Humanity has settled space and left Earth to its destruction. Connor and Ines have traveled back to Earth on a preservation project to find the human “jacks” that sacrificed their bodies to prop up the United States’s failing infrastructure. But the jacks hold a secret, one Connor would rather keep hidden than risk the truth being made public.
Connor met Ines first in the shuttle, but they had both been sedated for the drop. He met her properly now in the restored center-city of historic Philadelphia, where the white-painted wood and orange brick of colonial buildings still sparkled with a coat of dead nano from just finished reconstitution.
Connor tried to read her from her movement in the liftsuit. She was never still, but it did not seem nervous. Each motion was controlled, testing the limits of the pressure of the exoskeleton, the power of the jets, her own endurance in the unfamiliar gravity.
Connor felt awkward in his suit. It was harder to stabilize and drift on the jet boots than in the microgee the suit was meant to mimic, and the pressure of the skeleton on his limbs kept pulling him from his train of thought just as it gathered speed.
Ines nodded to him and started sliding west at once. Professor Bowles’s last message down, the one that had woken them both from recovery, must be burning just as bright in her mind as it was in his.
I tried to get you more time for the project, but they tell me the timeline for the lift is non-negotiable, and they’re going to render everything around the dome for fuel once construction is finished. You should have about 36 hours if you start now.
The countdown clock the professor had helpfully sent along ticked down from 34:46, red in a corner of Connor’s vision. They glided easily through the heart of the old city and onto wide, empty streets lined by pre-crash towers of brick and glass and steel, bookending the sweep of the city’s life. The air this far down the huge Fuller-diamond dome was climate-controlled, cool, maybe a bit more humid than station standard, but still nothing like an echo of the swampy atmosphere that British soldiers and diplomats had complained of centuries before the Last Gasp.
Ines spared no attention for the buildings or Connor. She stayed just ahead, instead of letting him catch up and inviting conversation.
They crossed the Schuylkill River, forced back into its banks by the restoration, the excess water broken down to power the drones that flew high overhead, condensing the last arch of the dome. Connor leaned forward and let himself drop a little toward the water for a moment to draw level with Ines and broach a conversation.
“Why’d Professor Bowles pick you for this one? Was he mad? And why did you agree?”
She flipped to face him without losing momentum forward.
“I asked to come. I’m specializing in Last Gasp history and everything that led up to the Exit. I hate how much they’re ignoring to build that fucking thing.” Her angry finger jab became a rapid pirouette with help from her liftsuit’s overeager assistive jet. “We’re breaking down a lot of real, important history to get that damn theme park into orbit. Professor Bowles’s memorials are something to save, at least.”
“It was a bad time. People prefer to remember better things.”
Connor wobbled his head in the shrug of a microgee native toward the nano-factured trees that lined this avenue through the old university campus. They seemed almost real, but they had nothing of the warm organic scent that filled real farms in orbit.
“It’s still important,” snapped Ines. “We did it. Everything that took us to the Last Gasp was a choice people made, and we survived, but if we just sweep it away and pretend the stations were ‘the next step of humanity’s glorious rise,’ we’ll do it all over again.”
It was going to be hard keeping that intensity from digging up too much.
“Do what over again?” Connor asked. “It’s not like we’ve got another planet full of oil to burn, or weather to fuck up if we did.”
Ines slid close to him. She was already so comfortable in her suit, comfortable enough to play aggressive games with personal space just like bullies did on station.
“We can still be careless and complacent while our problems get too big to fix. Why are you here anyway, if you don’t care about Last Gasp history.”
The door their liaison had promised was just where it should have been, and Ines pushed off Connor and glided through ahead of him.
The heat and moisture slapped Connor like a sodden towel, and then squeezed on his breath and shoved down on his shoulders heavy as earth gravity again. He felt caught somewhere between a torture device and the most anemic sauna ever devised.
“I never said I didn’t care,” he shouted at Ines’s back. “I asked to be here too. My grandfather signed up to be a jack. He died working the Mississippi-Colorado pipeline. I felt like I should honor it somehow.”
It wasn’t a lie. The jacks had made a noble sacrifice, to be remade for work when burning more fuel to run industrial machines had been unthinkable. He did feel like they deserved some honor and remembrance, and that he should make sure some things stayed buried.
Already swarms of midges and flies buffeted Connor and Ines from whatever direction the liftsuit jets didn’t sweep clean. Connor supposed he should be grateful mosquitoes had been sterilized and relegated to textbooks on public health before the increasing pace of the Last Gasp closed off so much earthbound research. Or he should hope the bugs would keep Ines distracted if he needed her to be.
Here on the west side of the city, there wasn’t too much water, and the houses were broken, but many still had pieces of intact frame standing up from the decay.
They glided round the dome to the edges of the salt swamp Philadelphia had been dredged back out of. The buildings here were just piles of rubble interspersed with kudzu and mangrove trees. The razorback ridges of feral swamp hogs cut the water as they fled the unfamiliar noise of jet boots passing overhead. One of Connor’s hallmates on station, an ecologist, had told him the hogs were growing more and more amphibious, and predicted them developing some kind of flipper-hooves in subsequent generations.
The sniffer found the first jack at the southern end of the unfinished seawall, where the Philly sprawl had eaten into Delaware. They were buried in a tumble of salt-rotted concrete, huge body stabbed through with rusted rebar. The genchem cocktail that had layered so many ugly gnarled muscles on the jack also dissuaded scavengers, from bacteria scale up to the hogs. They lay there undecaying, incorruptible as an ancient Catholic saint in their martyr’s cairn of concrete. Their only armor was the gauntlets fused over their hands: primitive omnis that had worked at micro scale for cutting and fusing.
When Connor and Ines had cut the jack out with their omnis and laid all three meters of them out on a bit of flat ground, Connor lifted away from the body. It felt somehow wrong to touch them any further, disrespectful.
Ines did not agree. She pressed her scanner to the jack’s face and read the name stippled onto their jawbone.
“Mirabel Vazquez. She’d only been working two months when the big storm hit.”
Connor joined Ines for the monument building. They tapped instructions into their wrist keypad, and both their omnis sent a wash of nano over Mirabel, reconstituting her into a standing statue of impervious Fuller-diamond, with a little marker under her feet stamped with her name and service dates. It would survive the nanos when they came to digest everything here into fuel to life the city. If Professor Bowles continued to get students willing to brave the hothouse, these monuments would dot the whole globe someday, preserving the workers who died before the Exit even seemed possible.
Preserving the good heroic memory, the memory that everyone preferred to have.
Connor snapped a few photos and beamed them back to Professor Bowles, and they went on, sniffer tuned for the unique cocktail a dead jack put off.
They worked their way along the ruined wall from the southwest in silence, and the countdown clock wound down to 26:48.
They pulled out four more jacks, and the sniffer pointed to at least a dozen more too deeply buried to be pulled up without industrial equipment. Since the incs running the dome didn’t care to lend anything, or delay themselves long enough for the university to ship it down, Connor and Ines had to leave them. Ines made sure they made an attempt at each one, surveying the ground and testing what their omnis could do with it.
Connor was happy to waste the time. It was easy to make sure the digging was impossible.
They came to the easternmost bulge of the wall, where the jacks had still been working when the big storm came and made it all worthless. That was where they found the jack Connor had been hoping they would miss.
The wall was only tumbled rumble here, smashed by the storms and then forced outward when the dome was raised around old Philadelphia, and the body had been tossed up, almost uncovered, by the earth movers.
Connor dropped down just before Ines, and saw it right away. Maybe Ines would miss it. Connor bent to pull the jack out quickly, but Ines dropped down beside him.
“What’s that?” Her finger drew a line straight to it.
“What?” said Connor.
“That hole, there in the back of their head. It looks like a bullet hole.”
She was already pulling out the sniffer and reconfiguring it for analysis. She pressed it to the jack’s wound.
“It is a bullet hole, and the system thinks the gun was pressed against their head when it was fired. Like an execution.”
Saints also kept the record of their wounds long after martyrdom. Connor kicked his jets on and drifted up. The air and gravity were so heavy, and he felt sweat weighing down his clothes.
“You understand what this means, Connor?” said Ines, incredulous. “They were executed. Not killed in the storm, not dead because the process was unstable. Executed. They said all the jacks died working, but this is murder, and a coverup.”
She just kept ranting. Connor raised his omni, dialed for Fuller conversion.
“What’s the name for the monument?” he asked.
“What!?” Ines jetted into him and slapped his arm down. She kept hold of it and pulled him close to shout into his face. “We can’t Fuller them. This is evidence. The incs that ran the seawall are still working. Some of them are working on the lift right now. We have to tell someone, and we’ll need to prove it when we do.”
She slid away and snapped shot after shot of the jack’s blasted skull.
She turned and raised her head to a transmission angle.
Connor felt a sick weight settle low in his abdomen. He made himself sound casual.
“What does the prof say?”
Emergency override flushed every comm channel with blaring static.
“CLEAR SECTOR E74 IMMEDIATE. NANOFORMERS DEPLOYED. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED. CLEAR SECTOR E74…”
Connor muted his comm as the screaming metallic voice repeated.
“Well,” he said, still making himself play, “that’s way ahead of fucking schedule.”
Ines didn’t buy his rueful smile.
“They must have snooped my message to Bowles. This is intentional. Help me lift the jack.”
He couldn’t very well refuse. Not without an explanation. He dropped down and pulled the tether from his belt harness as slowly as he dared, but he joined Ines in lifting fast. He could already see the gray wave of the nano sweeping toward them from the dome, breaking down everything it touched. He looked up as they lifted, and saw the broken eggshell edges of the still-unfinished dome glint in the hazy sky. As if he needed more evidence that the nano was for him and Ines and nothing else.
Connor let himself be pulled. Ines jetted at top speed north and west, back toward the only iris they knew for certain would key open for them. She didn’t seem afraid. Maybe she had less reason than Connor to believe the incs wouldn’t flinch from killing them to keep a little secret.
The jack hung low between them on the tethers, and it made them clumsy. The liftsuits weren’t designed to carry weight beyond their users, or to compensate for that kind of extra load with their automatic stabilizers.
They just managed to keep the jack above the gray-goo of the nano-formers and race out of the rendered sector, but more gray poured from the dome as soon as they were clear of the first flood. They had to push the jets in manual to stay high enough that the jack wouldn’t skim the waves of nano.
Connor looked up a moment and saw the black specks of construction drones break off from the top of the dome and begin dropping.
Ines slapped at her wrist keypad.
“They’re jamming every fucking band with that fake emergency. Have you got anything to signal with? Maybe someone’s earthwatching. If you’ve got a flare or a smoke bomb or some-fucking-thing.”
She sounded scared. Maybe she was scared enough to make the right choice.
Connor let himself say it.
“We should drop the jack. They’ll leave us alone then. Like you said, we need evidence. No one will believe us without it and they won’t care.”
Especially if Connor didn’t swear to anything.
“Drop it? What the fuck are you saying.”
The whine of the drones’ rotors drowned out the rest of her yelling. They’d come down fast, and Connor got a good look as they braked and stabilized to fire. The drones were big quad-rotor squares with one appendage: a sprayer-tipped arm for nanos.
The six drones bracketing Connor and Ines shot orange-white fire in spreads like a high-pressure showerhead. A caustic scent took Connor back to second-year chemistry: they’d configured the sprayers for water and pure sodium.
The fire showers bracketed them. Ines pulled Connor through a gap by the jack tethered between them, and they were side by side above the jack now, racing ahead of the burning water. The drones dragged a curtain of fire behind. It seemed like they could outrun it, for now. But more drones could be coming, or something harder to avoid.
They were back over rubble, out of the nano-formed sections, and Connor saw a perfect place to catch the jack, a streetlamp still standing proudly over the flood wreckage of a highway.
He pulled right, and Ines followed, legs spread wide to keep herself stable.
It would be easier this way.
Ines saw at the last moment. She leaned across and cut Connor’s tether to the jack, dropped down and back as she took the full weight, spun wide to miss the lamppost, swinging the jack like a wrecking ball. The closest sodium flare was almost on her.
Connor could have left her.
Why wouldn’t she leave the Goddam jack?
He slowed, grabbed her chest harness, and pulled. They could still make speed like this, if he kept them high enough not to catch, or maybe they’d lose the jack and it could be over.
Ines stared at him.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Just let it fucking go,” he shouted back. “You don’t know these people. They’ll fucking kill us both for this. Just let it go!”
“What, and you know better?”
There it was. Connor felt the dam break. Saw his grandmother shake her shriveled bird head at him. They were both dead anyway. What did it matter?
“Yes! Fucking yes, okay? I know. We all knew. The jacks knew it was a death sentence. No one wanted them running around to be super soldiers while the Last Gasp shook out and we didn’t even know if the Exit would work or not. They used them, and they killed them, and they paid us to keep quiet. How do you fucking think white trash like my family paid for an Exit?”
Ines didn’t stop staring at him.
“You really fucking ready to leave it there?”
He saw his grandmother again, atrophied from years in microgee without spin-gyms or bone-builder nanos, delicate as a plucked bird. She had made every one of them promise never to tell a soul. The shame of it would end the family. They’d all be killed by the incs if anyone talked, or spaced as accessories to murder.
“No,” said Connor.
Ines snarled half a smile.
She grabbed a new tether and hooked it to the jack behind her.
“There are cameras at the lock we came out of, and they can’t wipe the footage without getting caught. Let’s fucking go.”
They went, jetting just ahead of the sodium flame sheeting down behind them.
“For Every Jack” copyright © 2020 by R. K. Duncan
Art copyright © 2020 by John Anthony Di Giovanni