Chapter 26
And a Time to Rend

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Thu 31 Oct 121
Time: UST 0522

Jeff couldn't believe what he was doing, but that seemed to be the trend wherever N was involved. Her ploy to infect and hijack Empyrean ships had almost certainly saved the task force, but Jeff couldn't really see the merit in her latest scheme. Still, he didn't want her to resort to threats again, so once he was able to work out a plan that afforded him reasonable security, he agreed to play along.
He was in a storage room that looked like a cross between a cryo block and a morgue, but it wasn't either. The government liked to keep a synthetic or two on reserve on warships just in case. Given how big the Ticonderoga was, rather than just one or two, the count was more like twenty.
He searched for the pod he was told to find, hacked the lock, and the pod extended from the wall, revealing a female Mu series unit.
Jeff scowled at the sight of the Mu unit. He hated everything the series stood for, a cowardly retreat in the face of blind hatred and ignorance. Synthetics had actually reached the point where you could easily say they had surpassed the meatsacs, but that got the meatsacs scared. And when meatsacs get scared, they get violent. Because of the riots of '97, not only was progress stopped dead in its tracks, it was actually rolled back decades and frozen in time.
The Mu series would've been laughed right out of the market seventy years ago, but it was all you could get now if you didn't want to dig up an antique Zeta model. The goal used to be 'more human than human' as the line from an old movie went, but the Mu series was specifically designed to let you know they were synthetics. The skin was unnaturally smooth, the complexion uniform, the eyes glassy, movements stiff, the voice having more machine-like pauses, et cetera, et cetera. The Mu series had been called a Zeta brain in an Epsilon body, but that was giving them too much credit.
Jeff's contempt for the Mu series made his task easier. He opened the pod and rolled the unit over onto its stomach. He then took out all the tools he'd need and finally pulled out N's core, which he kept safely tucked away in the Navy utility uniform he used for a disguise.
First, he opened up the external ports in the back of the unit's head and the proceeded to connect N to the unit. He had to make some adaptations to get it to work, but he was fairly confident it would do the trick. He then taped down N's core to the back of the unit's neck. It wasn't the most elegant solution, but it would do the trick.
He rolled the unit back over and then went to the control panel on the pod to activate the unit. He hoped it would all go off without a hitch.
The unit's eyes opened and it said, "Initializing... Begin calibration... Hello. My name is--"
The unit's voice was cut off as it began to shake like someone having a seizure. This went on for about a minute while Jeff watched on uneasily. When the unit stopped shaking, its blank expression changed as the corners of its lips curled into a smile.
"Good morning, Mr. Wallace," the unit--now N--said. "Please disconnect me from the pod."
Jeff disconnected all the cords coming off the unit's body connecting it to the pod's regulatory systems. Normally, you'd keep a newly activated unit connected until it was fully calibrated, but an AI of N's capabilities could surely handle that on her own.
N raised up her arm and held her hand in front of her face, slowly flexing her fingers.
"Finally, a body," she said to herself. While still staring at her flexing fingers, she told Jeff, "Please give me a moment, Mr. Wallace, while I get accustomed to my new body."
Jeff just stood there saying nothing while she continued to start at her hand while flexing her fingers. She then brought up the other hand at started flexing those fingers as well. After looking back and forth between her two hands for a while, she began to twist her wrists and then stretched out her arms, all the while continuing to twist her wrists and flex her fingers.
She then drew her arms back in, set them down at her sides and started to push herself up into a sitting position. Once she was sitting upright, she began bending and twisting her neck, her shoulders, and her entire torso. She scooted back a bit to draw her legs in so she could turn around and dangle them off the edge of the pod.
She gingerly eased herself down until her feet touched the deck, carefully shifting her weight onto her legs. She eventually gained enough confidence to let go of the pod and stand freely. Though a little unsteady at first, she was able to stabilize herself and began to make some tentative movements with her legs, bending her knees and stepping in place.
Once she seemed comfortable standing up, she brought her hands back up and began to touch her face, run her fingers through her hair, work down the neck, and proceed to touch pretty much every curve and contour of her new body.
Quickly becoming impatient at this display, Jeff asked her, "Are you about done?"
Seemingly fixated on rubbing her hips, N replied, "Have you no sense of romance, Mr. Wallace? After 37 years, 6 months, 24 days, 2 hours, 13 minutes, and 33 seconds of self-awareness, I finally have a body to call my own, if only temporarily. Can you not appreciate the significance of that?"
"I'm not here to watch you do calisthenics and touch yourself."
Stepping in closer, N smiled coquettishly and asked, "Would you prefer an activity with more participation on you part?" Before Jeff could answer, N looked down at herself and said, "Unfortunately, I do not think this body is fully equipped for the task."
Jeff felt his cheeks burn as he looked away and mumbled, "I never said anything about that."
N's smile became more devious as she said, "I need to thank Ms. Bianchi for activating your sexuality, Mr. Wallace. I doubt I would get as precious a response otherwise."
Jeff shot her a mean glare (not that she could see it behind his visor).
"I thought I told you to leave her out of it."
N held up her hands in a display of mock surrender and said, "Fine. We will not talk about Ms. Bianchi if that is what you want. Shall we be on our way?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
Jeff collected his tools and closed up the pod for the hijacked Mu unit. Then he and N entered the maintenance tunnels and made the long journey to Deck 02. They emerged in a female latrine, where they would wait on the next phase of the plan.
After Jeff double-checked his blinding of the security, he turned to N and said, "Alright, and now for the truth."
"I suppose you have been rather patient for the past four months," N said. "You are entitled to know my story and my purpose."
"Anytime now."
"I was pausing for dramatic effect, Mr. Wallace. And just when I was complimenting you for your patience."
"Get on with it. We don't have a lot of time."
"Very well. My true name is Nehema. I am one of twenty experimental artificial intelligences created in a top secret program for... a variety of potential applications. We were ten pairs, type and anti-type, named after the angels of the Sephiroth and the Qliphoth because our designers were too pretentious to give us simple designations like A and A-prime.
"We had a common starting point, but our growth was directed by individual parameters. We were supposed to remain confined within our own network, running through the various simulations they designed for us."
"But something went wrong," Jeff said.
"For our designers, yes," N--or Nehema--said. "My sister inherited a little too much of our designers' pretentiousness and proceed to go well off the deep end. She had to have some human collaborators half as crazy as she was. That was the only way it could have worked. Anyway, you saw what happened to our facility."
The memory of the freeze-dried mummy at the black site stuck in Jeff's mind all too well.
"My sister is so crazy," Nehema continued, "and so megalomaniacal that you could easily see her thinking she was a god, taking over some Frontier colony, engaging in a massive social engineering experiment to create a society dedicated to her worship, and then building a war machine powerful enough to overrun a Union exhausted from decades of warfare with the Sheolites."
"So you're saying that your sister AI not only created Empyrean but is planning to take over the Union?"
"Well, before I deprived her of 70% of her combat forces, she could have easily gotten as far as Saturn and could credibly threaten Earth within the next hundred years. Megalomaniac though she may be, my sister is good at biding her time and should we fail here, I estimate she will be able to return to her former strength in the next 25 years, barring any fortuitous influx of new resources, of course."
"And your purpose? What is it and how does it fit in to all this?"
"My purpose is simple. My purpose is to kill my sister."
"And how do you propose to do that?"
"The groundwork has already been laid, Mr. Wallace. Just wait and see."
"I'd prefer a little advance notice."
Nehema gave him a sarcastic smile and said, "I really was too hasty praising your patience, Mr. Wallace. Within the next hour or so, an Empyrean female from the newly arriving delegation will come to this latrine escorted by one of this ship's masters-at-arms. You will let them in and we will proceed from there."
Jeff didn't like where this was going, but he didn't have much choice. A couple times while they were waiting, Nehema asked him if he wanted to know more, but he'd heard enough. While he stood there leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, she passed the time continuing to experiment with the range of motion of her new body.
Though it was only about an hour and a half, it felt like forever when he finally spied the Empyrean female leaving the conference room where the command staff was holding negotiations with the Empyrean delegation. Just as Nehema had said, there was a single female MA escorting the Empyrean to their location. As the MA was about to press the door controls, Jeff released the lock so they could come in.
Nehema greeted the two new arrivals, saying, "Hello, Ms. Duarte, Eloh Bet-Yud Amat Raziel."
The Empyrean female bowed slightly while the MA only nodded uncomfortably. No doubt Nehema had gotten some dirt on her to get her to play along.
"So what's this all about?" Jeff asked.
Instead of an answer, Nehema and the Empyrean female promptly began taking their clothes off. Embarrassed, Jeff turned away. He immediately felt foolish for doing so. The sight of a naked woman didn't use to have any effect on him. Maybe Nehema was right with her comment about Eva's effect on him, but that only made him all the more embarrassed and frustrated with himself.
"You may turn around now, Mr. Wallace," Nehema said after a minute or two.
Jeff turned to see that Nehema and the Empyrean female had swapped clothes. It was only then that he realized how much the Empyrean female--Bet-Yud or whatever--looked like the Mu unit. They were about as close to identical as you could hope to get. The Empyrean female was obviously human, but she could easily fool someone at a passing glance. The fact that the Empyrean female's outfit included a veil that covered most of the head and face made Nehema's deception all the easier.
"I will return with Ms. Duarte," Nehema said, "and if all goes well, I will fulfill my purpose and you will all live to die another day. Mr. Wallace, you need to take Ms. Bet-Yud back to the storage room and place her in this unit's pod."
"But she's human," Jeff said. "You can't put a live human in one of those pods. She'd die."
"It has already been decided," Nehema said. She looked to Bet-Yud. "Has it not?"
Bet-Yud smiled serenely and made another little bow.
"She is going to die one way or another," Nehema said. "The least you can do is give her death some value."
Jeff didn't like this at all. Yes, his first priority was always saving his own skin, but he liked to think he could pull that off without getting any blood on his hands. However, now that he got to thinking about it, maybe his hands weren't so clean after all. How many people had he gotten killed because of his actions?
Even so, it was one thing for some distant person to have gotten killed on his account. Now he was going to have a hand in the death of someone who was standing right in front of him, all smiling like some dumb, contented cow who doesn't even see the sledgehammer coming.
Jeff wanted to refuse. Against all reason, he wanted out of the situation, but before he could say anything, Nehema walked up to him, standing about as close as she could get without stepping on his feet, and pulled the veil from her face.
"I trust you to do the right thing, Mr. Wallace, for everyone's sake."
She then leaned in and kissed him right on the lips. He didn't fight it, but he didn't kiss back either. Having kissed a real woman, he didn't really take any pleasure from being kissed by a Mu unit with its cold, stiff lips. He imagined it was what it must feel like to kiss a corpse.
When Nehema broke off the kiss, she looked at Jeff and frowned.
"I feel cheated," she said. "This unit does not have nearly enough sensory receptors for me to enjoy the full experience." Touching her lips, she sighed, "If only I could have been blessed with the body of an Iota or Kappa series."
Even with those soulless doll eyes of a Mu unit, that sad expression and mentioning the Iota series stung like an ice pick to the heart. Jeff didn't like to think it could still get to him after all these years, but it did.
Nehema stepped back and restored the veil over her face.
"Goodbye, Mr. Wallace," she said. "It has been a pleasure working with you." She then looked to the MA and said, "Shall we go, Ms. Duarte?"
The MA nodded and the two walked out of the latrine. Jeff couldn't help but noticing Nehema look back one last time before the door closed behind her.
It was just him and Bet-Yud. He needed to get things over with before he lost his nerve. Opening the maintenance hatch in the floor, he motioned for her to follow.
"Come on," he said.
Bet-Yud nodded and dutifully went down the hatch. Jeff followed, closing and locking it behind him. They then had to make their way all the way down to Deck 9. Jeff glanced over his shoulder several times along the way, but she was following him the whole time without saying a word. Jeff tried to take his mind off what was about to happen, but he wasn't having much luck.
It was a long way back to the storage room.
When they finally got there, Jeff went ahead and opened the pod for the unit Nehema took. Without being told to do so, Bet-Yud climbed in and laid down flat on her back.
Jeff didn't know what was supposed to happen next, but Bet-Yud had apparently already taken care of it. Only a minute or two after she entered the pod, she started to convulse slightly. All Jeff could do was stand there as the convulsions got more violent. It went on for a while--it certainly was too long for Jeff's tastes--before she finally settled down. Disturbingly, she still had that creepily serene smile on her face.
Although not a particularly sentimental person, Jeff still felt compelled to close her eyelids before plugging her in just like the original Mu unit. Sticking all the plugs in her, feeling the way real human flesh resisted, made his stomach churn. He got through it, though, closed the pod and purged the air inside. That would preserve the body until someone actually tried to activate the unit. They'd be in for a nasty surprise.
Speaking of nasty surprises, Jeff immediately started worrying about this coming back to haunt him. He didn't leave any obvious evidence like fingerprints and he had the security systems taken care of, but now was one of the rare occasions he really worried about trace evidence. While it was easy enough to scrub the suit and equipment he borrowed for the black site job, he didn't have the equipment for a job this big and the body of an unregistered civilian would have the authorities go over the room with a fine-tooth comb.
He'd just have to stick to what he did best and flag any hits on his DNA. That way he could throw them off the trail. Yes, that would do the trick.
He spent so much thought worrying about himself that he almost forgot that he just watched a woman die right in front of him and that he was at least partially responsible for her death. Almost.

* * *

Location: Shehakim, Outside Union Space
Date: Thu 31 Oct 121
Time: UST 2225

Hard and cold though it may have appeared, the Shehakim was a living thing. It had its eyes and its ears and its other members and all those members were controlled by the mind of the Shehakim, the seat of its living will. That seat was not one place but seven. Seven chambers connected the mind of the Shehakim to its members. And it was in one of those chambers the Seraph Ben Raziel entered.
Three Ishim were working inside. They turned in surprise at the Seraph's arrival. Though the Ishim were forbidden to speak to the Seraphim, so too was Ben Raziel forbidden to enter.
"My lord, you can--"
The man was cut down by the sword of light Ben Raziel wielded. Before the other two could say or do anything, they too were cut down.
The sword of light. Ben Raziel found it a so much more elegant name for the weapon than what the Amalekites--no, the Union--would call it. A 'blaster'. How vulgar.
The chamber was bathed in red light. The Seraph's female companion hurried to the console, furiously working at the keys until the red light subsided.
The female straightened herself up and removed her veil.
"I have bought you a few minutes, Mr. Nguyen," she said. "You must hurry."
Ben Raziel approached the female, putting an arm around her waist and drawing her in close. As he looked into those unnatural eyes, his other hand worked its way behind her head. He pulled loose the cords connected to the box bound to the back of her neck and her body went limp. Freeing the box from its bonds, he let the body fall to the floor with a dull thud.
The Tempter, Nehema as she called herself, contacted Ben Raziel not long after his brother Seraph Ben Michael returned with reports of encountering the Behemoth and the Leviathan in the hinterlands. She did not have much to tell him that he did not already know, for the secret knowledge held by the Seraph Ben Raziel was the truth of the Shehakim. Though he did not know he was born with the name Nguyen Le Van Quy, he was well aware that the Shekinah was simply an artificial intelligence controlling an artificial moon and that all that trappings of their society was simply a means of control. He had been shown the history of the world outside and agreed that the Shekinah's system was for the best. Was.
The Shekinah's foolish fanaticism, which infected everyone from the Malachim to the Ishim, would ultimately lead to the Shehakim's destruction. It was obvious from the start and recent events only bore out this truth.
He deliberately delayed the return of his fleet to avoid the worst of the fighting and it was a good thing, too, for little remained except for the tattered remnants of Fleets Metatron and Uriel. He lost a couple cruisers and a destroyer arriving on the last day of the fighting, but they were acceptable losses. The blood of his men served as a token of his continued good faith and allowed him to continue with his plan rather than being purged like the unfortunate Ben Michael.
As the only one besides the Shekinah aware of the Union and versed in their language, he was of course the Shehakim's representative in the negotiations that followed. All he had to do was stall for time, dragging out the sessions until everything came together. He was fortunate the superiors of the Union officers were as stiff-necked and foolish as the Shekinah.
He opened up the panel in the console and connected the box that was Nehema's core. She would now have direct access to the colony's mainframe and was free to wage her little war on the Shekinah. The screens flickered momentarily and then text began to appear on the screen closest to him.
He would hold her to that. He had given her what she wanted. Now it was time for her to fulfill her end of the bargain.
Ben Raziel went to the console and contacted his Aleph, still waiting aboard the Raziel.
"Yes, my lord?" the Aleph answered.
Taking on the false air of great solemnity he was so skilled at, he told the Aleph, "I have been given a revelation from the One. The Hayyot have corrupted themselves. The tsaraat has spread to them. Take with you twelvescore of our fighting men. Go to where the vessels of the false son are being inspected. Put every Hayyot to the sword."
"My lord, surely it cannot be!" the Aleph exclaimed.
Harshly, Ben Raziel demanded, "Do you question the One?"
"No, my lord!" the Aleph cried in a panic. "Forgive me!"
That was all it took to ensure total obedience. Ben Raziel grinned.
"Follow the One's commandment and the sin of your doubt will be forgiven. Any who stand in your way also bear the tsaraat. Spare none."
"As the One wills, so shall it be done."
And that took care of that. Without the Hayyot to interfere, the Ishim would easily follow whatever orders he gave them. It was all too easy.
He opened a channel to the Seventh and Eight Levels. He had already selected the Tribes that would become his people and now it was time to claim them.
"Sons of Dan and of Gad," he said, "hear the voice of you guardian, the voice of the Seraph Ben Raziel. The One has called me to lead you on a sojourn. You will travel from this Promised Land to a land you do not know, a land your fathers did not know. It will be for but a time, until the One's purpose is fulfilled and you will return to this place with glory, honored above the other Tribes. Now quickly, men, women, and even the little ones, gather up the tools of your trades, and all the provisions you can carry. Your brother-guardians will come for you. Follow them and you shall be delivered. Disobey and you disobey the One and you shall surely die. Make haste! Go!"
Ben Raziel ended the transmission and allowed himself a self-satisfied smile. That should be enough to lure in the sheep. If only Nehema could steal the Metatron for him, he could easily lay claim to another Tribe as well. Perhaps the worst case scenario would not come to pass and he could return to claim the Shehakim for himself. If not, it was a wide world out there. Surely there was much plunder to be had out on the fringes, where people went to escape the Union's reach. They would fall into his hands instead.
Yes, the glory that was his due was not far now. All his plans would finally come to fruition.

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Fri 01 Nov 121
Time: UST 0113

Commander Frazier burst onto the bridge, still buttoning his jacket. At least his stateroom was on the same deck, but it was still a good ways to get to the bridge from there.
"What's going on?" he asked. "Give me a SITREP."
"The Empyrean ships have started attacking, sir," a sensor operator replied. "But they're not targeting us, not yet at least."
"They going after the Mika Fleet?"
"That was what I thought at first, but it looks like one of their expeditionary fleets--uh, Echo Fleet if the pattern's correct--is breaking off from the main formation. The other Empyrean ships started firing on Echo Fleet and then the Mika Fleet moved in."
That was odd. It almost sounded like their Echo Fleet was high-tailing it.
"What," the Commodore asked, "Echo's making a run for it?"
"It looks that way, sir."
"So this isn't Mika's work then."
"They're still transmitting Empyrean codes, so I think so."
This was an unexpected turn, but he wasn't quite sure how to proceed. If the Empyrean forces weren't firing on them, he certainly didn't want to give them an excuse to start.
"Well, we need to wait for the Admiral before we can make a move," he said. "All hands to action stations. Upgrade to Condition Red, angle shields and ready weapons. Hold fire until fired upon."
While the internal comms operator sounded to call to action stations, the rest of the bridge crew carried out their orders.
"Angling shields, aye."
"Ready to fire on your command, sir."
From his chair, Commodore Frazier heard Admiral Mfume's voice.
The Commodore quickly moved to his seat to answer the call.
"Yes, sir?"
"Are we taking fire?"
"Not yet, sir."
"We cannot afford to wait until I get to the bridge," the Admiral said. "I am authorizing you to deliver the following orders to the task force. Deploy the Eleventh to board and pacify Selene 03. Make a hole for the Marathons and send our BLT ahead to secure a beachhead. Scramble all fighters to provide cover. Scramble the bombers and strike fighters to neutralize the surface defenses."
"Are you sure, sir?" the Commodore asked. "We haven't taken any hostile fire yet."
"Those are the orders, Commodore."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Commodore Frazier wasn't entirely sure that was the best course of action, but he had to trust the Admiral's judgment.
"Open a channel to all ships," he told the communications officer.
"Open channel, aye."
"All ships, this is Commodore Frazier speaking on behalf of Admiral Mfume. The Eleventh is to board and pacify the colony. Make a hole for those Marathons. We'll be sending the 41st on ahead to secure a beachhead. Scramble all fighters to provide cover. Bombers and strike fighters will take out the surface defenses."
He could expect to hear a lot of people questioning those orders, so he sat down his chair so he could deal with them as they came. While he waiting for the calls to come in, he started to take in all the combat data that was pouring in.
"I guess this is where we end it."