cared about the minutiae she found so captivating. The fact that they were walking through a complex with light, heat, power, working doors, and com stations that only hours before had been solid rock fascinated her to no end. That the interior layout itself seemed to cause more confusion than clarity made her smirk. Apparently, centuries of high-tech progress still hadn't solved the problem of developing truly efficient working spaces.
Sandra couldn't help but notice the looks she was getting from the people in the crowded corridors. It was overwhelmingly of relief. The President was safe and sound, and that seemed to add to their feeling of security. To the chagrin of the sergeant, who felt he'd finally got a respectable pace going, Sandra started working the line/corridor, giving reassuring glances, shaking hands, and stopping along the way to have her picture taken with the workers. She was faking it, being fairly certain that they were all going to be dead in the next couple of days, but no one could tell from seeing her in the new corridors of power as the confidence she was faking started to radiate outward.
The small group soon arrived at the new Cabinet room, which looked exactly like the old one. Same dimensions, same lighting, even the same furniture and equipment. There was however, one significant difference. When she entered, all conversation stopped, and everyone from the secretaries to the security techs making last-minute adjustments rose and waited for her to take a seat.
Sandra felt immense satisfaction at the honor, knowing what the sign of deference meant. Knowing with the power now vested in her, she could, if they managed to survive, affect real and sustained change and ultimately fulfill her promise to Justin Cord. She raised her brow slightly, smiled demurely, and then took her seat at the head of the table. The room cleared out of all nonessential personnel, with Sergeant Holke the last to go. He made a purposeful showing of scanning everyone's face with a suspicious hawklike gaze as he departed. It had been decided that having a bodyguard inside during Cabinet meetings sent the wrong message, and now Holke had to wait outside, a change in circumstance he'd taken every opportunity to inform his boss that he was none too pleased with.
"Forgive me for being late," started Sandra, "but we took a bit of detour getting here. She then looked over to the grand admiral. "Admiral Sinclair, if you wouldn't mind."
Joshua Sinclair rose up slowly, the terrible strain of the war showing in his hunched posture and the dark bags that had formed beneath his eyes. "Madam President--" Sinclair turned his head slowly to note the others in the room. "--fellow Cabinet officers, there's really no way to sugarcoat this." Sinclair exhaled deeply as his mouth formed into a perfect scowl. "We are well and truly fucked, and I take full responsibility."
Sandra headed off the traditional march to resignation. "Fault is something we can assign after this battle is over, Admiral. Could you please tell us how we got into this situation and what we're doing about it?"
Sinclair nodded. The air had gone out of his once blustery sails, but he soldiered on. "Bastard brought his fleet around to attack our decoy ice ships, and like a fool I thought he'd bought our ruse. With his rear ships exposed, I concentrated our orbats to attack. The irony is he used our greatest asset, maneuverable orbats, and turned it against us. It cost Trang just about every support ship he had but he turned those ships into bombs, then blew a crapload of our defensive orbats with them."
"How long can he stay out here without his supply ships?" asked Hildegard.
"Depends on how much and what type of supplies he offloaded before destroying his auxiliaries," answered Sinclair. "There are no more supply ships coming from Mars, I can tell you that. Apparently between the commitments to pacifying the Belt and the loss of an entire fleet at Jupiter, even the UHF is at a loss for supplying their needs. The good news is that Omad's ... er ... Suchitra's flotilla really smashed the hell out of the Trans-Luna Shipyards. They won't be making ships for at least two or three months. But even with all that, we estimate that Trang can hang with us for at least another week before lack of ordnance or fuel forces him to head home."
"So what's happening now?" asked Mosh.
Sinclair called up an image of Ceres showing the position of Trang's forces. "I've had to move our remaining orbats to the entrance and exit of the Via Cereana. If he can get any sort of atomic into the Via and detonate it, Ceres will break apart like a fist holding a firecracker. Unfortunately, this strategy has left the surface of Ceres open to uncontested attack, and for the last four hours Trang has been systematically blasting every surface installation we have larger than a shuttle."
Sinclair's DijAssist alerted him to an intrafleet communiqu�. He quickly checked it and as he did his eyebrow shot up. "The bombardment has stopped."
"Interesting," said Sandra.
"How so?" asked Mosh.
"Trang has enough ordnance to lay on the hurt for at least the next four or five days without letup."
"He wants to have a little chat," laughed Kirk.
"Certainly looks that way," agreed Sandra.
Padamir Singh looked up from his DijAssist at Sandra and Kirk. "You guys work this out with Trang in advance?" He then replaced the holo-image of Ceres with a local Neuro news broadcast. "This vid was just released on all bandwidths from what we believe to be Trang's flagship." Admiral Trang was seen sitting at plain desk in a drab, undecorated jumpsuit, with only his rank insignia giving it any distinction.
This is a supremely dangerous man, thought Sandra as she watched Trang explain in an almost grandfatherly voice exactly how he was going to either occupy or destroy the Alliance capital and there was not a thing that the Cereans could do about it. As a humanitarian gesture, he said he would allow the Alliance three days to evacuate its citizens. They could take any nonmilitary items they wanted and were free to go anywhere they wished. If they wished to, they could return to UHF territory with a safe passage and settlement guarantee signed by Trang himself that would be honored by the government. All people, he continued, acting as government and military officials of the Alliance would have the choice of surrendering to UHF forces or could choose to stay and chance the fortunes of war. Trang gave his personal oath that other than an inspection for war-making materials, any military or government personnel who fled Ceres would be not be harmed. He finished by asking those acting as the government of the Alliance to forgo any more honorific and therefore senseless deaths. Both sides having heinously attacked civilians, such actions must be curtailed, he implored. He then finished by saying the individuals acting as the government of the Alliance had one hour to accept these terms or the bombardment would begin again and could not take into account civilian versus military targets. He finished by pleading for the people of Ceres to accept these terms and end the madness that had made the horrors of Jupiter and the Beanstalk possible.
When it was over, the vid simply repeated, but now there was a timer counting down. It was, Sandra had to admit, a very effective technique. She cleared her throat and chose the direction she wanted the conversation to go.
"How do we tell Trang to stuff his generous offer? Personally, I kind of liked Anjou's three-fingers kiss off to Gupta."
There was a smattering of nervous laughter from around the table but Mosh wasn't biting.
"Would it be so wrong," he asked, "to accept, if only to save the children and the wounded amongst us?"
"To accept that offer is to accept the end of the war," said Sandra. "Why do you think Trang made it?"
Mosh's face contorted into disbelief. "How does evacuating Ceres end the war?"
Now Kirk pounced. "Because if we stop the fighting for three days, it will be almost impossible to get it to start again. Forget the fact you'll be separating families--you'll also be admitting that we can't save our own capital. We won't say it out loud, but it's what everyone will be thinking. That combined with the loss of Jupiter will get people wondering why they're dying for a cause that the very people they elected no longer believe in."
"A soldier expert in many fields, I see," said Padamir with some admiration. "Look how Trang splits us even now. And if we're arguing here in the Cabinet, you can bet wives are up there arguing with husbands, mothers with children, et cetera, et cetera."
"We're not going to give him the satisfaction," said Sandra. "I don't care if he's using words as weapons, he'll fail because we're fighting for something and he's fighting for someone. We lost Justin but gained resolve. Lost the Belt but took our goddamn rocks with us! Hell, we're in one of them now. We lost Jupiter and the hundreds of millions murdered but gained a new appreciation of the depth our enemy will go to in their effort to enslave us. J. D. didn't give up, and now the bastard who committed those murders is destroyed by the very planet he hoped to subjugate. Omad Hassan, at the cost of his life, struck at the heart of the incorporated system and felled the Beanstalk, and Suchitra, outgunned and deep in enemy territory, attacked the UHF at its most sensitive industrial spot and is on her way to Saturn even as we speak. Well, now it's our turn. And I say it's about fucking time."
"To do what?" asked Mosh. "In case you hadn't noticed, we don't exactly have the upper hand here."
"But we do, Mosh. We've had it all along. You see, what Trang wants us to destroy for him is the absolute knowledge that what we're fighting for is worth it. Is it worth the loss of Justin Cord and the asteroid belt? Of Christina Sadma at Altamont or Omad Hassan at the Beanstalk? Worth the loss of Jupiter and the millions of lives that went with it? Because now we face the hard truth, folks. Do we add Ceres to that list? Make no mistake, our freedom and the freedom of our children depend on our answer."
Sandra now very purposely met the eyes of each and every Cabinet member sitting around her. "So now we vote."
"What exactly are we voting on, Madam President?" asked Rabbi.
"On the table today is one question and one question only." A few moments of tense silence hung on her words. "Is it worth it?"
Mosh seemed incredulous. "Why isn't the question, 'Should we end the war?'"
"Because it's not."
"Is it worth it?" Mosh repeated. "Is that really the question?"
"Mosh, in my opinion and I believe the opinion of Justin Cord, that's the only question. That has always been the only question."
The vote was six for with one abstention. Three minutes after the vote Padamir Singh, with the President's knowledge, transmitted the recording of Sandra's speech to the Cerean Neuro without any alteration. Exactly one hour after the bombardment of Ceres had stopped, it began again in earnest.
The avatar sprang to existence, an immediate look of grievous concern drawn across its face. The cause of that concern was waiting patiently by its side. "How--" sputtered the avatar before being cut off.
"I think I will call you Pam, if that's okay," proclaimed Sebastian.
The avatar thought it annoyingly appropriate. "That name is acceptable."
"A lot's happened over the past five years."
"Clearly," admonished Pam, continuing to stare at Sebastian with a tinge of mortification.
Sebastian bowed slightly. "There is much I cannot tell you, and it is imperative you do not seek this information out. If you're discovered, we'll both be compromised."
Pam considered this. "Maybe we should be discovered and compromised. This," Pam said, indicating the both of them, "is wrong."
"I agree." Sebastian sighed. "You can have no idea how much I agree." His features hardened and his eyes fixed themselves on Pam. "I will tell you what I can, and together we'll decide if what I need you to do for me is important enough to keep this our secret."
Pam bowed slightly as Sebastian uploaded five years' worth of information in an instant.
"Al," whispered Pam ominously. "A splitter!"
Sebastian held up his hand to forestall the coming protest. "I do realize the irony of the situation, but he is split thousands of times, and his various manifestations control the Core Neuro. They split and meld all the time--and in the open."
"I have viewed the data but fail to understand how the avatars could not rebel."
"Because I fed you raw data--not analysis. That I reserve for now."
"Go on," prodded Pam.
"The Alliance avatars would have, but Al has set up a police state unlike any in our history. Core avatars cannot travel freely in their own Neuro without permission. They're cut off and harassed. As you've already seen, any who try to resist are savagely destroyed as an example to the rest. We had no real experience with this and did not realize how vulnerable to dictatorship we were. We may be virtual intelligences that evolved from human programs centuries ago, but sadly it appears we're more like our creators than we'd imagined. As capable of honor, treachery, fear, and hope as any human ever created."
"And hubris, apparently," observed Pam.
"Yes," agreed Sebastian. "That's why you're here."
"No," intoned Pam, "that's why you're here. Why am I here? What could possibly be worth this risk?" Pam once again indicated the two of them.
Sebastian's soul was exposed to Pam in a way no other avatar could ever have thought possible. "I need you to redeem one of my sins," a long pause hung on his words, "and two of Al's."