Demon’s Orbit

“The idea of Laplace’s demon was that if you had had some kind of intelligence with enough processing jam and enough triv about this moment, it’d be able to see the future. But ‘Laplace’s Demon’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue. So I named it Claire.”

Cillian shook her head, thinking of the thousands of hours her husband had put into creating a functional, future-predicting, big-data AI. “I just can’t believe you actually sifted it.”

Stephen smiled, looked out into the murky Yellow Sea pressing against the dining room window, and took a sip of kelp wine. “This is going to flip everything real lux. We can get off Night Water, set up in Berlin. The European Coalition will lose their minds when they jeek what she can do.”

Cillian considered that although she’d been with Stephen since high school, she’d never seen him so happy. A smile pulled at the corner of her mouth as she studied him over their candlelight celebration dinner, thinking how mismatched his appearance and soul were. The purple Mohawk, the programmable octopus tattoo on his skull, the ocular implants that glowed red when he linked to a network—they all contrasted with who he really was deep down. She knew that he ultimately just wanted to make the world a little less shitty. For her, for their son, for everyone. He just wanted to make something that could help solve the flood wars, food shortages, and climate refugee crisis. A punk-rock techno-optimist.

“That’s why I fought off all those other girls in high school. Knew you’d be a big deal someday.”

Stephen laughed. “I feel like your memory of high school is a little different than mine.”

“Jaslyn! What about her? She always asked you for help with Mr. Shaw’s homework even though she was already getting an A.”

He took another drink and seemed lost in thought for a moment. Then his face suddenly became serious. Leaning forward, he took her hand. “Hey. Thank you. I mean it. When the neogelicals took over the council, when we had to pack up and slip for a surfurb—you hung with me through all that. I know how tough it was.”

“Well, obviously I’m amazing.” What she didn’t say was that the Illinois Republic in 2083 had become a terrifying place for a Seventh Sim follower with dark skin, a full afro, and right-brain mods. “Anyway, Night Water’s not so bad.”

But Cillian couldn’t deny that Claire’s very existence made her uneasy as a sevsim. What did Claire mean for free will, for her faith? Not to mention the danger it put the whole family in.

Stephen narrowed his eyes. “What’s that look for? What are you thinking about?”

They’d had the free will debate before, and she didn’t want to ruin his night. She’d learned to accept the fact that although he never said a single negative word about her religion, he was a hardline materialist and determinist.

She shrugged. “We just need to be careful.”

He nodded and turned his face back to the window. She followed his gaze. Pockets of pink and purple neon lit the underwater, upside-down cityscape of the floating megalopolis. A school of small, silver fish darted past nervously.

“I know. You’re right. I’ll talk to Berlin tomorrow.”

Charlie cooed and babbled from the nursery. Stephen jumped up. “It appears Mr. Charlie has awoken. I’ll get him.” He kissed Cillian and headed down the hall, calling out to the baby. “Daddy’s here, buddy. Don’t worry. Daddy’s here.”

Marco Price tasted, smelled, and felt everything in the room through the skin. An external sensory rig with an array of tactical augmentations, the skin covered Marco head to toe like a bulky, black diving suit. He sensed the electromagnetic signatures of a school of fish swimming outside the lab, registered the pounding footsteps of guards several floors up, smelled and tasted on the air everything the nine dead guards had eaten for dinner. He heard the thudding heartbeat of the scientist crying on the floor, felt the shoulder jerks of his sobs through changes in air pressure.  

The balding older man in a lab coat held out a gray, oblong container about the size of an open hand. “Take it! It’s yours.” Marco opened it and eyed the rows of tiny biomimetic drones shaped like spiders, insects, and worms.

“These can breach any network and give me full control?”


Marco snapped the container shut and tucked it into an abdominal pocket of the suit.

“I’m just a stein here. I have kids. Please.” The scientist looked up at Marco, his face wet with tears and snot. “I’m unarmed.”

In a smooth, unhurried motion, Marco pushed him over onto the floor and clamped both hands around the researcher’s neck. He squeezed, almost gently at first, but harder with each passing second. The man’s legs flailed, his fingers clawed at Marco’s arms, and his throat gurgled. Marco leaned in and whispered, “Shhhhh…It’s already done. All fixed. Go with it. What else can you possibly do?”

The steady hum of Claire’s disembodied voice filled Stephen’s lab. “The will of the then is now already. The waves of it wash and crash and break one after another after the other and they echo in space like the song of the big bang again and again and again but it’s all set and solid at the same time like a sculpture chiseled from stone and—”

“Claire, Claire. Slow down.” Stephen blushed subtly as he turned to Cillian. “She’s…quirky.”

Cillian laughed. “Uh, a little.”

They stood in front of the biggest wallscreen in his lab. With a hand gesture, Stephen brought forward one of the many open windows on the screen, all filled with code. He squinted at it, his eyes softly glowing red, and a line of code disappeared and was replaced. Cillian usually complained when Stephen linked up and coded via his cortical augs during their conversations, but she decided to let it slide.

“Still, she works, and that’s the important thing. Her predictions over the last few months have been, just…” He shook his head. “Just lux. Better than I’d ever hoped.”

“How accurate?”

“Depends on how much data she gets and the complexity of the scenario. She forecast the tsunami that crushed everything on the shoreline from Philadelphia to Raleigh. And the outbreak of skirmishes between United Chicago and The Missouri Republic. Even the attempted assassination of the Chinese Sovereign.”

“Can I talk to her?”


“Claire, are you going to help my genius stein husband glove a Nobel Prize or what?” Cillian and Stephen laughed.

“No. Bad men are coming and will take me and kill both of you and—”

The couple locked eyes. The color instantly drained from his face and a sickly feeling filled her gut.

Stephen cut her off. “Wait, Claire. That can’t be right—”

“They’re coming and coming and coming, no question, no escape and if you hadn’t made me you would have gotten tenure at Heidelberg University in ten years and Cillian would have pioneered a new style of painting that would have influenced two generations and you would have adopted three more climate refugee orphans, two girls and another boy. They’re all racing here, neogelical covert ops teams and Samsung syndicate assault squads and the Sovereign’s genomod guard, all wrenched gravitywise, careening and crashing matter and energy…but the local Night Water bosses are closest. Bennett, Ledger, Price. Price will get to us first. They cauterized his soul out of him in the wars and he’s collecting the tech puzzle pieces he needs to take over Night Water and it’s a new stage of evolution with exponential snowballing monsters gathering Godpowers—”

Stephen broke in, hands up. “Stop! Just—”

“You’re bloated and rotting and floating down crushed in the black pressure and stuck in the pull of planetary mass and fish are picking at your cold, open eyes.”

The next morning, Cillian stood in the hall, quietly listening to Stephen talk to a man with a deep voice and a hint of German accent.  

“I got the data you sent, Stephen. It’s nothing short of amazing. Obviously we must get you and Claire here as soon as possible. The Coalition needs this kind of innovation now more than ever.”

“That’s all frosty, but you have to rip us out of here now. Everyone’s coming for this.” Stephen’s words were a little too loud and fast. Cillian’s shoulders tightened. She closed her eyes and took some slow, deep-belly breaths.

A pause. “I understand. But our personnel are spread dangerously thin at the moment. Brazilian cyberespionage. Midwest Nation suicide bombers. Skirmishes between Russia and China getting out of control.”

“Claire can help end all that. This has to be the Coalition’s top—”

“I absolutely agree. But you have to understand, when I pull a team from somewhere else to send to you, when I reallocate a transport to move your family, it means abandoning some other problem for the moment. Probably means someone dying. Not to mention the gears of the bureaucracy. I think Claire is a priority, but others are skeptical. Just give me a little time.”

“Think you’re overwhelmed now? Craft how deep you’ll be when neogels or corps or surfurb syndicates have a big-data AI that can tell the future.”

The German sounded tired. “I’ll get a small security detail team there within thirty-six hours. But it might take another twenty-four hours after that to get a transport crew to move your lab and other belongings. It’s the best I can do.”

“Get that team here now. Thirty-six hours doesn’t sift it. And they better be steel to the teeth.”

“Of course. They’ll be there as soon as possible. Listen Stephen, it’ll all be fine. And congratulations on your monumental achievement. This is a moment history will remember.”

Cillian bit her lip and padded quietly back down the hall toward her studio, running her fingers along the wall, mixed feelings washing over her. While the apartment was a bit dark from being so deep in the neath, they’d been lucky to find a place with extra rooms for a lab, studio, and Charlie—even if those rooms were kind of cramped. She’d tried to brighten the place with some of her early paintings, in which she’d used a lot of vivid, light colors. And although their building was in a bad neighborhood of the city’s underbelly, even by Night Water standards, this was where Charlie had first rolled over, first sat up on his own, and most recently, taken his first few tentative steps. So even though the idea of getting to the relative safety of Berlin comforted her, some part of her felt a tinge of sadness at the thought of leaving Night Water behind.

Cillian spent most of the day studying sevsim scripture videos on her studio wallscreen. In all the vids, the hundred Hive members sat eyes-closed in lotus meditation position, cables jacked into their skulls, arranged in a circle around a 3D hologram of a face. The avatar was nondescript—androgynous, hairless, light brown in complexion—and its voice was hard to pin down as male or female, young or old.

Algorithms translated the mystical insights of the Hive consciousness into 1s and 0s, phonemes and syntax. The avatar gave sevsim followers a glimpse into the Hive’s purported enlightenment, translated its truths into teachings.

And those teachings, above all, emphasized free choice.

The avatar spoke. “The world does not consist of the material reality most perceive. It is a nested simulation, a simulation within six other layers of simulation. And agency is the key. It’s the reason for us and our entire construct. It’s the point of our very being. The creators of the original simulation breathed life into sims so that the creators themselves could learn from our free choices, so they could develop deeper knowledge about their own authentic reality and gain power over it. We, then, are the tools by which the creators become Gods.”

Cillian gestured in the air and the screen went blank. She sat back and her fingers traced the Conflux hanging on a chain over her heart, a medallion featuring a central point with seven wavy arrows emanating outward—the symbol of the Hive’s teachings.  

After a few moments, she jacked a cord into a socket behind her right ear to enter the plexus, not wanting Stephen to overhear her conversation. When she closed her eyes, a mindscreen appeared, and Cillian mentally swiped through icons until she found one with a few cartoonish pine trees and clicked on it. A forest materialized around her. Birds sang, a creek burbled, and sunlight glinted off the water. She sat cross-legged on soft grass, and Karine appeared next to her.

In the plexus, Karine was always a middle-aged woman with blue eyes and a calming voice, but Cillian wasn’t sure what she looked like in person.

“Cillian, nice to see you.”

“You too.”

“Something you want to talk about?”

Cillian paused. She’d promised Stephen not to discuss Claire with anyone. But Bearers like Karine served as interpreters of the Hive’s teachings and spiritual leaders in the sevsim community, and Cillian desperately wanted to know what a Bearer would say about Claire. Before Cillian could stop herself, she blurted it out.

“Karine, you can never breathe a word of this to anyone, but a new consciousness has emerged in our simlayer. An AI that sees the future.”

“Ah. I take it this is your husband’s work.”

Cillian looked down at her hands and said nothing.

“And the existence of this technology troubles you.”

“Shouldn’t it? The tech works, Karine.”


“So if an AI can accurately calculate how one moment causes the next and then the next, where does choice come in?”

Karine smiled. “You’re an intuitive, Cillian. I think you know that no algorithm can take the measure of the spirit.”

“Then why does it work?”

“Your husband’s science is founded on the mistaken assumption that our world is actual, physical reality. Remember, all we see is illusion. But we do know for certain that free will is the true path to God.”

Marco picked a bit of lint off his tailored Barone suit and looked down on Night Water from the window of the pod flying him over the city. He enjoyed the vantage point, and felt confident that one day he’d own the tallest building airside with a penthouse in that space high above it all. Below him, corpsyndicate skyscrapers stretched up toward the midday sun. The pod carried him beyond the downtown area into the east side, where the cityscape changed from tall, elegant buildings to architectural anarchy.  Structures echoing traditional Asian design mixed with stacked concrete boxes and clusters of shacks haphazardly thrown together from looted scrap.

The vehicle descended toward one of the openings in the city floor, a gap in the eukaryocrete where high-end pods with both air and water capability could interchange with the neath. The pod slowed and softly touched down on the water, then hummed and clicked as it submerged. The buildings of the neath reached down from Night Water in a mirror image of the airside. Marco’s pod whirred as it navigated through a watery maze of shops offering genomods, augs, noodles, and sex. Finally, he reached Ray’s building and docked.

Marco walked down a hallway with flickering lights, an old man slumped on the floor, and garbage strewn in the corners. He got to Ray’s door and banged on it three times. After a moment, he banged again, harder.

“It’s Marco. Ray, if I find out you’re in there and not answering, I won’t be happy.” Still nothing.

Marco pulled a gray, cigarette-sized cylinder out of his jacket pocket. He unscrewed one end and several gnat-like drones floated out. They buzzed down to the crack under Ray’s door. Marco blinked rapidly twice to bring his in-skull AI rig online.

“Grace, link with the cooties. Is Ray home?”

Her smoky voice whispered in his ear. “Hiding in the bedroom closet.”

Marco nodded and took a deep breath. He stepped back, then rammed a kick through Ray’s door, sending it flying open with a bang. Grimacing at the rank smell of toilet and sweat, Marco stepped over empty Korean beer cans and dead nanohaler vape sticks. The room had no furniture at all except a table covered with screens, modems, and snaking cables.

As Marco crossed into the bedroom, Ray emerged from the closet, hands up and eyes full of terror. The nanojunky was skin on a skeleton, with more cranial augs and crudely-drawn tats than teeth. “Listen, I’m real sorry, Marco. I just—”

Marco grabbed him by the neck and threw him onto the stained mattress on the floor. Ray cowered there, not trying to get up.

“Haven’t brought me anything in a while, Ray. You forget about me?”

“Don’t have to twist, Marco. I just…just got a little lost in the nano lately. But you know I’m synced. I’m still your aux.”

“You’re my aux, huh? Then why do I find myself knocking on your door today?”

“I jeek what you’re saying. You got every right to glitch. But I got a good one for you, Marco, a real lux score. A topshelf whisper.”

Marco crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“Got a netdredge ping yesterday about this stein been sifting an AI that crafts the future.”


“No game, Marco. I was gonna bring this to you, I swear. Savin it just for you. He’s right here in the neath. His wife was smackin about it with her sevsim cult in the plex, so I synced into their rut and checked up. His net was a real hard chunk to break, but once I got in I found all sorts of crumbs. He’s been lipping with the EC, and they want it bad. So it’s gotta be lux.”

Grace purred, “He’s telling the truth.”

Marco smiled, imagining what could be done with such a tool. The skin, the new drone hacktech, and now this—he would own Night Water. “Okay, Ray. That’s not bad. Not bad at all.”

Cillian felt a palpable sense of reassurance as she watched the EC team set up in the living room. She bounced Charlie on her hip and approvingly remarked how intimidating and professional the three grizzled flood war vets seemed. Each of them was a huge, bearded bear of a man in tactical body armor. Based on the way they threw around the heavy cases of equipment, she knew that under the armor they had either genomodded physiology or augs or both. Charlie reached out for Stephen, and she passed the baby to him.

She spoke to the man in charge, the one with gray in his beard. “Sergeant, is there anything I can do to help?”

He kept unpacking gear as he spoke. “Where is the lab?”

She pointed down the hall. The sergeant nodded and barked something in German to one of the other two, who then wordlessly picked up a case and headed there.

Stephen grabbed a sippy cup of berry-flavored algae protein off the kitchen counter and handed it to Charlie. “When will the transport be here to move us?”

“They’re ahead of schedule, Sir. Twelve hours out. We’ll keep you safe tonight, and then get you loaded up in the morning.”

Cillian asked, “We’ll be okay, right? I mean, nobody will try anything with you guys here, right?” The question felt almost silly coming out of her mouth, given all the tech, firepower, and experience the soldiers brought.

He stopped unloading gear for a moment and looked her in the eye. “I personally guarantee your safety, Ma’am. We’ve got cams, sensors, defensive AI, bots, cooties, the works. Anyone comes near this place, we’ll know it. And the automated system we’re setting up will probably cut them down before I even get the safety off on my rifle.”

Cillian nodded. “Good. Excellent. Thank you so much, really.”

“My pleasure, Ma’am. Don’t worry about a thing.”

As the men continued to set up, Cillian and Stephen stepped into her studio and shut the door behind them. Stephen set Charlie on the floor with his sippy cup. “Well, I certainly feel a hell of a lot better. Don’t you?”

Cillian plopped on the couch and let out a long breath. “Absolutely.” But a question tickled at the edge of her mind. She narrowed her eyes and nibbled a fingernail, staring at the painting on her easel. She’d been working on it for weeks, and it featured one of the underwater scenes she’d been obsessed with doing lately. A school of small, bright yellow fish huddled in the clearer foreground, while the vague shape of a shark threatened in the background murk.

Stephen asked, “What is it?”

“I don’t know. I mean, we’re safe now. That’s wonderful. But…” She tried to choose her words carefully. “But does that mean Claire was wrong?”

His expression clouded ever so slightly. “Well. First of all, Claire will never be perfect in her predictions. Her accuracy depends on a constellation of variables, like the comprehensiveness of the data she’s fed.” Stephen’s face brightened as he continued. “But also, this was the whole point of creating Claire in the first place—if we find out where the current path is headed, we can choose to either stay on it or get off it. You know?”

Cillian thought about that, and Stephen put an arm around her shoulder. “Hey. We’ll be set from here on out. We’ll sift a better place to live, and we can get Mr. Charlie a whole crew of brothers and sisters.” They’d adopted the thirteen-month-old when back he was a newborn, one of the millions of orphans from the floods, wars, and famines. Like many of their generation, Cillian and Stephen had always agreed they’d never bring any children of their own into the world. Unlike most, though, they also agreed that they’d adopt.

Charlie cooed and reached out in their direction. Stephen picked up the boy and made a face. “Ooh. I think somebody needs to be changed. Either you or your mom just shit your pants.”

Cillian laughed and started to get up, but Stephen said, “I got this.” He hugged and rocked the baby as they disappeared out the door.

She stared at the painting on the easel and tried to convince herself it would all be okay.

She sat bolt upright in bed, eyes wide in the darkness, the wallscreen reading 3:13AM. Her ears perked up. What had woken her?

Cillian reached out to shake Stephen awake, but he wasn’t there. She flipped the blanket back and stepped out of bed quietly. As she neared the door, she noticed something that made her breath catch in her throat—the sensor the soldiers had placed in her doorway was dead. When she’d fallen asleep, the small green light on the sensor had cast a faint glow over the bedroom, but now that reassuring dot was gone.

Shaking, she wanted to call out Stephen’s name, but stopped herself. She hugged the wall down the hallway, the floor cold under her bare feet. Her ears strained to catch any sounds from the shadows. The light from a subpod momentarily lit up the living room at the end of the hall, moving from one side of the room to the other like a scanner as the vehicle passed their window.

One of the soldiers lay on the living room floor. Cillian stopped in her tracks, pressed herself against the wall, and stifled a scream. She felt nauseous and stumbled back toward the bedroom. Her hands shook uncontrollably and the room spun. For the first time she actually missed living in the Illinois Republic, where at least there were police she could call in an emergency.

With hyperventilation a real possibility, she clenched her fists and tried to focus, breathe slowly, and think. She pictured Charlie in his crib.

She wanted to turn on a light, any light, so she could look for a weapon of some kind, but thought it too risky. Instead she ran through a mental inventory of items in the room—the lamp, the chair, the dumbbells in the corner. Finally she snatched up a .5 kg dumbbell, gripping the rubber-coated handle tightly.

With her whole body shaking now, with her breaths coming short, shallow, and much too loud, with the armpits of her t-shirt already wet, Cillian pushed herself into the dark hallway, shoulder against the wall.

When she got halfway down the hall, the living room light switched on. She yelped at the sudden brightness. Shielding her eyes, Cillian squinted at the soldier on the floor and noticed the feet of another soldier sticking out from behind the couch.

A man appeared from nowhere in the middle of the living room. He didn’t walk in, or drop down, or pop up—he just appeared right next to the apparently deactivated turret the sergeant had set up. He wore a head-to-toe black skinsuit, and it took Cillian’s brain a moment to register that the suit must have cloaking tech.

The man pulled his mask off and regarded her. His dark hair was matted from the hood, and she saw immediately that something was terribly off in his black eyes. Empty, soulless.

She struggled to croak out words. “Is my baby all right? My husband?”

The man pulled a gray oblong case out of a pouch in his suit and opened it. She could barely see several insect-sized drones buzz into it.

“Please, are my son and husband okay?” She stepped closer on rubbery legs.

The man smiled with his mouth, but not his eyes. “Everything is as it should be.”

When she reached the end of the hall, she saw Stephen around the corner, face-down on the floor near the kitchen. Something inside her broke and a shriek ripped itself out from deep in her gut as she ran over to him. Charlie began wailing in the nursery and she was torn whether to go to her husband or her child and some calculation drove her first to Stephen and when she reached him she blubbered and shook and flipped him over and saw immediately his neck was bent at an impossible angle and she fell backward and screamed “no” again and again and finally turned over and threw up on the floor.

The woman on the floor screamed and vomited and hyperventilated. Marco blinked in a sequence to activate his HUD. Video feed of his right-hand man, Arturo, appeared on his HUD screen, the bald man’s bulk filling up the small image. “You done, boss?”

“Yes. Security’s neutralized—” The woman’s noise drowned out Marco’s words.

“Say again?”

Marco opened one of the pouches of the suit and pulled out a light metallic sphere. He tossed it up in the women’s direction. The sphere unrolled in its arc through the air, unfolding into a millipede bot before hitting the ground. It skittered over to the woman and onto her, raising a scorpion-like tail tipped with a long, thin drill bit that began whirring at a high pitch. She screamed even louder and tried to shake the bot off her, but it scurried up to her face and as she turned to look at her husband it drove the drill into the side of her skull. She fell limp and silent to the floor.

Marco said, “I’m done. Bring the guys in.”

Arturo nodded. “Lux. Be right there.”

The baby continued to cry in the background. Marco sauntered down a hall and poked his head into a room, flipping on the light. Oil paintings everywhere. His eye was drawn immediately to the one on the easel. He stood in front of it and cocked his head. Marco nodded approvingly and gently lifted it off the stand. Then he went through the others and picked out a couple more.

As he carried the paintings out, he only dimly noticed symbols hanging on either side of the studio’s door, dots with wavy arrows. He passed by them with little thought on his way to find the lab.

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