Ada powered on her augments and authenticated herself in the Chain. A month had passed since she had replied to Constance St. James. A full month, during which the Unity could have notified her there had been a mistake and that her services—whatever those might have been—were no longer needed. During which they could have cut off her supply of unlimited energy, revoking her newfound freedom and thrusting her back into impoverishment. She had been expecting the day to come ever since her response had been confirmed in the Chain’s ledgers.

But it hadn’t.

After so long without energy austerity burdening her, could Ada ever go back?

She hoped she would never have to, but that didn’t mean the day wasn’t still approaching—decision times grew exponentially as the size of the organization making them increased. That’s why the Chain was so stagnant: it was a self-composing network of nearly every human being on Earth, the biggest organization imaginable. Faced with an existential threat, indecision would be a death sentence. In this case, however, it may have been working to her advantage. So, Ada used her benefits as often as she could while she still had the chance.

Her first priority was making progress on her research. If time did run out and her Unity membership was revoked, Ada would forever regret not using this opportunity to improve her family’s financial situation. She was fully funding Ezran’s energy budget as well as Lakaya’s, so that her son’s significant medical expenses were covered. Both of them had been pestering her endlessly about where she was getting the crypt—Ezran in person and Lakaya through a dozen unopened ChainMail messages. But Ada was still bound by the non-disclosure agreement, and she didn’t want to lie, so she solved the problem by doing what humans did best: avoiding it.

She opened a portal to the Ledger of Insight. Normally, she would have sat in her favorite chair in her home environment and looked at text transcripts of the recordings stored in the Ledger. That was the best option for preserving a limited energy budget. Instead, Ada stepped through the portal into a fully rendered environment, energy savings be damned.

After a brief loading blackout, Ada appeared within a cathedral of marble, gold, and platinum she was certain broke the laws of both physics and—were it constructed in the real world—economics. She stood in the center of a football-field-sized atrium surrounded by six tiers of floors, each housing massive bookshelves containing all the knowledge accepted into the Ledger of Insight. Instead of colonnades to support the domed, stained-glass roof, sixteen waterfalls flowed from a misty white cloud that hovered near the ceiling and caught the kaleidoscopic light streaming in from the heavens. The moving water created a cool breeze and filled the building with a white noise that obscured conversations and allowed scholars to read in peace.

The place had almost felt pleasant. That is, until all the avatars of other people visiting the Ledger loaded in. Soon, the Ledger was filled with people reading at tables, holding conversations both lively and hushed, teleporting to and from different bookshelves, and generally just crowding Ada’s personal bubble. She always hated when people suddenly materialized around her. They may have been the stuff of bits, not atoms, but they still made her feel like she was back in the hospital room stuffed with refugees.

Still, the discomfort would have been worse if more people actually cared about knowledge. While most salved the vicissitudes of existence with their augments, visiting the Ledger of Insight wasn’t exactly a common pastime. The accepted publications were scientific—or, to Ada’s dismay, pseudoscientific—articles. Attempts at solving problems in the real world. No matter where you looked, you were sure to find something to remind you how broken civilization was.

However, as vast as this database was, it stored no real way to fix what was broken on Earth. No way to clean up the debris from the satellites destroyed at the beginning of the Energy War, nor any solution for the salts and aerosols that had changed the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. No proposals for breaking free from energy austerity. No cure for human nature. Nothing that could save humanity. Merely ancient wisdom sprinkled amongst toy problems solved by people diving deeper into some rabbit hole they dug themselves. Nothing but distractions that made the slow decline easier to bear.

Ada shook her head, them stomped toward the AI clerk who would guide her to what she was searching for. She’d seen the intriguing title of an article at the end of yesterday’s session but had already been in the Ledger for thirteen hours straight. She recalled the title now and told the clerk, “‘Adjusting the standard Ryleigh swarm intelligence algorithm for global solution likelihood optimization’ by K.S. Rambure et al.” She eyed her battery indicator, which was still at nearly a full charge, then shrugged. “Interactive mode, please.”

“Confirmed,” the AI responded. “Please step through the portal.”

The promised portal appeared next to Ada, rendering within it a real-time view of some space outside the Ledger’s atrium. Automated systems such as the clerk weren’t permitted to teleport anyone without consent. Ada had to initiate the process herself. She did so and found herself in the rendered room.

The publication’s interactive space was customizable by the author of the work. Rambure had chosen to present his article in a room that looked like a planetarium without any seats. A high, dark ceiling contained a view of the Milky Way with distant stars subtly moving, as though affected by the rotation of the Earth.

The author began speaking and startled Ada. “What you see overhead are not stars but particles. Individual objects coordinated by the modified algorithm proposed by me and my co-authors.”

Ada turned to face him as he spoke—his avatar was wearing a smart button-up shirt with a dumb pair of shoes that didn’t match at all—then she glanced up one more. All the stars began circling the center of the room, as though someone had taken a coffee stirrer to the galaxy. The stream of particles clumped closer and closer together until they appeared to be one single line of light, then trailed down from the ceiling and surrounded Ada.

“Imagine that each of these particles is a drone governed by a swarm intelligence algorithm,” Rambure said. She didn’t have to imagine it, though. The particles in the simulation transformed into microdrones that buzzed loudly around Ada and made it hard to hear the author.

“Before deploying the swarm, a task is chosen, and the algorithm simulates the swarm completing it. Each drone has certain adjustable parameters in this virtual simulation, which can be optimized together as the algorithm simulates the swarm completing the task thousands of times per second with minor variations of the parameters.”

Ada was growing impatient, but she let the presentation continue. Maybe he’d get to the interesting part soon.

“During each iteration of the simulation, a solver uses the drones as inputs to an equation that computes some value—typically the total energy usage of the system. It then compares this iteration’s result to the last run. If the value was better than the last iteration, the new value is saved, and the process is repeated. If not, the parameters are reset to the prior values and adjusted in some different way.”

Ada couldn’t take this dumbing down any longer. “Why are you simplifying so much? Do you really think anyone reading your articles in the Ledger these days needs a primer on the basics?”

Rambure’s avatar didn’t respond. It was just a recording of the author, after all. It remained motionless while the Ledger AI controlling it waited for Ada to finish her query.

She groaned. “Just skip to the conclusion.”

The simulation jerked around her. The dark galaxy overhead was replaced by a scene of gold and sky-blue with Biblical overtones. Evidently, the author had some elaborate presentation planned for his work. She rolled her eyes. Delusions of grandeur, that’s all it was.

The author continued, though with far more fervor in his voice than Ada deemed necessary. “As we’ve shown, by decreasing the Ryleigh coefficient of determination from 0.46 to 0.39, a global optimum can be achieved with only a minor impact on the energy usage—”

“Stop!” Ada shouted.

The author froze mid-sentence, his avatar holding one finger up in the air and maintaining an embarrassingly stupid look in his face. Good. A capture of this moment should have been the image on his professional bio, that way no one would confuse this guy with someone with any good ideas.

“How did you get this sad garbage published in the Ledger of Insight?”

At least the angelic scene overhead made sense now. Rambure and his clueless compatriots thought they had achieved the impossible. By adjusting one coefficient… It almost made Ada laugh, but she was too angry that this mockery of scientific thought had been accepted into the Ledger. It threw into question every other article she’d read, not to mention the validity of the database as a whole.

The author snapped into a neutral pose but had no response to her rhetorical question. Instead, he asked, “Would you like to leave a review?”
It would be a waste of time, but Ada had to vent. “Yes,” she said, and almost felt bad when the author smiled his thanks.


The AI waited while she gathered her thoughts. It didn’t take long.

“This article is an utter waste of time. That you would deign to publish it says all that needs to be said about your so-called contributions to the research community. If you attended university, immediately get a refund because apparently, they never taught you that a global optimum is impossible to achieve with an evolutionary algorithm. But my guess is that you never received any education, self-taught or otherwise. An entirely new fork of the Ledger of Insight simply to remove this one article wouldn’t be too harsh, despite the vast undertaking it would be. If the opportunity were used to remove all of your published work, the costs would be justified. One star.”

The sentiment analysis algorithm of the ledger’s AI had the decency to make the author’s avatar frown. “Thank you for your feedback. I’m sorry you didn’t find my research to your liking. If you’d like to view my other works, a portal to my bibliography—”

“Exit,” Ada interrupted, though for a moment she was tempted to go leave scathing reviews of the rest of his research. Instead, she was back in the atrium, standing before the clerk.

“Can we please expunge that article from the database?” she asked.

“My apologies, Ms. Bryce,” the AI said. “Removal of transactions from the Ledger of Insight is impossible.”

She knew that, of course. But it didn’t hurt to ask. Maybe a bug in the AI’s programming would accommodate her request and delete the whole database. It might even have been justified…

The problem was nothing ever got lost in the Chain. That was often touted as one of its benefits. Times like this, however, illustrated how it was also one of its greatest drawbacks. Ada knew all too well the ramifications of perfect memory. No information was lost. Unfortunately, that included the times when you did something really stupid you’d rather forget. Or worse, when a massive conflict breaks out in your childhood and ladens you with all sorts of tragic memories. She supposed most other childhood victims could just repress those, not worrying about them until they mysteriously manifested in some way later in life. But no, Ada was stuck with hers. Whatever harmful behaviors her trauma led to, Ada couldn’t fathom. That was the real tragedy. No one ever knew how broken they were until it was too late.

When had they crossed that point of no return with Earth? Was it the Energy War? The first Industrial Revolution? Maybe it was so far in the past, no one would ever pinpoint it. Probably, it was when humans became the dominant species on the planet. Just like the algorithm described in Rambure’s work, the initial conditions could doom the entire process to an evolutionary dead-end.

It was no wonder everyone spent most of their time consumed by their augments. The real world was too depressing, and since humans were the root of the problem, there was no possible solution. In the Chain, at least there was still some joy to be found. Ada turned on her privacy bubble, and the Ledger went gray around her. All of the avatars faded out of existence, leaving her alone and giving her room to breathe. She gestured to open the directory and began flipping through recommended Links—different locations in the Chain she could visit. The recommendation engine, being part of her implanted augments, analyzed her mood and her desires to provide a selection of experiences it thought she might be interested in.

She wasn’t making its job easy.

Ada didn’t know what she wanted, not exactly. She knew she had to perfect her research, so should she stay in the Ledger to continue working? The Links in the directory reflected that—most were additional scholarly works, some of which even sounded promising. She made a mental note of those, then filtered the Ledger out of the recommendations. Right now, she just wanted to be elsewhere, away from any reminder of the offline world.

It was an oft-cited maxim that any experience that could exist did exist in the Chain. Want to inhabit the mind of the extinct Siberian tiger for its entire life cycle? Here are three dozen options. How about a journey to a more hopeful future where you can pilot a star-hopping spaceship with your intrepid crew? Just pick a universe. The Links presented to her ran the full gamut, from awe-inducing religious experiences to some seriously depraved recordings whose preview portals made Ada’s gorge rise. It was up to you to set the bounds of your comfort zone—and when to travel outside of it.

When she noticed she’d been evaluating options for ten minutes, Ada realized she didn’t have the stomach to remain in the Chain any longer tonight. However, she had even less of an appetite to leave. Only desolation awaited her outside, a world devoid of color. Luckily, she didn’t need the Chain to provide her with any distractions. She could do that all on her own.

With a swipe of her hand, Ada opened a portal back to her home environment and stepped through. She disconnected from the mesh network and ran a quick scan to verify she wasn’t linked to anyone, then unlocked an unadorned wooden door that led to her augments’ memory vault.

As she entered the vault, all of the overlays vanished—no more battery indicator, no more bio status, no more connectivity icons. Even when in the real world, these displays normally accompanied her vision. But this space was designed to be more private, and the reminder that you had a device implanted among your neurons—potentially monitoring everything you did—was unnerving when you were accessing your deepest secrets. True, realistically they were still there, but the memory vault code was all open source, and there had yet to be a single recorded case of memory theft.

Over the past five years, there had been two Chain-wide votes to modify the regulations surrounding memory vaults in the Ledger of Edicts. Both had badly failed. As though everyone knew all hell would break loose if something so precious could be tampered with. Ada normally ignored alerts that she was requested for a vote, dismissing them without giving them a second look, let alone stepping through their portals into the Forum. But news of both of those votes had been broadcast all over the Chain, so those were two of the few she had actually participated in. Humanity had already ruined physical reality; the least they could do was preserve virtual reality.

Thankfully, most people agreed. Ada’s vault reminded her that despite the downsides, her perfect memory wasn’t only a curse. She had carefully curated it to contain only positive scenes from her past. Each was displayed as if it were a two-meters-tall painting in a museum, all meticulously organized by category and date. She strolled through the gallery.

On her left were the most fun times she’d had in the Chain, including when she’d first gotten her augments and binged the history Links, embodying countless historical figures for recreations of their entire lives. To her right were images from her short-lived marriage, more bittersweet than anything else in here. But it was important for her to hold on to those. She had so little contact with her ex-wife and her son, Jean, these days that she needed some keepsake to remind her of the good years. However, she wasn’t quite ready to relive those memories yet; she was still harboring some bitterness over the divorce and the decisions that led to it. So, she continued moving forward through the gallery, toward the frames that contained visions further back in her past. Ada needed some comfort right now, and this was where it could be found.

Most people didn’t have the luxury of childhood memories in their vault. Augments were needed to capture the memories, and they were illegal for anyone under the age of sixteen. There were certain Links that promised to restore old memories for new recording, but the results always had a dreamlike quality to them. Ada’s ex-wife had shown her some of those once, when she and Ada had temporarily linked their vaults together. It was intimate, allowing someone you loved to inhabit your body and witness a close-kept and cherished experience. But when Ada had stepped into Lakaya’s shoes, she was disappointed by the lack of clarity with which her early memories were rendered. Time had fragmented them into incoherence. When Ada and Lakaya had returned to the gallery, her ex-wife was radiant. She pressed Ada for her reaction, and though Ada was disturbed by what she’d seen, she’d put on a fake smile and told Lakaya what she’d wanted to hear. It hadn’t fooled her though; Lakaya had always been able to see right through her.

Ada’s own childhood memories were rendered in perfect resolution, as if she’d had the augments all along. It had taken some effort on her part—many hours spent in meditation Links trying to summon the memory she was targeting. After capturing them, some still had the bells and droning chimes in the background, as if her childhood had had a calming soundtrack. In reality, the soundtrack to her childhood was the dissonance of guns and bombs. There was a reason this vault was so sacred to Ada. If she relived the good memories enough, might the bad ones start to fade away?

So far, that hadn’t proved to be the case. The bad memories were more salient than she’d once hoped. That didn’t stop her from trying—any chance to relieve her of her suffering, she would take.

After deliberating for a few seconds, Ada decided what moment she wanted to re-experience. She stepped through the painting into a comforting, distant past.

“Ready?” Uncle Ezran asked.

Ada firmed her grip on the handle of the wooden chest and nodded.

“All right, little one. Now, be careful.”

“I won’t drop it, Uncle Ezran,” she promised. He’d been worrying over this chest for the whole move, especially as they rode up the bumpy mountainside. Ada hadn’t gotten a chance to look inside, but whatever was in there was important to Uncle Ezran.

He looked at her through his thick spectacles, then smiled at her. “I know. Remember what I said?”

“Lift with your knees, not your back.”

“And if you are going to drop it, say so.” He squatted down and Ada followed suit. “One, two, three, lift!”

Ada surged to her feet with Uncle Ezran. They carried the chest slowly, one step at a time, Ada’s thighs, back, and arms aching all the way. Though it wasn’t a far walk from the back of the old moving vehicle to the threshold of their new home, it was a heavy load for an old man and a little girl. But if they couldn’t do it themselves, it wouldn’t have gotten done. Ada remembered what her uncle had said all those years ago.

“All we have now is us. You, and me, and a world in which we must make our own happiness.”

Making your own happiness—something about that had always stuck with Ada. Where else would it come from in this broken world?

A warmth bloomed in Ada’s chest at the thought that Ezran entrusted her to help build their new home together. It sure beat sitting around and watching the world get worse all around you. Uncle Ezran understood better than anyone. Ada needed as many distractions as she could get, lest she be swept back into the past by her bad memories.

However, just as they passed through the front door, Ada realized she couldn’t carry the chest for a second longer. “I can’t—” was all she managed before it slipped from her fingers and dropped to the floorboards with a reverberating thump.

Uncle Ezran lowered his side of the precious cargo to the ground, then rushed around to Ada.

“I’m sorry,” she whimpered when she saw the tears in her uncle’s eyes and the briefest flicker of anger.

“It is all right.” He sighed, and patted her arms, looking down at her feet. “You still have all your toes, yes?” He forced a smile, but Ada knew he didn’t really mean it. She looked away, trying to push the guilt down as it built up within her.

“Hello?” came a voice from the front door, and Ada spun around in surprise. A plump, older woman was standing in the doorway holding a plate of cookies. Their intoxicating, buttery smell confirmed they were freshly baked. Ada’s mouth began to water. “Everyone feeling well? We heard a loud bang from outside.”

A boy with russet hair who looked to be about Ada’s age poked his head out from behind the woman, flashed a bright smile, and waved. “I brought a gift too!” he shouted, then shoved his way past the older woman. He tossed something toward Ada. She reached out to catch it, but the thing started buzzing and hovered clumsily around in mid-air, beyond her grasp. The boy held a gloved palm up and looked to be controlling the little drone with the motions of his fingers. His tongue protruded from pursed lips as he concentrated on not letting it crash into the walls—unsuccessfully. It clattered to the floor, and Ada giggled.

“Guillermo, please,” the woman scolded. “We haven’t even introduced ourselves to our new neighbors and already you are causing havoc.” Was this the boy’s mother? The two looked nothing alike. The woman’s hair was long, black, and wavy, and her face was much rounder than Guillermo’s.

Uncle Ezran rapped on the walls with his knuckles, back to his jolly self. “Not to worry. This house has plenty of wear and tear. It will be a good project for Ada and me, fixing it up.” Ada loved how quick he was to forgive; even when the world had taken everything from him, he still had it in him to act with grace. “Please, come in. Keeping you out in the cold for so long, I believe I must apologize to you, Mrs…?”

“Just ‘miss’,” she said. “Ms. Francis Erlein, and this is my adopted son, Guillermo.” A flirtatious smile flicked across her face.

“Adopted?” Uncle Ezran sighed wistfully and glanced at Ada. She didn’t know what Ezran was thinking, but Ada imagined this boy must have lost his parents in the war too. “And how old are you, Guillermo? No older than twelve, I imagine.”

“I’m thirteen!” Guillermo said proudly.

“Thirteen, of course. Pardon me. Only a year older than Ada.” Uncle Ezran gave the Erleins a shallow bow. “I am called Ezran Fischer, and this is my adopted daughter. Say hello, Ada. Do not shy away.”

Ada raised her hand to wave, then the whole world flickered and blinked out.

After a moment of being dazed, Ada realized she was waving at the wall. She rubbed her eyes to clear her mind. What had just happened? She’d never before been ejected from a memory partway through. That was supposed to be dangerous, and she understood why. Part of her still felt like she was in the body of her twelve-year-old self. But she was in her home environment. A flush of heat ran through her body, and she hugged herself. Who had pulled her out of her vault?

A priority alert was flashing in the bottom-right of her vision. She reviewed it and drew in a breath. Lakaya had sent her a message in ChainMail tagged as a family medical emergency.

Panic snapped Ada fully back to the present as she scrambled to open the message and activate the attached portal. An emergency involving Jean would drag her out of any scenario—in the Chain, in her vault, the dangers did not matter. Her son was the first priority. She didn’t need an eidetic memory to remember that.
Ada stepped through the portal into her ex-wife’s home environment. She spun around, searching for Lakaya, but she wasn’t in this room. Damn her for not directing the portal to bring Ada directly to her. Was she going to make Ada search? In an emergency? She gritted her teeth, then hurried from the entryway into a room that resembled an old studio apartment.

Much was the same as she remembered from when she was last here two years ago, on the day they had dissolved their marriage. It had been just the two of them, and few words had been spoken—typical for their last few months as partners. Ada had spent most of the time taking in the scene; she’d always loved Lakaya’s home environment. It contained many good memories, and she didn’t expect to be back any time soon.

A balcony through a set of glass double doors still overlooked a sprawling vineyard, deep green receding into the hilly distance where the sky hinted at the coming sunrise. In a corner of the room was a sort of shrine that Lakaya kept to remember her own past. The tricolor flag of the old French nation was draped over the table. Atop it were several slender statues of women carved from ebon wood, wearing bright fabrics with printed floral patterns, wrapped headscarves, beaded jewelry, or in some cases, no clothing at all. There was a floating model of the moon, representing Lakaya’s ancestor who’d been on the team that first sent humankind to the lunar surface, and whose memoirs had inspired Lakaya to become a physicist.

None of that had been changed since their divorce. But one thing was missing from the display—the picture of Jean taken just days after Lakaya gave birth to him. Looking around, it didn’t take Ada long to locate the missing photo. It was across the room in her ex-wife’s hands.

“What happened?” Ada demanded. “Is Jean well?”

“Do you truly care?” Lakaya strode toward her.

Ada braced, but then her ex-wife edged past her to place her son’s photo back in its proper place. She even smelled just how Ada remembered—a light, flowery aroma with a hint of almonds. When Lakaya turned back, the picture frame was offset by a few centimeters from where it should be. Ada kept her mouth shut; pointing out little discrepancies between her memory and reality had gotten her in enough trouble, and that was when their relationship was on good terms.

“Of course I do,” Ada said.

Her ex-wife stared at her intensely. Behind those deep brown eyes, Ada knew she must be holding back many things she wanted to say. How Ada had grown so cynical after Jean’s birth. How she’d only visited them twice in the two years since their divorce, and that financial support isn’t the same as being a mother. All the usual arguments when Lakaya let Ada know, “we need to talk.” But Lakaya let them go.

Tearing up, she said, “He’s…in the hospital.”

A fist of terror grabbed Ada’s spine and immobilized her. In her mind she was transported back to that day in the last year of the war, to the moments prior to the last time she’d seen her parents. She wished they hadn’t left her, but even more she wished she hadn’t followed them.

Her face must have given away what was happening, and Lakaya must have known that’d be her reaction. Despite their shared resentment, Lakaya comforted Ada with a soft hand on her cheek and a shushing sound to draw her calmly back to the present. It reminded Ada of why she’d fallen in love with this woman. Whenever Ada fell into a fit of panic, Lakaya understood. Even when Ada felt she was embarrassing her in front of friends or family, Lakaya never held it against her. She knew what Ada had been through, and that her trauma didn’t make her any less valuable.

Lakaya drew her hand back once Ada collected herself.

“I’m sorry,” Ada whispered. “This isn’t about me. What’s wrong with Jean?”

With closed eyes, Lakaya shook her head. “He had a lung infection. We thought he fought it off, but it returned worse than before.” She hesitated, choking back a sob. “He needs a lung transplant. We’ve found a donor. It’s scheduled for a week from now.”

Ada’s throat tightened. When Jean had been diagnosed as an infant with cystic fibrosis, the doctors had told them this was a possibility. But they thought it would be a decade or more away. Jean was only four years old. “So soon?”

“The surgeon said it was the aerosols the old governments seeded the clouds with. It’s like an allergic reaction or something. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”

Something like this happening was why Ada had pushed for genetic screening when they decided to have a child, to ensure the baby was strong and prepared for an uncaring, difficult world. But Lakaya had carried the child, and she wanted to do it naturally. The resentment Ada felt toward Lakaya for inducing such avoidable suffering never really left her. But lately she’d started blaming herself more, for not fighting harder for her son.

Ada stuffed that guilt down. Self-loathing wouldn’t do anything to help Jean now. “How much is it going to cost? I’ll send however much money you need.”

“I don’t want your crypt,” Lakaya snapped. Then, she cooled down. “He wants his mother by his side. Your son is scared.”

In a hospital? Ada’s skin began to crawl. Without hesitation, she stuttered out, “I—I can’t.”

“You don’t have to be there with any bots,” Lakaya promised. “The doctors assured me they wouldn’t bring any around while you’re there. You’d only be there for a few hours, before and after the operation. The rest of the time, you can stay in my guest room.”

“It’s not that,” Ada said, her mind searching for excuses. She couldn’t go back to a hospital. Ever. “It’s just so far to travel. It would use too much energy. The travel request would never be approved.”

“That’s bullshit. Too much energy?” Lakaya scoffed. “I don’t know where you’re getting the crypt, but that’s clearly not an issue. I’ve seen your access records. You’ve been in the Chain for hours a day, doing God knows what.”

“You’ve been checking my hours?” Ada asked, taken aback.

“Don’t try to play the victim here. I’ve been trying to catch you for weeks now, but you’ve clearly been avoiding me.”

“I haven’t—”


“But I’m—”

“Just stop, Ada.” Lakaya was glaring at her. “I know what this is really about.”

Ada furrowed her brow. “What?”

Lakaya opened her hand with her palm facing the ceiling and a viewport appeared. Now Ada was truly confused. A voting record from the Ledger of Edicts?

“What is this?” Ada dragged the viewport closer so she could read it. It was a Chain-wide vote, initiated by the St. James Unity. As Ada read the details, the blood drained from her face. How had she missed this? True, she automatically delegated her votes on most topics to others who she considered experts in each subject area, but this vote involved a decision that she knew she was more of an expert on than most.

It was over a proposal by the Unity to send five volunteers on a manned mission to a newly arrived rogue planet.

A huge presentation was attached to the vote, containing everything from the launch vehicle the volunteers would board to the estimated duration of the mission. The biggest section was an explanation as to how the rogue planet had come to park itself in the solar system, and why it was so important to send a crew to investigate. Ada skimmed most of it—she’d already been convinced by the more personal presentation she received—then came to the bottom, where those who’d volunteered for the mission were listed.

Over a dozen were proposed, but only those who’d received enough votes to put them in the top five after the vote were chosen. Of those selected, three were men Ada had never heard of. One, Ada was surprised to see, was Constance St. James herself. But the most surprising name of all was the last: Ada Bryce.

And she had more votes than any other candidate.

“Why did you volunteer for this?” Lakaya demanded. “Knowing there’s chance you’ll never return. That your son will never see his mother again.”

Ada was at a loss for words. She just kept staring at the words on the voting record in front of her, a resume for a job she didn’t know she’d applied for.

Ada Bryce. Mathematician with numerous contributions to the Ledger of Insight in the domains of geometric algorithms, swarm intelligence, and emergence. Ada will play a fundamental role in communicating with intelligent life if it is found on the planet, using the universal language of mathematics. She was contacted by the St. James Unity for recruitment late in the process, but her eagerness to contribute to the mission was unmatched. Ms. Bryce entered her candidacy just moments after being contacted by Constance St. James.

Her eagerness to contribute… Ada supposed that was a fair characterization. She had given a simple response to a simple question. Interested? Hell yes.

However, after her adrenaline subsided, she had begun to wonder if that wasn’t an overly hasty reply. The Unity never made clear exactly what she was being asked to do. Ada had speculated as to possible roles she could fulfill, but never in her life would she have guessed this. She couldn’t do this.

Could she?

“You’re so eager to leave us behind?” Lakaya huffed. “Say something!”

“I…” she muttered, then breathed out.

Ada wanted to say more, but the full weight of her actions had yet to settle on her shoulders. The vote had been approved, and she had been selected as a volunteer. The most highly voted volunteer, in fact. She flicked her finger to search the proposal for the date the rocket would be leaving, but she couldn’t find it. Whether weeks from now, months, or years, Ada could soon be embarking on a spacecraft and leaving Earth behind. Escapism of the highest form, to sail among the stars on a grand mission to some alien planet. To see a civilization that hadn’t been doomed from its inception, as humanity’s had been.

But doing it meant leaving her family behind.

Lakaya was right; there was a high probability this would be a one-way trip. And she knew she wasn’t qualified to communicate with any form of intelligent life “using the universal language of mathematics,” as the proposal stated. But if she refused…what then? The Unity would cut off her energy supply, right when Jean needed it most. She wanted her son to have the highest quality care available, which would incur astronomical expenses. Ada could go back to her research, but that wasn’t a sure thing, and no matter how well it turned out, it would never compare to the funding she could leverage from the Unity.

She had to do it. For Jean.

Ada set her jaw and faced her ex-wife. “You’re right,” she lied. “It is about that. I signed an NDA at the Unity and I couldn’t say anything until the vote was released.” Ada shrugged. “I didn’t realize it had happened already.”

Lakaya crossed her arms. “You volunteered, but you didn’t know the vote occurred?”

As always, Lakaya could tell Ada wasn’t being entirely truthful, but Ada honestly had missed the vote. She searched the transaction identifier in ChainMail and saw she had dismissed the notification seconds after it had arrived. Still, she kept her mouth shut. Saying anything else would only further raise Lakaya’s suspicions.

“You can still back out,” Lakaya said.

“No.” Ada stood her ground. “I have to do this.”

“Ada, it isn’t just your life this decision affects. I know you don’t care about me, but you have Jean to consider. Does he mean so little to you that you’re willing to entirely abandon him?”

An electric spike drove its way down Ada’s spine, conjuring images of her mother leaving the room behind her father. The touch of her mother’s hand tingled in her palm, and she found herself shouting, “What do you know about abandonment?”

She and Lakaya locked eyes. Pent up tears trickled down her ex-wife’s cheek. “All too much,” she whispered. “The optimistic woman I fell in love with abandoned me years ago. What happened to her, Ada?”

Warm tears rolled down Ada’s face as well. Her throat constricting once more, she managed to squeak out, “I’ll visit him virtually. The hospital will have holobots, child haptics. It’ll be like I’m really there.”

“He wants you here, Ada. Physically. Remember that? The comforting touch of another human?”

“What difference does it make?” Ada sulked. “Haptics are just as good as the real thing.”

Lakaya slapped her. Ada felt the blow, but it was attenuated by her pain filters. “They are not as good as the real thing.”

Ada opened her mouth to argue, but Lakaya turned away and covered her face with a hand. “Just go, Ada. For our son’s sake, I hope you make it back home.”

With a sweep of her arm, Ada’s ex-wife terminated their connection.