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Jeremiah Tolberts fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Black Gate, Interzone, Ideomancer, and Shimmer, as well as in the anthologies Seeds of Change, Polyphony 4, and All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories. Hes also been featured several times on the Escape Pod and Podcastle podcasts. In addition to being a writer, he is a web designer, photographer, and graphic artistand he shows off each of those skills in his Dr. Roundbottom project, located at www.clockpunk.com. For several years, Tolbert also published a well-regarded online magazine of weird fiction called The Fortean Bureau. He lives in Colorado, with his wife and cats.

Many of the stories in this book probably owe some debt to Star Trek, but Tolbert says this one definitely does. I was thinking to myself: Whats the difference between the Federation and the Borg, really? Both assimilate other cultures into themselves. One just does it a little more violently, he said. I started thinking about what a realistically capitalistic federation would look like, and the story was born.

The Humpty Moon vanished two days ago, devoured by the ravenous nanobugs of an Advance Wave assimilation swarm, but had I noticed? Of course notI was so absorbed in my work documenting the intricacies of the Humpties pairing ritual that I was numb to anything that didnt involve flap-on-flap action. I was so busy ensuring their cultures survival by recording them screwing that I missed the actual herald of their doom. Typical.

It wasnt until I finished filing away my recordings in my hardbrain storage and tuned back into the drone of the Grand Debate that I picked up on what had happened. I had bugs recording the proceedings, and it was mostly the usual, dry legal stuff. But when I finally picked apart the thread enough to realize that the subject under discussion was just where the hell their worlds primary orbiting body had gotten off to, I nearly evacuated my humpty renal bowelsone of the more disgusting biological characteristics of the humpty body that Id had put up with over the past several U.P. standard months.

The theory gaining the most support was that a dark, unobservable mass had moved through their system at near lightspeed and dragged away the moon in its wake. The Humpties, being of the general shape and form of an egg with stumpy, nearly useless legs, were keen astronomers and understood physics and astronomy at a level far more advanced than one would expect from a race of their otherwise primitive level of technology. Which is to say, they had gotten past the point of blaming the Gods for everything that happened and moved on to thinly-backed pseudo-scientific evidence. The truththat the moons disappearance heralded the arrival of beings from other worldswas a minority opinion and losing ground fast. Like many sentients, the Humpties had a hard time imagining a universe inhabited by anyone but their rotund selves.

I might have had time to escape, had I noticed the Advance Wave swarm ripping the Humpty moon apart, molecule by molecule, converting it into an unbelievably wide variety of consumer goods that would soon be launched at the surface of the Humpty world at high velocities inside protective, heat-shielded capsules. But my ship was hidden more than one hundred klicks from the nomadic Humpty community I had infiltrated. On Humpty legs, it would take me a U.P. standard week to make it there.

Despite my certainty of failure, I made a go of it. I began shuffling away from the herd, ignoring the frightened look of the Humpties on the fringes. From their perspective, leaving the comfort and conversation of the group was madness. I might as well have dug up a rock from the mossy plain and cracked my skull open with it.

I called in my bugs, and the swarm buzzed helpfully around me, providing tracking data on a variety of objects entering the atmosphere. I dismissed the information with a very Humptian wet snort. No shit, guys.

One of the emergent AI in my swarm snickered. ::YOU>> IN TROUBLE | DEEP SHIT| SCREWED| ROYALLY FUXORED::

Again with stating the obvious. I told them to stay dead quiet. If the U.P. knew they existed, it would be over for all of us. Nukes from orbit, just to be sure.

The first goods capsule hit half a klick away and unfolded into a blossom of blue flames. Judging from the size of the impact, it had to be a habitation module. The big stuff usually came in first. Toasters didnt quite have the same awe factor as four-wheel drive vehicles and two-story starter homes. But the delivery mechanisms were notoriously flaky and the goods didnt always arrive planetside intact. Case in point.

I could make out the smell of fear excretions from the Humpty herd in the distance. The debate had turned into nothing more than chaotic noise. Other rogue culture archivists might have taken the opportunity to collect data on the disruption of a native culture, but I had seen plenty of that in my time, both in my current life and the one before.

The consumer goods that had begun to rain down from the heavens reminded me of Santa Claus, that mythological magical creature that flew through the air bringing toys and gifts to all the children of Terra, delivered simultaneously on a single night. A colleague specializing in the old cultures long since subsumed by the U.P. did a calculation once based on population estimates and given how absolutely fucking huge everything was back then, and figured that old Santas volume of goods to be tens of thousands of cubic meters.

This was like that, only if some primitive government had fired a surface-to-air missile and blown that magical bastard to smithereens. Merry Clausmas, Humpties. Try to get out of the way.

A bright light blinded me momentarily as something large and loud came crashing to the moss before me in a slightly more controlled fashion than the goods capsules. The light resolved into a standard-issue U.P. Welcome WagonTM. The shuttles hull crawled with infotizements for everything from the latest in prophylactic advancements to Genesis Bombs to Babys First Nanoswarm. I instructed my own swarm to turn down all incoming offers, which were already hitting hard and fast.

Wed been out of contact for a couple of years, and the little buggers were hungry for upgrades. But they had to listen to me or each little microscopic piece would selfdetonate: A little something you need to pick up on the black market after you go rogue and leave the U.P. Id also purchased the removal of certain protocols necessary in fostering an illegal A.I. powerful enough to make a survey world vanish existence in the datanet. OK, obviously not completely wiped or I would not be standing on stumpy little legs, flaps agape, staring at a pornographic video playing along the hull near the lower right landing pad. It had been a few years since I had seen U.P. standard bodies going at it. Deep tissue memories stirred, and retasked cells twinged with an effort to engorge. It would have almost been amusing, if I wasnt, as the swarm-tot AI had said, fuxored.

With the welcome shuttle safely on the ground, the hatches blew, releasing glittering dust and confetti. Loud music blared from newly revealed speakers.

A pod bay door irised open and a creature my subconscious had relegated from memory to recurring nightmares strolled gracefully down the plank and onto Humpty soil. Captain Lewyana Morgana paused, moistened her perfect lips, and frowned her wrinkle-impervious brow.

She was flanked by Redshirts of various thuggish models, and trailed by a pair of officers. One of which also featured prominently in said nightmares.

What the? I said, forgetting myself and squelching out the words in an approximation of the U.P. Lingua Franca.

The music died down. Cadet Kav, Morgana said to one of her crew, I thought you said the data indicated no prior contact with the United Planets?

It did, said a gender-neutral voice from within the crowd of perfect, unitard-wearing specimens of U.P. standard, a/k/a homo sapiens. But I also told you, Captain, that the probes picked up signs of U.P. technology shortly after nanoassembly completed.

I took note of the gender neutrality and mentally raised an eyebrow. A neuter, in the U.P. Corps? Half the fun of joining up was getting to fuck and suck the natives into conformity. I tagged this bit of information as weird, possibly useful. Whoever this Kav wasne hadnt been in Lewyanas crew back in my days aboard the Jolly Happy Fun Timene was also the first U.P. citizen I had any interest in speaking with in several years relative. I didnt want to think about how long it had been in real time. Numbers that big made my hardbrain throb.

Looks like we have an expat on our hands, said a sneering voice I recognized as Adam Kilkenya waste of memory storage if ever there was one. He had taken up as Lewyanas boy-toy and second-in-command shortly before I had jumped ship. Which, I would like the record to show, had nothing to do with my defection. Mostly.

My swarm informed me that Lewyanas swarm was politely querying for an ID and not so politely backing up the request with a threat of nano-anhiliation if they did not comply. I toyed with letting the little bastards have at it, but Lewyana would figure me out soon enough. I gave them the go-ahead.

The crew became immediately silent. Adam began to laugh, and Lewyanas eyes widened, then narrowed.

Bertie? It was a pointless question. My swarm had already confirmed my identity with zero chance of error. I pointedly ignored it.

Data began to fly back and forth between the swarms of the crew, but I was able to pirate a few bits. The neuter wanted to know who I was, but nobody was telling nim. Lewyana instructed the semi-sentient Redshirts to take me captive, but to go easy on me and not damage anything, and Adam sent the U.P. backdoor codes necessary to shut my swarm down to only the most basic functions, against which I had no defense.

They could have hurt me in a million ways and not wounded me as badly as that. My emergent AIs were wiped out of existence in a flash. I had coaxed them from the chaos of the Swarm. They were the closest things I had to friends.

Now I had another reason to add to my klicks-long list titled Why I should murder Lieutenant Adam Kilkeny the first chance I get.

Bertram Kilroy, I hereby put you under arrest as a most wanted sentient, for the crimes of datatheft, attempted thought-pattern murder, and nonconformity, Adam said, voice oozing with pleasure.

You forgot treason, I said.

With my swarm incapacitated, I didnt bother to struggle as a couple of the meatpuppets took hold of me and dragged my Humpty body into the welcome shuttle. The actual sentient crew conferred on a secure signal I couldnt infiltrate with a crippled swarm.

Yep. Fuxored. Nothing to do now but wait for my trial. Or possibly find a way to subvert the crews conformity, escape the shuttle, and kill Lieutenant Adam fucking Kilkeny in a very messy fashion along the way. Even the condemned have dreams.

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