Seeing her laid out in a glass booth in the cloning laboratory, Rolf could not believe he had ever thought she looked similar to her sister. They may have been perfect genetic twins but her wide open eyes, the smile full of hope for herself as a person and for a race only just created, could never resemble the mad feral glint in her sister's eyes, the crooked grin on her face as she thought about killing her next prey. Even with her eyes closed for the last time, the soft glow of life receding from her face, she looked more human than her sister. Her heavy wounds, the claw marks across her body and the sword blow straight through her chest, had been sealed up by a simple Res technique, so that she looked pristine, maybe more so than she was alive. Nei reminded Rolf of the sleeping Princess in a glass coffin from one of the ancient legends, the ones that the Agency had been ordered to veto last year because of some apparent anti-Motherbrain connotation or other.
Except that he knew she was dead.
It wasn't possible to bring life back to the body with current developments in psychic technique; even the advanced 'Rever' battle resuscitation technique, which none of them knew in any case, could only revive someone from so close to the brink of death that it was sometimes mistaken for resurrection by laypeople. Only in a cloning laboratory was it possible to grow a new human body from pre-registered genetic material, provided enough relevant information about them was recorded in Data Memory to upload a realistic personality into the body. Rolf, who could barely use a second-tier Res, had no hope of understanding Motherbrain-level medical technology. Nobody else on Motavia really understood the cloning labs except the creepy old women, presumably the result of one too many clonings of their own, who operated them (presuming they weren't just employed to push the button and not ask questions).
Nei couldn't be cloned.
He knew that because the Clone Laboratory doctor had just repeated it to him, with genuine remorse and shock in her voice, not the tone she used to humour awkward customers while she reached for the security button.
"You've always been able to clone Nei before," he said.
"I know," she replied, "It was always more difficult, though, with her differences to human genetic makeup."
"But it always worked," he said, "You charged me double."
"It cost twice as much in terms of time taken – the staff hours and the extra time the machines need to process the extra data," she replied, "It always did seem to be taking slightly longer with each clone iteration."
"Are you calling her a waste of time, now? A lost cause? Two real humans could be saved in the time it takes? Is that it?" Rolf's voice rose close to a shriek before he realised he had lost control. Losing your temper at the Clone Lab employees was a poor long-term life choice, and unfair on the woman who had been genuinely trying to revive Nei, repeatedly, even though it had been holding up one of the machines for about an hour now. He lowered his voice and apologised.
"It happens from time to time to all sorts of clients. Something goes wrong and we just can't clone them. Genetic defects can be responsible, data can be lost or corrupted, some bodies come back with not enough biomass to clone from... I'm truly sorry. I understand that you're angry at your loss."
"Agents like me know that we're putting our life on the line," said Rolf, "We're taught from day one that we could very well get into a situation where not enough of us gets posted back to make a clone from. But Nei... she's not even old enough to get a job yet. She hasn't even seen as much of the world as other girls her age. She shouldn't have been on that mission. I should have stopped her. I shouldn't have just let her win the argument like she always does, not with something that actually matters like this. I'm supposed to be her elder brother. What the heck am I doing, letting her follow me into battle?"
"I understand your loss. I deal with loss every single day," said the Clone Lab grandma, "I'll keep on looking for solutions. I'm going to phone Data Memory. It might be a Data issue."
"We update our records every day!" 'Save early, save often' was the motto written on huge posters around the Agency headquarters. You lost your job if you ignored them.
"Data files can get corrupted, though, and the machine's acting a little like it isn't interacting properly with the data. It isn't recognising Nei as a person that can be cloned at all. It only usually does that if the DNA is completely scrambled, or if it doesn't have a Data Memory file to give it a person's identity. There's a very, very small chance that it's a virus, in which case your own files are also in danger, so it's imperative that I get this checked out as soon as possible."
The scientist disappeared into a back room. His senses made hypersensitive by stress, he could hear the conversation on the phone. He didn't understand the technical jargon but they sounded like they were having an argument about something, then suddenly fell into a hush. Their whispers sounded scared, as though they didn't want to be overheard. The clone scientist slammed the phone down, then returned to the room where Rolf waited and guarded Nei's preserved form. She didn't look her usual implacable, neutral Clone Grandma self. Something had genuinely shaken her.
"The Data Memory agent and I need to speak to you in private," she said, "Properly in private, in one of the classified rooms in the Data Memory centre."
Because of the extremely sensitive nature of some of the data that needed to be recorded in order to back up someone's identity for cloning purposes, there were rooms for discussing things that couldn't get out under any circumstances. In an emergency, data could even be kept from Motherbrain, if it was thought to be virus-infected. His heart lurched; what if Nei's data was infected with a virus? They all saved their records together, so it might have spread to everyone in the party, even to the Agency database. More importantly, infected data would have to be completely erased, leaving nothing for Nei to be resurrected from.
"Try and be inconspicuous," said the scientist as they walked out of the laboratory. Rolf took one look back at Nei before he left.
Rolf didn't really understand why it was necessary – he wasn't on an espionage mission for the Agency and hadn't done anything particularly illegal – but he followed the instructions anyway. He changed into civilian clothes and tried to keep to large crowds, doing nothing that would set him apart from anyone else. People just popped into a Data Memory Centre all the time. Upon recognising him, the receptionist ushered Rolf into a back room, making up some kind of cover story about addressing a recent complaint. Small things went wrong with the millions of files in the Data Memory of Motavia's capital city every day, so a complaint about a faulty file didn't look amiss. After a few minutes, a nervous-looking technician appeared and led him into the room where the real interview would take place.
Rolf recognised that the apparatus in the room would completely dampen sound and jam any kind of signal interception. They weren't leaving anything to chance. The Data Memory clerk and the Clone Lab doctor appeared seconds later.
"I'll make this brief. Yesterday, Nei's Data Memory files and DNA samples were deleted and her clone banks purged by the State," said the clerk.
"What... deliberately? Motherbrain ordered it?" Rolf blinked. He knew his emotions weren't appropriate for the situation but he could barely process what was happening. Seeing his adopted sister dead, unable to be cloned, and having to keep calm in the face of it, was already too much. People didn't just get their permanent records erased. Even the highest security jails for the worst criminals had Data Memory terminals. It was the most fundamental right. His face darkened, "Because she's not human? Is that it?"
"Rolf, all your records were erased. Yours, Nei's, those of the rest of your team for this mission. I know what you're thinking, what could Motherbrain possibly want to do something like that for? I'm afraid I don't have the answer. It will be difficult to look into it without casting suspicion on myself, and maybe even on the Data Memory Centre as an institution. Think of all the cases we have to process in a single day. We are looking into your case, though," she said, "Because we really need to know what's going on when people's data is being erased by the Government."
"What the hell am I going to do now?" demanded Rolf, "I can't exactly turn up to work in the morning if the Government wants me... worse than dead. Hell, I can't even live a normal life if I can't record my data! I can't buy food! I can't live in a house! I don't exist!"
"There is... a small detail. You remember that Amy Sage also fell in the battle when you lost Nei?"
"That's true. We cloned her just fine. We cloned her to test the machine that couldn't bring Nei back, even!"
"The reason it worked is because we were drawing data from the account you had under false names. Your cover identities given to you by the Agency," explained the Clone Lab doctor.
"Oh, those. We didn't really need to use them for a purely combat mission, but you kind of get into a habit," he sighed, "But I didn't think those were full Data Memory profiles! I thought they linked to the real identity!"
"A branch identity would probably be too easy to spot," said the Data Memory clerk, "The question is, why would the Agency do that for you? Motherbrain would have ordered them to report all of your false identities if they wanted your record deleted."
"The Agency has pulled its Agents out of some serious trouble with Motherbrain before. Sometimes we have to check for faults in Motherbrain's equipment, Motherbrain thinks we're accusing Her of being faulty, brands us as dissidents, tries to kill us... like I said, it's a very dangerous job. But something on this scale..."
"Rolf, you have to use that cover identity from now on. For some reason, Motherbrain doesn't know about it. You need to check it even more often than usual, to make sure it's still there. And you need to find out who is protecting you and arrange for some more backup identities. That's the only thing that will save your existence."
"I'm sorry. It's too late for her."
"It's my fault," he said, "I didn't push it hard enough, again. She wouldn't let me get her a false Record. She was too proud of her identity – of being Nei. I think it was because so many people bullied her for being herself. She wanted to show how hard she could resist. She wouldn't change who she was, even if it was to her own advantage."
"Maybe she's the wisest of us," said the Clone Lab doctor, her wrinkled, discoloured face looking distant for a moment.
"We need to talk privately now," said the Data Memory clerk, "Even with the settings in this room all the way up to Virus Containment, Motherbrain's no doubt heard our conversation. We'll be punished for assisting you. We need to think of a way to handle this so that it doesn't affect the Clone Labs or Data Memory any further."
"I understand," said Rolf, "Although, I still don't know why this is happening. I'm being treated like a terrorist. All I've done is fixed problems and saved lives."
"That's why we're helping you, and not turning you in," she replied.
"So, how bad is the situation really?"
"Right now it's just Rolf and party, and a few incidents here and there, mostly Motavians, all of them accused of anti-Motherbrain terrorist attempts," replied the clerk, "But it's got the same pattern as three years ago. We're going to have another Skure incident on our hands, mark my words."
The wizened Clone Laboratory scientist nodded. She remembered well enough, and she understood her friend's fears. Skure had been a space port on Dezolis, before interstellar travel had been banned altogether. It was mostly there to serve a Laconia mine on Dezolis, with a few vague attempts at planetary colonisation. Then there had been a poison gas leak in the mine. It had spread to Skure and the spaceport had been permanently evacuated. Or that was the official story.
The disaster had been real enough, but a Laconia mine's safety systems could evacuate it in three hours flat and the escape shuttle was supposed to be on twenty four hour alert. There were people who didn't leave on that shuttle. There were people who didn't even escape the mine. Data Memory went down before the evacuation had even finished. Data Memory doesn't usually get disconnected from an abandoned building until seven days after the Government is sure nobody is left in there.
Data Memory Centres on Motavia weren't supposed to know this, but some hand-Visiphone data came back. A group of mine workers had been declared irretrievably dead and their data erased – their clone banks as well – but there was a Corporation Visiphone for recording information that the miners might need to share, and it had taken a few days for anyone to remember its existence or that it had gone missing.
Both of them knew what this meant; that they couldn't rely entirely on Motherbrain to run Data Memory and the Clone Banks while they just pressed the switch. That they had to consider the inconceivable: that Motherbrain was making mistakes, or worse, that Motherbrain wasn't making a mistake at all, and this was happening deliberately.
They both knew how dangerous it was to even consider these possibilities, especially when you were responsible for such a vital and closely monitored service. But it was for that reason entirely that they needed to prepare for such eventualities, in case everyone in the solar system needed them to. As the Clone Lab doctor and the Data Memory clerk who worked in the colonies on Dezolis had done, the ones who didn't come back on the shuttle, and who still provided them with enough of a link to the planet to know that it still existed.
Maybe it was the only reason they were still alive; because they were too important for Motherbrain to shut them down. Although, when people were rendered nonexistent and entire planets became inaccessible without explanation, she wondered how long she could even rely on that.
Nei was buried on a hill outside Paseo. Rolf, codenamed Digo, was given the day's paid leave for the funeral. The next day he had finished grieving and, like any professional, was fresh and ready for a new assignment. This was the kind of assignment that the general public wasn't allowed to know about. In fact, it was the kind that the Agency wasn't supposed to on at all, by the strict reading of Motherbrain's code of practice. It was convenient that Rolf now only went by his Codename. In this day and age, his superior told him, it was probably a wise decision for anyone in his line of work. Assignments like these would come up more frequently. They would have greater Agents like himself, who weren't afraid to bend the rules a little.
During the assignment, he was forced to shut down the dams that controlled Motavia's water supply, as they were malfunctioning and were about to cause a catastrophic flood. He was charged with tampering with vital planetary control systems without authorisation, conspiring to sabotage Motherbrain and spreading anti-Motherbrain propaganda. He was branded a dangerous terrorist and taken to Gaira Prison Satellite. Later, he was broken out by pirates, whereupon he returned to Algol and was sneaked aboard a shuttle to Dezolis to challenge Motherbrain. He now understood that he was not only going to have to bend rules, he would have to break them, all of them, and he would have to fight Motherbrain herself. Maybe Motherbrain had realised this a long time before he did, back when he was retrieving the Tricorder that contained evidence of Motherbrain's first malfunction, in the Climatrol laboratory, and when he went to repair this fault. Maybe some friendly face high up in the Agency had been planning for this day as well, and had taken measures to save his life. Maybe it was something that had already been set in motion back then and it was only himself who couldn't see it yet.
To Rolf, the trigger had been Nei. Not her death – anyone could be taken away in an unexpected tragedy, and it made no sense to blame such a thing on Motherbrain. Not even the fact that she could not be cloned. It was the fact that she could have been cloned, but it had been taken away from her for such as stupid reason – because she was herself, and she wanted to stay herself, and because she wanted to be beside the only person she trusted. That hadn't even prompted him to hate Motherbrain, merely to realise that she was as capable of withholding life as she was of granting it, and that she could not be relied upon. But someone in his position couldn't just stop relying on Motherbrain, not without confronting her about it, at which point it always became a full-on war.
Rolf stared out at the stars through the shuttle's observation deck, sword in hand, hoping that Motherbrain understood that he was perfectly prepared to go to war. Slowly, the stars receded from view and the vast blue planet became larger, swallowing up the screen with its swirling ice storms and snow-capped mountains. Dezolis was still putting up a good fight against Motherbrain's attempts to terraform her. As the shuttle hurtled towards the planet, Rolf saw where precisely it was scheduled to dock. He nodded. He hadn't really expected anything else. Motherbrain almost certainly knew about the hidden shuttle. She had probably planted it there.
"Everyone check your gas masks," he announced over the ship's internal comms channel, "I do believe we're getting off at Skure."