Captain Ronaldo Aldo has committed an unforgivable crime. He will ask for forgiveness all the same: from you, from God, even from himself.
Connected by ansible, humanity has spread across galaxies and fought a war against an enemy that remains a mystery. At the edge of human space sits the Citadel—a relic of the war and a listening station for the enemy’s return. For a young Ensign Aldo, fresh from the academy and newly cloned across the ansible line, it’s a prison from which he may never escape.
Deplorable work conditions and deafening silence from the blackness of space have left morale on the station low and tensions high. Aldo’s only hope of transcending his station, and cloning a piece of his soul somewhere new is both his triumph and his terrible crime.
The Fortress at the End of Time is a new science fiction novel from Joe M. McDermott, available now from Tor.com Publishing.
We are born as memories and meat. The meat was spontaneously created in the ansible’s quantum recreation mechanism, built up from water vapor, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and various other gases out of storage. The memory is what we carry across from one side of the ansible to the other, into the new flesh. My memories are as real to me as the hand that holds this stylus, though the flesh that carries them did not, actually experience them.
Knowing the self is vital to clones, psychologically, and more so at a posting like the Citadel. If we perceive no origin, and there is no place but the Citadel, and all else is just a story, then I would prefer not to uncover the truth.
Therefore, I will confess the name I remember from earth as my own, and tell the story of my sinful transgressions, to seek from you, my mysterious confessor, an appropriate repentance.
Ronaldo Aldo is my name. There are as many of me as there are colonies. My cloned brothers are undoubtedly punished for the crime they remember, though none of them committed the act. This is a compelling argument in favor of memory being our only truth. They are guilty for what they remember but did not do. I did it, alone.
I do not deny my guilt, and will never deny it.
I pushed a shiny red button. I pretended to be screaming of an invasion in a final, dying act along the securest ansible line. There were no intruders; it was all a sham. In the space of time between the Admiral’s results from a scouting patrol, and the filing of official reports about that patrol, I exploited a hole in the network emergency protocols. It was such a simple hack in a procedural gap that I can only imagine what all the networks of the universe will do to prevent it from happening again.
But, let me begin my confession of sins from the very beginning. God will measure all my sins, not just my latest. I hope that He holds me up against my sins and not my sins against me; I hope, as well, that my final sin be held up against my life as the triumph it was. I was pushed to this great act by the station, the military protocols, and the lies I was told about transcendence. I sinned against the devil and beat his game. By grace of God, my sin against the devil is the triumph of my life.
* * *
Before I was born on the Citadel, back on Earth, I was no worse than any other child of my place and position. Certainly, I was rude to my parents on the boat we called home, drifting across the Pacific Rim for my father’s contract work on sea mining rigs and port factories. On our cramped boat, I threw things overboard to get my revenge. Once, I threw my mother’s purse into the gyre. I was beaten with a stick and locked in the closet that passed for my room for two days without toys or dessert. I was allowed out only to use the toilet. I do not recall how old I was, but I was very young, and it seemed like the greatest punishment imaginable, to sit in a tiny room alone, with nothing to do, for hours and hours.
I had many venial and vaguely mortal sins, I’m sure, of the usual sort. I confess freely to being unexceptional in both my virtues and vices. I was part of a cohort school over the network lines and did student activities at whatever port we found, with whomever else was around at that working station. I had friends that I saw with the drifting regularity of work on the platforms, where our parents’ boats washed ashore. I recall my only real fight, when I was thirteen and we were in Hokkaido. At a public park, I got in a fight with a little Japanese boy whose only crime had been speaking with an accent at me, to tease me. I spit on him. He took a swing, but it glanced off me, the larger boy. I bloodied his nose and didn’t stop hitting him until he outran me, crying for his mother away down the street. I don’t remember any consequences for that sinful deed. I returned home to the boat, and washed my hands. I was alone, and made a cup of tea. I hid my bruised hands and never spoke about it to my mother or father.
I stumbled into military service, in part, because I could not think of anything else to do upon matriculation in a position that would liberate me from my parents’ boat. I did not wish to be a passing contractor technician, mining or recycling or tinkering in one place or another until the resource dried up, where all the oceans looked like the same ocean, and the whole world was rolling in waves beneath my bed. I joined the military and tested well enough, but not too well, and managed to secure a place as an Astro-Navigation Specialist at the War College outside of San Antonio. I was to be a pilot and navigator of starships as far from my mother’s boat as I could possibly be in the solar system. Perhaps it was sinful not to honor my father and mother, but it did not feel sinful. They were proud of me and encouraged me to go find my fortune in the stars, and to make something of myself in the colonies. Part of me would always remain behind, after all, on that side of the ansible, and that version of myself could worry about honoring them. I have tried to keep in touch with my mother and father, though our dwindling letters have little bearing on my life. I mourn the space between us because there is so little to discuss, now. I do not consider gently falling out of touch with them to be a sin.
Perhaps my greatest sin, before I was born again on the Citadel, was the night before my journey here. After all the tests, all the preparations, and just before we received the announcements of our first postings, we feasted. The colony worlds are all unevenly resourced. Nothing is so well-established with farms and water and stable atmospheres that we will ever eat like we can on Earth. Graduates spend the whole day drinking fine wine and expensive Scotch, eating all our favorite foods, and we go out to a fancy restaurant at night for the culmination of our orgiastic eating of all the things our clones would never have again. I had gone out with six of my fellow classmen, including my roommate, Ensign James Scott, and Ensign Shui Mien, a beautiful woman for whom my roommate and I had both fallen. The other three that had come with us had already surrendered their livers and gone home to bed. I had been trying to stick close to Shui Mien, pacing myself, and waiting out to be the last with her, or to leave with her. She was easing her way through the ecstasy of food and drink, slowly savoring everything a piece at a time, as if intentionally slowing down time. Ensign Scott was doing the same beside her, talking and cracking grumpy jokes and frowning at me. We were in competition to be the last with her, he and I; at least, I had thought.
The thought that a part of me would enter the cosmos somewhere far away and never see her again made my heart ache. Worse was knowing that soon we would receive our solar postings. Even in the Sol, we’d drift years apart among the asteroid colonies’ shipping lines. That night was the last chance.
Ensign Scott had it worse than me. He couldn’t contain himself around her. He often tried to touch her hand, which she inevitably pulled away to touch the golden cross she wore around her neck, anxiously. She had to know we both wanted her. As students, relationships were against the rules, and could get us kicked out of War College. We had to be ready to drop all our worldly commitments to extend ourselves to the stars. We could not be burdened with the weight of unfulfilled romance. We had to be free men and women, ready to embrace a colony of limited resources and limited opportunities. Many colony worlds had fewer people in them than a college campus. Even the established colonies had only a few million people, yet.
Ensign Scott and I were both there, and she was there, and the whole city was below us. We were on an ancient platform that spun slowly, high above the city, with a distant view out across the horizon. We were the last three. We sat beside her mercurial smile, sipping fancy cocktails and staring out at the city, exhausted and trying to speak about anything to keep this alive a little longer, to be the one to walk her home and request a single, impossible favor: just one night together before we were all cloned.
I was angry, and tired, and a little drunk – which is no excuse, rather it is only an explanation of what had weakened me – and I committed a grave sin against my friends, and I destroyed not only my relationship with Mien, but also my relationship with James. I proposed a contest. I proposed that we should toss a coin and see who would cover the bill. The loser would stay behind and pay, and the winner would escort the glorious and lovely Ensign Shui Mien to a hotel for a wondrous night that would carry in our memories through time and space.
She choked and scowled. “Why not you both pay, and then you both have your way with me. You could take turns. Or, even better, why not you two could have your memorable night of lust together without me.” She said this with clear disgust on her face, and her arms. “I am not a trophy, Ronaldo.”
“Seriously, Aldo?” said Ensign Scott. “I should punch you right now. You understand that I should punch you very hard in the face?”
“Come on,” I said. “Why not? A part of us will never see each other again. What’s the harm?”
“We still have to live with ourselves in this solar system,” said Mien. “You could have tried actually seducing me, you know. It wouldn’t have worked, but you could at least have tried.” She stood up. “Good evening, gentlemen,” she said. She went to the waiter machine and paid for her own ticket.
Ensign Scott glared at me. “Now neither one of us is getting laid tonight,” he said. “Good job, Cadet.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “It was just a game…”
“No,” he said. “You clearly don’t understand anything at all.” He got up, too. “You’re paying for my food. You lost the toss and you didn’t even know it. You owe me, now.”
“What do I owe you?”
“I’m not punching you very hard, and repeatedly in the face with my angry fist,” he said. “This is a favor I’m doing to you because you are my friend.”
He turned and left me alone. The city was there, spread out before me, and I did not understand what I did that was so wrong. This is the nature of sin: Often, we do not understand the terrible consequences of even tiny failures of spirit.
I paid my bill alone, and went to leave. Ensign Shui Mien was waiting for me near the door, and I was breathless seeing her there.
She had her arms crossed. “Tell me you never knew about Ensign Scott and me.”
“You have to have known,” she said.
“You had to know. You were his roommate.”
“I guess I’m… I don’t even know what we’re talking about.”
“That’s really pathetic,” she said. “It was right in front of you and you didn’t know?”
She uncrossed her arms. “You’re serious? That’s very sad, Ronaldo. The stars will be yours. I will never be. We are still friends. Good-bye.”
Ensign Scott was hidden back beside the coat check line at the elevator doors, watching us. She and he left together, with their arms around each other.
I felt like such a fool.
Abashed, I walked alone to the bus station, still tipsy, but sober enough to make it into a seat by myself. Back at the dorm room, Ensign Scott was nowhere to be found. I knew where he was, didn’t I? I didn’t want to think about it. I showered and dressed and checked my messages. My assignment came in over the wires, along with a special summons.
The pit in my gut was vast. I opened the message and saw my posting and cursed to myself.
Excerpted from The Fortress at the End of Time © Joe M. McDermott, 2017
This excerpt was originally published on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.