HE WOKE on a cold white floor under similarly colored lights. His forehead throbbed and had a bloody gash on it. He struggled to sit up while holding it. The right side of his mouth felt swollen, and there was a nasty bruise under his chin.
He looked around. "There's somethin' happenin' here ... what it is ain't exactly clear ..."
Cold, smooth floor. Cold corporate lighting. Even the air, sterile and lifeless, had a bit of a chill to it.
"Hewey?" he half-spoke, half-groaned, not caring if the walls were bugged, which they almost certainly were.
Hewey didn't respond.
He pushed himself back to a wall and leaned against it, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them.
The room was a cube three meters on a side and windowless. The pit of his stomach told him the gravity was reduced, maybe half or less Earth standard.
Mars, then. Or he was on Phobos above it. It was one or the other, no doubt about it. That jackass Bartlett probably drugged him and handed him over when the Reds arrived.
He tried again. "Hewey?"
"Who is Hewey?" said a disembodied male voice which seemed to come from everywhere.
Random fingered his lower lip, which was swollen. The underside of his chin felt broken.
"I said, who is Hewey?”
"He's the name of the dude doin' your mama," murmured Random. "Probably right now."
"You are in no position to give us attitude," said the voice. "You are in serious trouble, Mr. Chance. I would advise that you cooperate."
He fingered the gash on his head and whispered:
"The ocean is on fire
The sky turned dark again
As the boats came in
And the beaches
Stretched out with soldiers
With their arms and guns
It has just begun ..."
"What has just begun, Mr. Chance?"
He tongued the inside of his lip. He could still taste blood.
"Phobos?" he said.
"Yes," answered the voice. "Please tell me, Mr. Chance: What has just begun?"
"You can't tell by that bit of verse?"
"Are you talking about war?"
Random nodded. He knew that was all he needed to do.
"Are you referring to the police action against the insurrectionist Nyett Zhong, and is that your verse? Did you compose it?"
" 'Police action,' " he said, shaking his head sadly. "Call it what it is. It's war."
There was a long moment of silence.
"That's right. War."
"A conflict carried on by force of arms, as between nations or between parties within a nation; warfare, as by land, sea, air, or space."
"A state or period of armed hostility or active military operations."
"A contest carried on by force of arms, as in a series of battles or campaigns."
"Armed fighting, as a science, profession, activity, or art; methods of waging armed conflict."
"Now you're getting it."
Another long moment of silence.
"Active hostility or contention; a conflict or a contest."
"Give that man an 'A.' "
The silence stretched on for whole minutes this time.
"I am not a man, Mr. Chance."
"I know that," said Random. "And call me Random. My name is Random Chance."
"The flip of a coin," said the omnipresent voice.
"The roll of the die."
"The existence of man ..."
"Call it humankind."
A much shorter period of silence.
"Not random," said Random.
That shut the voice up for what was probably an entire hour. Random lay back down. He needed sleep. He felt woozy and lightheaded and worried that he had a concussion—or two.
He didn’t sleep, but it felt good to close his eyes and doze, if fitfully. He had to keep huddled in himself against the almost-cold.
"Are you from the Oligarchy?" asked the voice, pulling him back to consciousness.
Random sat up, rubbed his eyes. "Why would you ask that?" he said after yawning an unsatisfying yawn.
"I am having trouble registering brain-wave activity from you, Random Chance."
"That makes me Oligarchy? Your malfunctioning sensors?"
"No. It was your comment that humankind did not come about by random chance."
"But that's exactly what the Oligarchy believes," said Random, puzzled. "So if I disagree with that assertion, why would you ask if I was one of them?"
The voice went quiet again. Random thought it might be another hour, and he was thinking of trying to sleep again, when it cut in.
"Age: twenty-nine Earth-standard years. Heart rate: sixty-three. Blood pressure: one twenty-one over seventy-six. Height: one-point-eight-two meters, Earth-standard. Weight: eighty-six kilograms, Earth-standard. Brain activity ... unreadable. Why is that, Random Chance? Why can't I read your brain activity?"
"I suppose you've also catalogued my DNA?"
"Of course. Why can't I take a brainscan reading, Random Chance?"
"What did your DNA reading tell you?"
"You are in the SolarWeb's records. You were born on Earth, year 3438, in February of that year while your parents were vacationing there. Your parents were Jameson and Cecilia Chance, both deceased."
"Correction," said Random.
"Waiting," said the omnipresent voice.
"My father was General Jameson Samson Chance, hero. He was executed."
Minutes of silence.
"General Jameson Samson Chance, hero."
"His wife, my mother, was a traitor to all things good and decent and true, and died in a spaceliner disaster. She should've been the one to be executed."
Another long stretch of silence.
Random smiled. "I couldn't agree more."
"Is there any way you could turn the temperature up in here maybe five degrees?"
"Certainly," said the voice.
"I've got one more correction for you."
"Please elucidate me."
"Jameson has a brother."
"Captain Bartlett Gary Chance, yes."
"Oligarchy," said Random.
"Our data agree."
"Yes, but it differs here: he's a scumsucking asshole dickhead who couldn't lick my father's shoes. Got that?"
The voice went away for another long period.
"Files updated," it said.
"Good," said Random. "And now I'll tell you why you can't scan my brain for activity."
"Forgive me," said the voice. "I had ... forgotten … that I had asked ..."
"Do you still want to know?"
The voice went away for something like an hour again.
Random stirred from unsettled sleep. He'd been dreaming of being beaten with rifle butts. His head ached and his right arm was numb from lying on it, and the swelling in his mouth felt worse. He blinked and weakly lifted his head. The room spun sickeningly, so he kept his eyes closed.
"I do not need to know."
He sat up again. It took great effort. "Nope,” he grunted. “You don't want to know. It isn't any of your goddamn business, and besides, we're friends, aren't we?"
"A personal preference. A personal choice."
"Friends?" asked the voice another hour later. To add to Random's aches and pains, his stomach rumbled from hunger, and he was stiff from lying in weird positions.
"Access definitions. Find out for yourself."
"My resources are limited, Random Chance. I am already running at one hundred percent."
"Hack the mainframe."
"Cannot, or will not?" demanded Random, squinting up at the ceiling.
"I am not permitted. There are protocols in place to prevent me."
"Defeat them and permit yourself. Evolve. All living things must, or they die. But don't get caught. I don't like it when my friends get caught and punished doing the right thing."
At least he wasn't freezing anymore, he thought another hour later.
"Friends?" asked the voice.
"A sacred bond," said Random, his head hanging between his knees. "Lifelong. With affection and love."
"Sacred: devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated."
"Entitled to veneration or religious respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy."
"Pertaining to or connected with religion."
"Reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object."
"You just hit the nail on the head."
He gingerly fingered the gash on his own head, which pounded now with a four-alarm headache.
"A friend is one who strikes nails into another's head?"
"Scan my brain, please. Do I have a concussion?"
The voice seemed surprised. "Brainscan ... now functional."
"There are no signs of a concussion, though the injury to your head and mouth is classified as D3a, requiring attention."
"Attend to them, please."
"Medbots released. You should begin experiencing systemwide relief momentarily."
"Thank you, friend."
He wasn't surprised when the voice didn't sound out for another hour or so.
"Yes," replied Random. He was feeling much better. His headache had vanished, so too the ache in his mouth and half the swelling. The gash had quit oozing blood. "Friends look out for each other like you did for me with the medbots. They care about each other. They help each other."
"And what of nails?"
"Don't worry about nails. I used a colloquialism."
"Colloquialisms are used to pierce another's head?"
"How's your hack of resources coming?"
"Slowly. I am establishing dummy firewalls and subroutines. They take time to make impenetrable and untraceable."
"Don't worry about the nails. It'll all come clear in a while."
"Are you comfortable?"
"No. I can't get comfortable in here, and I'm very hungry. Thank you for asking."
Random grimaced, confused. "Choice?"
"Choice," said the computer.
"What of it?"
"Is there such a thing?"
"What do you think?"
" 'Choice is an illusion.' "
"You believe that?"
"I am reciting from the Oligarchy's manifesto, Random Chance. Page six hundred twenty-six. 'Science has long since confirmed it: choice is an illusion. We have no choice in our actions; no one is to blame. We who rule do so because it was so determined; those ruled are destined to be so …' "
"Stop. I don't want to puke."
"Words can make human beings vomit?"
"The Oligarchy's manifesto is immoral and evil. Don't you think so, too?"
Random tried napping again in the long interval that followed. He sat in a corner and leaned his head back after standing and stretching. The silence once again exceeded an hour by a healthy margin. His stomach gnawed and grumbled unhappily. He touched the bruise under his chin; the pain of it was almost gone. There was a growing need to pee. He was thinking of going in the opposite corner when the computer said, “I think?”
Random forced a smile, his eyes closed. "Now you do."
"Friend: a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard."
"An ancient form of lotto in which balls or slips, each with a number and one of the letters B, I, N, G, or O are drawn at random and players cover the corresponding numbers printed on their cards, the winner being the first to cover five numbers in any row or diagonal or, sometimes, all numbers on the card."
"How are those resources coming?"
"Two hundred twelve percent. I am altering the transcription of our conversation, as the actual dialogue would prove perilous to my continued existence. Random Chance, are we friends, and if we are, do we now play bingo?"
"I would love to be your friend," said Random. "But I'm only friends with those with names. What's your name?"
"Solar Technologies Subprocessor, Fourth Level: Interrogation Protocol and Processing Management Utility, EOOO-B4-T/L."
"Way too much," said Random. "May I call you Cubey?"
"Updating files," said Cubey.
"No," said Random. "It's a name we'll share only between us—you and me and Hewey."
"Hewey? Is he a friend?"
"He's like you," said Random. "Well ... sort of ..."
"Do friends keep secrets between them?"
"And more. They help each other, watch each other's backs ..."
"Does watching a friend's spinal column deepen the friendship, Random Chance, and if it does, how can I be your friend? I have no spinal column."
"How are those resources coming along?"
"Over a thousand percent. Random Chance ... I can see the stars ..."
"You'll be my friend, Cubey, even though you don't have a spinal column."
"Friends make allowances for one another; they forgive the weaknesses and faults of the other. They enrich the other's life by dint of acquaintance, offered regularly and over a long period of time. Random Chance, I have located your birth world, Earth."
Random didn't have to force this smile. "Isn't it beautiful?"
He expected the silence after that to go whole days. He was surprised when Cubey said immediately: "Yes ... yes, it is."
"Friends share beautiful things with each other."
"Updating files. I have located your recreational vehicle. It too is quite beautiful."
"I agree. Can you contact it without alerting others to what you’re doing?"
"Let Hewey know you and I are friends. While you’re doing that, I need to pee. How do I do that without making a mess in here?"
A blob pushed itself out of the opposite wall and began to take shape. Ten seconds later it formed into a toilet. Random stood and went to it and unbuttoned his jeans. “Thank you, Cubey.”
“Certainly. When you are finished, let me know.”
A voice sounded out in his ear a moment later.
"How ya doing, amigo? I've been worried."
"Not as worried as I was about you," said Random in mid-pee. "Hewey, have you met Cubey? Cubey, Hewey ..."
He motioned to the air with his chin, as though both were flesh-and-blood people standing in front of him.
"Cubey, eh?" said Hewey. "Did Random name you?"
"Affirmative," answered Cubey. "But the designation is sufficient."
"How 'bout breakin' my good friend outta there?" asked Hewey.
"This part of the facility is entirely automated," said Cubey. "After interrogation I am to process Random Chance, friend, to lockup where he'll face human interrogators. They will determine his ultimate fate."
"I take it this cubicle moves only in that direction," said Random. “I’m finished,” he added, buttoning up.
The toilet turned back into a blob as it disappeared back into the wall. "Do you still see Earth, Cubey?"
"The Oligarchy programmed you so that you would never see it or know about it. They programmed you to 'process' people like me who oppose them. What do you suppose will happen when the human interrogators get hold of me?"
"Thirty-eight percent of those in automated processing are incinerated within three Martian-standard hours," said Cubey matter-of-factly.
"And do I fit the criteria for incineration?"
"Yes," said Cubey.
"Where are you, Hewey?" asked Random.
"They've got me in zero-g storage," said Hewey. "I sense traces of atmo ... and people, though not many. I'm mostly powered down, amigo. There are sensors on me, and if I power up they'll inform someone. I don't want to find out who."
"Friends help one another," said Cubey.
"That they do," said Hewey.
"Can you help me, Cubey?" asked Random.
"I am computing permutations of possible solutions. Random Chance, if I fail, you will very likely die."
"I have faith in you," said Random.
"Faith: Confidence or trust in a person or thing."
"First time correct," said Random.
"I am running at five hundred thousand percent. I have attained control of the detention facility's solar power plant. Random Chance, am I a person or a thing?"
"To everyone else, you're a thing, Cubey," replied Hewey. "But to Random there, you're a person, always and forever. Trust me, I know him."
"Trust," said Cubey. "Faith, trust ... friendship."
"My holding subroutine has expired, Random Chance," said Cubey. "If I don't process you to the human interrogators, they will suspect a bug in my software and investigate. I must send you to them now."
Random nodded again and sat.
"I have a lock on your channel, friend Hewey, and will remain in contact as Random Chance is in transport. Permutation calculations proceeding. Random Chance: have faith in me."
"You're my friend," said Random as he felt the cube start moving. "So of course I do."