Scratch Monkey by Charles Stross

Scratch Monkey


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subjects: Science Fiction

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Oshi Adjani works for the Boss doing odd jobs, fomenting a revolution here, confronting a mass murderer there. Her field of operations is the Milky Way galaxy, and the Boss is a Superbright, one of the man-created super-intelligent artificial intelligences who regard this galaxy as their property. She has been rigorously trained, her body filled with nanotechnology that augments her senses and enables her to communicate with the ubiquitous Dreamtime encoders. Sometimes, that’s enough.

Now the Superbrights are confronted with the enigmatic Ultrabrights, artificial intelligences as far beyond the Superbrights as the Superbrights are beyond ordinary humans. The Superbrights are engaged in the inevitable struggle with them for control of the galaxy and the DReamtime.

Oshi has been drafted into this vast conflict. She has been sent to a human colony that the Boss has projected to be in the path of the Ultrabright blackout. But the colony is in chaos, their Superbright has gone mad, and not even the Boss cares if Oshi lives or dies, because she is only a scratch monkey.

For more information visit the Charles Stross website.

414 pages, with a reading time of ~6.5 hours (103,558 words), and first published in 1993. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, .

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As I fasten my crash webbing Sareena looks at me and shakes her head. “What is it?” I ask. She pauses as she pre-checks the heat shield: she looks embarrassed.

“Do you have any last wishes?” she asks, stumbling over her words. “I mean, do you want me to tell anyone if you ..?”

I grin up at her humourlessly. She’s little more than a shadow cast by the glare of the floodlights, so I can’t see her expression. “What do you think?” I ask, hoping for something to distract me from what’s about to happen.

She straightens up and checks over the ejection rail another time. It’s ancient, a history book nightmare. Everything on this station is ancient: the planetary colony abandoned space travel, along with most everything else, when they cut themselves off from contact centuries ago. Cold and dark, the station was mothballed for centuries, until the we beamed in and reactivated it. Now it has new owners, and a very different purpose to the one it was designed for. “Okay,” she says calmly. “So if you don’t come back, you don’t want anyone to cry … “

“Not for me,” I say, jerking a thumb over my shoulder towards the sealed airlock bay doors, amber lights strobing across the danger zone to indicate pressure integrity. “But if I don’t come back, you can cry for the natives. Nobody else will.”

“Yeah, well. Looks like the heat shield’s good for one more trip, at least.” She finishes with her handheld scanner and hooks it to her utility belt, then turns and waves at the redlit Launch Control room, high among the skeletal girders above us. “Does your your life support integrity check out?”

“Check.” A green helix coils slowly in the bottom left corner of my visual field, spiralling down the status reading on my suit; more head-up displays wind past my other eye in a ruby glare of countdown digits. The oxy pressure on my countercurrent infuser is fine but I have a tense feeling like an itch. I can’t breathe with my lungs. Got to make this reentry drop immersed in a bubble of liquid. The decceleration on reentry is going to be ferocious.

The comm circuit comes to life: it’s launch control. “ Launch window opens in two hundred seconds. You should make your modified orbital perigee in two seven nine seconds at one-niner five kilometres. You’d better clear the bay, Sar.”

“Okay.” She shrugs. “Outer helmet?”

I nod clumsily and she lowers it into place over my head. I cut in my external sensors and sit tight in the frame of the drop capsule, webbed in by refrigerant feeds. The thick aerated liquid gurgles around my ears then begins to thicken into a gel. The pod’s active stealth skin tests itself, flashing chameleon displays at the wall. “All systems go,” I tell her, voice distorted by the gunk clogging my throat: “you tie one on for me, okay?” I smile, and she gives me a thumbs-up.

” You’re go, Adjani,” cuts in launch control; Helmut and Davud are in charge. We’ve been through this all before: they sound professionally bored.

“Pressure drop in one-forty seconds, re-entry window in one-ninety and counting. Repeat, Go for drop in two minutes.”

“Check,” Sareena calls over her shoulder, then stops for one last word. “Take care, Oshi,” she says. “We’ll miss you.”

“So will I,” I say, feeling like a hollow woman as the wise-crack comes out. She half-reaches out toward me, but doesn’t quite make it: she pulls back instead, and jogs towards the access hatch. I track her with the capsule sensors, testing the image filters we yesterday. Seen by the light of radio emissions her skeleton is a hot synthetic pink overlaid with luminous green flesh and a thin blue spiderweb of nanotech implants just beneath the skin. It could have been her, I tell myself, trying to imagine myself retreating through that door and sealing it on her; it didn’t have to be me. All right, so I volunteered. So why have second thoughts at this stage? The Boss said it’s important, so I suppose it must be. There’s a very important job to be done and then I’m going to come back okay, no doubt about it. It’s going to be good –

“One minute, Adjani. Any last words?”

“Yeah,” I say. Suddenly my mouth is dry. “This is –”

The lights on the bay wall flash into a blinding red glare and a spume of vapour forms whirlpools around the air vent: the clam-shell door is opening onto space, draining out the frail pool of air.

“Pulling sockets, Adjani. Good …