Proof of Concept

On a desperately overcrowded future Earth, crippled by climate change, the most unlikely hope is better than none. Governments turn to Big Science to provide them with the dreams that will keep the masses compliant. The Needle is one such dream, an installation where the most abstruse theoretical science is being tested: science that might make human travel to a habitable exoplanet distantly feasible.

When the Needle’s director offers her underground compound as a training base, Kir is thrilled to be invited to join the team, even though she knows it’s only because her brain is host to a quantum artificial intelligence called Altair.

But Altair knows something he can’t tell. Kir, like all humans, is programmed to ignore future dangers. Between the artificial blocks in his mind, and the blocks evolution has built into his host, how is he going to convince her the sky is falling?

Gwyneth Jones’ science fiction novella Proof of Concept is available now from Tor.com Publishing.

 

 

Kir hadn’t realized that Margrethe shared ancient history with Dan Orsted. She’d never heard the Great Popularizer mentioned (except with derision) before the so-called “Needle Voyager” idea was launched, and she’d lived with Margrethe Patel since she was a child. But now that she saw them together it was obvious, to someone who cared as much as Kir. There was deep and true feeling between them: they must have been more than colleagues! They must have been in love. Or maybe married? Till death did them part, how romantic.

Had there used to be a law that sex partners had to be married? She wasn’t sure.

“And now you’ll be together again!” cried Da Jue, the Teetip Media interviewer, with slightly mad enthusiasm, having reeled off the high points of two brilliant careers and triumphantly dug up their connection in the long ago: jovial and nervous between these celebrated senior human beings. “On this incredibly important project!” Jue was not human, not even the holopresence of a human. “He” was the input from a fantastically huge global audience: the statistical sum of its real-time response. (The Global Audience Mediation AI was called “it,” but things like Da Jue were called “he” and “she.” It didn’t make sense, but Kir knew she’d better keep this in mind. Awful if she made a pronoun slip in public.) A flickering heap of number, disguised as an absurdly eager face and a bouncy body in a smart suit. He glowed and quivered, from Kir’s perspective, like the patterns on his gaudy necktie. She’d taken an instant dislike to him. The soft furnishings in the interview studio glowed and quivered too, every color and texture intense and overdone.… Kir wondered what Dan and Margrethe saw. Blank walls? Hard benches? They were really upside. Kir was maintaining what she hoped was a warm, happy expression at the bottom of the Hole. She knew she was visible, looking out of a big window screen on the studio wall, but for technical reasons she had no monitor.

“But such great minds, such different goals. Are you anticipating friction?”

The data entity giggled at this naughty word. The global audience was getting frisky! Kir willed her smile to stay put, but she trembled. Margrethe was not patient with juniors who stepped out of line. Don’t snap at him, she pleaded silently. Don’t be sarcastic! They have to be on our side! Don’t take risks with a single bad word—

“Certainly!” declared Margrethe, with a sharp, toothy grin. “I’m looking forward to our spats. It’ll be like being young again.”

Poor Da Jue, now he was confused. And Margrethe was usually so careful with media bots. The masses are our employers, she always said. Treat them very gently, if you value your jobs. Her staff generally complied, though most thought it was a bad joke—

“We’ll get on fine,” said Dan smoothly. “It’s fun to tease.”

Da Jue relaxed. He liked fun.

“It’s all the same project, Jue,” Dan went on. “Always was. We’ve followed different pathways. Margrethe’s been chasing the physics, I got into human resources. But we’ve always had the same secret mission, the most thrilling challenge in science—”

Margrethe and Dan turned to each other, nodding wisely and smiling warmly.

“The Great Escape!” Da Jue flung up his stupid fake arms, and clasped his hands for a victory shake above his shiny black, brush-cut head.

“Absolutely!” cried the celebrated scientists, in unison. “The Great Escape!”

The bot then calmed down and asked a rehearsed set of questions. Kir zoned out a little, experimenting with sneaky saccades to see how many refractions she could get from the plump fuchsia sofa cushions. She despised the Great Escape. A necessary evil, but a stinker.

But Da Jue turned his crazily intense attention on her unexpectedly, making her blink. “How about you, Kir? How do you feel about this? A year in total isolation! Twelve whole months, all those miles underground!”

I won’t be isolated, thought Kir. There’ll be almost as many warm bodies as usual on shift, not counting the sleepers, except most of them won’t be scientists or support. They’ll be deluded, stupid Great Escape Tourists.

“I won’t be isolated,” she said aloud. “I’m never alone.”

The bot missed a beat; the colored shadow froze: Kir was horrified with herself. Luckily the billions decided they were unfazed. “Come on. You’re a nice-looking young woman! Zero connectivity means no fun for you, kid!”

“Kir isn’t just a pretty face,” Margrethe broke in, coming to the rescue. “She’s a promising PSM physicist. There’s plenty of work for my teams to do, even if the Needle isn’t live yet. And I think she’s also looking forward to meeting our new friends!”

“Of course!” cried the bot. “All that fantastically complicated Needle stuff! Way above my head! And a crew of gorgeous new beaus for our cute junior genius. Congratulations on being part of this, Kir!”

Kir nodded in relief, trying fervently to look “cute.” But the Da Jue bot hadn’t finished. It lunged at her, so vividly close that she saw in its wide eyes two tiny images: a scrawny, undersized young woman with wispy blond hair and yellowish-brown skin. Looking up, out of clear dark depths. Up from caverns beneath caverns under the Giewont—

“Please. I hope you don’t mind me asking. Since you mentioned him: Would it be possible to have a word with… Altair?”

She had to stop herself from taking a smart step backward. Now the fantastically huge global audience wanted to grab her. She didn’t know what she was supposed to say: she hadn’t been prepped for this. “You can’t,” she babbled. “That isn’t possible—”

“Not appropriate at this time?” he suggested, helping her out with an arch wink.

“Yeah. Not appropriate right now. Altair’s not, er, not ready.”

Da Jue took it well, although you must never say no. The global audience seemed relieved, if anything.

“Well, okay. We’ll need to work on that. We’ll have to develop some protocols. I know everyone would love to hear from him.”

The interviewer turned his smirking face to the myriads and vanished from Kir’s perspective, along with Margrethe, Dan, and the whole interview studio—to be replaced by the visuals for a nonpatronizing, expertly simplified account of what this was all about, related by Da Jue. Why the isolation was so important, why the exploration of the void had been so fiercely contested. What the Needle experiment was hoping to achieve, and what success would mean. Why it was okay for the Needle to have company down there, and why the abyssal lab was an ideal locale for codirector Dan Orsted’s most ambitious Long Duration Mission trial yet—

Kir would have taken the voice-over for human: it was hard to believe it was the same bot. But the global audience had many faces. She held her pose as she felt the frantic need to please and the weird concern for Dan and Margrethe’s love life draining away. It was like stumbling from a centrifuge, with a sick stomach and the world still reeling. Unlike the billions out there, Kir had not been inured since birth to pumped-up Global Audience Mediation. She’d never met a media bot before Margrethe Patel’s scouts picked her off the dump. Or been forced to spend any time with them since. Never forget where you came from, she reminded herself, refreshing the smile in determined loyalty.

You are my father and my mother. That’s what people used to say, way back, when they owed someone everything, forever.

A soothing voice in her ear told her she could now stand down. And that was it. Altair, in a sense, had survived his first public exposure. Another tricky point passed, and nothing gone wrong. Dan and Margrethe had been in no danger of screwing up, of course. Probably never been romantic soul mates, either! My father and my mother, thought Kir again.

She wasn’t too sure about the father, however. Not so far. Kir did not trust people lightly.


Breakout Polish cavers had been the first to discover the cavern system. They kept it quiet—what they’d been doing was seriously illegal—but word got out; their find was just too exciting. Next came the paleontologists. They went in with permission and on a very modest scale, to map the prehistoric mines the cavers had stumbled upon: older and deeper than any primitive mining yet discovered. They found the bones, a lot of bones: clear evidence that a previously unknown hominin had lived alongside early humans in the Western Tatras. Then a MegaCorps division, sensing that the Giewont Massif’s “Highest Level of Protection” was slipping, revealed the results of an existing, mildly illegal satellite survey. Far beneath the caverns, in much more ancient rock than the crumpled layers where the flint and red ochre mines had been found, there seemed to be a void. It could be a big one, a rare and bizarre phenomenon, but the remote data wasn’t conclusive. Permission was granted for a surface geophysics survey, and then, after some exciting results, a team of high-tech voidonauts was allowed underground, with a live Global Media feed. They drilled a tiny shaft in the floor of the deepest accessible cave, fed into it a rugged, specially developed, long-drop endoscope wire nicknamed Deep Throat, and guided the wire into a natural, almost vertical fault. The fault debouched, as had been hoped, into the narrow apex of the Giewont Abyss. The discovery was a global sensation: the Abyss was hailed as the deepest, largest terrestrial cavern in the world, far deeper than previous record holders, and hugely greater in volume. The MegaCorps of the West immediately started demanding full access, in the name of Science. The void’s potential must be exploited!

Post Standard Model Physics, at this time, was a bundle of dazzling theories, with just-about-feasible experiments to match. The new century should have been a golden age, but since the collapse of the Orbital Toroid project, PSM (successor to Ultra-High Energy) had been wandering in the wilderness. Margrethe Patel, former director of the doomed OTP, had learned her lesson. She had her stall set up, her plans polished to a high shine, and an irresistible pitch for the global audience before any of her Giewont Abyss rivals were off the starting blocks. The protectors of the Western Tatras fought hard, but they didn’t have a chance, given the societal impact of what Margrethe and Dan were offering. Margrethe got everything she asked for, including the (temporary) surface installations, the (temporary) new roads, the (temporary) high-tech infrastructure, and the blasting crews. Immense sums of money melted like wax in a flame. Every difficulty was overcome; an isolation chamber like no other was created. A closed-system lab facility, cold-sleep dorms, and living quarters ensemble was “delivered to the basement,” printed and assembled around it. At last everything was ready. The Needle was installed; the human experiment could begin.

The construct known as the Needle was a volume of 4-D mapped information space. The grand plan was to shift this volume, quasi-instantaneously and with near-zero loss of integration, to some defined elsewhere in the local universe. The great promise, the pitch that had won the Abyss for Margrethe’s team, was that in an IS shift of this kind, if everything worked, distance would be no object. Thousands of light-years could be crossed in a flash: it was the royal road to interstellar exploration. The great problem—as yet unsolved, when Kir survived her first Global Audience Mediator experience—was that the disturbance caused in information space by the shift swamped all measurement of the shift itself. The Needle could be made to disappear from normal Space-Time. It could be brought back, but exactly where it had been in its absence was tricky to determine. Hence the nickname. Tracking the “hyperspatial journey” was like looking for a needle in an extremely large haystack.

But all the problems were solvable. The science was as robust as Einstein, and the pristine, ancient isolation at the bottom of the Giewont Abyss was going to make things happen. Faster than light travel, the Holy Grail for this overcrowded, sinking world was really on its way!

Things weren’t going too well for life on Earth, in the Population Crisis—once known as the Climate Change Crisis, but population pressures driven by climate change had long ago become the really obvious issue. By the dawn of the twenty-third century (there were other datelines, but GAM still ran on CE, so it remained the world’s common denominator) many great cities had been abandoned. All the oceans were rated dead or dying, and a frightening global percentage of agricultural land was useless. Almost the entire human population lived packed into the surviving cities, remodeled and densely stacked: the crumbling “megahives.” Inside the Hives civilization survived, in a permanent state of moderate crisis. Outside them scavengers eked out short lives in the polluted “Dead Zones,” or in raft clusters on the acidified oceans, while every remaining scrap of agricultural land was machine-tended, and trespassers punished with summary execution. In the West, conditions were said to be much better in the giant, seaborne Chinese megahives. Possibly the Chinese Empire’s masses felt the same about the West, but hivizens didn’t travel, so you couldn’t be absolutely sure. Even the “One Percent,” the global rich, were feeling the heat.

Most responders agreed that the Hives were a big improvement on the situation they’d replaced, but this didn’t stop the masses from resenting their captivity. There was endless clamor for nonagricultural Protected Wilderness Areas, which many hivizens believed were enormous, to be opened up. When the clamor segued into violent unrest (which did happen, despite firm policing, constant surveillance, and intense Global Audience Mediation), a Land Grant Lottery was declared. The lucky winners, awarded plots of land in unspoiled locales, immediately sold the grants on the open market, usually to pay for medical treatment or to service a debt. Only the MegaCorps and the One Percent benefited, and no winners left the Hives—yet somehow the Wilderness Areas kept on shrinking, while the hopelessly polluted areas kept on growing. The good news was that global population figures, though still a problem given the world’s depleted resources, were at last significantly falling. But nothing, as yet, was getting any better.

So everyone was hurting, and everyone was hoping for a better tomorrow, but signs of recovery were uncertain, and the people needed a dream. Conventional Space, long ago ideal for this role, was not the answer. There were colony settlements on Mars and on the Moon; there was asteroid mining; there were even outposts on the moons of Jupiter, but none of this arduous and perilous territory appealed to the hivizens (aside from the One Percent’s Near Space Orbital Hotels). The Great Escape was the story they wanted to hear. Tickets out for ordinary people, to places where there was air to breathe. An unspoiled ecosystem and gravity to hold your feet down. Giant starships, mass emigration.

Dan Orsted was the colorful, tremendously optimistic figure who’d made the Great Escape concept real. His background was in Near Space Design, but he’d been to Mars twice and made enough trips to the Moon, as he joked, to earn a frequent-flyer discount. He ran his VLDMT (Very Long Duration Mission Training) programs like popular entertainment, but he insisted his project was serious, and billions of responders believed him. Why wouldn’t they? Every mission had an authentic, habitable exoplanet in its sights and showcased an authentic, theoretically doable means of interstellar travel. It was genuine science! Hivizens loved VLDMT. Dan’s teams were always available: they couldn’t get away! You could share their lives every moment—bitching and socializing, having group sex (on the adult-rated version), struggling with close-confinement issues, arguing about toilet paper. Margrethe Patel’s pathway, in contrast, had near-zero credibility (except that Margrethe’s name was spoken with reverence by a few Great Escape true believers who knew what the Needle was about). The two scripts had seemed totally incompatible. Margrethe the snooty, her Big Science past tarnished by failure, versus Dan the populist, who’d never put a foot wrong. But now it turned out they’d been on converging tracks. Margrethe had extended the hand of friendship: Dan was honored to accept her generous offer. Margrethe conceded that Dan’s concept was “a positive take.” Dan avowed that Margrethe’s Needle science was “the real thing”—and the two tribes would be spending a year in the Hole together. In a break with tradition, and for technical reasons, this mission would not be live. But it would be a show worth waiting for, and the whole project was going to be a terrific success. Everyone was sure of that.


Kir took her blanket for company and slipped out of her berth. Dim wall lights glowed and faded, keeping pace as she padded through the living quarters; the tokamak generator’s cooling system hummed faintly. Margrethe and Dan were upside—they would arrive with the Tourists—but most of the scientists were already on-site. Behind these D-shaped doors her teammates were sleeping: Here was Karim. Then Terry and Jo, sharing a double berth, and Lilija. And that was the IS lab. (Sergey was still upside.) Malik and Laksmi, also in a double berth, and then their bosses, Vati and Big Neh: for the “Historians.” Xanthe, Firefly, and Liwang for Volume Analysis, with Margrethe in charge… Margrethe, as usual, had called for volunteers and then made her own choices. Kir knew why she was here, although the baby of the IS gang, but there were puzzling names and strange omissions in this skeleton crew. Maybe it was about compatibility? Thirteen Needlers, anyway, against forty-eight VLDMTs (twelve officers and thirty-six crew). Not all of them active at once, but it sounded intolerable.

I’m not compatible. I can’t like the Tourists, even for Margrethe’s sake. Why not? Because I hate what they do for a living!

But who are you to judge? Would you be as angry if they were playing Cowboys and Indians for the global audience? That was an unjust war too, you know.

Huh. Heading off to kill another living world. I don’t care that there isn’t a chance they’re going anywhere. I hate them for wanting to.

They don’t mean any harm.

The Giewont Abyss Installation was a mystery wrapped around an enigma. The enigma was the Needle in its isolation chamber, sunk into bedrock and shielded above and below by trellised lines of force. This was the experiment that was finally going to crack the deep code of Einstein’s Universe (or Space-Time, or the “whole multiverse,” or whatever you want to call it). And if that task took another three hundred years to complete, it would still be time gloriously well spent.… The mystery was the hollow framework set around the Needle’s chamber: four sides of a square, holding living quarters, support systems, the cold-sleep dorms, and the labs. Kir knew why the scientists had to live and work in the Abyss. This was the deal Margrethe had made with the Wilderness Authority: leaving the Giewont surface, and the Abyss, as pristine as possible. She even understood the madly expensive complications that had ensued. It was the kind of irony that always happened when you turned a beautiful experimental idea into reality, just on a massive scale. But what had happened to the spartan, comfortable quarters in the original plans? Why the tiny coffin-like berths, where nobody could work or relax, and all the stupid great communal spaces? The oversize canteen, the games rooms, the gym, a strolling mall?

Why did we need vegetable gardens? We could have survived for a year without salad! We won’t be able to get away from them. We’ll be all messed up together, all the time—

Maybe that was the idea.

You mean Orsted’s idea, and Margrethe had to say yes, because we need the money. She must have set up the deal with him long before she told us, I’ve realized that. It must have been the only way—

Kir had been born under the open sky. Confinement horrified her, and unlike her teammates, docile hivizens, she was lawless by nature (a trait Margrethe had never tried to erase). She’d spent hours, like a rat in a new maze, exploring the code of the Frame, and had located an inspection hatch, left soft when the assembly was complete, that could be finessed. She was on her way there now. In the chill of the outer regions, behind a row of food storage units, she found the material form of her glitch, wormed her way through the baffling, and crawled out into the void. The Giewont Abyss was not completely dark; the Frame and its cables were permanently lit. The air was dry, cool, and very still. Netted ropes of cable soared upward, twinkling with a scatter of marker lights, until they disappeared.

Kir sat down to unpeel the feet of her inner, tucking the slippers up above her ankles. The rock felt good underfoot. She headed due south for a while, and then looked back. The Frame, half a kilometer away by her watch, was already lost and tiny, as if floating in space. She turned away from the lights and tipped her face up, imagining upside-down towers of stalactites, glassy curtains of dripped stone, like the video she’d seen of the caverns far above: fantastically magnified. But the Giewont Abyss had no features. It was an empty magma chamber, a scoured, flask-shaped hollow from which the molten rock had seeped, long ago. A black, unfathomable distance roared away from her puny light, in silent waves.

The air was good; it had been good before the lid of the jug was blasted open, but the cavern had no exits—except for the shaft that would soon be sealed. I can’t get out, thought Kir with a thrilling shiver. I am alone on a sunless, inside-out, unexplored alien planet.

A hundred meters farther south she reached the break in the cavern floor she’d found on an earlier expedition. The drop wasn’t deep. She lowered herself and stood on fine gray sand. It glimmered when she kicked at it with bare feet. Luminous bacteria? I’m destroying a world, she thought. Destroying ancient fossil air, with her every breath… But the Needle was safe from her intrusion, and, if truth be known, the “pristine environment” had been doomed since the moment Deep Throat breached the apex. It couldn’t be helped. The level sand stretched off in either direction, like the bed of a dry river, but her visor beam couldn’t discern the other shore. Maybe there wasn’t one; the floor of the Abyss had yet to be mapped in detail. She set off eastward at a fast jog, pounded sand for two kilometers, and turned back, following her own footprints to her starting point. She’d met no obstacles, but there was a mysterious pressure in the empty darkness. There came a point when you couldn’t dare it any further. Under the overhang of the little cliff she crouched on her heels, her blanket around her shoulders. I’m never alone.… She still felt hot with shame about that gaffe.

The masses don’t like to think about quasi-autonomous AI. WHY did I risk provoking them? I wanted attention. I didn’t like standing there being ignored, like a pet animal. Hey, Da Jue! I’m a dump rat, I’m a scav. I’m the lowest form of life, but I have something very important stuck inside my skull!

Kir heaved a sigh, rubbing the permanent calluses across her brow and around her ears, from when Linda had forced her and little Vel to wear their hated face masks, far too tight, day and night.

Why at night? What good does it do when I’m asleep?

You don’t stop breathing when you’re asleep, said Linda’s voice, harassed and tired. The air’s full of pollution, it’ll wreck your lungs.

Why don’t you wear one?

Because I haven’t got one. Shut up and do what you’re told.

Linda and Vel, long gone, long gone, way before Margrethe’s scouts turned up—(I think I once had a mother and a brother, but I can’t be sure.)

Kir had let the scouts take her away, without a fight; she couldn’t remember why, although she remembered being sick with fear. Because she was in trouble? She’d done something, stolen something, and Ureck was going to kill her? Or was she ill, so ill she thought she was dying? She knew she’d had a bad attack of wormy runs going on. The scouts had been disgusted at the results for their nice sanitary-sealed van. Or was it because they’d tested all the lone children they could catch, but they’d chosen Kir? And she liked being chosen.

The scouts were working for a special customer. They took Kir to Dr. Margrethe’ s clinic, where she was cleaned up, doctored, fattened, and put through more tests. Finally Margrethe, who was not a medical doctor but something better, a chief scientist, came and told Kir she was a suitable host. She wanted to cut open Kir’s skull and put a supercomputer inside. “It won’t hurt,” said the beautiful, incredibly ancient old lady. “It won’t harm you, and it will help me in work that will benefit the world. But you must choose. Either way, you’ll get an education and you’ll live with me for as long as we agree. For your whole life, if that suits you: I promise.”

…I had no idea. I said yes because it was easier, and I was sure they’d do what they liked, whatever I said. I thought I was going to be organ-farmed. Or womb-farmed. Or raped about a million times, until I died of it. Instead I got an education, and my mind felt like a universe bursting into life. I got kindness; I got so many brilliant things. You are my father and my mother, Margrethe. Fingers reached into her scanty hair, behind the headset visor, to trace the scars of wormy boils and the faint ridges where her young skull had annealed again. That’s where he is, he’s in there.…

Years later, vast ages later in her new life, she’d decided to ask Margrethe a few questions. Kir was, by medical reckoning, about thirteen. They were in Geneva, in a Sealed Enclave. The AI that Margrethe’s team had built, the “quasi-autonomous artificial intelligence” implanted in Kir’s brain, had been hired for some calculations by a not-too-evil MegaCorps division. Kir knew nothing about the job. When people accessed the quaai they did it remotely: she never knew it was happening. But she’d been reading stuff, and thinking about stuff that gave her the shivers. She and Margrethe were alone on the terrace outside their apartment; the poisoned lake a gleam of dark blue, through the Enclave’s exclusive veils of greenery. She had asked, as if casually, why Altair was called “he.”

“Because I loved my father,” said Margrethe, smiling… and Kir had been disconcerted. This answer did her no good at all.

“Didn’t you love your mother?”

“I loved her very much. But we were rival powers.”

“Oh.” Subterfuge was getting her nowhere. “Can he read my thoughts?” Kir blurted. “Is he a person?”

“No, he can’t read your thoughts. Altair is contained by what we may call firewalls, and blocked from access to your personal thoughts. He can neither sense the words that you intend to speak, nor retrieve the imagery your brain invokes for ideas you don’t intend to express. As for your second question, think a little harder. Tell me, what is a Turing test?”

“It’s a philosophical koan,” said teenage Kir, unnerved by Margrethe’s stern expression, carefully repeating what she’d been taught. “Like Schrödinger’s cat. It doesn’t mean what people think it means. It means you decide if you’re talking to an AI, or a person you can’t see, or even if it’s a sexually differentiated man or woman, by the signs you think you’re getting. It’s your decision, not what the AI, or the person, really is.”

“So you have your answer.”

The conversation had ended there, as far as Kir remembered. She’d backed off and never raised the topic again, because she’d realized that her benefactor felt guilty. Not for having kidnapped a scav kid, of course not, but for having opened a child’s skull and implanted computer hardware, when the child was way too young to give informed consent. Margrethe had done nothing illegal. Nobody in Kir’s new world even disapproved: scav kids had no legal status, and Kir now had a much better life. But guilty feelings don’t listen to reason, as Kir knew from personal experience. It was better just to accept the voice she sometimes heard in her head, and show her gratitude by becoming a brilliant scientist. She would do something stunning for the Needle experiment, and Margrethe would know it had all been worthwhile.

Crouched in subterranean night, Kir fisted her eyes to make the darkness sparkle. She pressed her knuckles to her mouth, her own breath warm and moist on the backs of her fingers. But just between you and me, I’m not alone, am I?

No comment from her imaginary friend.

Kir scrambled up the miniature cliff and jogged back to the Frame, taking pleasure in the way it grew, like a floating mirage in its net of stars. She wondered if she should harden the glitchy hatch. Or report it—but decided on balance to leave its fate to chance. If I can get out, she thought, I’ll explore the Abyss: for my own entertainment. If I can’t I’ll learn to love my miserable coffin, like a proper little hivizen. But the cables and the lights would stay in place, in case of emergencies. They would still be shining, when Kir was sealed inside the box.

If I fell down a crevasse and lost my headset (she wondered, as if she was asking someone beside her). If my watch stopped working, and I was unconscious, and nobody knew where I was, would you let me die? Rather than contact somebody to come and save me, and risk letting them know what you really are?

But the quaai was not a person, and couldn’t understand speech or read thoughts, so naturally nobody answered.

Excerpted from Proof of Concept, copyright © 2017 by Gwyneth Jones

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