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The first of our new crewmates to wake is the doctor, Celi Tate. The doctors are insistent about kem not being crowded, so it’s a few hours before I’m allowed to see kem. Ke blinks up at me from the hospital bed.

“Captain Sands says you’re famous,” is the first thing ke says to me.

I roll my eyes. “I’m not. How are you feeling?”

“The doctors say I’m recovering well. Can’t wait to get to work.”

“The captain explained the situation to you?”

“Yeah.” Ke grimaces. “I suppose something was bound to go wrong with a project like this. Nothing to do but hold it together for the rest of the journey, I suppose.”

“Alright,” Lina announces, bustling in, “Celi needs rest. Aspen, anything else you want to discuss is going to have to wait.”

“Ke looks fine,” I protest. “I just – ”

“Ke’s exhausted. And we’re going to have more crew members wanting to come and gawk at the new crewmate later. Ke needs rest.”

Reluctantly, I turn to leave.

“You should go and find Tal or something,” Lina suggests.


She shrugs in affected indifference. “You know. If you need something to do.”

Tal? Why do I need Tal?

According to the computer, Tal’s in Laboratory Ring 2, for some reason. Ke’s putting away some radiation safety shielding as I enter.

“Aspen! Good timing. Want to hear the news?”

“The… news?”

“Yeah. So, I measured the radioactivity of that tether that Denish found, right. Space radiation, gets in unprotected equipment over time, you can back-calculate the exposure time by… you know how space works. Now, the numbers are a little janky since it’s a long time at near-lightspeed and I had to do a bit of estimating on initial acceleration with the dodgy aft engine and all that, but it looks like the tether was probably out in space for somewhere around five to six thousand days.”

“And when did that engineer die in space?”

“Day 7288.”

I do some quick math. “Just under 6100 days ago. That’s pretty close.”

“Yeah. I think it’s probably his. But there’s no way to be sure. Anyway, the records say that Rynn-Hatson was killed repairing a thruster, and there aren’t any thrusters near that disturbed panel. Amy doesn’t have any record of any external work being done on CR 5, but with her it’s kind of hard to know if that means the work wasn’t logged, or if she’s just lying. It might not be his, in which case all this musing is pointless, but…”

“I don’t think it matters that much either way,” I point out. “Somebody tampered with that panel at some point and didn’t log the work. They didn’t replace it properly. And now the AI is taking over brains in that ring, and only that ring. Whether that engineer is guilty or not, whether we’ve got the timeline right or not, whatever was done there is probably the answer to our questions.”

“Or maybe it’s something different and Amy just stuck to rings 1 and 5 for other reasons.”

“Other reasons?”

Ke shrugs. “If some of the first crew really were involved – whether it’s Rynn-Hatson or not – then they wouldn’t want Amy jacking brains in rings they’re going to sleep in, would they? Maybe they programmed something so she wouldn’t target the rings they’re in.”

“Huh. Maybe. Hey, Tal?”


“What do you think about Zale?”


“The engineer we tried to revive in CR 5 yesterday.”

“Ugh, him. That was so weird.”

“Well, yes, that’s one word for it.”

“Lina checked his skull and says he definitely has the same thing as the ten per centers. But Amy put his chance of survival at sixty nine per cent, so…”

“So maybe we were wrong about her taking brains being what puts people in the ten per cent group?”

“I doubt it. All the other ten per centers we tried were like that, and nobody else. It’s too big of a coincidence.”

“Okay, but ‘all the others’ is just a few people, and besides that… no they weren’t. Tinera and Adin were ten per centers, and I know you think the AI was lying about their chances, but…”

“I don’t think, I know. I ran the math on the people you revived; getting both of them awake was way, way too lucky, and yeah, law of small numbers and all that, but Adin’s a DIVR and there was only one ten per cent DIVR and it wasn’t him. Remember that? I did a whole cool big speech about it?”

“Right, of course. So the AI is… lying about revival chances… in the opposite direction, this time? Pretending they’re higher than they are? Why? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“No idea. I’ll ask her when I get the chance, but she’s not exactly helpful. Maybe she’s lying. Or maybe it takes some time for the stats she’s monitoring to drop and register a ten per cent survival chance, maybe that number doesn’t come directly from her invading people’s brains with synnerves. Or maybe people dropped to ten per cent for completely different reasons, and she picked those specific brains to hijack so she wouldn’t be killing healthy colonists, but now she’s running out and dipping into other heads. Could be all kinds of reasons.”

“Yeah, see… at least two of those explanations imply that it’s taking over more brains. Which is not a good thing.”

“Yeah, well, we did launch most of her stolen brains into space last year.”

“Yeah, I… I suppose we did.” That doesn’t seem like a justifiable excuse to steal more to me, but I’m not a broken AI so what do I know. “Are we… safe, with the AI?”

Tal snorts. “No, of course not. I’ve plugged up all the dangers with her that we’ve found so far, but there’s always something new to knock us over the head, isn’t there? Next we’ll find out this ship was designed to self destruct or something.”

“Why would the ship – ?”

“Why anything?! I did not sign up for this! I mean, technically I did sign up for basically anything that could happen to the ship, according to the contract, and it’s not like I’d have had a choice even if I did know, I mean I was hardly going to not sign the contract, so it’s immaterial I guess. But I’m annoyed anyway.”

“I too am annoyed about the constant threat of death hanging over us from multiple angles, the largely pointless and still very mysterious deaths of our predecessors, and how vast a departure this is from what we were promised. Yes, very annoyed.”

“See, I knew you’d get it! I gotta go. The password freeze locks on Reimann’s password just timed out for today so I’m gonna go make five guesses at it. Wish me luck!”

“Uh, good luck.”

“Yeah!” Tal raises kes palm in one of kes favourite pre-Neocambrian gestures. I slap it with my own. “Yeah!” ke repeats, and departs.

Well, okay. That was somehow a lot and nothing at all at the same time. Have I left Celi alone for long enough yet? Will Lina get mad at me if I go back?

Probably. But, I can go check on the other medbay. The two doctors evened out the patients between the two medbays, so the other medbay has one person on life support and three who might still wake up. I head over.

The Friend is drawing blood from Renn’s arm, while Denish, acting as its assistant, looks through something at the computer terminal. Tinera has her arms draped over Denish’s shoulders, and doesn’t appear to be doing anything productive. The Friend looks up as I enter and rolls its eyes. “What’s with this crew always wanting to be in the medbay?”

“Just wanted to see if you need any help,” I explain, not bothering to hide how I’m scanning the sleeping crewmates’ faces for any sign of consciousness.

“We don’t need help, nobody’s woken up yet, and yes, the crew will be informed the instant somebody does. There’s a – ”

“Doctor, something is wrong with scan.”


“Yes. Is different to others.”

The Friend heads over, glances at the screen, and relaxes. “That’s normal. Nothing to worry about.”

“The other scans definitely don’t look like this,” Tinara says doubtfully. “Mine doesn’t look like this.”

“You’re not a Universal Friend.”

Ah. I look at the screen myself. It’s been a long time since my university study on the Friends, but PUF 3’s brain scan looks essentially how I expect.

“Friends have different brains?” Denish asks, baffled. “I thought anybody could be Friend.”

“Anyone can become a Public Universal Friend, provided they pass the trials and are accepted,” the Friend explains. “What you’re seeing is the results of initiation. It’s harmless and nothing to worry about.”

Denish still looks a little confused, but behind him, Tinera stiffens. I brace myself. She’s reaching the same revelation I did when I learned this, and it’s a bit of a shock to –

“This is brain damage,” she says quietly.

“That’s one way to describe it, if you must.”

“If I – it’s not one way to describe it, it’s what it is! That ceremony damaged you brain! And you’re just okay with that?”

“Tinera,” I break in gently. “That’s… that’s the entire point of the ceremony.”


The Friend nods. “Enacting the duties of a Public Universal Friend requires – ”

“This is a Lyson Project.”

She’s not technically wrong. Anastasia Lyson was a behavioural scientist and neurobiologist whose incredibly detailed work on physical brain development and its links to behaviour and mental capacity had created a brief trend of ‘neuropsychological treatment’ for various mental illnesses that quickly and very predictably careened out of control. Much how a nation in which convicts generate profit encourages the creation of more convicts, a situation where mental illness can be used as an excuse to change somebody’s brain to make them more obedient, or satisfied, or specialised in specific tasks is…

Well. Lyson projects were outlawed in every nation I know of within fifteen years of Lyson releasing her work, as part of the establishment of (and a big part of the impetus to create) the Autonomy Accords. These days, any kind of neurosurgery with the intent of altering behaviour or limiting perception is strictly controlled for specific, extreme cases, such as serious cases of mental illness that greatly impact quality of life where the patient themselves pushes for the surgery. Or a certain worldwide cult that’s garnered worldwide respect for the general usefulness and helpfulness of its members.

Look, I’m not seeing I agree with it. The whole voluntary brain damage thing is the main reason the Public Universal Friends freak me out. But it’s also not any of my business what adults of sound mind freely choose to do with their body or brain.

“It’s not a Lyson Project,” the Friend says in the weary tone of somebody who’s had this discussion too many times before. “Friends voluntarily – ”

“What, like we voluntarily got on this spaceship?” Tinera fires back, causing the Friend to flinch. “Friend, there were fucking – there were Servitor Wars about this! Armies of brain damaged soldiers aimed at each other and set loose! There were factories full of – if that shit hadn’t been outlawed, can you imagine what any of us would be like right now? I mean, Texas might be fine, but I was jailed on Luna! Can you imagine for one second that they wouldn’t have surgeons going through their prisons with a list of what they wanted each prisoner to lose? There were children, little kids, who – kids who were ‘difficult’, who had families who wanted easier ones, and kids raised for labour and tailor-cut to – ”

“There are no children among the Public Universal Friends,” the Friend says firmly.

“That’s not the point!”

“Isn’t it? Is your whole point not that using brain surgery to involuntarily force people to be something they don’t want to be is immoral? Because this friend agrees with you, completely. The Lyson Projects were a horrifying stain on human history, and we don’t do that. Becoming a Friend takes years of hard work and vetting; it’s not a decision anyone can make on a whim and it’s not a decision that we force or coerce out of people. Someone needs to demonstrate their total commitment to the cause long before the Initiation is even a consideration; it takes giving up everything you have and everything you are in dedication to the cause. Nobody who isn’t sure would ever – ”

“If someone gives up everything they have and everything they are, it sounds to me like they’ve been pulled into a situation where they have no outside support system and can’t say ‘no’.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Isn’t it? You sure?”

“Yes. The Friends are dedicated adults of sound mind who – ”

“You’re not of sound mind. By definition. Because nobody of sound mind would do that to themselves.”

“You don’t understand these Friends’ choice, so it’s invalid? Is that it?”

“Your ‘choice’ is literally to induce brain damage in a healthy brain, so yeah!”

“What about your hand? Your ear? They’re both badly damaged. That hand aches, doesn’t it? Especially with pressure and temperature changes. And yet you’ve chosen not to fix them. Does that mean you’re not of sound mind, and shouldn’t make your own decisions?”

“That’s different!”


“Because I don’t think with my hand or ear! And you do think with your brain! How could you even – ourselves are all we have! Our minds are all we have! Why would anybody give that up?”

“Because our minds are not all we have, Tinera. All we have is each other. You and this friend and everyone else on this ship will be dead soon enough, and when we are, what we built will live on in other humans. Ourselves are all we have to work with, yes, but they are not what we build.”

“Oh, don’t give me that ‘end justifies the means’ bullshit. That road has led to hell far too many times.”

Denish clears his throat. “Friend, I have personal question?”

“Sure, why not?”

“What is… what does brain damage do? You do not seem… damaged.”

“It mostly targets areas of the brain responsible for individualism and social bonding. It’s designed to make us drastically less selfish.”

“How can target individualism? Is individual!” Denish asks, at the same time as Tinera asks, “How can killing social bonding make someone less selfish?”

“It’s actually really easy to damage individualism in the brain,” the Friend shrugs. “Many sufferers of strokes find that they lose the ability to conceive of themselves as an individual while the stroke is happening. A wide variety of narcotics can achieve the same effect. With persistence, people can learn to temporarily disable it with meditation alone. What’s done to the Friends isn’t so extreme; a Friend would be unable to function without being able to retain a sense of being an individual. But the ability is… dampened. Friends think in collective terms faster than individual terms.”

“I still don’t see how not having social bonds can make someone less selfish,” Tinera says.

The Friend looks pretty tired of explaining itself, so I step in. “Friends don’t have in-groups,” I explain. “They don’t have friends or family. It would interfere with their cause far too much.”

“They’re literally called ‘friends’.”

“No, they are called public universal friends. If you saw Denish and a stranger in danger and could only save one, you’d go for Denish, right? But Friends can’t afford to think like that.”

“So they give themselves brain damage?!”

“Our movement started when the world was dying,” the Friend says. “Our predecessors saw the world dissolving into petty conflicts of groups of people fighting for their own survival to the overall detriment of everyone, and knew that that wasn’t going to work. There are two reasons you don’t hear about the Public Universal Friends until after Lyson’s research was released – first, we weren’t called that yet, and second, the movement was impossible. It was almost immediately saturated with bad actors, capitalising on the good name for personal gain, and well-meaning actors who still got caught up in their own personal struggles because that is what humans do. More dangerous were the actually committed, because many of them found themselves committed to the group, to keeping the movement going and its members protected, and at that point, you’re just another nation struggling for influence. It wasn’t until after Lyson’s research that turning ourselves into something even capable of helping humanity was possible. Thus the second Public Universal Friend was born.

“It took inspiration from the first – a youngster from the Nameless Nation, who was struck with a terrible fever that, according to the story, killed them, and made space for a new spirit, the Public Universal Friend, to fulfill their god’s holy mission. There’s no place for gods and preachers in the movement, but it immediately became obvious that a death of our old lives and transformation into something more suitable for the task was a necessity. You call it damage; Friends call it transformation. A snake is not damaged by its lack of hands, a bee is not damaged by its inability to count. These Friends are not damaged by being different to you, either.”

“Sounds like bullshit to me,” Tinera says.

“And that’s why you’re not a Public Universal Friend,” the Friend shrugs. “Either way, that brain scan is nothing to be concerned about.”

“Not unexpected, you mean,” Tinera mumbles. “I still think there’s plenty to be concerned – ”

She’s cut off by sudden movement on the other side of the room.

One of the new crew is waking up.

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2 thoughts on “053: AUTONOMY

  1. OOURURJFJ LOVE LOVE World building like this!!!! Love and simultaneously boggled by this feat of PUF. Now Im even more nervous for how two PUFs will work out, but oh Boy


  2. So because a Friend would never see a meaningful difference between saving a stranger and saving someone it knows, no one who suspect a Friend would murder someone with kill codes.


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