The time display said 33.16, an hour and a half after sunset. Daniel was so tired that he no longer appreciated the spectacular sky where Jupiter occupied a significant proportion of the horizon, an immense ball in white and red pajama-stripes. By its red-orange light, he staggered off the plate-ramming machine, rubbing muscles stiff with fatigue.

“Finished,” he said, a pre-set command, voice-cast to the immediate surroundings. His tech-bot team needed only that one word to start packing, which they did with their usual robotic efficiency.

Oscar rose from a crouch where he had been taking measurements. His voice-cast went straight into Daniel’s ears. “Hurry up. Scanner says an earthquake’s coming this way.”

“I’m onto it.” Thank goodness, only one more job to do.

Daniel slid the vibration gun out of its housing, ran his hand over the thick rim of hardened polymer that stuck about a hand-width out of the dust, found the joint between the two plates by touch, and attached the electrodes. Click – power. The gun hummed. Along the depth of the plates, about ten meters into the yellow soil, billions of atoms heated up, re-arranged themselves and formed a new matrix that glued the two plates together, completing the ring around the planned settlement.

Done. Great. Daniel straightened and looked over the dry valley, where the rims of seven similar rings stuck out of the ground, eight concentric plastic circles, the smallest more than a hundred meters across, of carefully calibrated thickness and distance from each other: the installation that formed the planned settlement’s earthquake protection shield. A beautiful design.

“I’m done. Oscar, pack up your gear and—”

Crack.

He didn’t hear it—the whisper-thin atmosphere meant there was little sound—but he could feel it in the parched dust under his feet.

What the—

[override command]

[emergency module decision]

[possible scenarios: 1. something in the ground cracked, 2. the seam has split]

The voice in his head soothed him. Yes, he could have figured these possibilities out himself, but he liked to hear confirmation, a clear plan to work to.

He knelt in the yellow dust and ran his sensitive fingertips over the rim. There was a hairline crack in the seam. He pulled the vibration gun out again—

The ground rumbled.

Crack.

[override command]

[emergency decision module]

[possible scenarios: 1. something—]

Yeah, yeah, he got it; he might not be considered entirely human, but he wasn’t stupid.

Now the split was wide enough for the tip of his little finger. “Um, Oscar, maybe we should go back to the truck.”

[advice: survey surroundings]

The caterpillar vehicle and its trailer stood near the far perimeter of the proposed new settlement, beyond white lines painted in the dust, where the major infrastructure would be built. Two tech-bots were tying empty crates onto the trailer bed in preparation for their return to Calico Base.

[advice: monitor geological activity]

Oscar was lazily packing away the geo-scanner, tying the leads in neat bundles before putting them into the case. “I wouldn’t worry about quakes now. We’re inside the barrier.”

[advice—]

Daniel cut off the internal voice. “A section of the inner ring just broke—Look, there, behind you!”

Black clouds billowed on the far side of the valley. Thick volcanic dust with flecks of orange. Damn it, an entire new volcano had sprung up—

[override command]

[emergency decision module]

[advice: 1. calm down, 2. prioritize personal survival]

Daniel ran, stumbling over the bucking ground. The neat white lines that demarcated the building site distorted under his feet. Rocks shook free of the yellow dirt.

To his right, a section of the outermost earthquake barrier flew out of the ground, a solid sheet of black plastic more than ten centimeters thick. The second barrier came up, buckled . . .

Yellowish sulfuric dust fell from the air, little specks of heat burning on his skin. Vision became murky. He switched to IR view. The rain of hot dust thickened. Daniel ran as fast as his human muscles and his mechanical frame could carry him.

Quick, the truck. He jumped up onto the caterpillar wheel, opened the cabin, crawled in.

[advice: 1. calm down, 2. shut cabin door]

Daniel froze. Shut the door and leave Oscar out there? He screamed into the billowing dust, “Oscar!”

[advice: volcanic dust is dangerous for equipment]

[advice: shut the—]

“Yes! Shut up!”

He grabbed his head. The module was wrong. Survival wasn’t just about himself. Real people would look after each other. He wanted to be a real person.

[advice: 1. calm down, 2. shut cabin door]

It hurt, it hurt his brain. He had to obey; the stupid routine was part of him.

He slammed the hatch shut and sank in the driver’s seat, jabbing at switches and buttons. Thoughts raced each other through his mind.

Oscar!

[advice: unit XRZ-26 is programmed to find his own way back]

There’s no handle on the outside of the door.

[advice: unit XRZ-26 has excavation and cutting equipment]

I’m not leaving Oscar out there.

The truck powered up and displayed the surrounding terrain on the viewscreens, in IR vision. Most of the projection was a soup of gray, the regular scenery blanked out by an incredibly bright spot of spewing liquid. It looked like a water fountain, but was molten rock bursting from Io’s molten interior.

“Do you copy, Oscar?”

Oscar’s voice-cast came over the intercom, irregular, as if he was running. “Yes, I’m coming—” A silence and then, “Shit.”

“Hang on, buddy, I’m coming.”

Daniel crunched the truck into gear, but as the vehicle lurched forward, there was a sharp heave of the ground, followed by a snap. Something clanged against the outside of the cabin, and warnings flashed over the controls. A few seconds later the power flickered out. The floor tilted forward. Daniel scrambled over the seat towards the back of the vehicle, just as the front of the truck crunched into stone, and hung there, metal creaking. In the pitch dark cabin, Daniel could see nothing except the red glow of a button that said emergency.

“Oscar!”

There was no reply.

What now, what now? The inside of his head was quiet; he sensed the emergency routine was re-calibrating after he had ignored its commands and it was taking an extraordinarily long time in doing so. A moment of panic struck. Was it ever going to come back?

“Come on, tell me. What should I do now?”

Nothing. The cabin filled with eerie, throbbing darkness.

You wanted to be a regular human? Well, here you are.

Daniel hit that red glowing button.

****

President of Allion Aerospace Ltd, Eilin Gunnarsson, sat back in her chair and yawned so profoundly that tears sprang into the corners of her eyes. These last few days, at the pointy end of the project, sleep was too sparse and too short.

The picture on the forward viewscreen of the utility vessel Thor III was beyond surreal: in the blue-purple sky a hung a cluster of moons, the largest Io, roughly the size of the Moon on Earth, and behind that glimmered bright spots that were Europa and Ganymede, the conjunction a regular feature of the moons’ choreographed dance around their giant planet. In the indefinite horizon between the sky and the white-pink mist of Jupiter below floated gray specks, millions upon millions of them: balloons, each filled with hydrogen and equipped with a tiny heating element and a remotely-controlled light. As the planet rotated, which it did in ten hours, the balloons distributed throughout the entire white cloud band that encircled the planet. The Thor III and two slaved robotic craft had been spewing balloons for days.

Eilin conceded that this activity might look completely nuts. Painting the Fenosa Communications company logo on the clouds of Jupiter, big enough for the well-heeled on Ganymede to see was only half of what they were doing here—the publicly-known half, which attracted ridicule, scorn and shouts about money wasted. But she’d never been much good at caring what other people thought.

The atmosphere on the bridge of the Thor III was one of intense concentration.

The pilot, Vivie Chan, only had eyes for the controls. Too high and the balloons would escape the cloud mass. Too low and the Thor III would enter the outer zone of the planet, where the thick soup of gases would create drag on the hull, heat friction and hydrogen embrittlement and all sorts of Bad Things would happen.

Next to the pilot, the two equipment operators were flat out deploying the balloons, and they could afford not a hitch in their schedule because every second of the dive towards the Big Red was carefully planned.

People throughout the system were watching this strange project, out of interest, out of curiosity, or because they’d paid millions to have it done. They were filming, from many angles, broadcasting throughout the human settlements, even to Earth.

And into this tense, concentration-filled silence, the comm beeped.

Vivie glanced aside, but kept both hands on the controls. The two equipment operators didn’t stop their work.

But the comm was still beeping and after a few more you-deal-with-it glances from Vivie at the crew at large, it was Eilin who took the call, since she was no more than an observer on this flight.

She pressed the button underneath the flickering light and was blasted in the ear by the screech from an automated relay.

Ouch.

Another button, and the text scrolled over the comm screen.

mayday mayday mayday.

She stared at the screen.

“Is there a problem, Madam President?” Vivie said. She had pushed down one part of her earpiece and had half-turned in her seat.

“An alarm beacon,” Eilin said, one eye on the forward viewscreen that Vivie at this moment wasn’t watching and wishing she did.

“Cross-check it with base.”

Eilin nodded and dialed up a different ID.

Thor III to Forthright, do you copy?”

A moment later, a static-riddled voice came through. “Eilin, how are you going down there? I can’t see anything yet.”

She recognized the voice of Jacob, one of the latest batches of human-mechanical aggregates. A smile crept, unbidden, over her face. They were such nice and keen young men, always so helpful and friendly. None of this Madam formality.

“No, we haven’t turned the lights on yet. We’re about to release the last batch of balloons—but listen, did you guys receive an emergency signal?”

A reply crackled in her ear. The Allion Aerospace Ltd home base was on the other side of Jupiter, and it was only thanks to the satellite orbiting Ganymede that they had any reception at all.

Then Jacob again, “Can you repeat that, Thor III?”

Eilin did.

” . . . cannot hear . . . very well . . . Heard . . . nothing here.”

Vivie interrupted, “Madam President, according to the log, it’s an Allion Aerospace ID handle. From Io. Do we have any crew on the ground there?”

“Io? ISF has contracted us for a number of projects on Io.” And the International Space Force were the only ones interested in permanent settlements on the volcanic, dangerous moon. They controlled its airspace and surface, but they needed Allion technology for habitat protection. “We have non-sentient teams working to resurface the Prometheus Base dome, to measure geo-activity in a number of equatorial localities – too many to list—” Then she realized something else. Daniel and Oscar. A moment of panic. Eilin saw the two young men in her office, strong, magnificently black-skinned and prime examples of perfect men. No, it couldn’t be them. She swallowed hard before continuing. “We have a team to install earthquake barriers for a new base. A tech-bot team with two aggregates, both X-class.”

“I think that’s our caller, Madam President.” One of the techs, Jadie, brought up a map. The blue glow of the screen reflected in her night-black skin. “They’re here, almost at the equator, about 120km or so SSW of Calico, probably within sight of this thing called Ruwa Patera—damn, I wish ISF provided better maps than this.”

Eilin nodded; ISF were so secretive where Io was concerned. “Is that an active volcano?”

“I don’t think I could name anything on Io that isn’t an active volcano, Madam President.”

Eilin wished the crew would stop calling her that. She wished . . .

She had sent the boys on such a dangerous mission, knowing that dangerous missions were precisely what aggregates were for, but—damn it.

Vivie shook her head. “Io’s a crazy place at the best of times. I don’t understand why ISF are expanding when they have enough trouble maintaining the current bases at Calico and Prometheus.”

“Vivie, tell me, is there anything we can do from here?”

“Not without bailing out of this project,” Vivie said.

Eilin shook her head; no, they couldn’t do that.

Vivie continued, “I’ll put a call through to base. Let them handle it—” She frowned. “Madam President, are you all right?”

“Yes . . . why?” But Eilin’s hands were sweaty and her heart thudded, yet it would never do to let anyone know why these two men mattered so much to her. She was meant to lead the company, and not have favorites. She had not reached the top of the Allion Aerospace empire by being emotional.

****

After what seemed like an eternity of black fear, the ground stopped rumbling. Daniel moved gingerly inside the cabin.

It was still silent inside his head. Well, this was it, then. His assistance modules had picked a fine time to stop working, but thanks to his training, he knew what to do. He’d establish how precarious the truck’s position was, secure it, call for help if necessary, and then look for Oscar—

[advice: 1. establish a safe area, 2. attempt to reconnect communication]

Ah, damn it. The routine was not dead then. And it said nothing about Oscar.

I’m only a machine made for self-preservation. I don’t want to be a machine.

The subroutine had no answer to that.

And he was going to get Oscar.

He found the control panel by touch and memory, managed to bring two viewscreens on the side of the truck back into action. They showed a murk of black volcanic dust that was slowly settling. The comm link with the ISF Calico Base remained silent.

Strangely, the screen showed the sky, where Jupiter was tinted more red than usual by the volcanic dust. His subconscious registered the word ‘pretty’ before it became swamped by more urgent thoughts. He needed to assess the situation.

Engage diagnostic module.

[possible scenarios: 1. volcanic ejecta has damaged the antenna, 2. communications at Calico Base are out]

There was no way he could find out which option applied so he had to shove the scenario into the growing unresolved file.

His beacon of hope was that the light on the control box for Oscar’s unit blinked. That meant Oscar was out there and operational, but might be in a bad state.

[flashback interrupt]

Meeting Oscar for the first time. He sat on the couch in the clinic when Daniel came in. Eilin Gunnarsson was also there, wearing her usual stern expression, in which he could never make out whether she liked him or hated him. The Iron Bitch, competitors called her, but she had smiled at Daniel.

“Think of him as your younger brother,” she had said to him, after having introduced Oscar. And he had wanted to ask, If he is my brother, then do I ignore my programming if it conflicts with his welfare?

But he hadn’t asked, and she had sat on the couch between them, and had read a story from an old, old book about a boy hitching rides on a tram in a city on a planet called Earth.

And every now and then, he would meet Oscar’s eyes across the book on Eilin’s lap. He had wanted to ask Eilin, If he is my brother, then who are you?

[/flashback]

He had let the subject go, but the questions still lurked in his unresolved file, compounding all his current problems.

See? That was his human part talking. And unaltered humans were irrational.

[engage decision making]

[options: 1. get Oscar myself, 2 . . . #query aborted#]

No second option, then. This truck wasn’t going to move anywhere. No one else was going to get Oscar.

He checked his internal functions at the medbay, connected himself to the truck’s oxygen tank to replenish his internal supplies; he boosted his blood sugar level as far as it would go. He checked his skin. Any breach in the matrix of the flexible carbon-based outer layer would let in radiation or let out heat, both of which would damage the fragile human muscle tissue underneath. When he was satisfied, he scrambled up the sloping seats, and slid open the back door to reveal the star-spotted sky. In the thin atmosphere, most of the dust had already settled. A blue aurora shimmered across the sky.

The truck had fallen into a cleft that didn’t used to be there, held into place by the weight of the trailer, insubstantial though that was in its empty state. Not even half the bots had made it back to their positions on the trailer. His IR vision showed two of them ambling through the dust, and a third going around in circles, mechanisms damaged by volcanic dust.

The landscape had changed irrevocably, the ground with the neat white lines distorted.

The earthquake barriers had mostly worked themselves out of the ground, and many of the plates had buckled into a useless mess.

Someone at Calico Base was not going to be impressed. Worse, Eilin was not going to be impressed.

Thick smoke billowed out of the crack that had opened up in the ridge at the far end of the valley, the main portions of the cloud now drifting away from the building site. When he lowered himself from the truck, his sensory unit flashed a warning before his eyes.

[ geology unstable]

At times he really wished those modules would stop stating the flaming obvious.

“Oscar!”

Still no reply, but the locator on his wrist flashed a little faster.

Daniel plowed through the dust, which was knee-deep in some places, checking the light on his locator . . .

Safety precautions displayed before his eyes:

[ stay inside, away from hot volcanic dust; it damages mechanisms, even artificial skin]

He disengaged the module. That felt good. That felt like he was a real human.

. . . and his heat locator found an elongated shape under the debris.

He dropped to his knees and plunged both hands into the ash.

Oscar’s body was limp, his clothes sugar-coated with yellow dust. The LED lights on his wrist were still on, but flickering. Exposed skin wept with sores.

“Oscar!”

Of course there was no reaction. The pain would have caused Oscar’s body to go into hibernation.

Daniel wriggled his arms under Oscar’s knees and shoulders, lifted him up and carried him back to the truck. Hooked him up to the med station.

The news wasn’t good. Oscar had sustained an unhealthy dose of radiation. His oxygen was low, his sugar was low, his metabolism had almost shut down, and the only thing that kept him alive was his mechanical core. Daniel did what he could, following the instructions on the medbay screen, and hoped it would be enough. Oscar needed assistance, and he needed it soon.

For that matter: why had there been no reply from Calico?

He re-entered his earlier call on the comm channel.

XRZ-25 to Calico Base. Request assistance. We have had an accident. Be careful when proceeding. The whole area is unstable.

He hated using his designation number. It was imprinted on his internal operation chips as per robotic laws. He never used it within Allion; he was never asked for it within Allion. It made him feel like a tech bot, but during his brief passage through Calico Base, he had received written instructions that he should identify himself as such.

Right now, he began to wonder if there even were people at Calico, or if the base was entirely mechanical, incapable of making decisions based on human emotions, like help.

****

“Utility vessel Thor III calling ISF Calico base.” Eilin spoke softly, acutely aware that Vivie and the two techs, Jadie and Moira, listened.

The voice that responded was male, dry and emotion-less. “Received, utility vessel Thor III, expand identification.”

“We’re under assignation of Allion Aerospace Ltd, currently in low orbit around Jupiter.” Eilin bit down on her irritation. Why did this prune pretend not to know who they were? Everyone in the system knew what Allion were doing, everyone knew where the Thor III was; they were probably watching her on the news right now. “This is Eilin Gunnarsson speaking, President of Allion Aerospace. I request an update on the rescue of two of our staff.”

A brief silence. “Allion Aerospace doesn’t have staff on Io, according to my data.”

“We have a team at 1.22oN, 3.54oW, building an earthquake barrier consigned by ISF. They triggered an emergency beacon. We received the signal.”

A small silence.

“And you want . . . what? Rescue?

Eilin didn’t like his tone of mock surprise. “Did you receive the emergency call and have you been in contact with the team? Have you had voice contact? Did they request assistance?”

Another static-filled silence.

“Calico Base, are you still there?”

“I copy, but can you clarify, Ma’am. According to my records here, the contract for the construction site covers tech-bots. According to the info I have, the team went out the air lock without life support, in vehicles with minimum radiation protection. Are we talking about the same project? There was no human personnel with that team.”

“There are two aggregates in charge of the bots, both of them X-class. They have internal life-support.” One of the things that made aggregates so useful. That and their artificial, radiation-shielded skin. People who didn’t need space suits.

“Oh.”

A small silence stretched into a bigger silence.

“Calico Base, can you confirm you have dispatched a rescue team? Allion Aerospace will cover all expenses.”

Another silence. “Can I ask you to hold? I need to talk to my supervisor.”

“Sure.” Eilin kept her voice even, but within, she seethed. What the hell were these idiots clowning about?

Things had gotten so much worse in the last few years. After having found themselves on the wrong side during the Mars War, the International Space Force had set up as gung-ho space police on this side of the asteroid belt, ostensibly to prevent smuggling of goods and illegal arms trade, but with numerous ISF ground bases engaged in commerce, their principles were as compromised as hell. Fact was, ISF hadn’t had a clear-cut charter since ISF admirals had fallen out with Earth leadership, which had accused ISF of being unreliable, prone to be influenced by empire-building nutcases. Which, in some ways, they were.

A click on the line. He had logged out.

“What the hell?” Eilin spread her hands. “What have you guys done to upset ISF?”

Vivie shook her head, wide-eyed. “Nothing that I am aware of, Madam President. Our relationship is quite good. Sure they annoy all of us commercial operators with their regulations, but—”

“Calico’s being obtuse. More obtuse than usual. Of all the times they could choose to be difficult . . . We got people in trouble down there . . . “

Daniel was experienced, but Oscar was on his first assignment. She had sent them because they were the best and most suited to the hostile environment, but even they weren’t indestructible. They might have mechanical parts, but they were very definitely people.

And ISF was stalling, for some reason unable, or unwilling to help.

Eilin stared out over the cloud mass, with the thousands of balloons floating by virtue of their internal heating element. They had a power pack, but when that ran out, they would stay afloat for a number of days at the most. They couldn’t abandon their post. The whole of humanity was watching this experiment, and maybe future generations would depend on technology the company was testing here.

But . . .

Daniel and Oscar.

“Vivie, how long would it take us to get there?” Stupid, stupid question.

“To Io?” Vivie’s voice showed surprise. “We’d have to pull out of the current mission.”

“I know.” Not smart, not good advertisement, not with all these people watching. “But just in case we have to, how long?”

Vivie raised an eyebrow, then checked the controls. “We’re already powering up for the ascent. We’re at 78% right now. We could achieve maximum thrust within about two hours. Once we get going, we’re eight hours out.” Totally the professional. Calm, collected. None of the crew knew who the men were. “But we can’t get too close to Io.”

Eilin nodded. The Thor III was one of the most powerful ships ever built, and there was no way she would take it close enough to Io for ISF to come up with some sort of silly regulation and impound the ship, with its revolutionary fusion reactor. That engine, that technology that could lift the vessel out of Jupiter’s gravity well with minimal discomfort to human passengers, was Allion’s alone.

But they did have the shuttle.

****

XRZ-25 to Calico Base, request immediate salvage.

Daniel entered his plea into the unresponsive radio. He wished he had voice-contact. He wished he could speak to someone, hear affirmation that help was on its way.

XRZ-25 to Calico Base.

Calico Base wasn’t replying. And now the truck’s power was low.

Soon he would be out of oxygen, and while his mechanical parts functioned, to a degree, without, his organic parts needed oxygen to survive. He would have to go into forced hibernation, like Oscar, and that would mean his power supply would be turned off. Since it didn’t seem ISF were keen to rescue him and Oscar, it would be up to Allion, who would have trouble finding him when in hibernation. And if that state lasted too long, it meant death.

Oscar wouldn’t survive half as long.

XRZ-25 to Calico Base.

Daniel pressed repeat, and repeat, and repeat. He had turned off the decision-making module, because the thing went crazy if it had no clear options to consider, or all the options it suggested were as ludicrous as they were dangerous. For the first time in his short life, Daniel was human. And as human, he didn’t want to die. He’d been conscious for only a few years, not long enough to do all he could, to reach his full potential. There was so much more to learn, to experience. He’d never space-walked, he’d never piloted a craft, he’d never . . . taken a girl out on a date. What did people do with aggregates when they died? Did they take apart the pieces and re-create them? Did the mechanics go into someone else?

That thought made him shudder and he deliberately cut off the routines that led his thoughts in that direction. Another piece of the mechanical puzzle shut down.

And his human thoughts just . . . went around in circles; there were no decisions for him to make. There was no work to be done. This was the thing humans felt when they wanted to cry. But he couldn’t do that, since his eyes weren’t wet, but covered with a hard resin. He wanted to loose the anger coiled inside him, smash things up, but he couldn’t do that either, so he sat, shivering, next to the med-station, holding Oscar’s cold hand to his forehead.

The company had such high expectations of him, and he had failed. He had failed Eilin—

But—wait. The ground vibrated. Vehicles.

Daniel crawled over the sloping seats and opened the back door. He jumped onto the trailer, climbed on the empty crates and dialed his magnification up.

A convoy of trucks moved over the plain towards the building site, headlights piercing the semidarkness and glimmering in occasional motes of remaining dust. The first vehicle was a heavy, armored truck with radiation shielding. A vehicle for transporting un-altered human personnel.

He jumped up onto the truck’s roof, waving his arms.

****

Eilin stared at the image the Forthright had just sent her, an image all of seven minutes old. It came from one of Allion’s spy probes, currently hanging around quietly in Europa’s L5 LaGrange point, and which had, at the moment, a brilliant view of Io. The image was only in black and white, but it clearly showed the proposed base on Io outlined in white, the eight concentric rings of the earthquake barrier, some damaged. The familiar Allion truck half-hung in a crevice. Someone was on the roof.

There was a volcanic outbreak in the valley not far from the site, a column of smoke that had not been there before, but still a mere volcanic fart in comparison to the Armageddon Io was capable of unleashing. Most of the dust had settled in a ring, some over the planned settlement. A line of trucks approached in the adjacent valley, from where many tire tracks led to the building site. The trailers contained long sections of metal, prefab pieces of a length that couldn’t possibly fit inside a dome.

“Damn it, Vivie, what is ISF doing down there?” The contract Eilin signed had only covered earthquake barriers, and had said nothing about the purpose of the base. Back then, she hadn’t worried about it, but now she felt that she should have.

“Can I have a look?” Moira said.

Eilin patched the image to her screen.

The Thor III had released the last of the balloons and, fully powered up, was climbing to a higher altitude, waiting for the balloons to disperse. The deck under Eilin’s feet vibrated with the power of the engine.

Jadie was taking measurements: how much the balloons moved, wind speeds, temperature, air composition.

That was the real value of the expedition: collecting a more complete set of data of the conditions. Previous attempts at floating habitable platforms at Jupiter had failed due to multiple difficulties: the considerable wind speeds, the huge weight necessary for radiation shielding. But radiation shielding was one of Allion’s specialties, and new, much lighter materials had become available, materials that were thin and flexible, like human skin. More expensive to make, but also more lucrative to sell.

“They’re carrying components of a launch pad,” Moira said.

Eilin squinted at the image. Moira had worked at the space port on Ganymede before coming to Allion; she would know.

Moira continued, “It’s not a base at all, but a launch installation. Makes sense, close to the equator. Io’s escape velocity is low enough that you can launch from the surface without much trouble.”

“What would they plan to launch?”

“I honestly couldn’t be sure, Madam President, but since they’re so secretive, it’s quite unlikely that we will like it.”

Damn. So much could go wrong.

This Jupiter project was vulnerable, and damned expensive. Any hitch might result in failure.

Allion Aerospace needed habitable platforms. The Forthright had become too crowded. Besides, Eilin had the vessel slotted into trials. It would be fitted with new engines and sent out into deep space for months at a time, to build up immense speeds as final test of the mass-to-distance ratio for micro-second FTL jumps. The ship had never been intended to function as habitat, and the company’s workers, the breeding labs, the children and pregnant women deserved to be kept safe from experimental technology, which, when it went wrong would do so in a spectacular way. Yet ISF had successfully barred Allion from settlements on extra-terrestrial bodies.

The standoff between ISF and the commercial operators was tense. Allion needed a safe base to offload its worker population. There was no place safer than one no one else had the technology to reach. No other company could bring people down to the clouds of Jupiter. And whatever ISF was planning might stop Allion building those platforms. They might claim a military exclusion zone around the planet and back it up with the in-orbit hardware. They might be developing fusion engines of their own, in which case they, too, needed to harvest Helium-3 from Jupiter, but if they could get down there, they would almost certainly find some legality by which they could challenge Allion’s presence. Get out or we’ll shoot. Eilin had seen it all before.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Jadie said, “Madam President, if you excuse me. The system’s now in operation. We can start the projection.” Waiting for Eilin’s go-ahead. She had the Fenosa logo on the screen ready to be transmitted to the balloons down there. A silly exercise indeed.

The silence on the bridge stretched.

Eilin added up the facts.

Daniel and Oscar were still out of communication. ISF were being obtuse; they had a column of equipment approaching the site. The operator had said, you have no personnel on Io, and had cut off communication. And, judging by the material on the trucks, ISF was building a launch installation which no one was supposed to know about.

Put like this, the reaction from Calico made sense: they hadn’t realized that the Allion team to install the earthquake barrier contained sentients, possible spies for Allion Aerospace. And Daniel’s call for help and her subsequent inquiry might well have brought the men into danger.

Eilin said, “Wait.”

****

Daniel stood on the roof of the cabin and waved. He wasn’t sure if the approaching convoy’s drivers could see him yet. Maybe it was too dark, although most of the dust had settled. Could people see well by this level of light? The limited senses of natural humans puzzled him sometimes.

Something flashed at the edge of his vision. In the sky. Lights sparkled in one of Jupiter’s cream-colored bands.

For a moment, Daniel forgot his own predicament. He knew of the company’s project that was called the most futile waste of energy in human history by politicians and news commentators alike. He knew how important the project was to the company, to Eilin. Individual pinpricks flashed on and off until they all pulsed at the same time, and formed a line of sparkling blue letters:

CAREFUL DON’T TRUST THEM

Daniel stared at the text, even as the display winked off and was replaced by the Fenosa Communications logo.

What the . . .

[emergency override]

He couldn’t stop the damn thing engaging.

[options: 1. it was a message, 2. it was a mistake]

[consideration: 1. Eilin was directing the operation and Eilin doesn’t make mistakes, 2. someone else has accidentally displayed the wrong text]

Given those options, why would someone accidentally display a piece of text that was clearly a warning? An accidental display would have involved something nonsensical, like a piece of programming code.

[conclusion: 1. it is a message and 2. it is directed to someone who isn’t aware of danger]

But who? The only people Allion had who could possibly read it were:

[conclusion: 1. himself and Oscar, 2 . . . Forthright]

No, scratch that; the Forthright would be in radio contact, unless contact had broken, which was not implausible, but . . .

[warning—]

“Shut up! I can think for myself.”

The subroutine went silent.

Daniel peered at the horizon, at the convoy, and let a few very slow seconds pass.

Don’t trust them. Did she mean . . .

The trucks had stopped a distance off. The doors opened and a couple of suited men came out. He zoomed in his vision as far as it would go, a setting which he could never maintain for long, because it made him dizzy.

One of the men carried a long object on his shoulder. A second man unfolded a stand, and the first man lowered the long object onto it. As they swung it around, Daniel knew what it was. He knew the type of laser gun. He saw where they were aiming it and knew that the truck’s feeble exterior would offer no protection.

Daniel jumped off the truck’s roof in knee-deep ash. He yanked open the door, crawled in. Oscar was still attached to the leads, but he pulled them loose, slung his brother over his shoulder and jumped out of the truck. All within ten seconds.

He ran.

There was a faint thud behind him.

****

Questions from the press rolled in almost immediately.

What did that warning mean, who was it for? While the Thor III was still climbing out of Jupiter’s immediate pull, Eilin tried to deflect most of the news hawks to Jacob, but she spoke briefly to the Fenosa president, who demanded to know the reason for the errant text. After she explained the situation, the conversation was amicable. Like Allion, Fenosa resented the monopoly ISF had on interplanetary settlement. Unlike Allion, Fenosa didn’t have the tech to do anything about it. Eilin spoke for a while about the balloons, without giving away anything about Allion’s settlement plans, then the Fenosa president signed off.

Jadie said, “Madam President, a man from ISF wants to talk to you, on vid.”

Eilin nodded, grimly. She had expected some shit to hit the proverbial. Calico Base would have seen the message. Seeing she had just contacted them, they would put the two together.

The man who appeared on the screen was a typical military officer, all stiff and proper, and, given the situation, not particularly friendly, which didn’t surprise her.

“Miss Gunnarsson?”

Eilin attached the earpiece on her head. “Speaking.” With an odd twinge, she realized she preferred Madam President. The title Miss made assumptions about her. Her crew and her staff never made assumptions about her.

That’s because they all know I’m a cold bitch.

No, it was because long ago, her forebears had gone into the industry fighting a battle and with a point to prove: that women could work in space and do the tech just as well as men. More than eighty percent of Allion’s workforce was female. Few were married. Miss was appropriate from his point of view, but not from hers.

“I am Base Commander Werner of Calico Base.” Yes that was the guy she’d met at Prometheus, ISF’s large mining and research base on Io. “I’ve heard you’ve made requests to speak with me. Can you explain your position?”

Nothing about the warning she’d just beamed across the system. Let’s just pretend it hasn’t happened, shall we?

“I’m on the Allion Aerospace Ltd utility vessel Thor III. We received a distress signal, and we’ve asked what is being done in the way of rescue of our personnel, because if nothing is being done, I will ask permission to send someone.” That’s right. Let them come out about any unpublicized military exclusion zones they might have designated around Io.

“That’s not necessary. We have a team on site at the moment. They found the truck, but no sign of the two aggregates.” He said the word as if he would have preferred to say something offensive, like cyborgs.

“Is the truck in working order? There are also a number of tech-bots with the team, all of them slaved to the aggregates. They will be able to locate other team members.” The words bodies and salvage were not ones she could handle at the moment. Damn, she hoped her warning had come in time. She glanced at the communication crew on the bridge. Where was the next satellite image?

Commander Werner continued, “Sadly, the truck has been damaged in what seems to have been an eruption. We’ve found no evidence that anyone occupied it at the time. If you’re in contact with the aggregates, I would appreciate if you provide their location and vital stats. Do they need resupply soon?”

Vivie shot Eilin a warning look, one that said don’t tell him anything. Eilin noticed she had something on her screen. The image from the spy-probe.

So she went into bullshit mode. “Whether we can locate the aggregates depends on their power level, and we don’t have readings of that level of detail.”

“You have their location?” Werner asked.

“My information is no more detailed than yours.”

“Then we will do all we can to find them.”

Eilin signed off and turned to Vivie, her heart thudding. “Is there any news?”

“Madam President. Have a look at this.” She projected the image on Eilin’s viewscreen. At first, Eilin thought the Allion truck had somehow managed to get out of the crevice, but then she noticed the debris: the truck had exploded.

Eilin stared at the wreck, sickness rising. “No. They can’t have . . . ”

“Excuse me, Madam President?”

Eilin felt like screaming at her don’t call me that. “They’ve shot the truck to bits.” She enlarged the image, fixated on a fuzzy man-shaped spot in the sand. Dead or alive?

“Madam President?” Jadie’s expression was full of concern.

Eilin held up her hands, swallowing hard, fighting black spots in her vision. “I’m fine—really.” But she wasn’t, not by a long shot. People said she was cold and aloof, that she didn’t care about people’s feelings. But she cared a lot . . . about her boys, and she’d never even told them what they were. “Vivie, can you put something else up?” And then she added, “Please, call me Eilin.”

****

Daniel crouched between the rocks and let Oscar sink to the ground. The convoy had started moving again and he hoped to hell the occupants hadn’t seen him run from the exploding wreck. He raised himself on his knees, peering over the ragged stone.

The trucks came nearer, and nearer, and then rumbled past without stopping at the shell of the exploded vehicle. Daniel switched to IR view. There was only one manned truck, the first one, with three people aboard, and the rest were slaved vehicles.

The convoy came to a halt at the destroyed earthquake barrier. The human drivers would now realize that there was nothing they could do with the odd installation they had brought. The site was a mess, with the barrier destroyed and a new volcano still spewing ash. They would have to turn and go back to Calico Base.

Daniel had an idea. It was not an idea that came to him because of his decision-making modules; this idea was his, and it came from Eilin, because she had read him stories about naughty adventurous boys on Earth, boys who caught rides on trams. It was a human idea.

Flushed with excitement, he heaved Oscar into a position from which he could easily pick him up, and waited. The first truck was already turning, reversing lights flashing in the semidarkness. And then the second truck turned, and the third . . .

The column crawled into motion.

Daniel waited while the first truck rumbled past, and as soon as the second one followed, he heaved Oscar onto his shoulders and ran. The dust was knee-deep in some places, and catching up with the convoy was harder than he had anticipated. The flat truck-bed was stacked with crates of equipment and two enormous rolls of cable. He tried to shove things aside while running but couldn’t, so he pushed Oscar on top of some packages on the trailer bed. He had to hold on to prevent Oscar’s limp form sliding off while he clambered on himself, his calf muscles screaming.

Still holding onto Oscar’s arm, Daniel collapsed on the bumpy and uncomfortable surface, black spots dancing before his eyes.

The convoy kept plodding at its slow speed. No one had noticed anything.

Daniel knew he needed to break into the cabin. At this speed, the trip to Calico would take at least six hours. He needed to get Oscar out of the exposure and kick-start his healing routines, but he didn’t know if he had the energy. Yet he had to, for Oscar . . . for Eilin.

He stared out over the parched plain while gathering strength.

The glow of Jupiter gilded the rugged landscape. Text flashed across the surface.

DANIEL AND OSCAR I LOVE YOU

****

” So . . . we’ve finished here?” Eilin clenched her hands into fists in her lap. Years and years she had been reasonable, negotiated with ISF, even though their only aim was to get rid of Allion and other commercial operators. And now they did . . . this?

The Thor III was still climbing, but the ascent was in its final phase, and the pink surface of the gas giant had receded well below them.

Vivie said, “Yes, we can operate the lights from anywhere—”

“Then let’s get ourselves to Io, as fast as this ship will go.”

All those on the Thor III‘s bridge were looking at her.

Jadie frowned. “With the entire press corps watching?”

Especially with the press corps watching. This . . . ” Eilin made a furious gesture at the spy-probe image. “Is a gross violation of the Reasonable Force Defence Act. I’ll take the shuttle and go down to Calico myself. I’ll demand reason for this . . . hostile action. It’s war, it’s murder. Let them see what Allion can do when we are angry.”

****

With the last of his strength, Daniel shoved the door open. His arms hurt, his back hurt. Plowing through that dust had run down his charge and he was operating on pure muscle strength, a part of him that didn’t function well in a near-vacuum.

It had taken him more than an hour to get this damn door open with nothing more than his bare hands. And yes, his feet.

He lifted Oscar and, stumbled through the door, and then was surprised that it still shut. Of course it wasn’t pressurized.

The truck was one of those live-in things with sleeping cabins and an office alongside a narrow corridor that lead to the control room.

This corridor was lit by only one small emergency light. Side doors were open, the cabins full to bursting with plastic-wrapped parcels. He squinted at the labels, but his eyes wouldn’t focus. He needed a recharge, and quick. Into the control cabin.

A driver bot was at the controls, a simple non-sentient battered-up specimen that had seen many hours of service. Thank heavens, the med-station was located against the back wall.

He put Oscar on the bench, extracted the life support leads from within his lower stomach cavity and plugged them into the med support. Flashing lights showed life-saving processes in operation.

Now for himself. He dragged the power cords out of the wall-mounted charging unit. His hands trembled so much that he had trouble undoing the zips on his suit. Found the plug on his stomach, rammed the connectors in . . .

****

. . . Daniel must have passed out, because the next thing he knew he was on the floor, staring up at the light in the cabin’s ceiling. The floor had stopped moving. That realization brought him wide awake. He jumped up, noticed that Oscar was stirring on the bed.

“Shh—rest.” Daniel patted his brother on the hand. The hand was hot, feverish. Not good.

What was going on? Why had they stopped?

The driver bot was sitting motionless; the viewscreens were off, as they would be with a mechanical driver.

Activate outside view

[authorization denied]

Well, damn it.

Engage decision making

[possible scenarios: 1. vehicle arrived at destination, 2. mechanical problem]

But the routine had no further suggestions, and he felt stupid for engaging it in the first place. He didn’t need a machine to tell him the obvious, and he should stop asking for answers, expecting the module to have them. It was as if the thing was jeering at him, You wanted to be human? You sort it out.

And that thought didn’t cause Daniel quite as much panic as before. There was a data-logger on the control panel. Data-loggers always held useful information.

He disentangled himself from the charging wires and plugged into the truck’s intelligence systems. His probes met a security wall, but it had a simple lock that wasn’t hard to breach. The flash of information was immediate.

It showed diagrams of a ring of satellites in orbit around Jupiter, about ten in all, each with a long tail of wire. These were the things ISF wanted to launch from the new base, and they were the things that would be constructed from the material contained in the plastic-wrapped boxes in the truck’s cabin. Why the wire? If the diagrams were to scale, there had to be hundreds of kilometers of it.

There was too much information for him to process, so he stored it all away, knowing that this would make him a spy.

Worse, the information was useless; he still didn’t know why the truck had stopped.

There were clangs outside, and then something banged on the outside of the cabin.

From the med couch, Oscar mumbled, “Uh-oh.”

Daniel took up position by the door. “Suppose you can say that again.”

****

Eilin studied the landscape on the viewscreen, reading out changes in terrain, while Vivie steered the shuttle. They had checked the abandoned building site, but had found only the stricken truck, but no sign of Daniel and Oscar. They concluded if Daniel and Oscar had survived, they must have been taken back by the convoy. The tire tracks had led the way.

The radio crackled.

“Calico Base to unidentified shuttle: please state your ID and destination.”

Well, that was to be expected. ISF had been remarkably silent so far.

Vivie glanced at Eilin. “If there is an ISF exclusion zone, we’ve probably just run into it. What do you want me to do?”

“Just confirm ID, but keep on track.”

A curt nod.

Vivie spoke to Calico Base in flight jargon.

Jadie and Moira sat on either side of Eilin, determined expressions on their young faces. They wore body armor and carried vacuum-enabled laser guns. Their faces were those of soldiers going to war.

Most of the Allion Aerospace staff thought Eilin should have driven home the confrontation a long time ago, instead of catering to ISF demands. They wanted to fight, but Eilin knew that Allion could never win an armed conflict. The technology to take Allion out of ISF’s way, out of the solar system was still several years off implementation. That’s why they needed the floating platforms, as interim, before the big leap. But all that was classified information. Eilin didn’t want a fight; Allion couldn’t afford to spend energy on a fight.

****

Air hissed; the cabin door opened, letting in a shaft of artificial light and beyond that, a gray wall. The shadow of a man, not wearing a suit.

Daniel shuffled back. He could easily overwhelm a single man, even when armed, but if they had entered the base, as indicated by the pressurized environment, it was unlikely that the man was alone.

And indeed he wasn’t. Two more shadows appeared on the floor, both holding weapons.

“If you can hear us, come out,” a voice shouted into the door. Strong, but with an uncertain undertone. ISF didn’t use aggregates; they said making human-machine combinations wasn’t moral, and ISF really liked their morals.

Daniel stood against the wall, unarmed. Subroutine messages flashed before his eyes: [don’t move], [hide], [contact base for orders]. All of which weren’t exactly practical, and he willed the annoying interfering to go away. He was human now, and could make his own decisions. He would defend himself.

The cabin’s ladder creaked.

Daniel yanked open the emergency cabinet, pulled out the flare gun and fired it across the entrance. The flash set off the auto-polarize function in his eyes. In darkness that resulted, he threw the gun aside and scrambled into the next room. He needed a better weapon.

****

There were many tracks in the dust now, all of them leading to the metallic dome that sat in the landscape like an upturned alien breakfast bowl.

“It looks like they reached the base,” Vivie said. “Do you want me to try to get in?”

“Yes,” Eilin said.

“What—damn, we’ve got company.”

There were a couple of shuttles on each side, sleek military designs, older than the Allion ship, but more lethal.

A voice came through the comm. “Ms Gunnarsson, you are trespassing in ISF space.”

“Let us take our personnel, and we’ll leave,” Eilin said.

“You’re trespassing in ISF space,” the voice repeated. “You’ll be escorted to Calico Base for your safety.”

Their safety—the hell. “Where is our team?”

“You’ll be informed of the situation inside the base.”

Ahead, the dome became bigger in the landscape. The hangar doors were already sliding open.

Vivie glanced at Eilin. “We go in?”

Eilin nodded. “We don’t have much choice.” She noticed Jadie unclipping her weapon. “No shooting if we can avoid it. But take it from me: we’re not leaving without the men.”

Grim nods all around.

Vivie guided the shuttle into the air lock and they cycled through in silence.

Gray military efficiency met them on the other side, a large hall with a few military vehicles, and a group of dust-coated trucks. One of them carried the components of the launch installation, and another huge coils of wire.

A couple of heavily-armed soldiers were moving towards the last truck.

****

Boxes and boxes of supplies. Daniel ripped open plastic. There had to be something he could use as a weapon. At least twenty of the boxes were big and flat and heavy. He tossed one on the floor and ripped it open. The box contained solar panel cells, all in one piece. Nothing he could pick up and swing.

There was a lot of noise outside, the clanging and hissing of the airlock door. Men shouted over the sound of an engine de-powering. And the clicks and pops of cooling metal. Someone had just arrived from elsewhere. Assistance for him, or assistance for the people outside?

In either case, he was screwed. There were far too many soldiers outside for him to have any hope of escape, no matter how many people Allion might have sent.

Then he heard a female voice he recognized. Damn, no. That was Eilin. What possessed her to come here?

****

Eilin climbed out of the shuttle after Jadie. She gestured to Moira at the controls, who nodded and prepared a message on her screen.

Two military men met them at the bottom of the stairs, guns out. More soldiers lined the perimeter of the hall, and a couple stood near one of the convoy’s trucks. That’s where the two young men were, inside that truck. Eilin had never seen so many guns. All of the soldiers, she noted proudly, wore radiation-resistant clothing made by Allion.

“Come with us,” one of the two men said.

“I prefer to stay with the shuttle. I only want to pick up our personnel.” She glanced around the hall, but couldn’t see Base Commander Werner. Only trucks and behind them a number of huge rolls of wire and other equipment packed in the ubiquitous blue plastic that all space couriers used to pack their cargo. Ahead was the base command centre with a wall of viewscreens some of which, she was happy to note, displayed the outside sky.

The man gestured with the gun, “Come. The boss will see you.”

“I want a guarantee that our shuttle won’t be confiscated if I leave it.”

“No guarantees. The men you call ‘personnel’ are spies.”

“They’re technicians, here on your invitation.”

“They’re intelligent beings of some sort, sent by you as spies.”

“I object to that. No one specified that the team couldn’t include aggregates. You can check the contract if you want. I’m sure Base Commander Werner has already done so and knows that I’m right. I included the aggregates because they work much more efficiently than an all-bot team. I’m not going anywhere until the two men are brought here.”

Someone at the back of the hall shouted an order. Soldiers advanced into the hall.

Eilin didn’t know what was going on, but the situation was fast getting out of control. She yelled, “Moira, now.”

One of the viewscreens in the command center drew everyone’s attention while the blue text flashed across Jupiter: SOS, IO 3.54oN, 2.12oW. Everyone in the hall saw it; every ship in the area would see it.

Soldiers exchanged glances. Some pointed at the screen.

In the command room, a man wearing a jacket with red shoulder epaulettes and a veritable galaxy of stars on his chest rose from his seat and came into the hall; Eilin recognized Base Commander Werner. “What’s the meaning of this?”

“The meaning is that all the press teams out there reporting on our ‘stupid, money-wasting project’ will now know where to get their next bit of news. Unless you want to attract a lot of bad publicity, you had better hand the two men over to us and let us leave unharmed.”

There was a profound silence, during which Base Commander Werner glanced at the screen, at Eilin’s shuttle, at Jadie holding her gun at the ready.

Considering his options.

Under her clothes, sweat trickled down Eilin’s back. He could easily order all of them to be shot. Yes, there would be bad publicity, but it wouldn’t be the first time ISF had been heavy-handed.

But times were different. ISF was no longer backed by Earth’s laws. ISF had a precious hold on public opinion this side of the asteroid belt, and their reputation was sliding. Especially Ganymede and Titan were no longer purely ISF bases; the civilian population in both was rising, and so was civilian influence.

He would be sensible.

Or so she hoped.

He breathed out heavily, and addressed a soldier behind him. “Tell those cyborgs to drag their sorry asses out of that truck and make sure the lot of them get the hell out of here.”

Eilin let go of a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.

He turned on his heel and strode back towards the control room, without acknowledging Eilin.

She said to his disappearing back, “So you won’t need us to fix the earthquake barrier?”

He whirled around, glowered at her, but said nothing. Distaste flickered over his face. He did need Allion to fix the barrier, such was their constant dance of interdependence.

“I reserve the right for our company vessels to travel past Io to Jupiter,” Eilin added. “In return for our continued assistance, I request no exclusion zones be imposed on the Jovian air space.”

He didn’t react to that either. There would be long negotiations about this later; she had no doubts about that. She also had no doubt that ISF had planned an exclusion zone.

This, though, was not the time for those talks.

After some shouts, two figures came out of the nearest truck, held at gunpoint by a group of soldiers.

Daniel helped Oscar down the ladder. They were filthy, covered in dust. Oscar looked in a bad way, but they were alive.

Eilin abandoned all semblance of self-control. She ran cross the hall, tears stinging in her eyes.

****

Daniel was still trying to process the puzzling facts. He felt his grasp of the situation slipping away, and gave control to his subroutines:

[fact: 1. Eilin has come to rescue us, 2. she cares]

[conclusion: 1. she doesn’t hate me, 2. she’s not blaming me for what happened]

He was so confused.

He helped Oscar up the steps into the shuttle’s med bay and settled in one of the seats while the pilot started up the engine. Eilin was looking at him, and he didn’t know how to react, so he said, “I am a spy, you know. He’s right about that. I’ve downloaded some material from their truck. If you want, I can give it back—”

“Don’t worry,” she said, and she smiled and patted him on the hand, her eyes twinkling. “Patch it through to Jadie and Moira. They will look at it.”

So he did that, while the air lock opened and the shuttle’s engines increased their pitch, but all the while his memory re-played the sight of the tears in Eilin’s eyes.

[resolve query: 1. who am I? 2. who are you?]

[resolve query—]

[flashback] Eilin in her office, looking sternly at him—

[flashback] Eilin sitting on the couch, reading a story about a boy—

[options:— #query aborted#]

[emergency override]

[resolve query—]

Shut the fuck up!

His fingers were digging holes into the armrests of his seat. His hands trembled.

Eilin was talking to the two techs, the three of them looking at the information he’d taken from the truck.

“The installation is an orbital launch pad for satellites,” the one called Moira said. “They’re planning to shoot a string of satellites into orbit around Jupiter.”

“To do what?” Jadie said. “We could do with extra communication, but that many . . . That doesn’t make sense—”

Eilin shook her head. “Those are not communication satellites. They’re electrostatic traps. I’ve seen prototypes of those.”

Moira frowned.

“You think what we are doing with the balloons is outrageous? What they’re planning to build is much greater. Those satellites and all the kilometers of wire we saw in that hall will be launched into orbit around Jupiter. The wire will be charged to a high voltage using the solar panels. The electrical field generated will deflect high-energy particles to escape the radiation belt around the planet. If they launch enough of these things, they will create a giant radiation-free ring around the planet, a ring that contains the inhabited moons. Then radiation shielding for settlements, vehicles and clothing would be unnecessary—”

“But that means ISF would no longer need our services.”

Daniel understood that. He and Oscar were testimony to what Allion could do with radiation shielding.

“Precisely. That’s why weren’t not supposed to know about this project. We were helping them make ourselves obsolete. With that and the fact that they’ve not allowed us to build any settlements on any moon or planet under their control, I’d say they’re trying to get rid of us.”

“Can we stop any of this?”

“Well,” Eilin said, and she looked every bit the boss how she sat there, with her arms crossed over her chest. “They haven’t implemented this yet. And I dare say it won’t be as easy as they think, not now that every eye in the solar system is directed at Io. There is not going to be an exclusion zone. Nor can they chase us away when we get the platform habitat going; they haven’t been able to float a stable platform on a gas planet’s atmosphere, nor do they have engines that can take them there. And they haven’t the faintest clue about the types of engines required to leave the solar system. Their best effort is nowhere near fast enough. I don’t know what politics they’re playing, but I think they expect us to cower, to be afraid to lose income, but they forget one thing: the only reason we have income is so we can buy things from them. Can you name anything we need to buy from ISF-controlled worlds that we can’t produce ourselves?”

Moira shrugged.

“Exactly. We’ve been space-based for a long time and there’s no need for us to hang around these pieces of rock. I’m thinking it’s time we started looking for another piece of real estate.”

It was silent in the cabin for a while. The pilot was at the controls, scheduling their hook-up with the Thor III. Eilin sat at the back next to Oscar. Daniel still had no answers. Worse, he realized that he would never get answers unless he asked.

And he was afraid.

She might be hurt that he’d been so stupid that he hadn’t figured out their relationship.

She might not want him to know.

She might be disappointed in him, or angry.

And fear was the ultimate human emotion. Machines had no fear.

Nothing for it, then. He shifted to a seat close to Eilin and asked, his voice low, “Who are you, to us?”

“You figured out I’m not just your boss, didn’t you?” The side of her face he could see wrinkled in a bittersweet smile. She didn’t look at him, but continued to stroke Oscar’s hand. “A number of years ago, when the aggregate program was just starting up, I took a close interest in it and . . . I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I never realized that I’d care this much. I . . . allowed them to take my DNA and use it for the production of aggregates. They used it only twice, for the two of you. In a strange way, you and Oscar are my sons.”

Daniel stared at her.

[emergency decision module: 1. she cares about me, 2. she really cares about me]

And he didn’t really know what to do with those feelings so he sat as frozen.

Eilin continued, “I never told you, because it never seemed . . . appropriate, but not telling probably wasn’t the right thing to do. You needed to know. I needed you to know. Can you forgive me?”

Her sons. That was wrong; he wasn’t even fully human, didn’t know if he could ever be.

“I’m . . . I’m not worthy,” he said, his voice low. “I’ve made a mess of this project.”

“No, you haven’t. I know I probably shouldn’t have sent you, and I’m sorry. Io is a dangerous place, and you were genuinely the best team we could send. In hindsight, you may not have been ready. It’s true that you have much still to learn, but the thing is: you will and you can learn to live without your routines. You are every bit as human as I am.”

And Daniel did something he had never done in his life: he hugged a woman. He couldn’t quite work out what to think about that, but her skin was warm, and it was altogether not unpleasant.

Then she said, “It seems that we both have a lot to learn about what it means.”

Daniel couldn’t help but agree with her.

****