A sequel to Heavy Water.
Liberty, Jovian Republic, Ganymede
Axial Alexinov spread his legs and thought of Mars. The Jovian Republic peace officers were quick, clinical, and efficient. Sensor probes scraped along inseam and armpit, micromillimeter radar and ultrasound sensors mapping his body. After a discreet bribe, the two junta police allowed Ax, his backpack, and his robotic quadruped to cycle past the sentry guns through the third and final airlock into Liberty.
Ax shuffled forward in his heavy magnetic boots, which helped combat the weak local gravity. Liberty was the largest and most prominent city-state of the bioconservative Jovian Republic, and the air was warm with the smell of thousands of his fellow flats. Almost unconsciously, Ax shuffled into the flow of traffic, becoming one of the herd, meshing with the local wireless network. An entoptic display popped up, a translucent map of this dome with a violet path highlighted the way to his destination.
Gilles padded along beside him. The biorg had resleeved into something a little more acceptable to the junta’s tastes, an obvious robotic canine fascimile. As long as ze didn’t do anything too obviously intelligent, Ax could pretend Gilles was just a robotic pet.
Liberty was built around the junta’s miltech industry. Axial and Gilles made their way through Kokabel, the bubble dome that topped one of the shafts bored out of Ganymede’s crust, supposedly with hydrogen bombs. Ax could feel the vibrations of the hidden industry through the soles of his boots. The bores housed Liberty’s massive factory spaces: power generation, reclamation and recycling facilities, miltech foundaries that produced finished armaments and supplementary gear on a large scale.
A rumble shook the dome, and for a moment traffic froze. Explosions were an uncommon but recurrent danger in Liberty, and the bore-shafts with their hardened, reinforced walls were designed to channel the explosions upwards–better to lose a dome and let any toxic gases escape. The domequake subsided quickly, and traffic resumed.
Following the entoptic map again, Axial and Gilles squeezed onto a freight elevator and dropped down. They disembarked on a level the walls and ceilings were covered with a dense, soft mesh of plastic fibers, and uniformed junta police idly scanned the crowd. The cops wore outfits with swatches of microcling fibers that enabled them to climb and crawl on the walls and ceiling, moving faster than any magbooted civilian. They reminded Axial of some spiders he had known on Cruithne. He shuddered and shuffled on.
The map guided Axial down one of the side-tunnels that had been mined branching out from the main bore, which contained residential habitats and commercial sites. Axial paused for a few minutes at a local vendor and spent a few credits to sample the nutria souvlaki, enjoying the taste and texture of real meat and vegetables. Gilles casually scanned around, looking for watchers, cameras, or spy gear. No eyes were apparent, so the biorg sang a quiet all clear into Ax’s entoptic display. Together, the two of them slipped nonchalantly into the body bank opposite the souvlaki vendor.
Morphs were in short supply in the Jovian Republic. Bioconservative politics put a premium on natural flats, reserving clonetech for hospitals and the military. Body banks were taboo, and operated as underground replacements for outmoded sexual mores. More than a few of the junta’s higher officers apparently liked to experience life from a different gender, sometimes from a different species.
Gilles and Axial had come to the body bank to meet Gwynn. Infomorphs were persona non grata on Ganymede, and the company partnership needed her skills and knowledge for this deal. The junta officer they were working with had arranged the body rental—a good sign that they were serious about wanting the artifact.
Gwynn had chosen a female body with Liberty standard phenotype features—olive skin, brown eyes with epicanthic folds, long earlobes, built like a dancer—unfortunately, it was also a basic sex model and had somewhat exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics. The lab tech was uploading standard skillsets for moving and operating in Ganymede’s gravity and environment. Ax and Gilles played a quick game of double solitaire as they watched and waited.
Finally, Gwynn opened hir eyes, and ran through the surya namaskara, the salute to the sun. Ax watched hir back muscles flex as ze inhaled, fingers stretched above hir, and onward through the exercise, working the kinks out. When ze returned to hir original pose, ze flipped the lab tech a thumbs up. The tech nodded and left the room. Gilles set down and began singing to hirself, jamming any nearby listening devices. Ax handed Gwynn the backpack; ze unzipped it and began rummaging through the clothes.
“Did you get the right size?” ze said.
“The bank sent a body profile.” Ax replied, then averted his eyes from hir breasts. “We picked a pattern out of the latest Jovian catalogue and had the nanoprinter make the dress. I’m not used to thinking of you as a female.”
“Don’t.” Gwynn said. “I haven’t been female for fifty years. Haven’t had a gender in forty-six. This body may be female, but I’m not. Did you get my slippers?”
“Side pocket. Those were expensive.”
“Worth dipping into petty cash for. The flexible magnetic soles are the latest trend among the high party right now.”
“So we’re definitely not going to wait for the election before making the sale?”
“No.” Gwynn said, her words muffled as she slipped into her shirt. “Whether the Invictus Republicans or the Jovocrats win, the military-government cycles with the election, and we want to deal with the people we know. How do I look?”
Gilles sang hir approval as Gwynn modeled her dress-suit. Ax fought to keep his eyes on Gwynn’s face. The sex-clone had permanent eyeshadow and blush tattooed to its face, its teeth were ceramic implants that would never stain or tarnish and always gave a fantastic smile. Gwynn saw Axial’s reaction and smiled wider.
“Now, let’s go see Henq. It’s time for Liberty Mining, Ltd. to meet our client.” Ze said.
Colonel Gammon had the light build, slight paunch and puffy eyes of a flat that had been in low gravity too many years. Low gravity made it easy to pack on the kilos, and the bioconservative junta prided itself on its cuisine and had developed social traditions surrounding it. The colonel’s dinner invitation at one of Liberty’s smallest, most elite restaurants was part of doing business the Ganymede way.
Consequently, there was a great deal of talking as well as eating and drinking, and Gwynn was having a hell of a time multitasking. All throughout dinner ze had had to concentrate to mask her body language, all while trying to remember how to eat. Idly, she reached down and patted Gilles on hir mechanical head.
“You see master Alexeinov, the Jovian Republic still embraces the ideals of transcending the limits of human, but we do not wish to alter the definition of human.” Gammon said. “We have made several advances in neuroprogramming, for instance, which provide transhuman abilities and experiences without tampering with the holistic integrity of the body.”
“Neuroprogamming is indeed a powerful tool.” Ax said, aiming for the diplomatic response. “I must thank you for inviting us to this wonderful dinner.”
“A wonderful dinner!” Henq chimed in “These fruit are absolutely delicious—what did you call them?”
“Tomatoes.” Gammon replied. “One of several cultivars descended, or so I’m told, from the first plants launched into space.”
Alexeinov and Henq were being as helpful as they could be under the circumstances, picking up the slack in the conversation, but Gwynn was the only member of the company with signing authority and the junta knew it.
Fortunately hir orientation software included a basic familiarity with eating sticks, but the actual physical process and sheer sensory stimulation of eating made both etiquette and negotiation difficult. Gwynn had been without a shell for far too long, wasn’t used to a morph that came without fuel gauge warnings and other niceties.
With programmed ease ze speared a small tomato with an eating stick.
“Have you reviewed the documentation we provided?” ze said.
“Yes. Of course, we will need further proof of its ability to provide tritium fuel.”
“Or weapons-grade hydrogen-isotopes. The trade ban must be setting you back terribly.”
“A temporary depletion of our reserves is all, beautiful lady.”
Under the table, something grabbed hir knee.
Gwynn’s eating stick hit the table so hard that the tip of the plastic pin snapped off.
“Colonel, we are here to do business. Certain assets are not on the table for negotiation.”
“All things are negotiable. I would have thought a woman of your obvious…endowments…intended a certain amount of attention.”
“You forget yourself, Colonel. There are others that are willing to meet our price.”
“I could have you all arrested before you left Liberty.”
“And expose the fact that you were consulting with farangs? Before an election? I knew you were ambitious sir, but I never credited you as stupid.”
Gwynn stood up and left; Henq and Axial followed her lead.
Colonel Gammon waited until they were gone, then reached for the antidote to the tomatoes. He applied the drug-filled subdermal patch to his left wrist. In fifteen to twenty minutes, Liberty Mining, Ltd. would be incapacitated, and his troops would move in to recover the device. Patience would bring him victory, and a promotion closer the secret inner hierarchies of the Jovian Republic’s political-military structure. Promotion and power waited.
Gammon touched his ectolink, bringing dormant screens to life. On the colonel’s left hand, video and audio surveillance tracked the three transhumans as they made their way back toward their ship, The Analytical Engine That Could. Center was a tactical display of the two squads Gammon had carefully selected for this off-the-books mission. The final screen to his right was from the coded data unit Alexeinov had provided: overlapping scans of the torus artifact itself, the grainy blobs of color indicating a ring of complex subatomic machinery beyond current human technical ability.
A warning message flashed in the corner of his eye. Toiletcams showed a public restroom, the three transhumans vomiting and voiding into the hose-like attachments of the microgravity commodes. It was far too early for the poison to take effect. They must be purging their systems on purpose. Something flickered, just out of view of the camera. A fourth figure. Gammon growled and punched the go-ahead order to the squads.
The colonel dismissed all but his tactical screens, then pushed back from the table and stood up. His magnetic slippers slid easily on the metal floor. Then a thing mechanical quadruped slipped out from under the table, foot magnets clacking. Gammon had not noticed that Liberty Mining’s robotic pet had not left with them. The mechanoid placed itself between the colonel and the door, blocking his exit. Camera-eyes stared into the human’s own organic orbs.
Smoothly, Gammon slipped out of his slippers. Eyes never leaving the dog, he bowed low and flexed his feet against the floor. The sudden impulse launched him upwards, and the microcling patches on his uniform gripped the padded ceiling. With practiced motions, the colonel oriented himself and began crawling toward the exit, safely out of the quadruped’s reach.
Gilles waited, calculated, and leapt. This morph lacked active offensive features, but it still had mass and momentum; in the confined chamber the biorg was as deadly to an unarmored flat as a missile. Gammon rolled, ripping himself from the ceiling fibers and grabbing desperately for the wall. Gilles missed him by inches, slamming into the spot where the flat had been and rebounding away.
The colonel rolled and made for the door. Once beyond the portal, he could engage the automatic seal and trap the robot in the dining room. Gammon made it to the door when a tremendous force struck him on the lower back. The shock snapped his spine like a whip, and his forehead cracked into the doorjam.
Gilles sang agitatedly to hirself, limbs waving in the air uselessly as ze waited to get sufficient contact on a surface to move on hir own power again. The junta colonel was hanging obscenely from the wall, still attached by a few microcling patches. The impacts hadn’t damaged Gilles’ latest morph too badly, but a few of hir sensors were knocked out of alignment.
Wishing ze had manipulators better suited to hir task, the biorg pawed at the dead flat, rending uniform and flesh as ze scraped the ectolink off of his hanging corpse. At least in bioconservative Liberty ze didn’t have to worry about mesh inserts. Gilles picked the ectolink up in hir jaws and padded to the door. Ze had to stand up on her hind legs to hit the button, and the door swished open.
Gilles ran. One thing ze loved about quadruped morphs was to feel them in motion, electroactive polymer muscles expanding and contracting. Ze couldn’t go quite as fast as ze would have liked, because of the gravity. One good leap would carry hir crashing into the ceiling. So Gilles adapted to a stuttering hop-skip run that kept at least one magnetic paw-contact in touch with the floor at all times.
The route was mapped out on hir display, but the three-dimensional model ze moved through was not the territory. People moved through the long corridors, elevators shifted to their own schedule, and the Jovian spider-cops lurked on ceilings and walls. Gilles had to navigate the maze in real-time, doubling back, re-routing hirself, always getting closer to hir destination. Ze remembered a work song sung by a Neo-Maasai courier on Luna, and sang it to hirself, matching hir steps to the beat.
On the final stretch to the dock where the Analytical Engine’s shuttle was kept, the junta cops were noticeably absent. Even the customs workers appeared to have taken a break. Two dozen armed and armored stormtroopers in faceless masks were trying to gain entrance to the ship. Gilles darkcast a code to the ship, and as ze got close the door the stormtroopers were trying to force swished and opened to a puff of gas. The Jovian squad fell back, voices squeaking as the shuttle flushed the airlock filters with helium. By the time the biorg arrive at the ship, the squad was unconscious. Gilles meshed with local emergency medical services. With any luck they’d get here before the stormtroopers asphyxiated.
Gilles dropped the colonel’s ectolink and its coded data unit into a bin. Ze meshed with the ship, automating the preparation for launch routines. A junta bureaucrat was already on waiting on the mesh, asking questions about the incident outside. Gilles filled out an automated report and included a modest bribe under the cover of an electronic document processing fee. Ze hoped it would buy the others enough time.
The biorg sat on hir haunches. There was nothing for hir to do now but to wait.
“There will be an additional charge for cleaning and maintenance.” the lab tech said.
“Of course.” Henq said. “Titan kroners okay?”
Ax was still talking to Xu Lin, the flat that had twigged them to the colonel’s plan, so it was up to Henq to see to business. Gwynn had had about enough of a meat shell for the time being. Henq had just had enough of Liberty. The bioconservatives made hir flesh crawl. As a neuter, ze could just about pass as a male, provided nobody looked too close, but ze didn’t like it. Didn’t like having to pretend to be something else, or to be embarrassed about what ze was. What would hir genemate on Mars think if ze saw hir now?
The meat shell closed its eyes, and the Gwynn-ness went out of it. Breathing was regular as organic clockwork, but the eyes were flat. Henq accessed the funds from the company accounts and authorized the transfer. The body bank tech tried to interest hir in some XP recordings, but the neuter politely refused. There might be a day when Gwynn wanted to re-experience vomiting in a microgravity toilet, but ze could do it on hir own credit.
Xu Lin led Ax and Henq out of the body bank by a back way, into an airlock. Ax and Xu Lin reached for the vacuum suits, so Henq did too. Ze watched their new “friend” zip up. The neuter hadn’t twigged to it before, but suddenly hir brain cycled: Xu Lin was an intersex morph. The tangible evidence of transhumanism put Henq a bit at ease.
The trio cycled outside onto the surface of Ganymede. D-ring tethers clicked onto a rail mounted on the outside of the dome. Jupiter loomed large above the horizon, and the three slid their way around the circumference of Liberty. They covered about three kilometers in an hour before coming to another airlock. They de-clipped and clambered in.
Henq found hirself in a maintenance airlock almost immediately adjacent to where the Analytical Engine’s shuttle was docked. The three walked straight to the shuttle with no more problems. As they approached the shuttle door, Gilles song came out over the mesh and it cycled open for them. The neuter wasn’t terribly surprised when Ax motioned for Xu Lin to come aboard.
Inside, Gilles and Henq set about prepping the shuttle for launch. Ax strapped Xu Lin into a crash web while Henq prepped the quadruped morph for take-off. The two then strapped themselves in. Gwynn popped up for a moment to say ze’d cleared take off-with port authority. Everyone judded and jittered as the automated systems lifted the shuttle up and ran it out into the surface. Gilles counted down a final pre-launch checklist. And they were off.
Forty minutes later, the shuttle was docked and Gwynn was calling an owner’s meeting to order.
“Our new associate, Xu Lin, has a very exciting offer to submit to the company.” Ax said. Xu Lin nodded and turned to address the transhumans present.
“What do you know about Firewall?”
I would have posted this sooner, but I made a large departure from the outline. I've attached the original short story proposals for anyone interested.