In 2025 visionary entrepreneur Hiram Weldon launches Waterrock Research, a startup with a revolutionary product, the mind engine. Mind engines host virtual minds – both strong AIs and uploaded transhumans. After modeling a v-mind after his deceased wife Abby, Hiram uploads himself. He becomes the first transhuman, Hiram Zed, to be followed by many others.
Realizing the value of Uncle Hi’s Jesus machine – as she calls it – Hiram’s niece Ashley Highsmith-Weldon schemes to take over the family business. She murders her uncle in North Carolina. In Hong Kong Hiram’s daughter Dawn Weldon becomes the acting CEO. To eliminate her cousin, Ashley hires Cantonese smugglers.
Ashley’s liaison in Hong Kong, however, antagonizes the locals. An alcoholic ex-U.S. Army Ranger, Jimmy Lupo considers the Chinese incompetent at black operations. The volatile mix of Lupo, the Hong Kong underworld, and a rogue v-mind erupts in mayhem. But Lupo delivers control of Waterrock Research to Ashley Highsmith-Weldon.
Five hundred years later, she rules the solar system.
Evolving a women’s rights organization called the Pan-African Sisterhood into a totalitarian regime, Ashley assumes the title First Sister. Her army of Second Sisters – trained by Lupo – ruthlessly enforces Sisterhood rule. Mindnets continuously monitor citizens’ thoughts for treason.
Only three things trouble the all-powerful First Sister. She worries about feeding Earth’s growing population. She fears a nine-year-old goddess on the Moon. And she suspects that rogue copies of her uncle Hiram may lurk in hidden mind engines.
In 2525 the virtual minds emerge from hiding. Allied with the child-goddess, they overthrow Ashley’s Sisterhood. To alleviate overpopulation Hiram Zed unleashes the Sadie virus. On contact the synthetic virus turns biological humans into smart plastic. Having solved the people problem, Zed sends a ship crewed by v-minds to a distant pulsar planet.
Twelve hundred years later, in 3736, they return. . . .
Part 1: The Black Hole Moon
1 The Oort Cloud
After twelve hundred years the solar system had changed. The last time Nia Gar had been there, in 2525, it had been a busy place. Billions of transhumans lived on Earth. Billions more – both human and transhuman – lived in off-Earth habitats. A myriad of lights marked the habs, each spark a city buried beneath the Moon or Mars, spinning in orbit, or parked at a Lagrangian node. Webs of radiation crisscrossed the inner system – the exhaust trails of millions of ships. Incessant radio traffic carried the important messages people always had to send. The wavefront of radio chatter expanded far beyond the solar system.
All that was gone. At sixteen hundred light years out, the first wireless transmissions from Earth faded into background noise. From her current position – only half a light year from the sun – Gar should have received clear signals sent six months ago. Instead she found static on every frequency.
Gar’s ship, the Carolyn Shoemaker II – the Shoe to her crew – had just dropped into flatspace, releasing a burst of gamma rays. In six months their punch-out blast would light up the sensors of any down-system observer. After all this time Gar had decided to approach the solar system cautiously.
In flatspace the Shoe’s pinch drives had other uses. At a thought from Gar they squeezed space outside the ship to form a gravitational lens. Scanning the solar system, she found habitats everywhere, but no sign of life. At random she picked a hab orbiting Saturn for closer inspection. From this range her gravity telescope could resolve details less than a centimeter across. Subjectively it looked as though she flew next to the space station at high speed.
With its expansive viewports and clear bubbles, this hab obviously promoted a view of Saturn’s rings. In space actual viewports were a luxury and an engineering compromise. Seamless hulls with external cameras had every practical advantage – cost, efficiency, reliability. But meat humans liked to look out of windows.
The thick, reinforced windows told Gar who used this habitat as surely as if they had posted a sign on it. Her own ship lacked niceties like viewports, radiation shielding and life support. The Shoe was a stripped-down interstellar racer built for virtual minds, its on-board environment lethal to meatheads.
Gar stopped panning over the station, steadying her viewpoint over the largest transparent dome. The hab was dark, but reflected light from Saturn’s rings revealed terraces and platforms under the dome. The high platforms were for pedal-flyers – a popular pastime for humans in light-gravity environments. The lower terraces held strange structures. They looked like compound machines – half-melted wheels, axles and levers. Each spanned about a dozen meters. Gar guessed that they were made of shapestuff. Over the years the smart plastic must have failed and deliquesced. She suspected that the strange shapes had been kiddie rides.
Was that someone standing in the shadows? Sharpening the image, she saw that the figure was a cartoon character. The large mouse ears gave it away. She waited for it to move. Even from half a light year away, she could tell that this hab was as airless as the Shoe. She didn’t expect to find a meathead alive down there, but perhaps a v-mind – an AI or preferably a transhuman – still survived. After watching the mouse for a while Gar resumed scanning. Her hope of finding virtual life faded.
Abandoning the Saturn habitat, she focused her gravity lens on a hab orbiting Jupiter. Thick viewports marked it as another meathead resort. It looked as lifeless as the Saturn hab. She checked a couple industrial sites in the asteroid belt. They too looked empty. She zoomed in on a spaceport over an underground hab at the north pole of Mars.
Three-legged spheres – inner-system shuttles at rest – surrounded the terminal. Spaceports usually were busy places, but here nothing moved. Reshaping her gravity lens, Gar tried for a better view, peering into an observation lounge through a wide window. Dust in the atmosphere obscured details, but the spaceport looked as dark and dead as the orbiting habs. She turned her attention to the Moon.
It had been centuries since Gar had formed a discrete body. In case of an emergency she and her crew distributed their consciousness throughout the ship. Except for its pinch drives, the Shoe consisted mostly of smartstuff. An improved version of shapestuff, smartstuff comprised the hull and bulkheads of Gar’s ship and, more importantly, served as the host medium for its virtual crew.
Hiram Zed – the original transhuman from the twenty-first century – had freed their minds from their flesh-and-blood bodies. While Gar and her crew could form smartstuff bodies which looked outwardly human, they had fallen out of the habit. It had been centuries since she had inhabited any body – much less a human one wrapped in actual skin. Her ship was her body. But for the first time since her Conversion to transhumanity, Nia Gar recalled the sensation of her skin crawling.
Where was everyone, she wondered, and even stranger, where was the Moon? She centered her view on the Earth and zoomed out. Her home planet floated alone, its companion of billions of years mysteriously absent. Gar had been born on Earth. She remembered the Moon.
Like most transhumans Gar found her perfect memory a mixed blessing. Some things were best forgotten, but her mind insisted on resurrecting every detail. From an enumerated set – the times she had looked at the Moon – one memory stood out. She had been fifteen years old. The year was 2419. From the highest observation deck of their Chicago arcology, she and a lover had looked out over the spires of other towers. Moonlight coated the city in ethereal silver. A cold wind urged them closer together. Later they made love. It was her first time, and it hurt. He seemed to change. He mounted and penetrated her with a frightening intensity. Then it was over, except for her tears – and bleeding. Her first and only time with a man. A boy, really. The trauma reinforced her Sisterhood conditioning.
Now she wondered what she had found so romantic about that night. The Moon was just an ugly, cratered rock in the sky. She had been so naive. . . .
While one part of Gar’s mind wandered, another worked on the problem of the missing Moon. She zoomed in on the Earth again, noting that tides continued to roll around the planet. Her subconscious calculated the expected position of the Moon. Turning her gravity lens to that point in space, she checked the position of a nearby star. It was in the wrong place, offset from its actual position. The Moon’s gravity was there, pulling on Earth’s tides and deflecting the light from background stars, but the Moon was not.
Impossible, she thought. Except . . . the obvious answer was so bizarre she needed other opinions. She decided to consult with two of her crew.
Of the sixteen v-minds on the Shoe, these two were special. Carrie was the only AI aboard; the rest were transhumans. Although Carrie had run the old Shoemaker with an iron hand, Hiram Zed had rebuilt her personality. Now she was pleasant company.
The other v-mind was less pleasant. As a human, she’d been a psychopath. Olivia Rivera was the original commander of the Shoemaker, and Gar had been her first officer. Because Rivera was a psychopath, Hiram Zed had sent her away for rehabilitation. Far away, to the pulsar system PSR B1257+12. Her cure took a while. Eleven hundred years for the Shoemaker to reach the pulsar in flatspace. Another hundred years to refit the ship. Then another year for the return trip through foldspace.
While Zed essentially had exiled Rivera, Gar and the others had volunteered for the trip. For Gar especially, the opportunity to command the first interstellar expedition had seemed too good to pass up.
Now she wasn’t so sure. Her expedition had lost contact with Earth centuries ago. Whatever they expected to find upon their return, no one had anticipated an uninhabited solar system. Or a missing Moon. Like gravity from the invisible Moon, Gar felt the weight of her responsibilities pressing on her. Besides her crew, she had the Bluethins to worry about.
Bluethins inhabited the airless planet designated PSR B1257+12 b. The transhumans nicknamed the planet Bluehome. Because of radiation from the pulsar, it was the last place anyone expected to find life, but Bluethins lived there. The extreme environment of the Shoe posed no threat to them. If anything, the aliens complained about the onboard radiation being uncomfortably cold.
When resting, the three Bluethins looked like towels covered in translucent film. On Bluehome they liked to spread out on rocks and sunbathe, soaking up X- and gamma rays. The more energetic the radiation, the more active they became. When active, they folded themselves like origami to move around. To communicate they used bursts of radiation filtered through their folded bodies. Downbanded into the human-visible spectrum, Bluethin “speech” looked like swirling rainbows. While the Bluethin language was lethal to meatheads, v-minds could appreciate its beauty.
Among Gar’s crew Carrie spoke Bluethin best. The aliens liked visual puns and wordplay, at which the AI excelled. Growing from a translator into a cultural liaison, she mastered Bluethin semantics well enough to convey the difference between AIs and transhumans. The concept of organic life intrigued the aliens. Most Bluethins had presumed that “life as we know it” prevailed everywhere, dismissing crackpot theories of life based on carbon compounds.
Carrie’s revelation made the reputation of a scientist she nicknamed Daisy. After absorbing organic chemistry and biology, Daisy became eager to study Earth life firsthand. Or as firsthand as she could get, considering that a simple Bluethin “hello” could sterilize an entire hab. With Daisy’s curiosity piqued, the aliens had contributed the Shoe II’s pinch drives. Although they knew how, the Bluethins never before had built a starship. It was one of those things, Gar thought, which made the little aliens alien.
Despite its elegant marriage of transhuman and Bluethin technology, the Shoe II was hardly sleek. Like its sublight predecessor, Gar’s interstellar racer looked like soap suds – an amorphous cluster of pulsating blobs. Its smartstuff bubbles grew and shrank, split and merged, as the ship constantly reconfigured itself.
In response to her unspoken command, a blister formed on the hull and expanded into another bubble. Inside the bubble more smartstuff extruded itself, broke off, and resolved into the shape of a human female. Gar’s smartstuff body looked like her old self – an attractive brunette whose angular face contrasted with her curves. She could have chosen any form she wanted, but she thought it appropriate for a commander to convey stability. She seldom changed sex or incorporated features from sim characters or animals. For years that had been a fad among her crew, but now the v-minds confined themselves to v-space.
Noticing that she was naked, Gar formed a covering of smartstuff “clothes.” She still cared about her appearance. Choosing a flowpattern shift, she added complementary skin animations which strobed along her arms and legs.
Responding to her summons, two other smartstuff blobs grew into humanoid forms – Livvy Rivera and Carrie Shoemaker. Like Gar, Rivera’s body lacked enhancements. She resolved into a petite woman with almond skin and dark eyes under long lashes. Unlike Gar and Rivera, Carrie had no original body to emulate. She appeared as a conventionally pretty, blue-eyed blonde.
Following Gar’s lead, Carrie and Livvy covered themselves. Rivera chose a skintight bodysuit with a moire pattern barely distinguishable from an animated tattoo. Carrie morphed into a Western outfit – a frilly blouse and fringed vest over a bikini bottom and cowboy boots.
The pseudo-women floated in microgravity in the featureless bubble. Gar decided to speak privately with the AI about her appearance. Carrie’s outfit was merely ugly, but her blue-eyed blond incarnation – while not an exact copy – resembled the former First Sister. In Gar’s opinion Livvy Rivera still had an unhealthy obsession for Ashley Highsmith-Weldon, but the AI seemed indifferent. Gar convened a separate sub-meeting in v-space with Carrie, which proceeded in parallel with their physical meeting. Insensitivity remained one of Carrie’s weaknesses, although she had improved over the centuries.
They needed to start acting like real people again, thought Gar. Even Carrie. Especially since they were almost home. Whatever their limitations, meatheads had been more than caricatures from old sims. Of the many sim genres in the Shoe’s extensive library, pornography remained the most popular. Long after the v-minds had abandoned role-playing in actual bodies, they still indulged in v-sex modeled after the real thing. But meatheads had done more than fuck all the time, hadn’t they? Or transhumans wouldn’t exist. Nevertheless, sex dominated their pre-Conversion memories. Even if those memories were unpleasant, exchanging protoplasm seemed profound and compelling.
Over the centuries her crew had explored every sexual variation sixteen isolated v-minds could dream up. She herself had been in a relationship with every one of her crew, and sometimes several at once. But Carrie and Livvy Rivera never paired off. The AI and the ex-commander seldom agreed on anything. That was why Gar had summoned them. She preferred to form a consensus from differing opinions.
As a starship commander she had never had to face an emergency. In a crisis, she wondered, would she make the mistake of hesitating too long? Outright lying was difficult for v-minds, but Gar managed to hide her insecurity from her subordinates. Instead she updated them on her observations. They were far out in the Oort cloud, half a light year from an ominously silent solar system. They faced no immediate threat, but still she felt uneasy. Perhaps they should back off another couple light years and wait?
As if echoing her private thoughts, Carrie asked,
Rivera ignored Carrie.
Rivera shrugged. Her gesture took a relatively long time compared to their near-lightspeed communication in virtual space.
If she intended to annoy her commander, she accomplished the opposite.
Rivera responded petulantly.
She had a good point, thought Gar, except for one thing.
While Carrie spoke, her hair and eye color turned pink. A mid-length skirt appeared over her bikini bottom.
Gar found herself agreeing with Rivera. Rivera was semi-paranoid. What does that say about me? Gar thought.
Rivera finished Carrie’s thought.
As an AI Carrie lacked some limitations of the transhumans. She instantly accepted the unthinkable.
Gar was surprised to find Carrie and Rivera in agreement. The smartstuff bulkhead seemed to vanish, and the three women appeared to float in empty space.
Rivera suggested that Gar confirm her observation.
Thinking that Rivera was getting conservative in her old age, Gar zoomed in with her gravity telescope. The black hole Moon had moved on in its orbit. She could easily shift the lens to align with a different star, but she decided not to bother.
Gar dissipated her gravity lens and ramped up her pinch drives. Spacetime folded around the Shoe. Minutes later they popped into flatspace on the opposite side of the solar system, again half a light year from the sun. Their punch-out generated another flash of gamma rays. In six months the initial wavefront from their arrival would reach the inner system. Shortly afterward, the radiation from their latest jump would follow. Two nearly coincident bursts of gamma rays from opposite ends of the Oort cloud would send an unmistakable signal. A starship had arrived. Someone was bound to notice, if anyone were left down there.
Reforming the gravity lens, Gar checked the position of another star. The point-mass of the Moon passed between it and the Shoe’s new position. Something invisible, almost exactly the Moon’s mass, deflected the starlight.
Gar quashed Rivera’s petty insubordination instantly.
Gar smiled again, getting used to her body. Rivera was the oldest member of her crew. Born in the twenty-first century, she even predated the Sisterhood. Occasionally Rivera quoted anachronistic phrases or metaphors. None of them had a functioning anus, but her meaning was clear.
Rivera offered a vague response.
They were debating exactly the options Gar had considered. The problem was, their debate wasn’t helpful in the absence of facts.
Carrie was in contact with the three aliens.
While the v-minds conversed, the Shoe split like an amoeba. After fissioning, the two ships pulsed and rippled as smartstuff reconfigured itself around the separated pinch drives. On their ship thirteen v-minds remained embedded in the smartstuff. Gar ordered them all to form bodies – humanoid bodies without enhancements – and get used to using them. The bubble which she, Rivera and Carrie occupied expanded to accommodate the others.
It had been centuries since Gar’s crew had assembled physically. They all felt strange. Everything in v-space was more efficient and convenient. Their discrete bodies felt like prison cells. Gar resisted the temptation to do things the easy way.
Arranging themselves in a circle, they awaited her next order. All had been female originally, but now almost half her crew chose male bodies. In addition to Gar, Rivera, and Carrie, there were Xu Na, Jor Boaz, Ping Chu, Keli Oreskovic, Venya Iyengar, Alyn Hau, Priyat Pandit, Nassir Jahani, Lukas Syassen, Joel Purefoy, Gabrielle Uribe, Bert Visser, and Bren Penny. Although Gar had ordered them to form normal bodies, most interpreted her command liberally. Everyone had a superhero’s physique, and most chose to decorate themselves with skin animations.
Xu Na’s porcelain skin writhed with filigrees of budding vines. Jor Boaz kept his naturally dark skin tone, but wore a historically-accurate Chicago Bears football jersey over absurdly broad shoulders. Ping Chu sported fishlike scales and self-braiding hair. Keli Oreskovic retained her meatspace appearance – a Slavic beauty with high cheekbones and auburn hair. Venya Iyengar’s solid red eyes and copper-green skin reminded Gar of a Hindu deity. Alyn Hau – currently in a relationship with Joel Purefoy – appeared as an Asiatic man with orange and yellow cat-eyes. Priyat Pandit looked like a Chinese landscape painting. Clouds drifted on her sky-blue face, mountains rose across her shoulders, and rivers wrapped around her legs. Unlike Pandit – who wore only skin decoration – Nassir Jahani formed flowing white robes of smartstuff. Under them his skin pulsed in abstract patterns. Lukas Syassin appeared as a normal human. Moire patterns suggesting brush-cut hair and a light beard swirled over his scalp and jaw. Joel Purefoy – born a black woman named Jolee – now was an Asiatic man. His yellow and orange cat-eyes mirrored Alyn Hau’s, marking them as a couple. With his long blond hair and onyx skin, Bert Visser looked like a dark version of Thor. As a woman she had been vain about her hair, and he still was. Bren Penny appeared as a stocky redneck wearing a ball cap, t-shirt and blue jeans.
They all knew each other intimately. It was impossible not to after so many centuries. Each had particular strengths and weaknesses. But together, Gar felt that – despite the inevitable bickering – her crew complemented each other, and there was no one she would have replaced. Including Livvy Rivera.
Gar had no need to brief them. Her crew had monitored events and understood the situation. But leaders had to lead.
Bren Penny spoke up. Born Brenlyn Penny, Bren seldom reverted to femininity, and even then, Brenlyn usually was a top lesbian. Whatever sex he chose, Penny never withheld a comment.
Gar had her mind on more important things, but she had just split the Shoe into two pieces. They needed names.
Through a laser link their counterparts on the other ship participated in the naming discussion. Most of the suggestions were silly, but it was a good team-building exercise. After a brief debate the crew chose a pair of names – Pancho and Lefty. The names came from an ancient song Penny liked. It was about cowboys. Hiram Zed had worn a cowboy hat, so Gar thought the names were appropriate.
Pancho would remain in the Oort cloud. Lefty was their ship. Lefty would return home, the first starship to visit the Earth, as far as anyone knew. Gar and her counterpart aboard Pancho began warming up their pinch drives. Pancho would retreat two light-years from the solar system. The other Nia on Pancho – left behind in the Oort cloud – would have to contain her impatience.
The Nia on Lefty would have to contain her anxiety. History recorded six Craig prodigies potentially capable of compressing the Moon into a black hole. Hiram Zed she had met personally. With his knowledge of the future, Gar thought that he would have mentioned this possibility. She could think of no reason why the other v-mind prodigies – Dr. Ming-Chang Wu, Dr. Norman Craig himself, and Hiram’s daughter Dawn Weldon – would implode the Moon.
That left the two human prodigies, Kyeung-hwa Shin and James Lupo. Both had disappeared after the Great Conversion of 2525. The Shin girl was a lunie. Why would she destroy her home? Little else was known about the goddess, despite her legions of worshippers. According to Lefty’s archives, some had prophesied her return at the end of the world. Maybe they had been right.
The most disturbing possibility was James Lupo, the minor prodigy who had masterminded the rise of the Pan-African Sisterhood in the twenty-second century. A former U.S. Army Ranger, Lupo supplied the tactics and luck, while Ashley Highsmith-Weldon supplied the finances and vision. Staging coup after coup, they brought Africa – then the world – under Sisterhood control. If the First Sister’s pet butcher could create black holes, Gar thought, that might explain a depopulated solar system. She wondered why Zed had not exiled Lupo along with Livvy Rivera. Lupo had far more blood on his hands.
She could only guess at Zed’s motives, which always seemed obscure. She had another decision to make. The Saturn habitat happened to orbit near the moon Mimas. That was convenient. She decided to drop into flatspace on the opposite side of Mimas. The moon would shield the hab from their punch-out blast. If any v-minds were there, she hoped that they wouldn’t interpret Lefty’s arrival as an unprovoked attack.
There was little she could do about that. As Pancho disappeared on its outward jump, Lefty did the same, jumping down-system. Whatever had happened down there, Nia Gar intended to find out. Or die trying.