"Sir?" The lieutenant called from the nearby doorway. "The puterverse access has terminated. It’s safe to enter."
Major Deiley rose to his feet and walked to the small room. The field was indeed down, and the dancing light that protected the two people inside was gone. He stepped over the gory remains of his three men and went first to the girl.
Her foray into the puterverse had clearly not gone well. She was staring sightlessly into space, having sharded again. He motioned to the lieutenant to see to Lockwood, who was conscious but not a threat. Picking the girl up carefully, he marveled again at how small she was. He carried her out to the room and laid her on a cot that stood against the wall. He then accessed at the nearest terminal, not bothering to punch in a destination. The screen glowed a dim black in response.
"Sir. One moment, please." He waved his arm to indicate he wished privacy. The room was cleared within seconds. He turned back to the terminal.
"Yes, sir. I have the girl now."
"Very good, Major." Far Bank’s voice seemed strained. It could have been the two-dimensional access, though his next comment indicated otherwise. "I can appreciate now your earlier appraisal of his will power and spirit."
"?His? will power, sir?" Deiley raised an eyebrow.
"No, Major. Her will power and spirit. What is your next course of action?"
Here it was. Deiley had been painstakingly laying out the answer to this question for weeks. He hoped he?d thought it through sufficiently. He?d not get a second opportunity.
"I will be taking her to the base infirmary, sir, and begin accelerating her dissolution. By keeping her under constant guard, we?ll be able to pinpoint the best moment to perform mental shutdown procedures prior to harvesting."
"Good. And you still anticipate three to four weeks until harvest?"
"Yes, sir. I could accelerate even further if I could maintain a single ripe, but that is far too ..."
"I don?t understand, Major. All data indicates that it was multiple episodes that eventually broke down the implanted barriers of riping and caused dissolution."
"Not quite, sir. It seems that multiple sharding is actually a defense mechanism of the brain, an attempt to shift the sharding evenly, holding the mind’s structure together longer by distributing the weight of constant episodes."
"By keeping a Shard in a single persona, the weight is brought to bear on a single barrier. When it collapses, the others are destroyed sympathetically. The difficulty is that it’s nearly impossible to maintain a single persona at this advanced stage of sharding."
"So? Which ripe would you suggest, Major?" Deiley hoped for some indication that Far Bank was either suspicious or not, but there was no clue. There never was.
"Irrelevant, sir. As I said, it’s too difficult to maintain an environment that would encourage a Shard to remain in a single ripe." He paused briefly, then continued slowly, "Although I could set up a display and holoproject a simple program into her retina. Force her to think she’s in an industrial setting. That would probably keep her in a machine state for the remainder of her life. It would also have the advantage of suppressing her human personas, both real and manufactured." He looked back down at the terminal. "Yes, that should increase the chances of making the three-week schedule, sir. I?ll have a holoprogram begun immediately."
"No, Major. Your plan has merit, but conflicts with my wishes."
"Carry through with forcing a single ripe, but implement the Miss DeChant persona. That one interests me the most. I believe you have an interest as well, yes?"
"She was. . . convenient, sir."
"I don?t doubt, Major." Far Bank chuckled, and both his chuckle and his voice indicated he did not fully understand how Miss DeChant was convenient. In that revealing moment, Deiley realized that Far Bank was vulnerable, that he had flaws. In that same moment, Deiley lost much of his respect of Far Bank. Even the most powerful could be misguided and swayed by temptation. Was he, Deiley, a victim of this same potent temptation?
"Sir?" Deiley inquired at Far Bank’s chuckle.
"Nothing, Major. A private joke." Far Bank’s voice reasserted its cold efficiency. "You will take the ... girl ... to your quarters and force the Miss DeChant ripe to the surface. Please maintain that ripe until dissolution is inevitable. Maintain normal report procedures." The screen died. There was no opportunity to protest or debate.
Deiley took a deep breath and released his hands, which he had clasped firmly behind his back. He?d gambled and won. Far Bank was interested in obtaining the KME located in the Miss DeChant shard, and sounded both alarmed and intrigued by Deiley’s suggestion of using a single, machinery ripe. Such an action might accelerate the dissolution, shortening the time available to gain whatever knowledge was in the KME. It might also, Far Bank undoubtedly thought, lock the girl into the machinery ripe at dissolution and keep him from harvesting the memory capsule. If Far Bank thought that, it was a mistake. The Shard’s mind at dissolution was a blending of all the ripes with the original persona. Nothing was locked out or lost. It was the overload of information and synaptic activity that ultimately caused death. Few people knew that, and Deiley was in the habit of keeping information to himself.
So it came about that Far Bank chose Miss DeChant and maintained control by bringing up Deiley’s involvement with her. It only helped Deiley further that Far Bank misunderstood the involvement. He did wonder, though, what the private joke was. Did it have something to do with the earlier slip, referring to Miss DeChant as a he? Was the original persona male? It fit the facts, as did a dozen other theories. But it seemed unlikely. He?d never heard of the Resistance making that type of error. Not that it mattered. Male, female, or machine, one persona carried the information needed to wield microsats as missiles. It was the information that interested him, not the personal details. Still, he was glad he had come to know the gentle soul of Miss DeChant.
He went to the cot where the girl lay. He knelt beside her and squeezed her hand reassuringly. She was still gazing sightlessly into a realm of oblivion and darkness and cold. He shook his head irritably. What gibberish. He laid the girl’s hand down gently and called for Lieutenant Gratz to have the girl taken to his hov. He knew the man would see to it personally and, like Deiley, keep the information to himself. There was nothing more valuable in the military than a capable lieutenant.