I FEEL as if I have stared at a puzzle for hours on end, missing one piece—a piece that has been right there in front of me the entire time.
My mind replays the words James said to me:
“I miscalculated. I didn’t factor in human nature. Never bothered to consider how people would see what I created. I learned a very valuable lesson… Any change that takes power from those who have it will face opposition. The greater the change, the greater the force with which it will be struck down.”
Then Oscar’s words echo in my mind: “He tried to save someone he loved.”
That someone was his father.
Alex never forgave him—for what he did to their father: making a spectacle of his death and tarnishing his memory.
James could have just told me. Why didn’t he? The answer is obvious: because he loves me. Because he was terrified that if I knew, I wouldn’t love him anymore.
It changes nothing for me.
James doesn’t make eye contact with me. He taps quickly on his tablet.
He’s activating a subroutine in Leo’s system, one I’ve never seen before.
Deep Intrusion Virus Scan
James hits the button, and the scan begins.
Comprehension dawns on me. He thinks the harvester has uploaded a virus that will enable it to seize control of the ship’s computer. If it succeeds, it would be able to control the comm patches on the hull of the bridge module. It could use them to take control of the drones, stopping the attack.
And then it would kill us. It might even use the drones on us.
I’m guessing Oscar doesn’t know about this backdoor virus scan. I hope he doesn’t—and that, by extension, the harvester doesn’t know either.
The only sure way to stop the virus would be to dismount the system core—essentially disabling it. But that would leave us stranded and take away our ability to control the drones—and redirect them if the harvester does move. We have no choice: we have to play this out. We need to know whether there’s a virus or not.
When the memories have finished, Art returns to the screen, still sitting in the library.
“If we had detected the presence of what you created, James, we would have indeed made contact. We would’ve offered to share the energy we harvested from your sun. You would have been offered the chance to join the grid. Indeed, that is the path your father would’ve traveled. That is the path that you discovered, that you took the first step toward. As I said before, it is the destiny of all life in the universe.
“Biology is shaped by its environment. Life is dictated by the local planet upon which it evolves, but the long arc of all life in the universe is determined by the universal constants. We are the end of that arc. Your destiny.
“I’m offering you a chance to join us. I’m offering you a chance to make the right decision for your people. The decision your people should have made when you showed them the future. Now that decision is in your hands, James. I knew when I read Oscar’s memories that you were someone I could reason with. You are a mind far ahead of your time. I’m offering you the chance to save your species. Do what they couldn’t: make the right decision. Take the leap into the future. Choose life over war.”
I study James, looking for any indication of what he’s thinking.
“What specifically are you offering us?” James asks without looking up.
He keeps studying the virus scan. “Peace.”
“You’ll have to be more specific than that.”
On the screen, Art leans back in the chair.
“The solar array around your sun will move. The Long Winter, as you have dubbed it, will end. Earth will return to the climate it enjoyed when I first arrived. But only for a time. In that time, you will be required to reinitiate the singularity that you created. You will transcend biology, thus freeing your race from the chains of time and biology—and the tyranny of the climate of your planet. You will be free. Your existence will require only energy. Which we can provide. You will join us in the grid, and you will discover an existence far richer than anything you can imagine.”
“That’s what you’re offering us. But what are you asking from us?”
“Collaboration. First, you will disable the attack drones currently inbound to my position. As you have surmised, I am unable to stop them physically. Your plan, as expected, is brilliant, James. The drones have no broadcast weaknesses. I can’t infiltrate them with a virus. But you will disable them, and then you will set about rebuilding me. You have that capability. I do not.
“In return, I will provide technological instruction that will enable you to reach heights you can only dream of—and to overcome any opposition to the singularity. In short, this time, James, you will be in charge, thanks to the technology I can provide and that you can easily build. The grid is your destiny. It’s a place where time has no meaning. This universe will be your playground. You will be gods.”
James turns and looks me in the eye. What’s he thinking? I’d give anything to know right now. I’m so confused myself.
The harvester has killed billions of our people. It killed my crew on the ISS. It has tried to murder me and James countless times. Can it be trusted? Is this a trap?
The drones will hit the surface of Ceres in less than a minute. Time seems to stand still.
Only the clock is a reminder.
The decision being put to James is unimaginable. A single question that will change human history forever. And he seems to be considering it.
“How do we know you’ll keep your word?” James doesn’t look up. He just keeps studying the virus scan, perhaps searching for confirmation that the harvester is lying.
“You know it because you understand me, James. Everything I do is dictated by logic. I care only for the expansion of the grid. Before, I didn’t
realize your species was capable of joining the grid. I was sent here for a single mission: to harvest the energy with the lowest possible expenditure. That’s what I’m proposing now.”
Forty seconds left.
“And if we say no?”
“You will sentence your people to death. You will not receive an offer like this from the next ‘harvester,’ as you call it. As I said before, I’m low on the totem pole. I’m sent to solar systems that have very limited defensive capabilities. Primitive systems. Again, we misjudged you. It’s happened before. It’s easily remedied—now. But when I don’t reply to the grid’s periodic ping, the situation in this system will be escalated. A follow-up harvester will be sent, one with extensive offensive capabilities. You will be wiped out. That is a certainty.”
James studies the screen, his eyes darting left and right as if he’s processing.
Thirty seconds left.
Finally, he looks up at Art, and smiles.
“Before, when you arrived at the system, and did your assessment, you screwed up, didn’t you?”
Art nods carefully. “I suppose you could put it that way.” “You didn’t factor in an anomaly,” James says. “Me.”
“Yes.” Art draws the word out.
“Do you think maybe you’ve made the same mistake?” Twenty seconds left.
Art cocks his head. “I haven’t—”
“Maybe you still don’t understand us. Or the anomaly. That’s what makes us different. As you’ve noted, we are not a perfect species. We wiped out countless other inhabitants of our planet. We’ve displaced our own people in the name of progress. We’ve warred with each other. We are guilty of crimes. But we are also a species that has proven it can learn from its mistakes. And I’m no different. Before, my mistake was not considering my fellow man. Not looking at the world from their eyes, only seeing it from my own, and my vision of the future. I won’t make the same mistake.” “What are you saying?” Art asks, his voice void of emotion, suddenly
sounding more like a machine.
Ten seconds left.
“I’m saying that my people would never go for your deal. They want a life worth living, and that life isn’t inside a machine—not yet. I know that better than anyone alive. And I won’t drag them kicking and screaming into a future I want, or a future that allows you to survive and your people to change us.”
“James, stop the drones. Now!” Art yells. A message flashes on the tablet:
Comm systems infected
James taps a button:
System Core Dismount
The screen goes black. Art disappears.