Distracting them with fabricated evidence had been easier than I'd thought. At the station Mikhail pored over the trace logs from the Draper facility, scanning the records of the dive for any fragments of uncorrupted data that might prove his innocence. Watching him at work, his face intent in the monitor glow, I almost felt sorry for him, a vestigial twinge of remorse that caught me off guard.
But the analysis would uncover the truth soon enough, minus any evidence of my involvement, and I had to remind myself it didn't matter who got blamed for tampering with the evidence as long as it kept me clear of suspicion. I could tell I had already spent too much time with these people--I had been pretending I was one of them for so long that it didn't feel like a charade anymore. That was dangerous.
"I'm going to check on Bugs," I said. "I noticed he needed some repairs after the mission." I waited. Mikhail nodded without looking up, and I turned to leave the room.
Halfway to the door, I stopped and looked back. "What?"
"You don't think I did it, do you?" He turned in his chair to face me, one of his arms still resting across the keyboard. "I mean, you were monitoring the trace logs that whole time. You know I wouldn't make that kind of mistake, right?"
I stared at him for a moment until my face worked itself into a smile. "Of course I know that," I said. "I trust you."
But I felt his gaze follow me through the doorway--as if he were silently pleading for further reassurance, the way an addict clamored for a stronger fix--and I was satisfied. Toying with their fears and insecurities brought me comfort; it reminded me I stood so far above them as to escape reproach, and I needed that reassurance now. I needed it more than ever the nearer I came to fulfilling my contract with God. Lesser ordeals had tested my will and given me strength, but I could still falter. I had long since learned to ignore the fearful misgivings I had once mistaken for conscience, but even now I might succumb to my weaker tendencies if I was careless.
In the hallway I heard footsteps and halted, recognizing Jan Sauer's measured stride before he turned the corner. Walking by, he glanced briefly in my direction. When our eyes met I recoiled from the familiar stab of attraction and revulsion his presence triggered in me: an uneasy balance of desires, the will to possess entangled with the urge to destroy. I didn't understand the feelings yet, not entirely, but I knew he was part of the design I was working to bring to completion. And I had my own plans for him, plans that had nothing to do with Dmitri Yuriev or the Immigrant Fleet.
"Is everything all right?" said Jan. It might have been an innocent question, if not for the exchange I'd witnessed earlier. I had overheard him talking to Mikhail on a private line during the Draper mission, a conversation I wasn't supposed to hear; I'd been monitoring all the lines of communication on the local network when I hacked the mainframe. Another reason why I had to be more careful--they might not have suspected my hand in the incidents yet, but ever since I staged my own near-death and revival, they had begun to question whether I was fit to continue my duties.
I nodded. "You look troubled, Captain." Best to change the subject, take the focus off myself. At least I wasn't the only one under scrutiny. I had been watching Jan more closely since we arrived on Abraxas, and I saw through the hard surface glare, the calm he projected to the world, into the turmoil that lay beneath. The stress of the investigation had begun to wear at the veneer, the lines of worry on his face growing deeper like pressure cracks in glass, the permanent frown tugging harder at the corners of his mouth. I wondered how long before the strain fractured him, how hard I'd have to push to take him to pieces. "Shouldn't you be getting some rest?"
He stared at me without comprehension, then blinked and rubbed his forehead, pushing back the stray locks of hair that fell to either side. "Ah ... yeah, thanks. I will later. Right now I have a meeting with the Chief."
"I see. Well, don't over-exert yourself, sir." I watched him proceed along the hall to McCallum's office, my ambivalent feeling settling as he walked away. When he had gone, I continued in the opposite direction.
Bugs was already waiting in the maintenance lab when I arrived. He blinked out of standby mode, an inanimate object brought suddenly to life, as I sat down at the terminal beside him. "Where were you?" he said, peering up at me. His "face" consisted of a minimalistic display of pixels on his front panel, but it had a versatile range of expression nevertheless. At the moment he looked both worried and relieved to see me. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine." I loaded the diagnostic program and studied the output on the screen. "Although it looks like you might need a few adjustments."
He was quiet for a moment, his operating system processing my words. Then he said, "I'm glad I have a good operator to take care of me." But there was an unaccustomed note of sadness in the digitized voice, and it made me hesitate, my fingers outstretched over the keyboard.
Bugs was a machine. I'd been calling it a "he" and treating it as if it were a living organism, another dangerous affectation I had acquired during my assignment here. It was bad enough I'd started feeling any sympathy towards the human and Realian members of the squad. The robot was programmed to develop an attachment to its operator for strictly practical reasons; it was easier to interact with machines when they behaved like humans. But it had no consciousness, no will of its own. The childlike personality was pure artifice, conjured by codes and algorithms out of lifeless circuitry.
The irony struck me suddenly--Bugs and I deserved each other, both of us living our own lies. When I joined the Federation Police I had assumed the identity of one Erich Weber, UMN specialist, twenty-eight years old, an individual who no longer existed. He had vanished into the network and emerged transformed, dissolved into the new consciousness that had awakened in him. That was what I was. And yet the longer I carried on under the pretense of my past self, the more closely I identified with it. I feared that if I continued this way much longer, I'd begin to regress, to forget what I had become. And I couldn't afford to lose my vision now. Not when I was so close.
I hated how readily I answered to that name. I glanced back at the screen, then at Bugs. "What is it?"
"Oh ... nothing, it's ...." The display pane flickered through a few pre-programmed configurations. "Well, Melisse was explaining to me that sometimes, people make promises about things that are very important. So ... will you make me a promise, Erich? Will you promise you won't leave us again?"
I stared at the flat blue panel; the expression would have been easy enough to duplicate with a few keystrokes in a text program, yet there was something earnest about it that had nothing to do with pixels on a screen. Of course, the machine believed in its own illusion. It was programmed to believe that it really had emotions, that it could love and care for another individual as human beings cared for each other. But with another series of keystrokes I could wipe its memory and make it forget I had ever existed. I could reconfigure its personality, transfer its attachment to a different operator, alter its perception of the world in any number of subtle or overt ways, and Bugs would never know the difference.
I had become adept at influencing human consciousnesses in the same manner. Yet in spite of the power I possessed, a part of me still ached for the illusion I had lost. Call it a nostalgia for the way the world had seemed before I glimpsed the emptiness at its core. I was jealous of those who lived out their lives in a veil of deception; they had something I did not have, something I had never been able to obtain.
Even Dmitri had never understood it. The fear we had in common, but not the loneliness, the longing that had driven me to seek his companionship even beyond the terms of my contract. I could establish links at will across the UMN, but at the nexus of all those invisible threads I stood alone. The souls I had gathered lay dormant in my mind, encased in their solitary dreams like butterflies pinned under glass. No matter how many wills I absorbed into my working memory, the emptiness remained.
"I promise," I said. The words came easily, meaningless as they were, inflected with a simulacrum of warmth. I smiled. The digital display reformed, appeared to smile back.
"That's my Erich," it said. And I crushed the part of myself that still wanted to believe it.