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SHOTGUN AL'S LAST PICNIC

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        Give up our guns? No way! Albert McSparrow — Shotgun Al to all his friends — was very clear on that.
        "But, son," said his father, Mac McSparrow. "There's been a major tragedy. The worst thing since we left Earth."
        "Leaving Earth," said Al sullenly. "That was the tragedy."
        Yes — tragedy, big time. And what really burnt Al up was that nobody had asked him. He hadn't even been born at the time. Hadn't even been conceived.
        "You talk a lot about the rights of the unborn child," said Al to his father. "What about the rights of the unconceived?"
        "You're being ridiculous," said his father. "You could — "
        "I could have been a starving kid in Bangladesh," chanted Al. "Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. But if you'd stayed in Seattle I could've been the next Bill Gates. As it is, I'm going to die somewhere out beyond the Oort Cloud."
        "You are not going to die. You are going to return to Earth in late middle age — "
        "Fifty-seven, dad! When I'm fifty-seven!"
        " — in late middle age, and — "
        "And what's this return business? You have to leave to return. And I never got a choice!"
        Kidnapped while unconceived. That was the root of Al's complaint against the world. He was doomed to live out his life — or the part of his life that really counted — in this rock. Inside this hollowed-out asteroid, five miles of adult order with its clocks locked unchangeably to Eastern Standard Time, with an 8 pm curfew for kids, an 11 pm curfew for everyone, and compulsory church on Sunday.
        All those lost opportunities! Not that Al wanted to be the next Bill Gates, no. What he really wanted was to join the Marine Corps. But there was no recruiting sergeant on board the Westward Ho, the dual generation spaceship which the United States had despatched on its snoop-and-scoop mission to Umbra Incognito, the massive body detected by the unmanned probe Spearhead Nine.
        Umbra Incognito was, according to the best available interpretations of the data, an alien starship the size of California. It was in a long, slow orbit way out in the cold nowhere beyond the Oort Cloud, with only a scattering of weak radio beacons betraying its presence to the universe. Maybe it was dead inside, its original crew no more than a few scraps of protoplasm, or maybe it was armed and dangerous.
        On account of the "armed and dangerous" theory, the Westward Ho carried a considerable arsenal, and competitive target shooting was a major on-board activity. In fact, to a large extent, the Deep Rangers — as those on the ship were known — defined themselves through their skill at arms.
        Or had.
        Because, on Monday, Loopy Larry had shot Anna Suebeth in the school cafeteria, and then had shot himself. Which was why today — Thursday — Captain Parity was demanding the surrender of all weapons.
        "You see, son," said Mac McSparrow, "we figure that one tragedy like this is enough."
        "But our guns are our last defense," said Al.
        "Against what?" said Mac. "Against tyranny!" said Al, passionately.
        "That's crazy," said Mac. "We don't have a tyranny problem, we have a gun problem."
        "Yeah," said Al. "Not enough guns, that's our problem. Only Loopy Larry had a gun. There should've been a security guard, you know? One guard with a machinegun, he could've shot him down. Or a kid, say. One kid with a gun. The kids should have guns, but you, you bunch of wimps, you — "
        That was when his father hit him. Knocked backwards, knocked clean off his heels, Al looked upwards with shocked astonishment. His father — dad the scientist — had hit him. For the first time in his life.
        Al's reality had changed. The man looking down at him was no longer familiar. Was no longer the rational scientist, the observing astronomer reveling in his stellar statistics. Instead, he was something earthier, primitive. An incarnation of testosterone, knuckles bleeding where he had cut them on his son's teeth. For the first time in his life, Al understood Oedipus. Oedipus was just faking his grief. He really wanted to kill his father.
        And, soon enough, Al really wanted to kill his.
        First, Mac McSparrow hit his son. Second, he betrayed him. When Al hid his guns in his most secret hiding place, the Smoking Cave near Conversion Central, Mac betrayed him to the captain, and Al was subjected to a Disciplinary Hearing, and sentenced to loss of all data privileges for ten days.
        (All data privileges? Well, not exactly. Al still received the latest of the personalized, tailor-made study packages that were supposed to turn him into a statistician. As a statistician, he would be able to pursue an Earth-related career while shipboard, and have a skill to support himself on his return. Not that he wanted to be a statistician. He wanted to be a marine, and kill people.)
        Those were ten days that changed the world, as far as the seven hundred and ninety-four people on board the Westward Ho were concerned. First, the bad news came from Earth. Six months previously, a second unmanned probe, sent in advance of the Westward Ho, had flown pas the spot where the Umbra Incognito was supposed to be, only to find nothing. That had provoked a fresh analysis of the original data, and a firm conclusion had now been reached: the whole thing was a fake.
        "You see, dad?" said Al. "You were conned. The whole thing was a scam."
        The second piece of bad news came from the captain. Seeing that the Umbra Incognito was not there to be found, there was no point in decelerating. Thanks to the continual new stream of technology which was given physical form by the
nanotechnological forges in Conversion Central, the planned dual generation voyage could be stretched to a three-generation voyage.
        "The payoff for astronomy will be priceless," said Captain Parity, a beaming Santa Claus benevolently delivering to the world the best present ever. "Furthermore, we increase our chance of discovering ... something. Or of being discovered. Of being contacted."
        Then the captain announced his theory. The aliens had removed the Umbra Incognito from orbit as a test of faith. To show their faith in the existence of life from the stars, the Deep Rangers had to press onwards and outwards, "forever westward, striving undefeated". And the aliens would reward them with contact.
        "Do we get a vote on this?" said Al.
        "I believe," said Mac, cautiously, "that the captain may be persuaded to reconsider."
        "Diplomat dad!" said Al. "Hey, dad. I did some research. You know the captain's problem? He's got Alzheimer's, that's what. Alzheimer's, or maybe Parkinson's. Same as Adolf Hitler. Hitler screwed up the battle for Europe, couldn't react to changing conditions — "
        "That's enough!" said his father. "The captain is the captain, and the captain has spoken."
        And the captain had all the guns under lock and key.
        However.
        Gun control is useless once technology reaches a certain point of liberational sophistication. Once Al got his data privileges back, his modeling privileges came with them, and he used the nanotechnological forge to build a handgun, using an illegal program downloaded from Acropolis Alamo, the gun liberty data stronghold.
        Then he shot the captain. Shot him in the back in Promenade Park, where the captain liked to meditate alone.
        Then hid the gun in the hollow oak which had grown to maturity right under the park's central sunlight, and walked off smiling. The gun would be safe — waiting for him whenever he needed it. Only Al knew about the hollow oak.
        A week later, Al was called to a private conference with the new captain, his father, Mac McSparrow. The ship was already decelerating, and a new course had been computed — a course that would get Al home to planet Earth in time for his forty-third birthday.
        "So, dad," said Al. "How's things?"
        "Things are under control," said his father. "But it took some doing."
        "What are you talking about?" said Al.
        "Most people had some kind of alibi," said Mac. "You didn't."
        "That doesn't mean I did it," said Al.
        "It means that most people know you did do it," said Mac. "Even though the charge might not stand up in a court of law. Particularly now that the evidence is missing."
        "Evidence?"
        "When you were five years old," said Mac, "you found the hollow in the oak. It was a big thing with you back then. Your pirate treasure place. Remember? No. I didn't think so. Son — there are no secrets, not in a community this small."
        "So what are you trying to tell me?" said Al, chagrined by how transparent he was to his father.
        "I'm trying to tell you," said Mac, "that you have to keep a low profile. People are willing to give you a second chance. You're just a kid. But. We don't have any facilities for incarcerating people here. If you're seen as a danger, the only answer is going to be to shove you out of an airlock."
        "A lynching," said Al. "That's what you're talking about."
        "Yes," said Mac McSparrow. "But it doesn't have to come to that. All you have to do is keep a low profile and act normal. This will all blow over — things do. Oh. Just one more thing."
        "What?"
        "From now on, you no longer have unsupervised data access."
        "Until when?"
        "From now on."
        "That doesn't answer my question."
        "I think it does, son. I really think it does."
        After this interview, Al went off to Smoking Cave alone, and brooded. So he was going to be punished. Not for a day, or a week, or a month, but forever. No more data liberty.
        But it was not the punishment which really hit home. Rather, what upset him most of all was that nobody was giving him any credit for what he had done. He had struck a blow for liberty by shooting dead a tyrant, but they were all treating him as if he was some kind of monster or something. He was a hero, so when was he going to get his hero time?
        "Hi, Al," said Simone, finding him there. "What are you thinking about?"
        "Just stuff," said Al, manufacturing the best smile he could at short notice.
        "Oh, stuff," said Simone, tilting back her head and combing her fingers through her long blonde hair.
        This was Al's cue to say something romantic, like "stuff about us". But he didn't. He was furious that Simone had found him in what was supposed to be his secret place. Couldn't a guy keep anything secret from anyone? And he realized that, after having Simone as his girlfriend for two years, he was tired of her. Girls complicate everything. It would be simpler just to live alone.
        But that would probably look abnormal. Better not dump Simone right now, or the school counselor would be all over him. Already, Al had been coerced into signing off on a Social Pledge and a Declaration of Allegiance to my Neighbors —
        Act normal, Al.
        "I love you," said Al, reaching for Simone, and acting as normal as he could.
        So far, so good. Then came Sunday. And, with it, church.
        As a practitioner of Unified Congregationalism, Minister Specker preached, as the mood took him, from the Torah, the Bible, the Koran and the Book of Islam. This Sunday, he was in an Old Testament mood. His text was about some dude way back when — Al, initially not paying attention, missed the name — who was a king's son, but who went wrong, raped his sister, killed some guy, then jumped on his horse and rode off into the sunset.
        Yeah, wow. Great way to live! Instead of rock walls all round and a vacuum outside, you had the desert sands. A horizon. You could gallop off into the setting sun, vanish into that welcoming horizon.
        "This crime took place," said Minister Specker, "in a context which does not allow for easy explanations. It cannot be explained away by placing the blame on video games or TV programs which offend against PG sensibilities. It cannot be blamed on our modern experience of a destabilized society bereft of traditions. Rather, it took place in a stable, patriarchal society. It it took place not in one of the broken homes of the underclass but in the household of the very king himself.
        "This story — this fragment of history, for we must remember that it is not a parable, but, rather, really happened — comes, then, with no comforting explanations. It speaks not of an external evil which we can fight against but, rather, demonstrates the capacity for evil which is an intrinsic part of human nature.
        "The comfort we can take from this is that we are not the first to look upon our children with dismay and to ask ourselves, with anguish, where did we go wrong? The comfort we can take from this is that we are not uniquely evil."
        We? How does "we" come into it? It's not "we" he's talking about. It's me. Al McSparrow. Evil made incarnate.
        Now Al was really steamed. Not only were they going to punish him forever, but they were going to preach at him into the bargain.
        Worse still, at the compulsory picnic after church, everyone went out of their way to be polite to him, and to include him in their conversations. No longer was he good old Shotgun Al, the good guy who people liked to kid around with. Instead, it was like he was ... well, like Nosebiter Nine from the creepy Greech and Glich series. Someone monstrous like that.
        So be like that. Two can play at this game. You reject me, I'll reject you. Kill the whole lot of you.
        Good idea, Al. Way to go. But ... how?
        Poison them. That was an idea. But with what? There was no rat poison aboard the Westward Ho, because there were no rats. Given access to Conversion Central, he could possibly fabricate something, but he might get caught. No — figure on using Conversion Central after you poison them. What's in the lab? Something easily available, and in large quantities ...
        Yeah! Got it!
        Just about everyone routinely drunk from the picnic punch bowl, a community-sized resource which, over the years, had taken on increasingly profound sacramental associations. Poison the punch, then.
        He could poison the punch with methanol — with methyl alcohol, the kind of alcohol you find in methylated spirits. Mixed in with oranges and passionfruit and all the rest of it, nobody would notice until it was too late. And methanol is vicious stuff. For a start, it can do you serious harm. Send you blind, for example. On top of that, not only do you get drunk, but you stay drunk. In the human body, methanol cannot be easily metabolized, so stays potent, which is why methylated spirits has always been the drink of choice for winos.
        There was plenty of methanol in the lab, and, because it wasn't insanely dangerous, it didn't attract the same kind of controls as, say, plutonium. So take it. And put it in the punch. And poison them all.
        But what then? There were seven hundred and ninety-four people on the Westward Ho. Well — with Captain Parity dead, and Ms Priscilla's twins just born, seven hundred and ninety-five. And there is no way that one person can kill so many, not even if the many are drunk. Even with the guns in the arsenal he wouldn't really stand a chance. Too easy to miss a couple and get gunned down later.
        While Al was thinking it through, he did his best to appear a good citizen, and focused on the latest of the personalized statistical study packages which were sent to him from Earth on a regular basis. This one was full of data on machine failures. Theoretically, this was supposed to be personally relevant, since the right constellation of mechanical failures would doom the Westward Ho, killing everyone on board.
        Theoretically, expertise in this field would help Al advise the current captain if things started to go badly wrong. But Al found the whole thing as pointless as the hole in the donut.
        He was deep into his self-study when a message popped up on the screen, in letters of red on a field of gold.
        "Want to conquer the world? Y/N."
        Without hesitation, Al chose "Y", and his "yes" was richly rewarded. The secret message was from Acropolis Alamo. Back on Earth, they had studied the crew list, figured out the alibis, and arrived at the conclusion that it was Shotgun Al, liberty's hero, who had gunned down the tyrannical Captain Parity. Hence this reward.
        Hidden in Al's self-study package were control codes capable of converting the nanotechnological machines of Conversion Central into a surgical facility. It would allow Al to have himself converted into something better. Faster, smarter, remorselessly powerful. Complete with internalized weapons system. You started off with two arms and two legs but you finished up with a much more interesting physical structure. Three hearts, for example — like a squid.
        Problem was, you needed organic mass. For quickest results, something approximately human. Well ... Captain Parity's body was still in the morgue. Some little kids had sneaked in to see it — there was zero security. Maybe Simone could be persuaded to help shift the body. And maybe ... yeah!
        For a while, Al played with this idea. But it was just a game, really. It was kind of neat, figuring out how he could make it all work out. However, he had reservations about exchanging his humanity for monstrosity. Would a chocolate fudge sundae still taste the same, for example? Unless he was pushed, he was not going to do it.
        Al got pushed.
        The people in Acropolis Alamo were not the only ones to Sherlock Holmes their way to Al's guilt. Others had done the same. And, as Al's father told him, "Son, I have to warn you — we're coming under pressure from Earth. They're pushing for a trial."
        The next move was by Senator Farbensparden. The senator introduced a bill into the senate which would cut off funding for the Westward Ho "unless standards of common law and order and decency are enforced aboard the ship." The next day, one of his colleagues introduced an identical bill into the Congress. The president indicated that she would not veto any such legislation.
        This was the ship's standard nightmare made flesh. When first launched, the Westward Ho had been technically incapable of completing its mission. The theory had been that new technologies would enable the nanotechnological machines of Conversion Central to progressively retool the ship's facilities, updating its computers, navigation systems, life support systems, medical center and fusion generators.
        The theory had succeeded. The downside was scrutiny. You want our money? Okay, but you had better be worthy of it. What do we mean by "worthy"? Well, we mean lives capable of withstanding public scrutiny. For the first generation: no problem. For the second generation: a nightmare.
        The first generation — Mac McSparrow and his colleagues — were self-selected heroes of science, living a spacefaring dream come true. They were the stuff that Apollo astronauts were made of, clean-living types whose sex lives and dietary choices were worthy of federal funding. Their kids, however, were the usual sloppy mess of dreams, fears and desires which makes our human flesh human.
        It's not easy being a kid, particularly when you know that Senator Farbensparden is watching. Senator Farbensparden won't like it if you don't do your homework. You want to have a second helping of icecream? Who do you think you are — Caligula? Do you think Senator Farbensparden is going to spend federal billions funding a rolling Roman orgy in outer space? Oh, and while we're on the subject of orgies, Senator Farbensparden will have a foaming fit on the floor of the Senate if sweet little Bobette Azora ends up having an abortion.
        Being a kid on the Westward Ho meant never being able to do anything just for the hell of it. Anything you did had to be justifiable — if necessary, in an appropriations committee in Washington. And, apparently, the shooting of Captain Parity was proving too much for the politicos to stomach.
        "I'm your son," said Al. "I know," said Mac. "But we have to play ball. You know how it is."
        Al knew. Oh yes, he knew. Back when the Westward Ho had been launched, there had been no provision for care of the aged. The assumption was that medical advances, coupled with the miracle of nanotechnology, would handle the old age problem. But it hadn't happened. Yet.
        Another ten billion in federal funds — minimum — would be needed to complete Project Nestor, the automated gerontological care system necessary to help the younger generation take care of the old. They couldn't do it unaided. As it was, there was a labor shortage. Even now, basic maintenance tasks — maintaining the electrical wiring in five miles of hollow asteroid, for example — were behind schedule.
        If Washington came through, the blueprints which would let Conversion Central build the Nestorian machineries would be available within five years. Otherwise — what were the options? Build your own gas chamber? Push dad out of the airlock?
        "They have to build Project Nestor," said Al, choosing to surface the unspoken. "They need it for planet Earth. For their own people."
        "There's no ironclad guarantee it's going to work, Al," said his father. "They could spend ten, twenty, thirty billion and end up with a lemon. No politician wants egg all over his face. Our social function, our contribution, is to give our own society a rationale for taking necessary gambles. That's how we benefit our country."
        That was dad all over. Still psychologically marooned on planet Earth. Still thinking he was a citizen of the US of A. Asking himself, every morning, what he could do for his country, and not vice versa. That was the problem with the older generation: that flag, country, Mount Rushmore mindset.  
        "So you're all scared of getting old, so you're going to shoot me," said Al, starting to feel all choked up. "Shove me out of the airlock. Shove me under the guillotine."
        "It won't come to that, Al," said his father.
        "Then what you going to do?" said Al. "Lock me up in the brig for the next fifty years?"
        Whatever response his father made, Al did not hear it, because he was a hopeless mess of tears by now. Even as he cried, he was bitterly embarrassed by his own loss of self-control, by his humiliation.
        Afterwards, alone in the dark, Al thought it through. His big adventure, the shooting of Captain Parity, had all gone wrong. Now he was going to get lynched to help along the career of some bigshot senator back in Washington. It wasn't fair. There wasn't one single lawyer on the ship.
        And maybe he would get lynched even before the trial. He didn't like the way people were looking at him, or the things he thought he hard them saying. It was all too easy to imagine the lynch mob coming for him. Forcing him toward the nightmare jaws of the airlock. The air hissing, cycling. The steel gates opening to the emptiness, to the void. His tumbling body jettisoned to the night. His tongue gaping, his blood boiling, his scream soundless, his flesh exploding.
        Al pulled himself out of bed and went to see Simone. In the secrecy of the night, he explained it all. If he were to clone himself, then a trial would be impossible, because nobody would be able to tell which was the real Al and which was the duplicate.
        "So," said Al, "if you love me, let's do it."
        "At the next picnic?" said Simone.
        "Yeah," said Al.
        "Okay," said Simone. "But, Al. Your idea with the alcohol. It's good, but it's not the way to go. I've got a better way."
        Then Simone, a biochemist in training, explained the ins and outs of ergot poisoning. If you culture the right bugs and use them to contaminate stuff used for brewing and baking, you can produce bread and beer which send people crazy.
        "And you can do this?" said Simone.
        "For you, yes," said Simone, exposing her neck.
        Which Al, on cue, kissed. Delicately.
        The next church service was based on a text from the New Testament. Jesus is asked if the Jews should pay taxes to the occupying Romans. He calls for a coin, then asks: Whose head is on this coin? The answer: Caesar. The Roman boss-man is on all the coins. So Jesus tells his followers: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto the Lord God that which is His."
        Al needed no help in reading the subtext. In context, it meant that you can kowtow to the guys in Washington and yet still stay a saint. You can give Senator Farbensparden anything he wants, even if that happens to be the bleeding body of Albert Clembrow McSparrow. Subsequently, Al felt no remorse at all as the ergot began to take hold.
        In the resulting confusion, Simone and Al had the free run of the ship. Simone helped Al shift the body of Captain Parity from the morgue to the organic processing unit at Conversion Central. Al slid a shiny data disk into the programming unit. This contained the stuff from Acropolis Alamo. It demanded the addition of steel, titanium, plastics and ceramics. And several quarts of mercury, intended for the manufacture of munitions were the Umbra Incognito — the hypothetical alien spaceship — to prove hostile. And other stuff. All in all, it took three hours to feed the raw materials into the unit.
        "But we're not done," said Simone, frowning as she studied the data display. "We got a problem. Something weird with the organic mass. We're still sixty pounds short."
        "No problem," said Al. "Let's open the unit and put in some water."
        "Water?" said Simone. "The human body is ninety-five per cent water," said Al, explaining patiently.
        So Simone opened the organic processing unit, and Al pushed her in. She was still screaming when he pushed the red ""PROCESS" button. Her body foamed and collapsed. Her blonde hair floated freely for a moment, then was sucked under as the entire mass began to rotate. What had once been Simone was now a big load of wet red laundry spinning round and round. Looking at it, Al felt quite sick.
        "Art," he muttered. "She was like, my experiment, my, uh, uh, conventional boundaries. Testing. Of."
        For a moment, he felt as if his nimble intellect was on the verge of formulating something witty about the artistic imperative. Then he only felt sick. And then was sick — bringing up the last remnants of his last sacramental picnic, and then bringing up green bile after that.
        After being sick, Al fell asleep. He had sodden, unsatisfactory dreams about cows. He had only seen cows in recorded images — never in real life. In his dreams, the cows smelt of shoe polish. Naturally enough, since their hides were made of leather.
        Using his toothbrush, Al opened up an unprotesting cow. Inside, it was filled with polystyrene beads. The beads were pink. They were gay, obviously, like Rub-a-dub Littlum, who had disappeared two years previously, his presumed death one of the ship's unresolved mysteries, like the Seventh Year Arson and the historic Intercom Harassment Incident.
        A clear chime woke Al.
        "We are ready for the next step," said the organic processing unit, in obedience to whatever commands had been programmed into it thanks to the shiny data disk which held Al's gift from Acropolis Alamo. "Insert yourself into the organic processing unit."
        The processing unit was open, waiting for him. Inside was a thick yellow-green cream, wet and gloopy yet somehow muscular, stirring with a life all of its own. A crocodile cream, its gelatinous strength waiting for him.
        Maybe this was all a trick. Maybe the Acropolis guys were out to kill him. Well, if so, too bad. Taking advantage of Simone was an irrevocable step.
        Gingerly, Al began to lower himself into the organic processing unit. And the custard grabbed him, sucked him under with one gelatinous slurp. Taken by surprise, he screamed. A thick and swollen tentacle plunged into his scream and went vomiting down his throat. His stomach burst into red and green blackness, and he thrashed, convulsing, and exploded into the absolute whiteness of the most enormous pain imaginable.
        Then he knew nothing.
        Was nothing.
        After a long and indefinable siege of silence, an interregnum in which Al was conscious only of the taste of chestnuts, and of nothing else, a male voice with an East Coast accent — Boston, maybe — spoke to the tabula rasa of his mind.
        "You are Albert Clembrow McSparrow. Welcome to the Aztec Zenith Weapon Program. Congratulations. You have become a function of the Aztec Zenith Weapon program."
        Something wrong with the grammar there. I am not a function of my weapon. Rather, vice versa. The dog wags the tail, not the tail the dog. But, never mind. Never mind the grammar.
        With a dreamy certainty, Al knew that it had happened. His body had been rebuilt. But how? Feeling more curiosity than anything else, he reached for his face. Or tried to. But the act of trying to move his hand triggered a flowering of mathematical complexities, of abstract sensations accompanied, strangely, by the smell of stale beer.
        "We will shortly begin the tutoring process," said Boston. "This will take something in the order of five hours. Your attention, please. Your new body, observed externally."
        Then Al was observing his new body from a disembodied exterior perspective. His new body was a kind of propulsive concertina with retractable tentacles, a muscular squeezebox capable of both long-term endurance and the short-term acceleration of a catapult. Internally, his body was complex, a cyborg device combining flesh and metal in sophisticated harmony.
        "And weapons?" said Al.
        Yes, there were weapons. Oh yes. The pride and glory of the weapons system was a flechette device with a reservoir of five thousand, each of which deconstructed itself a microsecond after contact in an explosive release of neurotoxins.
        "Adequate," said Al, striving to be nonchalant, striving to be cool (history, after all, was watching).
        He got shown a bunch of other stuff, but soon started to lose track. He did note, however, that his optic receptors were safely housed in armor, the prisms of a periscope bringing to the light to his eyes. Quick-reaction filters would protect him from any attempt to blind him with lasers. So much detail! So many wonderful, thoughtful refinements!
        Then he was in that flesh — at the moment, just in a simulation of the flesh, though the true body would be his to command shortly — and it was on the move. And, oh! It moved beautifully.
        The liquid mercury was the key. Internally, it could be squirted from one part of Al's concertina body to another, shifting his center of gravity with a speed beyond the imagination of ballet. He had become the most fantastically mobile creature imaginable, capable of sliding, accelerating and decelerating. And, on the move or stable, it could fire its internally located weapons. You want my guns? You'll have to do an autopsy to get my guns.
        By the end of the training program, Al was riding high. He was the Zenith Weapon, and to be the Zenith Weapon was a kind of sensuous intoxication. He felt great. With the help of the supplementary function control chips which had been seamlessly integrated with his own organic brain, Al could now use his body as if born to it.
        Any glitches? Yes. There were some disconcerting synesthesias. Curves tasted milky and right angles were bitter. At unpredictable intervals, he endured the smell of stale beer. And the color green had the texture of warm butter. Worse, occasionally his vision would blur for one wobbling moment then steady. Okay, it was not perfect. But then, what is? At moments, he experienced disconcerting synesthesias.
        "Let's go," said Al. "Let's do it."
        The first place he went was the hospital. Destroy the repair facilities — that's the best way to demoralize them. And the first person he met was Minister Specker, standing outside the hospital, in the grip of ergotism, doing a dervish dance and chanting as he did so. Specker had the privilege of being the first person to see what Al had become.
        "Good God!" said Specker, shocked into an act of coherent cognition.
        Specker took two steps backwards and plastered himself against the nearest wall. Al wanted to luxuriate in the preacher's terror, to extend the moment. But his guns spoke. Specker was down and kicking, and the guns fired again in reflex, the sweet recoil pumping bright energies through Al's vibrant body.
        The killing had happened without conscious impulse. Al's weapons were reflexes. If he saw, he killed. Biology is destiny.
        "Okay, then," said Al. "It's not my fault then, is it?"
        And, with that comforting thought in mind, he spent the rest of the day killing. Then, when he was too weary to take any more pleasure in it, he went home. Where he found his father.
        "Al," said Mac McSparrow. "Is that you?"
        "Sure is, dad," said Al. "How about stepping off the rug? It's Persian — right? And you know how Mom always made a big thing of it."
        Facing his son, Mac McSparrow had time for one cool thought: the good thing about getting older is that you have an iron-clad guarantee that you won't die young.
        Then Al unleashed himself, projecting his power against his father, killing him right there on the Persian rug.
        A gratified Oedipus, Al slept deeply, sweetly, dreaming of drunken Ferris wheels playing three-dimensional chess inside a wet and drowning microwave oven.
        The next day, when Al took stock, he found himself pretty much the undisputed master of the Westward Ho. A few demoralized survivors — most of them little kids — had escaped into Walden Park, the two square miles of forest which was meant to compensate the unconceived for having the whole planet stolen out from underneath them.
        The ship was easy enough to divide into self-contained segments, if you knew how. Al found some welding gear and welded a bunch of doors shut. One set of tentacles subdivided into finger-sized mini-tentacles when delicate handling was required. And, thanks to his internal filters, Al had no need for a welding helmet to protect his eyes.
        Job done, he was safe.
        Down on that mudball known as Earth, the gunlord's power comes to an end all too quickly. Basic problem? You can't kill everyone. The SWAT teams close in. Bang, bang — it's over. Suicide is a necessary part of the deal.
        But, here on the Westward Ho, things were different. Al had killed everyone who counted, and would hunt down the survivors when he had time. Meantime, he had a lifetime's supply of pizza in cryogenic storage, and all the computer time he could use, with nobody to censor his data privileges.
        "Al ... let us talk to the survivors."
        That was the first real plea from planet Earth, once they had got past the rage and anger threat. That was when Al realized that those still living were not just a nuisance. Rather, they were hostages. (And, maybe, a labor resource. The electrical wiring still needed to be maintained and so forth ...)
        "Give me what I want," said Al, "then we'll talk."
        What he wanted was all the things he had been denied, things that he had read about but had never been permitted to sample, such as porn videos, hard-core games with exploding bodies, and the recipe for those new Sign of King candy bars which were hitting home runs in the sales charts all through North America.
        "Oh, yeah," said Al. "And I want a lawyer."
        The law was going to be his hobby. He would have plenty of time to study legal briefs before he got back to Earth at age fifty-seven.
        "Now," said Al, "next thing. I'm giving this ship a new name. The Westward Ho is now the Constitutional Rights."
        The last generation had argued out the issue of the unborn. It was going to be Al's destiny to argue the case for the unconceived. He probably wouldn't be forgiven, and he certainly wouldn't be elected President, but he would make one point real clear before he was through: I had my reasons.
        In the days that followed, Al did have a few bad moments, and more than a few bad dreams. But he got through the bad patch with the help of his favorite trash music tracks and a self-help book written by a serial assassin from Southern California. And, by and by, he started to feel pretty good about it all.
        "The thing is," said Al, "if it wasn't me, it would have been someone else."
        True enough. The promise of technology is unlimited wealth. The same technology which can provide a stereo for everyone can provide a gun for everyone. And, with nanotechnological forges effectively making manufacturing a branch of the software industry, gun control becomes useless. Weapons technology is as close as your nearest software resource. You can send anything from a machinegun to a battle tank down a telephone line.
        Okay, there's still the problem of getting the raw materials. Including — if that's what your recipe requires — the organic mass. But, as Al had discovered, where there's a will there's a way. And, what one had done, others could copy. (And, therefore, necessarily would.)
        I am the future. I am liberty reveling in its own power. I am the promise and the fulfillment. I am the end of the world as you know it. And I am inevitable.
        Knowing that was the best part. The more Al thought about it, the less he thought he was going to need that lawyer. By the time Al got to planet Earth, he would not be a minority of one. Oh no, far from it. He would be a god amongst gods: gods fashioned in the old, chaotic mold, teaching their worshippers how to get down on their knees, and to really, really pray.


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