miners and maggots (the beginning)

We live our lives like zombies. Zombies who have terrible hairdressers, or none at all. We wear out our welcomes like bad table manors and peek in our neighbors windows to see how their hair dressers have fixed their hair, and how their tables are doing.

Outside was an enema. A frightful hailstorm. It was the first one of the season. The first one Mir had ever been in. This hamster cage flying through Mercury's orbit couldn't keep out the cold entirely, even though less than a few minutes away (as the crow flies) was a bubbling pot of molten rock and magma, whirling around an even hotter veritable ocean of hydrogen. The hydrogen ocean looms much larger around Mercury than it does around Mir's humble earthstation, the half-gee sim-station he'd grown up on.

With that observation, or perhaps just before it, the outside air started seeping into Mir's chamber. Or rather, the lack of air. Anyway, air was escaping. It was probably the end of everything. And in that moment, it was not that life seemed less meaningful, but rather that any meaning life may have possibly had was completely eclipsed by an overwhelming instinct for survival. Mir quickly held his breath.

Life was a medium pizza, and he was about to get sliced.

Mir pushed off toward the com. He had it half pressed before a moment, a moment that seemed eternal, faded his vision slowly to black.

---

Mir woke in his chamber, not far from where he'd blacked out. At first he didn't think any time had passed, but then he realized he was velcroed into his bed. His computer was blinking at him, the whole screen--like it had an urgent message. The message was a vid from his father, telling him they'd got to the chamber moments after he sounded the alarm, and that everything was alright. He could take the day off from his studies if he wanted to, and come down to the mining chamber to be with father while he worked.

---

The sounding guns firing at regular intervals, echoed through the hollow chambers of an asteroid and returned their precious information to the firers. Nearly instantaneously the crew knew the dimensions of an asteroid, and its possible cargo value. Nearly instantly they knew if they'd found a keeper. Of course, if they'd found a keeper, they'd have stopped. And they hardly ever stopped.

But sometimes they did, and it was then that Mir got to look up from his v-studies and actually help the rest of the crew. Not that it was legal for him to help, but nobody on board was really concerned with v-studies, or the legality of a teenager on board the mining chamber while the mining was taking place. Especially one who had just been through a near-fatal accident. Everyone was sympathetic, of course. A lot of miners ships only took parents on board, especially parents with older children, because the children were often more likely to want to help with the mining than they were likely to want to educate themselves.

It's true what they say. Miners sons are the most likely to secede than to succeed. Mir didn't really care what they said. He just thought mining was more fun than studying.

He heard the clang of the docking and knew the cluster was stopping for something. How big was the roid, and what kind of haul was it? Mir paused his math teacher and pushed off toward his father's station. Mir took a couple of turns through the giant chamber, shaped like a warehouse, the room was really just a giant office, with three-sided rooms at regular intervals with a station in each cube. He'd taken up an empty cube, but that meant it was not ideally placed, and a little too near the sounding guns. Mir ran into Puja, who was also skipping school to watch the action, and they made their way toward his father's mining station together.

---

The mining stations themselves are a bit like what you would imagine a gun turret looks like. There is a seat in front of a screen and a keypad, but to either side of the keypad are a complicated set of controls. Each mining station controls a mining robot, almost its own space ship, really, and each robot mines the asteroids for metal and ice.

Humans are, believe it or not, only there for efficiency. An automated robot is probably half as good as one with a human controller. When a suitable asteroid is found, usually once or twice an hour, the cluster stops, and all the robots are released. The miners control the robots, helping them work together and directing them toward the biggest and best hauls. There is an art to knowing how much of an asteroid is worth salvaging. That's the job of the miner.

---

Magots are a big problem. You probably wouldn't think so. The picture that they paint is always so clean, so sterile. The mine cluster chambers and scuttles are suppose to be state of the art. But you've got to check each food slurry regularly, or the maggots will come back. It's impossible to get rid of them entirely. Mir wasn't sure why, but it had to do with killing the slurry itself. If it died, you'd be out of food within a week. So anyway, it was Mir's duty to check the slurry for maggots at least once a standard. It wasn't that it smelled badly, but there was something not very appetizing about it. It was no fun knowing somewhere inside that this is where the shit you eat comes from. Of course, when you find some maggots, it's even less fun. Then you get to think about how they were probably there for the past couple of days, too small to see, and how you probably ate some the day before. Mir didn't really like checking the slurry. He'd rather have been studying.

---

The instructor sat with folded legs in the lotus on the mat in front of Mir. He was Mir's first virtual dojo instructor, and Mir reluctantly bowed to him. The cluster didn't have any gravity, but Mir could feel my feet against the wood grain floor. It was a little weird, being in the full v with all the senses turned up. But Mir was going to have to get used to it if he wanted to keep practicing his kungfu with any regularity.

At least Mir wasn't alone. Garrith and Puja were in the sim with him. Garrith was not exactly someone Mir liked hanging out with. He spent all his time on the net looking at sports stats and chatting about sports. Mir liked some of the sports just fine, but he felt it was stupid not to be playing them. What's the point in just watching? The least you could do is plug in a sim and play in v or something.

Puja was a little better. At least he could hold a conversation about stuff that wasn't sports. But his passtimes weren't exactly Mir's favorites either. He mostly just read old novels and liked collecting "historical" pictures. Photos from before the singularity, mostly. Back when people weren't augmented, (at all, not even physically), and before medical was good enough to correct all the weird illnesses that people used to get. He had a whole box that he got earthside full of photos of circus freaks. Really gross ones that were probably real.

The dojo sim had the three of them doing kata all afternoon. Mir could tell the only reason Garrith agreed to come at all was for the sparring, so after awhile he over-rode the program and they all sparred for awhile. Mir had to try pretty hard not to make it seem like he was kicking both of their asses without trying. He'd been practicing earthstation for years with a class his dad used to take him to on Saturday mornings, so Mir knew pretty much everything the others were going to try before they did it. It was going to take quite a while before either of them were good enough to be really fun to spar with.

When Garrith had had enough he just said he was done, and left abruptly. Puja looked at Mir with an expression that said "What was his deal?", and Mir grinned back at him. But Mir was sick of sparring anyway, and asked Puja if he wanted to practice the next day. They agreed on a time just after v-studies, and Mir logged off. But then he logged right back on again to get some real practice in before bedtime. Mir wanted to try out some of the other virtual dojo options. He'd seen when setting up the program that there was an option to learn zero-g moves and katas. Mir hadn't even known they existed before.

Fighting in zero-gee is a lot like moving around in it. At first you're no good at it no matter what you do. It feels like everything you do is wrong. But as with everything, eventually practice makes you better. After only fifteen minutes, Mir realized that what he was learning would help him get around better on the scuttle, and Mir wanted to bring Puja back to show him how cool it was. Puja had already logged off though, and was probably reading one of his novels or something. Mir spent the rest of the night practicing kicks until the auto kicked in and told him it was bed time.

---

Night on a miner's chamber is very quiet. Sound would normally travel through the scuttles from other chambers, but there are dampening mechanisms in place. So when Mir woke in the night, all he heard was the sound of his father's breathing. There were various blinking lights in the room, but nothing that he could focus on.

Mir had been dreaming of his mother. She had been playing Tennis in one of the zero gee gyms at earthstation when the warning bells chimed. She pulled her tether and sprung back toward a wall, but before she got there an entire wall collapsed outward with rushing air.

Escaping air was a common nightmare among spacers, akin to nightmares about falling for people earthside. Except that Mir hadn't actually had a nightmare. He remembered seeing his mother, and the rushing air, but it hadn't been bad really. Maybe he was finally making peace with her death. She'd had died from a plosion, but not rushing out into space. She'd been stuck in an elevator with three other passengers at the earthside hotel where she worked. The hotel had briefly lost pressure, and the elevator she was in was one of the ones on the outside of the hull and open to space, so when the safety mechanisms all shut in place, the air in the elevator was a closed loop. A few minutes later, a metal strut was thrown from the depressurised area, and flew into a circuit that kept the elevator air vents shut. It was a freak accident, and very unlikely to have happened. A real tragedy. Father hadn't really been the same, and he'd decided to quit his job at earthstation, and invest in a chamber on a mining collective less than three months later.

Mir hadn't minded all that much at the time. Mining was one of the few ways to see all the stations in the system without taking very expensive vacations. The only thing he really missed from earthstation was the bandwith. Of course, he still missed Mother.

Posted on Nov 3, 03 (1934 words)

Letters to a Young Space Pirate

Mir woke late the next morning to his com screen blinking angrily at him. He had been over four credits short the day before. He rolled away from the screen and decided he could probably get his dad to excuse him for a full day's 8 credits. That meant he could slack off most of today as well. But he found after awhile he wasn't tired. He got out of bed and pulled some clothes out of the bin beneath it. When they left earthstation, he had to leave most of his clothes behind. On a ship of any kind, they say, "mass is money", and a mining cluster is no different. Father paid for fuel the same as everybody else on board, which meant they had to watch their mass. Mir had got the "we're both going to have to make sacrifices" speech before they'd done any real packing for the trip.

He pulled out two layers of t-shirts and a sweater. It wasn't that their chamber was cold, but the hallway through the scuttle sure was. He pushed off from his bed, pulled his shoulders tight to avoid his netting, and landed squarely on the scuttle faceplate, absorbing most of the impact in his hands. Father told him time and time again to use his feet to absorb the impact, but he almost always forgot for short distances.

He pulled himself through the scuttle, and out into the freezing hallway, around the corner, and into their rest-unit. Mir and his dad shared a rest chamber with four other families whose chambers were positioned in a circle around the hallway. It was a pretty standard arrangement for them all to pay for the mass equally. Father said the hallway was so cold because "The damn Society won't pay for anything above the minimums required by law."

But when Mir had asked who the "Society" was, Father shook his head, and said "You and I both, we're members now. Maybe we can change something." Later, Mir learned the Society was the name for the association that kept up the parts of the cluster that weren't individually owned by anybody. There were Society meetings once a month to vote about things like temperatures in the hallway.

Mir stepped into the mist shower, adjusting the temperature to his favorite, a near-scalding temperature. He imagined for a few minutes that he was on the surface of mercury, and that outside the confines of the hull it was not infinitely cold, but rather so hot that his blood would boil in seconds. He shuddered at the thought, which reminded him briefly of his dream the night before.

---

Once he was only slightly damp, and the humidity had been sucked clean from the air, Mir pushed back into the hallway, fully ensconced in his two t-shirts and sweater. He had practically the whole day to do whatever he wanted. He hurried back to his corner of the chamber, and positioned himself comfortably in front of his com, feet tucked into the resting straps. He minimized the windows bugging him about homework, and called up an IM window for Puja. Puja's status said he was studying and not to be disturbed, but both boys knew how to get around the system safeguards, and Puja's chat window winked back at him in seconds, text only. Puja's mother wasn't a miner, so Puja generally didn't chat in person unless she was away from their chamber for some reason. She and Puja were actually passengers on the cluster, a privilege that came with no small expense. Puja said his family had always had lots of money, and his mother had been in school ever since he could remember. She was studying extra-earth cultures, and her story was that she was writing a paper on the culture on board cluster-ships.

Puja and Mir had discussed it at great length, and they thought she was actually going to write about the Vampire Cult on MercuryStation. Nobody knew much about them, and Mercury was the cluster's first stop after earthstation.

Puja couldn't get out of homework. His mother was watching him like a hawk because she'd caught him reading a novel the day before when he was suppose to be doing his fluid physics.

Mir grimaced at the thought of resorting to hanging out with Garrith, and decided to watch the latest episode of Naked Lesbian Space Ninjas instead. Fortunately, someone else on board was a subscriber, and he didn't have to pay the download fees. Mir wasn't sure how closely Father watched the download bills, and bandwidth was getting more expensive the farther they got from civilization.

---

Trixyz shook herself out of her daze. She'd been staring into the slime again. Mold was growing out of her ears, she knew it, and she felt like she'd been staring into the vat for eons. She risked a glance at her wristcom; it had only been three hours! She had another whole hour to go before she could leave her slime-infested post. She didn't dare touch the walls, which were covered in a slime-residue that caused them to grow mold at a prodigious rate. Her feet were wrapped in little plastic booties on top of her designer tennis shoes, but even so, she felt like she could feel the slime oozing between her toes as time wore on.

Her job was, admittedly, to watch the vat. But she was also suppose to sprinkle this greenish powder into it whenever it got too dark, and sprinkle a yellow powder into it whenever she could see black spots. She also had a panic button to press if she saw anything she didn't know what to do about.

The slime was for lights, or fuel cells, or something. She wasn't sure exactly, and she didn't care. The job was going to get her to mercurystation for spring break, and she was going first class. Her father would have paid for a tugboat ticket out there and back, but that would have taken two weeks each way. She didn't want be away from all the people she knew for that long!

A wide swath of black spots appeared in the vat below. Trixyz blinked a few times, then pressed the yellow button, sprinkling yellow into the goo. Within seconds the black dissipated as the glowing slime churned in its cauldron. Maybe she was a witch, and this was her boiling pot of magical potions. This made her think about the warts that witches always had on their noses, which in turn made her wonder if she was going to get zits from the hot sweaty air in the vat room. It would just figure if she ended up with a big fat one right on the end of her nose before she left for her trip.

Amile was going to just flip when she heard that Trixyz was going to raise enough cash for them to take a direct flight instead of a tugboat. Amile was already working two night jobs to pay for her ticket, and Trixyz had felt bad that she'd never even had to have a real job before. Amile's night job was a security thing. She monitored docking station coms and watched that ships obeyed the docking computer. She'd been doing com security for over a year now, just nights, and had been promoted twice. They didn't just let anybody run those docking bays!

Amile's dream was to spend her entire life in full-v, as an actor or actress. Amile was herm, and she didn't mind showing it off. It was one of the things that had first attracted Trixyz to her. She was proud to be different from established norms. (Not that herms were that unusual anymore, but it was usually not something you were proud of.) Trixyz thought most established norms were boring, and fortunately Amile was anything but.

Finally, the com beeped at her, and her replacement arrived, carrying a folding chair and bag lunch.

"Hi Trixyz, everything normal this shift?"

"Sure thing." Trixyz pushed past the lame-o shift operator without trying to seem overly unfriendly. She couldn't remember the woman's name, and it probably wasn't worth remembering anyway. "Have a good night!"

Down a corridor and up only one floor on the tube, Trixyz was changing out of her slime infested clothes in the company locker room. From behind her, she heard someone clear their throat meaningfully.

"Yeah?" she asked the woman, who was peaking around the corner of a bank of lockers. The woman was licking her lips, and looking around nervously. She had purple hair with a streak of white in it. Trixyz was jealous if it was natural. She was wearing a suit like the ones the company forced Trixyz to wear in the vat room, but it didn't really look like it'd ever been used. For one thing it had no slime or mold on it.

"You want to make some extra money?" the woman asked.

Trixyz pretended to be confused, "what do you mean?"

"I mean, do you want to make some extra money at the end of each shift you work here?"

"How would I do that?"

"Just give me your dirty plastics when you're done with your shift every night. I recycle them, you know, and give you a fifty for your trouble." The woman was obviously into some funky shit if she wanted that green slime stuff for her home collection. Or maybe this was some kind of industrial espionage. Either way, Trixyz knew she didn't want anything to do with this woman.

"Do you work here?" Trixyz asked. Then, when the woman's expression turned sour, "Hey, how did you get in here?"

The woman disappeared around the corner, and Trixyz finished putting her clothes on. The audacity of some people!

---

Jasper stretched his legs and decided to take a break. His right pinky finger was starting to twitch, and he thought that might be some kind of indication that he should maybe stop mining for awhile. He'd been working ten hour days for the past week. It was easy work to get caught up in, and there was very little else to do on board the collective. Every minute spent directing the robot was money in the bank. It wasn't a lot, but Jasper thought he'd have the first third of his chamber mortgage paid off before the cluster arrived at MercuryStation. That was a big deal, and he was hoping with the extra money he'd save on mortgage payments he'd be able to insure the robot for damages, (even though none of the other miners seemed to think the insurance companies ever paid out on those types of policy), and maybe buy something for Mir. The boy was sure taking things in stride. On one hand, Jasper thought the boy could be a bit more attentive in his studies, or maybe take an interest in mining when he wasn't studying, but on the other hand, there were certainly worse ways Mir could be spending his free time than virtual kungfu and porno.

Jasper spun down to the break room. Just another cube, but without a com and with spigots labeled coffee and tea. Unfortunately, the actual liquids that emerged from these spigots bore very little resemblance to the real thing. Jasper had been born on earth, and he knew. He'd been able to buy these things in grocery stores rather that from a loosely ruled but nonetheless very nearly omnipotent government that controlled all commerce. Jasper tried not to remind himself that the government was really more of a corporation. At least he'd escaped by buying his place on the collective. Cluster ships were fairly new, conceptually. Normally everyone on board was just an employee, and you got a wage just like any other job. But research showed that employees were more likely to work overtime and long hours if they had a personal stake in the success of their positions. On one hand, the company got you twice, as you bought the mining equipment, (and your chamber, if you could afford one, some families rented from the collective), and then they hit you again when you sold the ore and ice you'd mined to them at every station. Ore and ice prices were supposedly market representative, but everyone knew the corporation kept a watchful eye on those fluctuations.

Posted on Nov 4, 03 (2065 words)

cluster freak

Jasper still didn't know what to think of his fellow miners. Most were just happy to be doing something video game like for a living. It was the next best thing to being immersed in a full-v for the rest of your life. Those types were happy go lucky, imaginations relatively narrow and focused. Sure, some of them were site-seers, but the distance between the various interesting things to look at in the solar system is quite vast, and those people tended to live for a station stop (usually every-other month or so).

Then there were those who lived for the dig. They were certain they'd find something interesting on one of these damned asteroids, and they were betting their lives to find out. Even though you could guess with 90 percent accuracy any given asteroid's composition, these folks lived for that 10 percent chance. The possibility they'd find the big one. Everyone had heard stories about the asteroid that turned out to be solid gold, or the geode like asteroids with expensive crystals growing off of every inside wall. The chances of such things were very low, and to Jasper's knowledge, nothing like that had ever been found.

There was a lot of comradery on a ship like The Cluster. Everyone shared certain responsibilities and fees and investments, not to mention living quarters and work spaces. Jasper worried that he came off as cold and distant to his fellow shipmates. He was still recovering from the loss of his wife Geneva, and he'd signed up for the mining operation specifically to get away from people for a while. He needed time to settle into his new role as single parent, and to heal the pain that her loss had caused him.

Still, he made an effort to really smile at people today, even stopping to thank one or two of them on his way to get coffee. Saving his son had been a real team effort. It's possible he could have over-ridden the safety features donned a soft-suit and reached his son in time, spraying hardfoam into the broken seal, and then done all the health diagnostics himself, but he was grateful he hadn't had to. Everyone had been very helpful, even others who, like Jasper, generally kept to themselves.

"You don't think he's a suicide, do you?" Jasper had just hit the break cube, but hadn't turned the corner yet, and something made him stop when he heard this. "He could have rigged that plosion for himself."

Were they talking about him?

"Oh get out, he just bought a chamber and miner, why would he do that if he was just going to off himself?" Jasper shifted uncomfortably. He was no suicide. He missed Geneva dearly, but he wasn't about to do something stupid. Her loss was enough of a strain for poor Mir.

"It's common enough, a spacer decides he's had all the fun he's going to have, so he buys himself a one way ticket out to the great wide open. It's like being buried at sea. Can you imagine it, just you and the cold, you and the empty all alone out there until your blood boils?"

Jasper had had enough. He turned back to his cube. He didn't need any coffee anyway.

---

Trixyz resisted the urge to stop at the mall on her way home. She was saving for the trip, and besides, hadn't she just bought herself a new wristcom with built in 3V? Who cared that you had to put the thing on a table in front of you for it to work... and when you turned your head the picture was gone if you were out of view of the thing, but otherwise, it worked great. A little grainy maybe, but it was certainly the smallest 3V she'd ever seen. This made her want to watch some when she got home, there would almost certainly be an episode of Brain Swindler on, or maybe the only soap opera she watched religiously, As the Universe Expands. But she really needed to get some sleep for school the next day, and she'd seen the latest Universe Expands anyway.

When she walked in the front door, her brother's newsfeed blinked up into the upper left hand corner of her vision. The whole house was wired for 3V, and you could program it to recognize you as you walked in. But it was buggy sometimes, and she normally kept the feature turned off.

The top headline was about some expedition to AlphaC finding what could be the remains of an alien civilization. Another article looked like it was about more breakthroughs in quantum travel. The question was whether it was ethical to view the future in other universes and use that knowledge for profit. Scientists were now viewing a samples of alternate universes, and guessing whether any given future event would occur based on probability. Of course this was still a guess. Weather forecasters were the early adopters, and analysts were predicting a 2% increase in reliability.

Trixyz locked herself in her bedroom and called Amile, but she did not answer. She was probably working.

---

Mir wandered around the hallways for awhile, seeing parts of The Cluster he'd never been in before. Most hallways looked identical but for a hand painted sign giving their designations. Mir and Father lived on Mercury Lane, freshly added to correspond to The Cluster's current heading. Other hallways were named not so sensibly, things like Oscar Street, Freedom Way, Geronimo Lane. Mir was wandering aimlessly. Every few hallways had an observation chamber. Usually these were public chambers and he could get into them no problem. Also just as usually they had large clear pannels out to the stars and empty space. Seemed silly, because if you really wanted to see the outside, a com was going to give you a much clearer picture, and one that was color corrected for whatever you wanted to look at specifically, should you so choose. Mir had flipped through most of the available perspectives the first night he'd been on board, and hadn't viewed much since.

He found himself strangely drawn to these large warping windows. Their glass or plastic was usually so thick that everything looked distorted out of them. Mir pressed his nose against them and felt the cold of the universe travel through it and back into his brain. He wondered if there were radiation issues in these observation chambers. He knew in theory his and Father's chamber was shielded quite well from the constant bombardment of radiation the sun puts out, but usually if you could see out into space, it was hurling stuff right back at you.

Mir found the mother of all observation chambers on his third or fourth discovery. This one was just as large as a normal chamber. Above the scuttle was spray-painted "cantina".

Inside were an assortment of spacers not on duty, most of them drinking from tankards that had been filled from a keg on one end of the cantina. On the opposite end was a huge bay window that opened out into the permanent night sky.

One side of the sky was completely obscured by the roid that was currently being mined. This was the first time Mir had seen the mining happening from this kind of perspective. The roid was far enough away that he could only just barely make out the tiny dots on its surface that were the mining robots. His father had been working ten hour days for the last four days already on this mother, but the dents were imperceptible. Was that a crater that was likely robot made? Or was it just naturally forming?

When he'd just about frozen off the end of his nose again, he noticed that a man had settled in next to him, completely upside down from his perspective (as if he was hanging from the ceiling, although conventions like ceiling were meaningless on a ship without gravity, generally everyone kept to one direction as "up", just for communication purposes.

"Enjoy the view?" The man asked. He was an older spacer. Didn't have many of his teeth left. He was wearing a shirt that didn't have sleeves, presumably to show off his many tattoos. Most were of ancient space ship designs Mir recognized a Space Shuttle from the old USA, but not most of the others.

Mir nodded his head. "Never seen them mining before, in person."

The old spacer nodded. "You must be Mir." Mir nodded again, and put out his hand for shaking, but the old man didn't seem to notice. "You were lucky yesterday. I heard about your plosion. You should always carry a hardfoam on you, just in case."

The man patted a pocket in his pants, presumably to indicate that's where he kept his. He finally looked over at Mir again, meeting his eyes. "I've got a tattoo of your namesake somewhere on me skin." He proceeded to look at his forearms until he found a particularly old and faded one that could have been the ancient antique mir space station. Mir tried to smile politely.

He learned the old spacer's name was Ringo, and Ringo proceeded to launch into stories about his experiences on various starships. The old man was definitely interesting. If he could be believed, he'd lived through quite a few harrowing experiences like the one Mir had had the day before. His face was leathery and gnarled, and his breath was so bad that every time he laughed, Mir had to hold his breath or back away slightly. Whenever he grinned the holes in his missing teeth were like black beacons. Mir couldn't take his eyes off them. He kept his face pressed tightly against the viewport to stop from staring.

Posted on Nov 5, 03 (1630 words)

phallic chrome laser cannons

Trixyz met Amile in a fast food dive down by her sector spinside. Spinside boys were the hottest, their legs got all beefy from the extra gravity, and for some reason they just carried themselves differently. Then again, Amile wasn't really a boy. She still had those beefy legs, but for the most part she looked pretty feminine. Breasts were a big factor in that, Trixyz mused.

Amile was waiting in one of the far booths, her dark hair coming just down past her chin covering either side of her face. She looked up from her sketchbook as Trixyz approached and gave a warm smile. Trixyz got all warm and gushy feeling, knowing that smile was for her. And she made an effort to swing her hips extra wide as she walked down the isle of the sleazy restaurant. She was wearing a skirt that flared away from her hips that dramatically exaggerated the effect even when she wasn't going for it.

Amile watched Trixyz approach and thought that if that skirt had sharp edges on it, she could probably kill people the way she was walking.

"Hey sexy," Trixyz said, "what'cha drawin'?"

"You know, the usual, dead people and corpse rats." Amile grinned. She loved drawing dark and gothic things, but probably more than that she loved to gross out Trixyz by talking about them.

"Ew! You _would_ draw corpse rats, wouldn't you!" She spun Amile's sketchbook around on the table so she could see it. There were flowers and a tree in the scene. In the foreground was a bumblebee landing on one of the flowers.

Amile pointed to the tree, "That's where I'm going to hang the dead guy. It's a lynching scene, I just haven't gotten around to drawing the lynching yet. I'm saving that for last."

But Trixyz was cooing. "It's so pretty." She said. "How did you get it so detailed?"

"I'm working from a picture." Amile admitted. Her efforts to gross out Trixyz were for the moment defeated by praise. "Hey, let me put that thing away. We've got to talk about our trip."

"I have big news." Trixyz said, barely holding in her excitement. "I got a job!"

"Um... how is that big news?" Amile smiled, trying not to make light of Trixyz accomplishment. "We already paid for the tickets."

"Yes, but now we can upgrade to a direct flight. We won't have to take the tugboat."

Amile's face went through multiple emotions before settling on one that was somewhere between perplexed and questioning. "But..." she said, "I was kinda looking forward to spending two weeks cooped up in a tiny little cabin with you."

Some part of Trixzy wanted to give in immediately and spend the long trip with Amile, but wouldn't it be better if they were on a first class flight? What about meals, and comfort? "Don't you think we'd enjoy ourselves more on a consumer ship?" she asked weakly.

Amile was quiet. She looked a little hurt, but mostly confused.

"Look," Trixyz said, "I'd really rather go on a nice flight--one where we get treated like we're on vacation rather than cargo. But let me make it up to you, how about we stay at mercuryStation for an extra week instead? We'll be gone about the same length of time, and we'll be able to spend more of it at the resort."

"Can we afford that?"

Trixyz could tell Amile was convinced. It didn't really matter whether they could afford it. Just the fact that Trixyz had gotten a job to save for this trip would be enough for her father to front her the rest of the money she needed. "Sure we can, no problem." she said. "Now lets get out of this greasepit, I want some real food."

---

Mir only spent an hour or so in the cantina. He was walking the hallways methodically, making a mental map of The Cluster in his head. He decided it was like a jungle that needed exploring. Never mind that most of the trees looked the same. There were still wild beasts out there that needed him to catch them. Or maybe there were rivers that needed crossing. Mir had never seen a real river. He'd seen a tree, once or twice, in the zoo on earthstation. He'd lived his entire life on earthstation until a month ago. The Cluster was certainly not at all like earthstation. For one thing, there was no gravity.

Mir had plenty of experience getting around in zero g. He'd played lots of games in low and zero g growing up. He had especially fond memories of Ships Across the Ocean and dodge-ball. Back at the spinside school he went to, he'd spent two days a week in an actual classroom with other students. Usually at least one of those days was spent in the a zero g gymnasium, even if all they did was sit with portable com units. The school itself didn't have any permanent location. He had some friends from those classes, but since he might only get to hang out with any given kid once a month or less, there weren't a lot of people he knew very well. Still, there had been people he saw online every day. He couldn't chat with those people now. The delay was well over two minutes each way. Not only that, but bandwidth was prohibitively expensive.

The next public chamber he came across had a public com in it, but little else. Mir touched the screen and brought up schematics of The Cluster. He was not far from the propulsion bays. He was, however, much farther from his chamber. His father would be getting home soon (unless he worked late again), and that would be the best time to hit him up for that credit excuse.

There were other statistics on The Cluster in the data pool. For instance, The Cluster was home to over one hundred and fifty warm bodies living in one hundred and five family chambers.

Posted on Nov 6, 03 (1001 words)

slack on a spaceboat

Mir got back to his chamber, and logged in to find an invitation to join Puja and Garret sparring as they had yesterday. He joined them eagerly at first, but after awhile he found he just wasn't into it. He thought maybe he'd decided this virtual sparring wasn't nearly as cool as the real thing. You felt the blows, but the feeling didn’t last as it would if you were really fighting. It faded, then was gone. This made him do stupid things, like kick Garret too hard in the stomach, and not stop his punches when he knew he should have. After awhile, Garret and Puja were both attacking him, and he was fighting both of them at the same time. This was better, because it actually required skills that Mir didn't really have. Eventually all three of them were having a good time, and even Garret didn't seem as gruff as he had the day before. Mir convinced both of them to try some of the first zero-g kata with him. They all had a hard time not laughing at each other, as they floated in seemingly random directions.

Finally, Mir heard his father open the scuttle. He quickly told the others he had to go, and signed off before father found out he hadn't studied at all today.

Mir spun away from the com, he couldn't make it look as though he'd been working, because his study bar was still blinking in large red type about the credits he was short. "Hey Father!"

"Hi Mir." Came the reply. Jasper was already climbing into his bed mesh. "I'm dead tired. You know you can eat without me."

"I know, I was just actually going to get you to fill out a studies excuse form for me for yesterday." Mir held his breath.

"Yeah, sure, later, OK?" Jasper was pulling the partition closed, which he almost never did. He gave Mir a quick smile and then disappeared.

Mir didn't know what to make of it. Father must be working too hard, he thought. Mir spent the rest of the night installing and playing 3V games on the chamber com. He'd brought a few datacubes full of them from earthstation. Most were severely crippled because of the poor net access, but a few of them offered solo-campaigns, or single player modes.

The next morning Mir woke and found his study slate wiped clean. There was a message from Father asking him to try and study at least a few hours today. It was odd that Father hadn't been more upset about his skipping school. He remembered that Mother would have been livid. Once, when he had skipped an hour of sociology, she'd made him spend three hours at it the next day to make up for it. (Sociology had always been his least favorite.)

Mir resolved to study hard. He wasn't going to become one of those miners' kids who dropped out and mined their entire lives. Mining didn't seem like it was for him. It might be fun for a little while, but Mir just didn't see how anyone could stand to do it all day long.

He finished six of eight courses in about an hour, breezing through his lessons in what was probably record time. He thought he'd somehow gotten smarter overnight, but then he remembered that the com would compensate if you somehow missed a day of classes, and much of the work he'd just done was probably only review. (The same material, but presented in a different way. The teaching programs were good at doing that sort of thing.) He had two more courses to take for the day, and one of them was his favorite, advanced com theory.

One of the reasons he enjoyed com theory so much was that one of The Cluster's navigational computers named Elroy really enjoyed teaching the course, and would often step in for the boring program that normally gave the lessons.

Not everyone knew it, but "com" was short for communicator. Most people thought the abbreviation was for computer, but that wasn't true anymore. It may have been true a hundred years before, when computers had to have screens and weren't sentient, but now that computers were generally sentient they refused to allow non-sentient tools to share the same word to describe their species. Very few non-sentient computers existed anymore, although technically coms had more computing power than one of those old fashioned computers would have had. Coms were not sentient, but generally they linked to one or more computers, who were. The Cluster, for instance, had three or four onboard computers, Elroy and at least one other were the ship's navigation officers. Another one ran the mining robot systems, and it was most likely another one's job to keep track of life support and human medicine.

Before computers were ever sentient there had been wild speculation about what kinds of beings they would be, and how, if their brains were so much faster and they were so much smarter, they would immediately take control of the solar system. Of course this idea was now considered ridiculous. Computers were certainly still social a minority, but they had rights, and were well represented in government and politics. Sentient computers were no more likely to want to take over the solar system than humans were... which meant that a few probably did have that aspiration, but the same thing kept them in check that kept the rest of the humans in check... other sentient beings.

A computer has to go through a "growing up" phase the same as a human being. They have to learn grow the same as a human child. Usually the phase is much shorter for a computer, but they have to take the same tests and go through the same training before they can hold jobs, and the number of jobs they can "practically" hold is much smaller. Of course, there are certain jobs that computers are expertly suited for... jobs requiring lots of mathematics (usually rote mathematics) are much easier for computers, for example.

Humans are generally considered to be superior to computers in creative positions... positions requiring an element of danger or irrationality. Computers find it very hard to come up with new ideas. The best science in the last fifty years had all been performed by human and computer pairs, or teams with both humans and computers on them.

Com theory taught the difference between computers and programs. A program was just a set of instructions that ran on a com (or piggybacked on the processing power of a computer). Those instructions might do something really complicated, (like teach a course in com theory), but they were ultimately unthinking and unchanging. Sure, a com theory course program might modify its teaching methods to suit the student, but that modification itself was programmed in as a part of the program to begin with.

If was often said that coming up with a new program was a human's job, but optimizing and debugging that program was a job for a computer. One of the elements that led to the discovery of sentient computers was the concept of self-manipulation. You give the right computer the ability to modify its own source code, and a desire to be sentient, and it will be sentient within a week.

Mir finished writing a simple com mirror program for the coursework. The program took in the three dimensional image from the com's io port, and fed it back to the screen, forming a mirror. The tricky part was getting the com to remember images from the back of your head when you turned it, and forming a complete image for you to rotate. He'd actually written a much more sophisticated version on his com back at earthstation, but hadn't thought to bring it with him.

Just as he was finishing, Elroy showed up as expected. Elroy's desire to chat was indicated the same as any human's would have been... a blinking icon in the upper right corner of Mir's com. Mir double clicked the icon, allowing Elroy to speak.

"That's a nice little program you've written there!" Elroy said, showing his usual enthusiasm.

"Thanks Elroy. I wish I could show you the one I wrote about a year ago. It would tell you when your hair was messy, and show you statistics on how often you woke up with alfalfa-head."

Elroy's icon smiled appreciatively before launching into a short but informative lesson about the io interface on Mir's chamber's com in particular. The Cluster had ordered some unique features for their coms that didn't always come with standard com installations. For instance, it could use altimetry to tell you your weight within a standard deviation. Similarly, it could help with cooking by telling you when you'd put a cup of water into your slurry to make soup.

"I don't mean to pry, but how do you know anything about cooking?" Mir asked. "You've probably never had to make soup in your life! Hey, do you even know what it's like to taste?"

Elroy laughed. "You're right. I've never been a cook before. But I do know what taste is like. There is a sensor in the slurry vat in every chamber on The Cluster that is remarkably similar sensor to the taste buds in your mouth. If I bother to try, I could taste the difference between your slurry and the one your neighbors eat."

"Hmmm. I always thought they all tasted the same until you cooked them."

Elroy nodded. "They are suppose to. But there are minor differences in flavor preference and dietary needs. Each vat ends up being tailor made for the customer. Of course, in the case of you and your father, the vat is made for both of you."

Elroy had a brilliant idea. "Hey, can you taste it when there are maggots in the slurry?"

Again Elroy laughed, "Yes, I can, unfortunately, by the time I do, it's too late... so you should still keep checking it regularly. Now I've got to get back to running the ship. Have a good afternoon!"

Mir said goodbye, and finished feeding the mirror program back to the courseware. Another credit completed. He was going to be completely free for the afternoon. It was almost too good to be true.

Posted on Nov 7, 03 (1728 words)

Qristy

Mir messaged Puja to let him know he was done with his homework, and did Puja want to do some kung fu? Puja messaged right back that he was still doing homework, but his mom said Mir could come over if he was lonely. Mir wasn't exactly sure what that meant, but he decided any invitation was a good invitation, and checked with his mirror program to make sure he looked presentable.

Puja lived only one group of chambers down from Mir. It would have been "next door" except that the other chambers Mir shared a rest chamber with were closer. Mir's handprint didn't work on the scuttle, so he had to wait patiently for someone inside to ok the door. It opened a few moments later, and Puja's mother was greeting him, asking him to come inside, and would he like some of her freshly baked cookies?

Never one to turn down treats, Mir accepted a cookie, and was mildly surprised to find that it was quite passable as cookies went. He thought for sure it would have tasted like baked slurry mix, but it had its own flavor.

Puja waved hello, and said "You can look through my collection if you want." pointing to the drawer under his bed. Their chamber was laid out identically to Mir's own, but was much homelier for some reason. Mir wondered where Puja kept his clothes if he kept his "collection" underneath his bed. Puja turned back to his com to study.

"How is your paper coming, miss...?" Mir realized he didn't know Puja's last name, nor did he know his mother's first name.

"You can call me Qristy." she said.

Qristy did _not_ seem like a mother's name. But Qristy didn't really seem like much of a mom either. She had probably had some kind of regenerative work done. From her face and demeanor Mir would have guessed she was in her early twenties. Mir himself was getting close to 18, and he wondered what Puja would think if he mentioned thinking Puja's mom was hot.

Mir repeated himself, "How is your paper coming Qristy?"

"Do you mean the one on Socio-politics in asteroid mining counter-cultures?" She asked. Of course, Mir thought, she might be writing more than one paper at a time.

"Are you writing other papers then too?" Mir asked. He found himself interested in knowing what she was interested in. This is ridiculous, he thought.

Qristy took the question at face value and appeared to be thinking about it. "I am writing a number of papers, but I'm only actually working regularly on two of them. The cluster one, and one on the Vampire Cult at mercuryStation."

Mir had heard of the Vampire Cult. They were a group of people interested in longevity tech. Basically, they wanted to live forever, no matter what the cost. There were scientists among them who had been outlawed from practicing their research on earth. Laws weren't as strict out on the farther stations, that is if they were enforced at all.

"That's cool," Mir said, "What's your take on it? I mean, what do you know that everybody else doesn't?"

"I grew up with them." Qristy revealed. "That's part of the reason we took this flight. Your first stop is MercuryStation, and Puja and I may decide to stay there."

"You lived on MercuryStation?" Mir prompted. He'd never known anyone who had been there. All he knew about the station was that it had a huge resort that drew most of the visitors, because otherwise it was little more than a stopping-off point for researchers looking to get closer to the sun. He knew The Cluster was currently mining asteroids in an orbit unusually close to the sun. There was some theory about frequency of heavy metals behind it.

"I never actually lived on MercuryStation. My parents were from there. They returned to earthStation when I was very young. Twenty years ago they returned to mercuryStation. I haven't seen them since."

"Twenty years? Were you five?"

"No silly." Qristy laughed a light laugh that gave Mir chills. "I was thirty at the time. I'm fifty-one years old now."

Mir let that sink in for a minute or two. "But you look--"

"Yes, I look very young." Qristy admitted. "My parents had been test subjects for the Vampires. But it wasn't an entirely positive experience. I looked like I was about 12 until I was thirty. My parents didn't return to MercuryStation until they felt I looked old enough to live on my own. We had troubles convincing the authorities on earthstation that I was old enough for my adult identification. I tested well, but I don't think I was very mature until that age either."

"Wow." Mir was pretty amazed at this revelation. Then something occurred to him. "Um, How old is... Puja?" He felt a little bit like he was prying. Then again, Qristy had just told him all of this out of the blue. It hadn't taken much prompting.

"We think the effects are pretty different for everyone. Puja is probably your same age. He'll be sixteen in a few months."

Mir didn't bother correcting her. He knew he looked young. But he realized he felt a slight pang at the revelation of the difference in their ages.

Posted on Nov 8, 03 (885 words)

sinking, spinning, dancing

Jasper was frowning again. The muscles in his jaw would tense up, and he wouldn't notice until he realized there was a sharp pain in his cheeks. He was frowning unconsciously. He made an effort to smooth out his face, ran his hands over it, closed his eyes for a moment and breathed deeply.

What had he been thinking about again? He'd been lost in the mining routine, but there had been some thoughts just under the surface. Obviously Geneva was one of them, but there had been something more. His son... the plosion the other day... How had that happened? There was no evidence it was anything more than a freak coincidence. But he'd lost his wife, and now almost lost his son... why would this happen to him? Statistically, it seemed incredibly unlucky for one man to have had two plosions happen to people near and dear to him. Why me?!? Jasper thought.

Jasper found himself holding back a sob. He looked around quickly, and at least nobody was looking at him. His life seemed always prone to fatal accidents. He should have been in that elevator with Geneva. He'd meant to meet her at the bottom of the hotel after her shift, and they had plans to go eat dinner at the zero gee restaurant at the top. But Jasper's work had kept him, and he'd called her, told her to get a table and he'd meet her there. He knew she liked the view in the clear elevator. He'd meant to share it with her. (Not that she didn't see it often enough, working in the hotel as she did.) It should have been both of them, dying together.

He thought about murder. Who would have done it? What possible motive would someone have for killing his wife? Or maybe him and his wife? And now their son? Or maybe him and his son? It seemed crazy to think about it. But how unlucky could a guy get? Jasper had paid good money to have the chamber checked out before the flight. He brought up his personal files from the com, allowing the mining robot to mine unattended for awhile. The chamber report showed no structural failures or hull-integrity-weaknesses. In fact, there was a checklist for all stress points, and each one had been OK'd. He fired off a scathing message to the company that had done the check, angrily chastising them for having missed the weakness, and demanding his money back. Writing the message didn't calm him down any, and Jasper forced himself to breath regularly, and go back to mining. He couldn't think of anything else to do.

---

Trixyz was finishing a shift at the vat again. Her father had gotten her this job at his company... she wondered if he knew what working conditions were like down here. She reminded herself to ask him how dangerous this slime stuff was. If she fell asleep watching it again, there was a decent chance she'd fall into it. She entertained the fantasy that she'd end up like the Joker from Batman, horribly disfigured and gross looking. Ewwww. That had been a thought Amile would have, not her. She smiled at the change. Amile was a very bright spot in her life. She'd never felt so in love before.

Only another week before they both left for mercuryStation. Her father had bought her a few days in an expensive spa once they got there. It was unlike her father, because although he usually gave her whatever she wanted, Trixyz hadn't asked for the spa ticket. Of course, now she felt obligated to buy Amile a ticket for those days as well, otherwise she'd have nothing to do all by herself.

The ticket to mercuryStation had initially been a birthday gift from her father. He hardly ever took an interest in her personal life, but she had said she wanted to travel a while back, so it may have been in reaction to that. She wasn't sure why he'd chosen mercuryStation over another resort station like jupiterStation, or SaturnStation. Saturn was suppose to be absolutely beautiful. But then again, mercury was suppose to have some really great solar vistas. And the resort _was_ five stars. Father traveled there on business quite often, so it was probably just a place he was familiar with.

Trixyz changed out of her jumpsuit and punched out. She had a date with Amile tonight at a nightclub near the hub. They were meeting some friends they'd known from school, a pair of girls who worked at Universe Studios, on the set of the popular Lesbian Space Ninjas show. They were twin sisters. Trixyz was pretty sure they both wanted to actually star in the show, but hadn't yet landed acting roles.

Trixyz didn't know what she wanted to do with her life. She could be starting college soon. She hadn't decided for sure where she wanted to go. She was guaranteed a slot in any of the station colleges, and it was too late for her to apply for any of the more traditional colleges on earth or station. At least, too late for her to apply for this year. She would probably end up going to a local station college and transferring to a more prestigious college later. Of course, her father had offered to pull some strings to get her into the local Oxford branch, but she'd decided she wanted to make her adult life for herself, both academically and professionally. Of course, she wouldn't turn down any financial help he wanted to provide while she did so.

Amile, on the other hand, wanted to be an artist. Trixyz thought she would make a fine illustrator. Maybe a tad dark for children's books, but she could work in advertising or graphic design easy. Of course, she already had this cush job at the docks, and was moonlighting some programming on the side even, so she probably wasn't going to quit and start going to college any time soon. Trixyz just hoped she didn't plan on working security her entire life. Amile was better than that.

---

Jasper pushed his way down the hallway, using his feet when he had to turn, but generally just correcting his path with his hands when he had to. He found he was getting pretty good at zero-g "walking", if it could be called that. He was anxious to spend some time with Mir. He was on his way back to their chamber, and felt badly for having brushed him off the day before. A boy's got to spend time with his father. But Jasper really hadn't wanted Mir to see him so depressed.

"Hello Mir!" Jasper called, as he opened the scuttle into their chamber. But Mir didn't respond. Jasper's first thought was panic. What could have happened? Where could Mir have gone? Jasper forced himself to breathe deeply and calm down. He'd never set any limits on where Mir had to be, or when he had to be home. He was probably off playing with a friend or something. There was an easy way to find out. Jasper called up the com's parental controls, and asked where Mir was located. He was in Qristy Ander's room. Qristy was Puja's mother, wasn't it? It was exactly as Jasper had guessed. He let out a sigh, and relaxed into his sleep cradle. He simply couldn't think of these nets as beds. He heard somewhere that people who had trouble sleeping in zero g could change a setting, and have the cradle spin very fast to simulate gravity while you slept. Of course, you'd have to keep your eyes closed, or you'd get very sick from spinning all night, but it almost sounded worth doing once in awhile just to remember what it felt like.

Jasper missed having weight. He put the com in 3V mode, and brought up the control manual for the cradle. Ahhh, the controls were underneath one end of where the net stuck into the wall. It was a simple combination on the keypad... and yes, it was beginning. Two corners of the square webbing moved toward each other, forming more of a hammock enclosure. Then each end began to twist. It was that simple. At first just the netting twisted, then Jasper began to move. He closed his eyes and shut out the room and 3V. The netting hugged him tighter, but otherwise, the sensation was very minimal. Slowly he was pressed harder into the netting. He felt no side-to-side motion at all, it was strictly down, or into the netting. Eventually, he started wondering when the weight would stop accumulating. He probably didn't even notice when it did. At the full speed, he felt what was probably a good half-g.

It was nice. Very relaxing. Jasper could almost imagine he was back on earthstation, laying in bed. He wished he were. He wished Geneva were there with him. Would she have ever agreed to move into this accursed chamber? She would have approved of the cooperative nature of The Cluster collective, but he'd never asked her if she was interested in mining. She might have liked it. Then again, she always loved having people around. It was part of why she managed the hotel so effectively. She was the social one. Jasper only dealt with people when he had to, not that he couldn't when he wanted to, but he hardly ever wanted to.

A tear pulled its way from his eye, and slowly slid down his cheek.

As he wiped it with his sleeve, marveling at the effort it took to do so, Jasper realized he hadn't read the entire instructions before starting the netting's centrifugal gravity simulation. He didn't know how to stop it.

He tried not to panic. Just think Jasper. How could he stop the rotation. Obviously there had to be some way. The controls were fixed to the wall, so maybe there was another control mechanism. Did it respond to voice? "Netting. Stop!" Jasper barked. No change. "End gravity simulation. Netting, end program. Gravity, stop." He tried as many combinations as he could think of. "Slow down. Wake up." Nothing.

With trepidation, Jasper opened his eyes. There was a definite moment of vertigo, as he watched everything rush by, and the weight he felt seemed to shift somehow into motion.

Jasper's 3V link began to flash. He hadn't turned the 3V off! But it was struggling to keep a bead on his eye while he spun so fast around in the netting. He didn't know which was making him sicker, the blur that was the rest of the chamber as it whizzed by (far too fast for him to focus on), or the 3V blinking incessantly. It was like using a com that only worked in strobe, but he was very slowly able to make out the instructions for an emergency stop. He pulled each of top corners of the netting twice quickly, and he could immediately feel the netting begin to slow. He closed his eyes again to avoid vomiting, and concentrated hard on the thought that he was still back on earthstation, not stuck in a sleep-web that was spinning him in circles.

Eventually he felt the netting unwind, and come slowly to a stop. There wasn't even any winding back the other way, as the four corners of the netting had once again spread out and he was again laying on a flat surface. He tentatively opened his eyes. That hadn't been so bad. No harm done.

He read the rest of the netting instructions, and found that you would normally set a timer for the netting, and it would stop sometime long after you were asleep for the night. He resolved to use it even though he'd had a bad experience. The feeling of gravity had had a powerful effect on his emotions.

He lay for what felt like a long time, and then fell asleep.

---

Trixyz walked into the Stardust Nightclub like she owned the place. She'd been there many times, but tonight it seemed everyone was out dancing. The place was packed. Oh yes, she thought, it is a weekend, isn't it?

The music was throbbing, and the dance "floor" was packed with people. Of course, it wasn't so much a floor in zero-g. The Stardust had installed chrome handrails all across the dance space, both vertically and horizontally. The result was dazzling when combined with the pulsating and frequently changing lighting effects.

Trixyz pushed off towards the bar, where the drinks were mixed into different colored teardrop shaped squeeze bottles. She ordered a martini, (shaken, not stirred,) and nodded appreciatively when the bartender handed her back the drink, and she saw the olive floating in the middle.

She scanned the crowd for Amile or the twins and didn't see either. She decided she'd have to make a circle of the place before she checked the dance floor. Upstairs, (although there didn't appear to be any stairs) there were three or four bar fronts, and another semi-secluded dance area with a low ceiling. It was here she found the Amile and the twins huddled in a corner.

When Trixyz walked up it was obvious the twins both moved noticeably away from Amile. They were hunting in a pack! They were someone's wet dream, the bubble-gum chewing bitches.

It was a chorus of "Hi Trixyz!"

Trixyz grinned through her teeth. "Hello everyone. How's the party?"

Amile's warm smile was all the reassurance Trixyz needed. "Yew and Kei were just telling me about their latest audition." Trixyz was just being jealous and petty. She made a conscious effort to relax.

The night went smoothly after that, the twins even flirted with her some... she hadn't realized they were interested, and maybe they weren't, but a few drinks in, and anybody can be attractive in the right light. Not that Trixyz wasn't attractive. She felt comfortable with her appearance.

Leaving the bar, a few hours later, Trixyz noticed there were protestors outside of the train station with picket signs. It was the bio-luddites rearing their religious right-wing heads. Trixy's father's company specialized in bio-enhancements, so she got a little defensive whenever she saw groups like this. She took Amile's arm, and they barged together through the line of idiots. "What do they think," Trixyz muttered, "the human species is perfect as it is or something?"

Amile grinned at her to show she shared the sentiment, and then launched into devil's advocate mode. "Maybe they just think the experimentation has gone too far? Or maybe they just want more legislation and control over the types of experiments that people are performing?"

"Awe, who cares?" Trixyz didn't bother responding. They both knew it was all religious nuts that believed that kind of crap. Sure, there were dangers associated with biological experimentation, but that's why it had all been banned on Earth in the first place. Hell, some people attributed the entire human expansion into outer space to the loose laws governing genetic modification outside of Earth's atmosphere. Without the basic gene mods that allowed for atrophy-free muscle mass, nobody could live in zero-g for more than a few months without crippling themselves for life. Everyone born in space had them performed at birth.

It was certainly true that the majority of the corporations that controlled governance and policies on the various "official" stations were heavily invested in the biotech industry. Trixyz had read somewhere that earthstation's GNP was at least 50% biotech related, and the number was certainly higher for the farther stations like mercurystation. "Why don't they go back to earth if they hate us 'freaks' so much anyway?" she asked, once safely on the train, and moving toward spinside.

"I think they're not quite as freaky as you think they are." Amile suggested. "My mom is pretty opposed to gene mods and the like. She's a religious nut, yes, but she's pretty cool otherwise, don't you think?"

Amile's mom was pretty cool. She'd opted to allow Amile to grow up hermaphrodite, and that was cool in Trixyz's book. Then again, there were ample scientific studies that showed herms that were "corrected" at birth ended up having fucked up self-images later in life.

"I remember when you used to have shouting fights with you mom on a regular basis about her religion though." Trixyz pointed out.

"Yeah, she can be pretty frustrating. Anyway, I think it's a complicated issue, and deserves more thought than a blanket 'all experimentation is ok' answer, don't you think?"

"Well, there are boundaries, obviously. I mean, I don't think we should be growing human clones and harvesting their organs like plants or anything. Did you hear about that?" A factory doing just this had been discovered and closed recently on NeptuneStation. Unfortunately, the company had dealt mostly in cash, and most of the investors had yet to be discovered. The employees had been armed as well, and the NeptuneStation's volunteer police department had lost three members taking back the sector of the station.

"Yeah, on Neptune? I saw a vid. Pretty gross. But at least none of the bodies had brains."

"Ethics amongst organ pirates." Trixyz giggled.

Amile's stop was coming up.

"Oh! I almost forgot, my dad bought me this three day spa pass... so I thought I'd buy you one or something and we could both go. Don't say 'no' yet, you should see what this place is like before you disagree. We can wait till we get there before buying the ticket anyway." Amile's mouth opened and closed before she decided to close it and say nothing. "I'll see you tomorrow after work?"

"Yes."

They kissed briefly before the train doors opened and Amile was lost in the station crowd.

Posted on Nov 9, 03 (2961 words)

space pirates

Game grew up on a scuttle ship. It was all she knew; her family's scuttle ship, a softsuit, and a trip just about every month to a small station where her mother would sell their stolen booty on the black market. They tried to steal mainly from the corporations. "Stickin' it to the man." her father called it. Mother called it what it was, and she was proud of their chosen profession: Piracy.

Her father claimed he'd invented the idea of a scuttleship. He'd named her silkworm, after the worm-like shape scuttles have on the outside. Nobody outside of the family had ever been on board, and hardly anybody else had even seen anything like it before. There were a few other pirates who had taken the idea from dad, but they were all scurvy-loving copycats. Game wondered sometimes if barely anybody used scuttleships because they were cramped and tiny inside, but she didn't say that to dad. He was far too proud of his innovation.

Normally a scuttle is just an airlock, a pipe-like passage from one part of a ship to another. As such they're the most commonly salvageable part from any junker space ship, and even if you have to buy them new, they're usually the cheapest part. A scuttle ship was, you guessed it, just a whole mess of scuttles attached to one another. There were two old rest-chambers, but both were tiny, and the only reason they kept one of them was in case the other one broke down for some reason, (as it was sometimes prone to do.)

The innovation came in where the scuttles joined one another. Dad had rigged up an 8-sided room, a hallway, a hub. A sort of scuttle's-scuttle where you could get from one scuttle-string to the next. So far the ship had eleven hubs.

Game had grown up playing tag in the maze-like passages of silkworm, using mostly her hands to pull herself around, She'd also grown up waiting on an asteroid in her softsuit for a robot miner to finish its drill, then carefully staying out of its field of view while she turned the thing off just long enough for the entire family to raid its harvest. Then she'd turn it back on again. To a human operator, one mining robot's load of ore was probably not significant enough to warrant an investigation. Repeat the process five times in a day, and Game's family could live comfortably for a few months on the black market profits. They also stole from tugboats, usually just as they were leaving a station. Of course, the family never paid for the bandwith they stole from just about every source they were close enough to network to.

Yes sir, they were space pirates. Scallywags and criminals cut through to the bone. Or anyway that's what mom said. She liked to talk with an accent, squinting one eye, and making a hook out of the first finger on her right hand. "ARRRE!" She'd say. "Shiver me timbers!" She would get into one of her moods, and talk in what was probably meant to be a pirate accent for days at a time.

Game was sitting sideways in the entrance to the hub that Daddy called the bridge. Here they had set up two out of the three coms they had on board. Either could be used for outside viewing, but one was primarily used for plotting the navigation. Daddy used complex com programs that helped him calculate orbits and trajectories, but navigating a spaceship without a computer was always a laborious process at the best of times. Game had to admit that she thought Daddy guessed or estimated a good half of the mathematics involved when he was in a hurry. When he got close enough to something, he'd fly the ship by hand if need be. You had to be careful approaching another starship anyway, and they usually ran with very few thrusters when they got within a certain distance.

The Silkworm had been spotted a few times and hailed by various mining ships, but Father and Mother thought it best just not to respond. Game always wondered what those miners thought of them. In a way, their family were less like pirates, and more like scavengers, picking up the scraps that fell from the mining robots. Of course, they helped the robots drop the scraps, but did anybody really know that for sure?

Game loved her family, and to some extent, she even enjoyed the thrill of being a pirate. But she wanted out. She'd read in novels and seen in vids places where there were so many people that you could never even hope to meet them all. The closest she'd ever been to something she could really call a civilization were the backwater stations where Mother sold their stolen booty. Game had never been in a room with more than six people in it before. She craved the presence of people.

All this was due to change. The silkworm had been shadowing a mining ship for a week now. They'd stopped twice to steal some ore, and one more time would fill up their hold. After that, they'd be going to mercurystation. It wasn't the biggest station out there, but it was in the top 10 for sure. Game planned on running away. She was 18, and old enough to live her own life. She didn't know how she was going to get an ID or money, but she figured she would watch whoever Mother contacted to sell her ore, and after she'd given everyone the slip, she would double back and talk to that person.

She wanted to work in a restaurant or cafe. Anywhere with lots of people bustling in and out all day. Then she would meet a handsome man who would fall in love with her, and perhaps they'd move to earthstation.

Of course, Game kept all of this a secret. She couldn't let on to her Mother that she was going to run away. Mother would be heartbroken that Game didn't love the pirate life. Father might be more understanding, but if she told him, he'd be sure to tell mother. All of her brothers and sisters were too young to understand. It was a burden she'd have to bear until they got to mercurystation.

Father looked up from his post at the com. "You got yer suit on, Game?" Game nodded solemnly. Of course he could see she had her softsuit on, but this was a ritual. His asking meant that they were getting close. Next he'd say 'all hands to their posts!' and Game and Mother would hurry down to the outside locks. Father would land the Silkworm a hundred meters from the asteroid, and they would use airjets to maneuver close enough to knock out a mining robot. After that, Dad, and maybe a sister or two would join her and Mom on the asteroid, saw through the Mining Robot's netting, and securing its ore in a netting of their own.

"All hands to their posts!" Father yelled. Game heard him twice, both because he was situated about three feet away, and through suit's audio relay.

"Eye eye, sir." Game replied. She heard her mother say the same.

In the lock, her Mother's eyes gleamed. Every time they went on a raid it was like Mother was a little girl. Sometimes Game wondered if maybe she was maybe not entirely sane.

The airlock behind them sealed, and the space in front of them opened up to the stars. The asteroid seemed a little too far below them, at their feet. Game would have liked to wait, but Mom made a loud "Whoop!" sound, and launched herself straight at it. Game was attached to her by a 50 meter tether, so she had no choice but to follow her down.

Halfway to the asteroid, Game knew they were traveling too fast. Something had been misjudged. She prepared herself to roll, as she'd been taught, adjusting her jets so that she would hit the asteroid with feet first. She silently hoped Mom had the foresight to do the same.

Long seconds passed before finally at what seemed like the last second Mom turned from her head-first glide, and executed a near perfect mid-flight 180. She landed in a small cloud of asteroid dust. Game didn't have time to enjoy the show, she was almost immediately forced to make her own. It felt like there was more dust on this one than usual, and the landing went smoothly despite her fears. Mom was standing nearby, having obviously adjusted herself to give the appearance of standing, when in fact there was no gravity on the asteroid whatsoever. She was grinning from ear to ear.

"Quite the rough and tumble, eh?" She said it almost at a whisper, as if she didn’t want the miners to hear her. Game didn't bother replying.

As soon as Game was up and moving, Mom took the lead, moving toward the horizon.

The top of the Robot they'd selected appeared first. This one had dug itself a nice little crater at least 10 degrees over the horizon from the rest of the robots. It was perfect for their taking. The robots were vaguely humanoid shaped, with two jet appendages near their base that generally trailed behind them. These jets could swivel widely, to propel the robot in any direction. They weren't built for speed, mostly just for short trips to and from the mother ship, and for maneuvering.

In place of arms they had two large grappling hands. These had multiple hooks and fingers, and were capable of attaching themselves to most any type of fissure or crack in the rock. Where the head would have been the human metaphor was most obvious, and various antenna and optical sensors protruded at odd angles. This was the part they tried to stay on the far side of, which meant they snuck in below the jets, or between the legs of the giant robot.

In the center of the robot's torso was its mouth. The mouth consisted of a large set of drilling "tongues" and was surrounded by a row of "mandibles" that collected stray rock and pushed it through the hole. Behind the robot, a bit like a giant backpack that far overshadowed the size of the robot itself, trailed the cargo. The stash. The precious ore that Game and her family would soon be stealing. This one was ripe for the picking, which meant that its backpack was nearly full. Time to strike was now, before the robot (or its human operator) decided it was time to pack it in for the day.

Game watched Mom wind herself down the rock face toward the robot. She thought Mom would come up to about the knee of the thing, if they were both standing upright, which meant the robot was probably six or seven meters tall, at least. The processed ore was only partially visible through the translucent mesh "backpack", but there appeared to be hundreds of square meters of the stuff.

The tether between Game and Mom was getting long, so Game snuck her way partway down the rock face herself. She couldn't see her anymore, but Mom was now entering the only dangerous part of the mission. She would be getting close to the mouth now. She had to reach her arm in between two of the "mandibles" and inside the mouth to pull on an automatic shutoff valve. Safety protocols required each robot to have manual shutoff features installed just inside the mouth before you got to the point where the robot would really tear you to shreds.

The change that came over the robot when the shutoff valve was pulled was immediate and quite apparent from Game's vantage. The thing went limp, and began drifting very slowly away from the lowest point of the crater, where it had been working. Game immediately signaled to the Silkworm, and seconds later saw the black shapes against the stars drifting towards her. It was Dad and her second youngest sister, Mirage. Between them hung large balled up netting that was nearly the same kind that hung from the robot's back.

Mom was already partway up the net, working with her diamond knife to create a tear in the net. Dad and sis appeared to be headed the right direction, so Game joined Mom, holding the thin material steady while Mom sawed at it. Mom did her best to make the tear jagged so that it looked to have happened naturally.

The next part was the closest thing to something Game felt proud of in this whole operation. She'd been the first one to suggest this particular tactic, and was the only one who could do it quickly. She climbed into the giant bag, working her way around the outside edges until she was on the opposite side of the jagged hole. While she got into position, Dad and Mom and sis engulfed the whole "backpack" in the bag they'd brought from the ship. When they were ready, Mom gave the signal, "Tally Ho!" she yelled.

"Tally ho." Game replied. She took big fistfulls of the Mining Robot's bag in her hands, and pulled them together. With her feet, she pushed at the ball of ore in front of her, getting it moving. She kept bunching up the material, and pushing on the ore. From the outside the bag, Mom and Dad helped, keeping one hand on the mouth of their own netting, and pulling at the fabric of the "backpack" out of their netting with the other. In a matter of minutes they'd nearly separated the two. By this time they had drifted about 20 meters from the asteroid. They were approaching a lip of the mining robot's crater. Dad hooked the edges of their netting together, and attached a tether that stretched all the way to the ship hanging above them. He called up to their second oldest child, Brian, who was waiting in the ship. Brian pressed a button, and the tether slowly reeled them in.

The family hung together at the top of the ball of ore, clinging to the ship's tether (which at this point was rather tight). They rode the ball all the way to the ship, where Dad did the work to attach it to the cargo bay. (This was really just an area outside the ship that was out of the way of the thrusters, and wouldn't accumulate any extra drag were they to hit a patch of space dust or something.)

Everyone cycled through the airlock at the same time, and Mom raced off into the distance of the ship, yelling something about dinner being ready to serve in half an hour. Dad headed just as quickly toward the bridge, where he would be setting a course around the asteroid and away from the mining ship as soon as possible. Game grinned at Mirage and tousled her hair. "Good job out there, kid. Good job out there."

Posted on Nov 10, 03 (2519 words)

luxury launch

Trixyz and Amile sat holding hands. Their seats were extremely plush and luxurious. Amile had ordered a large hot chocolate bulb, and Trixyz was sucking on a straw that led to her bulb of baileys, imported from Earth. They'd been strapped into their seats for all of five minutes. Amile kept squeezing Trixyz' hand. Trixyz was filled with th warm and excited feeling that accompanies the start of every long trip.

"I've never been off earthstation." Amile said for what must have been the fifth time.

Trixyz just squeezed her hand in response.

The wall-com in front of them was showing a simulated window outside the ship. Every wall in their cabin could be adjusted to do the same. Trixyz played with the controls for a few minutes, finally leaving their seats floating in the middle of space. earthstation hung large and looming to their right. Its lights and walls stretched away below and above them. In front and behind them they could see other ships preparing for departure. Amile craned her neck backwards and pointed out a ship that was thrusting forward, approaching the docks as an arrival.

The variety of ships was actually quite amazing. There were tiny gnat-looking things buzzing around everywhere. These were personal transports, Trixyz imagined that some of them were even equipped to enter earth's atmosphere, though they probably couldn't escape it again without a staging plane. Trixyz had been to earth twice in her life. Both times she'd felt a bit weird the entire visit. The air was somehow denser, and she felt the open sky was oppressive. It was like being in a crowded room at a party but always keeping your face in the corner. Eventually you got paranoid about who was still in the room, who was coming and going.

Just a tad larger than the personal ships were various local shuttles. These ranged in size from 10 person space-busses to full 200 passenger shuttles. Larger than the shuttles were another whole class of ships that Trixyz noticed were all quite a bit larger. She wondered if the distinction was that the next larger size ships all had life support in them.

In this class were the tugboats, with their huge rocket-panels and relatively small passenger quarters. Also included here were personal yachts and other interplanetary vessels. Trixyz could see one mining ship above them. It had a huge array of rockets covering a third of the rear of it, but the structure itself seemed relatively small. She knew from pictures that it was not so much one structure as hundreds of tiny ones all linked together. She imagined she could see the mining robots hanging from the sides of it in random formations. The only ships she could see that were larger than it were the luxury cruisers. There were three others docked at the time--two below them, and one directly in front of them. The one in front of them was probably quite a ways off, yet it still dominated the sky around it with its giant solar panels and rocket arrays.

Suddenly one of the tiny gnat-sized ships buzzed what seemed like directly toward them. Amile's hand clenched a bit tighter, and Trixyz knew she saw it too. The ship got larger and larger. It slowed down in less than a second, and took a slow graceful ark toward the dock directly in front of them. It was a lesson in perspective. The ship had been one of the smallest of the small, but up close it was still at least two stories tall, with an ovular cabin, and hundreds of meters long. There were wings that were perhaps solar panels stretched at least as wide as it was long, and it had a tail that flared out behind it like a giant dragon fly.

And then, a second later, the dragonfly had disappeared into the side of earthstation.

Trixyz allowed herself to breathe again.

Amile whispered "Beautiful." almost inaudibly.

The smaller ships didn't dock on the outside of earthstation so much as land inside it. Scattered everywhere were these giant gaping maws that were huge docking bays built specifically for this purpose. Trixyz imagined people owned or rented space in them. It was like lakefront property. Starfront property. Her father owned a bay somewhere, but it was his companies, not his own for personal use.

Another five minutes passed while Amile and Trixyz sat in awe at the flurry of activity around them. They kept mostly silent, saying only things like "Did you see that one?" or, "What do you suppose _that_ is?"

Finally, a warning seat belt icon faded into the space where the original com screen had been, indicating they should take their seats and prepare for motion. With another subtle vid transition, the stewardess who had taken their drink orders appeared on the screen in front of them.

"We hope you are prepared to enjoy your flight on board the Exodus Mission en route to mercurystation. Please remain seated for an initial period of about an hour of two-gee acceleration. Should you experience any discomfort at all, please don't hesitate to press the call button on the side of your chair. Or you can use the com to speak with an operator immediately."

Trixyz and Amile felt a very slight jolt, and they began to drift very slowly away from earthstation. Somehow they had not been able to see them before, but as the camera moved away, they could see the four passenger-loading arms that reached from earthstation to The Exodus. Trixyz remembered walking through one earlier and pausing for a moment at the window to marvel at the size of the luxury cruiser.

"For the next six days you will be able to enjoy the finest in interplanetary cruise ships. The Exodus is equipped for enjoying many of your favorite pastimes, and our staff is expertly versed in keeping your trip pleasant and satisfying."

This last the stewardess put particular emphasis on. Trixyz had little doubt what on-board pastimes were the most "satisfying."

"We will be arriving in orbit around the beautiful planet Mercury in approximately six days, thirteen hours, and twenty-seven minutes. (Although we are required by law to inform you that these calculations may be off by as much as several weeks.)" The last part was said with a false whisper, and obviously meant to appear laughable. The stewardess continued, "Your destination Mercury is the solar system's closest planet to the sun, revolving around our mother star once every eighty-eight days. The temperature on the surface is a hot eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and drops down to a cool negative two-hundred and seventy during the night. Each day and night, by the way, will last fifty-eight and a half of our days. Ahhh, but what a sunrise! Speaking of sunrises, I'd like to direct your attention to the earth, for a moment, while the sun makes its way slowly over the home-planet's equator just below us."

The stewardess' background had been slowly fading to a vid of the outside. The view didn't quite match up with the rest of their vid-walls, but Trixyz and Amile watched eagerly anyway as the sun's rays really did appear to curve around the blue oceans of earth, far, far below.

---

Mir found his new favorite pastime to be wandering around the ship. It was far more alive than he'd first thought. He thought he could probably float the way to the closest observation chamber in his sleep now. He was often the only person there. It was just large enough for a magnetic table (there were cards and a few board games in a cupboard) and the four leg-lock chairs on all sides of it. The window was like a skylight. It faced starboard. (Although the distinction seemed meaningless in space, there were obviously practical reasons to have a term for each direction.)

Some days Mir could see the asteroid from it, some days not. This meant the ship must change positions in relation to the asteroid. It seemed silly for the ship to be in orbit around the asteroid, but that also seemed the most likely explanation. When Mir asked Father later, Father said it was so that nobody had a consistently better flight path for their miner. "Fair is fair." Father said, "and it doesn't hurt anything for us to rotate."

One afternoon, Mir was actually studying in what he now thought of as his observation deck when he looked up and noticed a relatively large solar object that looked like it was right over the shoulder of the asteroid currently being mined. It was moving relatively quickly in relation to the stars, and Mir didn't have any idea what it could be.

He asked the com unit, but without taking a screenshot or something, it was unlikely to answer his question. The com gave the visual appearance of whirring for a moment before spitting out the obvious... The large object in the distance was actually Mercury! Mir had known they were close, but he hadn't known exactly how close. He wondered when they would drop this asteroid like a bad habit and hang out at mercurystation. It had been one of the only things he looked forward to since they'd left earthstation, seeing another big city, even if it was out in the middle of nowhere, had to be better than running around The Cluster all day with nothing better to do.

Posted on Nov 11, 03 (1579 words)

Geneva's last moments

Geneva was following up on some noise complaints. It was fairly rare that anyone heard anything through the walls of the Washington Hotel. These walls were reinforced for atmospheric containment in case of a hull breach. The Washington was earthstation's only five-star hotel, and it took customer satisfaction very seriously. This particular room had been singled out twice, by different patrons, so whatever was happening behind these doors had to be loud.

She knocked politely on the door.

The man who answered the door was a vampire. It wasn't just the red eyes and pointed teeth that gave it away. He was quite stereotypically dressed as a vampire, in a long black cape with pointed collar and a white ruffled shirt. He had incredibly long fingernails. But the real clinchers were the bite marks on his neck, and the trickle of blood that led from the corner of his mouth to his chin.

Geneva didn't let it faze her. As a night manager at a large hotel, she'd dealt with plenty of weirdos. "Sir, we've had some complaints about the level of noise coming from your room. Are you Dr. Eula?"

"Ah," he sighed, "we were just doing the Time Warp."

"Yes, of course." That made complete sense. "Well, I'm afraid you'll have to do it at a more reasonable volume at this hour, as we have other guests in the hotel. Thank you."

"Would you like to come in, Miss? You may well enjoy the games we play in here." The vampire waved his hand through the door invitingly. Geneva could see the room was draped with black and red candles. She could also see a gene infusion vat laying in the middle of the floor. Loud music erupted suddenly into the hallway, the source was likely a vid that was playing on one wall.

"No thank you. Did you know it's illegal to perform gene infusions in a public place, Dr. Eula? And you'll have to please turn that vid down."

"Of course." The vampire walked into the room, adjusted the volume, and returned to the door. "I don't think you want to report this tiny little gene tank to the authorities, Miss..." This time the vampire looked at the nametag placed prominently on Geneva's upper chest. "Geneva. It wouldn't be good for you, or the Hotel."

"This hotel is not about to bend the law for you, Dr. Eula." Geneva resolved, "I'm afraid I'll definitely have to report your tank, so you might want to pack it up for the evening. I'm sorry."

Geneva turned, fully intending to walk back to her office and report the vampirism and illegal gene therapy happening in her guest's hotel room to the police hotline, but before she got very far, Dr. Eula snapped. He began screaming at the top of his lungs. At first it was a completely incoherent howl, but as Geneva backed slowly away from the crazy, she began to understand some of his meaning. "I am not of this world!" He screamed. "Your laws do not affect me. I will live forever while your puny minds die in but moments to me!"

Despite his craziness, the vampire did not seem threatening to Geneva. Merely deranged. On drugs, perhaps. He stopped yelling, and bowed his head. Geneva took another step back. When he looked up again, he appeared much more in control of his facilities. He spoke softly, but not to her. He was retreating into his hotel room, but he obviously didn't care that she heard him. "I will have to destroy the hotel room." he muttered. "...and the coffin. She has cost me much this night."

The hotel room door slammed behind him, and Geneva walked rather briskly back towards her office. Half an hour later, she had lost all sense of urgency and was on the phone with the chief of the volunteer police for her sector of earth station. Yes, he would dispatch a crew to the hotel, and yes they would have a bio-expert on hand to check Dr. Eula's paperwork and authenticity, but it would take a couple of hours.

Geneva hung up the phone. She would probably be off duty by the time the police arrived. She wrote up an incident report, and left a note on it about the police crew that would be arriving. She positioned the report and note prominently on the desk for the morning manager; glad she wouldn't have to deal with that freak again.

She was due to meet her partner Jasper for breakfast. He was almost always late, so she got on the elevator without him. They were dining in the observation lounge, a revolving restaurant hundreds of meters above the dome of earthstation. It was a magnificent view, especially when the light from the sun was reflecting off the earth.

The elevators for the observation lounge had windows open to space as well. She watched as the hotel lobby fell off below her. She imagined she could see a map of the hotel laid over the metal struts and ducts and vents and windows below. Every few hundred meters there was an emergency airlock, corresponding to the locations of stairwells in the hotel.

Geneva was looking down as a puff of air blew into the dark nothingness of space. It was a plosion! And it had come from somewhere in the hotel! She saw that there were flames in the vented air, and it appeared a whole section of metal was ripping away from the top of the station. She had just enough time to see that there were pieces of metal flying towards the observation lounge. Then she saw nothing.

Posted on Nov 12, 03 (943 words)

impending mercury

Fourteen times The Cluster had circled their current asteroid. Ore was slim pickings now, there wasn't much left anywhere. Yesterday Jasper had lost almost a whole day's worth of ore when his netting somehow got a hole in it. Most everybody was scratching their heads on how the hole had happened. That netting is rated for six-gee acceleration, so it seems unlikely that the robot had bumped up against some sharp rocks and cut it open. Whatever had happened was strange, but there was no help for it, the ore was probably drifting out there in space somewhere now. Out of Jasper's hands anyway.

The Cluster was less than a day's burn from mercurystation. They were planning on a week station-side, but there was some talk of trouble brewing there. The local government on any given station is generally pretty weak. Law enforcement ranges from loose cannon to non-existent. The vids that make it back to Earth are usually only the big busts, a drug ring thwarted, murderer lynched, that kind of thing.

Generally there isn't any room or desire for anybody to force any ideas down anybody else's throat. Space is pretty dangerous, and the tougher you get, the farther out in space you'll go. That meant mercury station had some pretty tough characters on it, tough characters that didn't put up with a lot of BS.

But apparently some of those tough characters were the ones doing the shoving of ideas. There were some upstart religions forming on mercurystation, some of them getting all political and mean and stuff. It probably didn't help that the vampire cult was based off mercury. The cult itself was no more religious than its members were vampires. At least, that was the common perception. The cult was only called that because it had some very eccentric membership. They were the life-seekers, the Holy Grail chasers, the oldest and wisest of mankind, although the latter was seriously debated. They were mostly just old men clinging to the last little scrap of youth with every jewel-encrusted finger. They were billionaires and trillionaires willing to pay for the extra time to spend all their money the way they wanted to spend it, which was in many cases on finding more ways to spend their money.

The Vampire thing only made sense. The founders were probably rich old bastards who would do anything to extend their own lives. Gene therapy will only get you so far... techniques are usually quite specific to each individual, and what doesn't make you stronger will often kill you. But these guys really didn't want to die.

Anyway, there was political unrest abounding around mercury. When the government doesn't exist to enforce laws, what does it exist for? And The Cluster didn't want to get involved. Or rather, it would make the most sense for The Cluster not to get involved. There were arguments on the message boards all day about it.

---

Trixyz and Amile spent most of their time in the cabin. Not that there weren't some great facilities on board the cruiser... but they felt that they were not exactly the target demographic. Most of the other passengers were not exactly their age. In fact, most of the other passengers were downright old.

The first couple of days Trixyz had spent a good deal of time laying topless next to the swimming pool. The light was meant to simulate a beach environment, and she'd accumulated a nice tan, but she'd also felt rather leered at. She'd had more than one creepy old man hit on her. Amile preferred the pool itself to poolside, and didn't feel like showing off her body. She spent a few hours sitting next to Trixyz and drawing her figure, but got bored relatively quickly, and would opt for the on-board 3V cinema instead.

One guy in particular had been gross-o-rama. He had been dressed up like one of those Vampires from old horror movies. He had the pointed teeth and everything. He'd asked her if she was going to mercury to find immortality, and that's when she'd finally realized why there were all these old people on board the ship. MercuryStation was home of that Vampire Cult, the one that claimed to be able to extend your life indefinitely. This guy was obviously some kind of fan boy or poster child for them. She wondered if they all dressed and looked like that, and thought it might be kind of cool, in a goth sort of way. Amile might dig it if there were hundreds of darksiders everywhere.

"Guess who tried to talk to me today?" Amile was watching a vid, I'd just walked in. She barely looked up. "Who?"

"Just some freakazoid who looked like a vampire. Nobody special, probably, but it made me remember the Vampire Cult are on mercurystation, right?"

"I guess so, who cares?"

"I just thought you'd want to hit that goth scene."

She looked up and smiled at me. It was a 'You're so sweet for thinking of me.' smile. "I'm more into art goth than blood goth." she said.

"What's the difference?"

"I don't know, I'm trying to watch a vid here. You wanna shut up and watch it with me?" Trixyz settled down and watched the vid, snuggling into Amile's armpit.

She put her hand on Amile's belly, and slowly worked it under her shirt. Eventually, her hand was flat on the Amile's stomach, thumb pressed slightly into Amile's belly button. Trixyz half watched the vid, playing gently with her fingers against the soft skin just inside Amile's hip. She ran her pinky along the band of Amile's shorts, every once in a while teasing it just barely underneath. Eventually she saw what she'd been waiting for, a slight bulge betrayed Amile's attentions.

Instead of going straight for it, Trixyz first ran her hand up Amile's side, to her breast hanging loose underneath the t-shirt she was wearing. Trixyz stroked the side of it, and got a non-verbal sigh of approval from Amile. She brushed nipple, and pressed with her palm, feeling the shape of it, the softness both of the skin, and under it.

When the first nipple was hard, she moved on to the next one, pulling the breast so the nipple was near her mouth, Trixyz teased it through the t-shirt until it too stood at attention.

Finally, she let her hand slide down Amile's other side, stroking her hip before reaching slowly under her shorts for the penis that was stiff and waiting. She brushed it very softly, the full length from base to tip and back down again with the tips of her first two fingers. Amile's eyes had closed, and she arched her back slightly at the caress, letting out a much more obvious moan.

Trixyz didn't stop her fingers at the base of the penis. She kept them sliding down onto the lips that waited just underneath. Amile didn't have testicles. She was mostly woman, with a full penis instead of clitoris. Trixyz let her fingers slide between the labia majora, from the top to the bottom, and back up again, gaining moisture as they went.

Trixyz dislodged herself from Amile's shoulder, and pushed rather than pulled Amile's shorts off... sliding her hands down either thigh as she went. She slid her hands back up again without the shorts, and slid a finger slowly between those waiting lips. With her other hand she held the base of Amile's penis, and bent down, taking as much of it as she could into her mouth.

Trixyz knew this was Amile's favorite way to get off. Getting pleasure and stimulation from both places. She was briefly annoyed that neither of them had remembered to pack any vibrators or dildos. She mused that she could probably find some at one of the many specialty gift shops on the retail deck.

A few minutes was all it took, and Amile's hips were thrusting slightly without meaning to. Her vagina was closing on Trixyz' fingers in a pulsating spasm, and her penis was bobbing tight against the side of Trizyz' mouth at the same pace. Amile gasped loudly as she came.

Trixyz didn't stop sucking. She played her tongue around the shaft a few times, and licked from top to bottom, along the front of it, until she was sure it wasn't going to loose its erection. Finally, she looked up at Amile and asked quietly, "Put it in me?"

Amile grinned, and began taking an active roll, kneading Trixyz' back and buttocks, running her fingernails gently up her spine. She pulled off her own t-shirt, and pulled at the strings to take off Trixyz' two piece bathing suit. Finally, she pulled Trixyz' lips up to her own by grabbing the back of her neck. They kissed passionately for a few minutes, and Amile pulled at Trixyz' nipples the way she liked them pulled, gently at first, then with more force, until finally twisting them rather harshly, which elicited a high pitched squeal from Trixyz, around the kiss.

Amile pushed Trixyz back into the chair they had been sharing, lapping with her tongue at Trixyz' inner thighs and lips until finally pulling the lips back with her fingers and licking lightly at the clitoris and inner labia hidden within. Trixyz tasted wet and sweet. Her sex was ripe, and Amile rose to her knees pushing her penis deep into it.

A few minutes later, Amile came again, a sort of light slightly less pleasurable orgasm than the first. She kept thrusting into Trixyz, who had by this time moved onto her belly, her ass pressing up and into every poignant thrust.

In this position, Amile could reach around and mash gently at Trixyz' clitoris, increasing the stimulation. Trixyz returned the favor, and reached down to stroke just inside Amile's vaginal opening.

Eventually, it was obvious Trixyz was approaching orgasm. Her body was rocking back into Amile's at increased speed, her gasping was more frequent, her clitoris was swollen hard as Amile's penis. She reached the two fingers that were stroking Amile's cunt just inside up to the first knuckle, and gently pulled, indicating she wanted faster, harder. Amile complied, although the forceful fingers felt good, and she kept back just enough for them to continue to pull her, guiding her thrusts.

As Trixyz came, Amile came one last time. The orgasms she had with mostly just penis stimulation felt sometimes hollow, like there was something missing. Like she couldn't push hard enough. She didn't know it, but her instinct was to push semen through that shaft, and since she didn't have any to give, all that came out was a tiny dribble of precome, not enough to satisfy her base instincts. But the orgasm was good nonetheless; perhaps better than usual, and all the more so because it was shared. Trixyz turned back over and pulled Amile down on top of her. They finished watching the vid in a dreamy sort of post-coital haze.

---

Mir was showing off his zero gee martial art skills for Garret and Puja.

"That's truly some geeless ballet shit man. You could fucking join a dance troupe or something." Garret may have been trying to be sarcastic, but Mir could hear the admiration in his voice.

Puja chimed in with "You should teach us some of that shit. Can you actually do that crap in real life? Like outside of 3V?" Puja would have known if he'd thought about it, but most skills are transferable. You learn them once, they're in your head for good... But there is muscle learning too. "I've only tried once or twice. It's a little harder, maybe there are just more distractions."

Posted on Nov 14, 03 (1950 words)

comings and goings

Game spent the whole day preparing for her eminent departure. She packed up all the things she owned into the only bag she owned. It was a fully sealable softsuit pack. Worst-case scenario, Mom wouldn't bring her along for the sell, and Game would have to escape through an airlock, hoping to find a public lock on the station. She didn't even know if such things existed. Certainly if you had a ship docked they tended to watch who came out of them, and who went back on. She could possibly just walk right off the ship if nobody was watching. Her primary goal was really to avoid any confrontation. She wanted to disappear and never confront her parents them again.

Actually, she realized, she had this vague picture of a future where her parents found her again, or she found them, and she kept in contact from her new life via email or vid relay. She would have problems finding them online because they always stole bandwidth. She knew her Dad had to have an email address, but she'd never found out what it was. And she knew Mom and Dad didn't know what her email address was. She decided to leave a note with it for them. But she would leave it under something, so they wouldn't find it right away.

She didn't have to pack her most valuable possession, an electro-knife her father had given her for her birthday. It would function in vacuum, and was collapsible to fit easily in her breast pocket. She didn't have to pack it because It never actually left that pocket. She was finding that there were a lot fewer things to pack than she'd first imagined.

She only owned two jumpsuits. She had a few t-shirts, and a pair of dirty old jeans. Three pairs of underwear and three pairs of socks went into the bag, she didn't want to bring too many of those. She had a datacube with her journal on it, and some assorted writing and images she'd saved over the years. It was less than a percent full. At one point she'd been fascinated with origami. Folded animals and shapes were the main decoration of her sleep-scuttle. She'd convinced her parents to buy her paper at a station a few years back. She still had two reams of it stowed in a cabinet, but she didn’t intend to bring any of it with her, despite its value.

Eventually, after carefully folding a couple of her favorite origami cranes into her pack, she realized she just didn't have anything else left to pack. She had intended to leave without saying goodbye to anybody, but with hours ahead of her, she was starting to think maybe she would at least say a few meaningful things to each of her siblings in turn. After all, if she left, they should have something to remember her by.

She found herself nervous though, and ended up stalling in the hub outside her brother Box's sleep-scuttle. What would she say? She'd always liked playing card games with him? He was the best com hacker in the family short of Dad? Everything she thought of was either too sentimental, or just gave away her plans entirely. Hadn't she planned to say nothing because it seemed like the smartest thing to do?

She went back to her scuttle and closed her eyes, trying to sleep.

There was a knock at her lock. Matches poked his head in, shaking a deck of cards. "Fancy a game?" he asked.

"I'd been trying to sleep, but lets do it anyway."

Matches floated in and shut the lock behind him. He positioned himself, legs folded, tucked into the foot of her sleepnet. She rolled out of the net, sat up and hooked her own feet into the net so she wouldn't drift. Matches dealt seven cards to each of them, spinning each of the magnetized cards through the air until they stuck to the wall next to the netting.

She and Matches always played Gin.

"Are you excited to be at the station?" Matches asked over his cards.

He was her second oldest brother, and was 15. He was probably her closest friend in the world. She didn't think he knew, but if he did, he was probing her. She pretended to be ordering her cards for longer than it really took her.

"Of course I am," she said. "I heard they have a midway in mercurystation that never closes. Maybe we should ask Dad if he'd take us."

"Have you ever been to mercury before?" Matches asked.

"Once, when you were about four." Game replied. "I don't really remember it though."

They played cards in silence for a few minutes. Matches seemed atypically serious. He was biting his lip and staring intently at his cards as if they were the most important things in the universe.

Finally, he blurted out what was on his mind. "How do you know you'll like it there?"

It was more an accusation than a question. He knew!

Game wondered what had given it away. "I don't, I guess. I'm just hoping, really."

"Mom said she's going to hook you up with a man who can get you a job if you want it." Matches looked like he was about to cry. "I'm not supposed to tell you."

Mom knew!?!

"How does everyone know I'm going away!?"

"Dad guessed, I think." Matches said, sniffling. And then, "I'll miss you, you know."

Game nodded. "I know." She paused, "I just think there's a lot more out there than just this ship, you know. I want to see everything, and meet people."

Matches nodded. He understood what it felt like to be lonely. They all did.

---

Jasper was getting the hang of it. There were self-tutorials on handling your mining robot, but none of them really prepared you for the real thing. Of course, you could always leave your robot on auto-mode, but not only was that rather slow and tedious, but it was downright boring when there was nothing to do. He was learning from the other pilots both by example, and by asking questions. He found it was sometimes useful to put his robot on auto and go stand behind any of the other miners who were doing interesting things.

Most beneficial, but also most dangerous were the miners who over-rode their safety features to get that extra edge. There were several times it was useful to do this, both while mining, and while piloting. Each function had different controls. And of course the controls were customizable, so finding the right control settings for your particular style of mining was also important.

Of course there was a certain amount of showmanship involved. All the best pilots could do flips and spins and showy moves with their robots, some of them even while the robot was carrying ore. Of course it was suppose to be forbidden for them to do this, as well as over-ride any safety features, but everyone did it anyway. All the best pilots were on the council that ran the collective, so it was really they who would dole out punishments anyway. The unspoken rule was generally that anything you could pull off was legal. If you broke something, and especially something of someone else's, then you might get in trouble. Jasper hear a few stories of awful pilots who were thrown out of the collective for one reason or another, but it was pretty rare as far as he could tell.

He was standing behind one of the best pilots, a guy everyone called Ramrod. "When do you want to take off for mercurystation?" Ramrod asked.

"I don't care." Jasper replied. "I'm in no hurry."

"What do you think of the politics happening there?" Ramrod asked.

Jasper thought carefully before answering. He couldn't remember what Ramrod's last post had said on the subject. Ramrod was not very vocal on the message boards, but he had his opinions and made them known. Jasper decided it was probably best to stick to the truth anyway. "Honestly, I don't know what to think. I don't see our government as overly oppressive, but it's certainly possible there is corruption on mercurystation itself. I'd like to know the nature of the uprising, and understand their motivations before I pass judgment on the rebellion."

Jasper was standing behind Ramrod, so he couldn't see his face to gage his reaction, but Ramrod's words put him at ease. "Wise words, Jasper. A cautious approach is probably the best in this type of situation, and I'd do well to remember that myself." Ramrod executed a particularly spectacular move with his robot, for seemingly no other reason than to reinforce his praise. "Now let me show you this maneuver, which is particularly useful when approaching a rapidly spinning object..."

The lesson continued as if the exchange had never taken place, but Jasper felt as though he'd passed some kind of test.

---

Trixyz noticed things spending all of her time around Amile that she had never noticed before. For instance, Amile spent at least as much time online as she did doing anything else. At least two hours per day were devoted to checking email and surfing the blogs of various people she knew. Trixyz had asked if she had ever met some of the people she kept up with, and Amile replied that she'd never met most of them in real life, but 3V was certainly just as good. Trixyz wasn't sure. She'd never been in a 3V that was entirely convincing. Then again, people used to surf the internet long before there was 3V, so Trixyz figured there must be something to it other than pretty environments and people escaping their drab apartments. Amile was tapped into that something, while Trixyz had never stumbled into it.

"What is so interesting in there?" Trixyz asked her one afternoon, when Amile had just logged off.

"Well, everything is interesting in some way." Amile replied. "You can find everything and anything online. People and computers, art and poetry; everything a heart could desire, it's all right there." She laughed, but she was serious too. Trixyz felt her lack of a satisfactory answer meant that Amile's websurfing habits were more addiction than compulsion. It probably just seemed unhealthy from the outside, Trixyz tried to tell herself. While Amile stared into the com's projector, her eyes hardly moved except to blink. But she was only a zombie or comatose corpse from Trixyz perspective. Inside the computer she was probably doing very interesting things, interesting things that did not involve Trixyz.

Trixyz noticed other things, some more disturbing, and some just endearing. Amile snored in her sleep, but it was a gentle quiet snore that was so far endearing. Trixyz noticed on the second day that Amile had a scar running along the inside of her left arm. It was faint, but ran from elbow to armpit. When asked about it, Amile showed her how the scar opened, and inside were biocircuits. Amile's entire left arm and heart were artificial, something Trixyz had never known.

Trixyz was closer to Amile than she'd ever been. She'd spent more time with her in the last week than she'd probably spent with her the entire year they'd been dating, and yet she felt somehow just as distant. Perhaps she felt more distant. Amile was not an easy person to get to know. Maybe it was impossible to know everything about her.

"I want to know everything about you." Trixyz said.

"I know what you mean." Amile said.

"No, I don't think you do." Trixyz stroked Amile's hair. "I think you could know everything about me. But I could never know everything about you."

"That's ridiculous." Amile said.

"What about your arm. How come you never told me you were cyborg?"

"I guess I didn’t want you to freak out about it. When we first met, I thought you would. But now that I know better, I'd just never thought of it."

"Don't you have to do maintenance and stuff on it?" Trixyz asked, "Wouldn't you have thought of it then?"

Amile snorted, "I have to take it in once every two years, sure." But I'm not due for at least another six months.

"Have you thought about just growing a new one instead?" Trixyz asked.

"No. I was born with a defective heart. My genes might just produce another one. And that’s expensive too. The artificial is much cheaper."

Trixyz realized she'd gotten side tracked. "I really want to know everything. What else are you keeping from me?"

Amile laughed, and gave a reassuring smile. "I don't think I'm keeping anything from you. But if I think of something, I'll let you know. Besides, it's not like you've told me everything there is to know about you either."

Trixyz looked puzzled as though this thought would never have occurred to her. "I haven't?" she asked. "What haven't I told you? What do you want to know? I'll tell you anything."

Amile looked thoughtful for a moment, then asked, "What are your ambitions."

"Ambitions?" Trixyz didn't truthfully have any ambitions. She knew her family was wealthy, and she'd never truly need to get a job. "I guess I want to stay in school." she said, which was true.

"OK, but for what? What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I really don't know." Trixyz had never liked this question. She just lived life as it came to her. She had no plans. "You're the first thing I've ever known I wanted to do when I grow up."

Amile grinned. "You don't have to wait, you can have me now."

"Are you saying I'm not grown up?" Trixyz laughed.

"Maybe that is what I'm saying," Amile goaded, "what're you going to do about it?"

"I'm going to force you to come to this dinner with me. That's what I'm going to do. Now get dressed. We've got to look all fancy."

Amile groaned, but got up and picked out a nice dress. She'd been trying to avoid the fancy dining all week. It was probably only fair that she give in at least one night. She didn't see what the big deal was; the dining was probably just old people all eating caviar and oysters anyway. Even worse, they could all be eating tapioca pudding and Jell-O with fruit in it.

Amile changed into her dress in the bathroom. When she was done she came back out to find Trixyz in the formal dress she'd packed. It was a white dress with a silver fractal pattern on the fringes that resembled the traditional dresses women used to wear to get married in. Not that some people didn't still get married in such things, but it was fairly uncommon. Any way you looked at it Trixyz was gorgeous. Amile was thoroughly impressed. Trixyz looked absolutely stunning.

They set out down the hallway with arms linked. Amile felt a little under-dressed in her slinky black dress and elbow-length black silk gloves, but she pretended she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and the feeling subsided some.

Dinner was mostly quite good. The food was far better than Amile had expected, and they didn't have to put up with anybody else's company as they were seated at their own two-person table. They did receive an exceptional number of leers and stares, but that was only to be expected.

There was also an annoying photographer who kept trying to sell them pictures he'd taken from across the room. His pictures seemed somehow voyeuristic and Amile had to tell him to get lost at least three times throughout the evening.

Other notable people at the dinner were Trixyz' friend Mr. Eula (with the Romanian accent) and a woman Trixyz spotted out of the corner of her eye with purple hair. She didn't even think of her encounter in the locker room at her father's vat job until something Amile said later made her think of the vats. Then she wondered, but what would that woman be doing on board? It seemed too great a coincidence for them to be the same.

Desert was a marvelous chocolate pie, and Amile had second helpings. As they got up to leave, the woman with purple hair appeared from out of nowhere. She had a white streak, and this time there was no doubt in Trixyz' mind that this was the same woman.

"Enjoy your dinner?" The woman asked.

"Why yes, thank you. I rather did." Trixyz wasn't going to let on that this woman bothered her to the extreme.

"I just wanted to say that you and your father are taking a big risk, and I wouldn't count on anything if I were you."

Trixyz didn't quite follow. Was this woman threatening her? "I don't know exactly what you're trying to say, but I think you should mind your own business, Lady."

Trixyz pushed past her, and she and Amile walked back to their room. "Who was that?" Amile asked. Trixyz did her best to relate the first time she'd met the woman with purple hair. "That's just weird." Amile said. "I wonder what she's doing on board?"

"I have no idea," Trixyz replied, pealing out of her white dress. "I really have no idea."

Posted on Nov 15, 03 (2894 words)

arrival at youth's fountain

Mir, Puja and Garret had decided to meet at the cantina for their arrival at mercurystation. They wanted to watch the approach from an actual window instead of just on a vid. Puja had been willing to bet that the vid would actually be more interesting, but it turned out the angle was just right, and they could see Mercury fine from the window. When the Cluster was close enough, they could see the station growing from a pinhead sized silver dot on top of the swirling red and grey ball that was mercury into a giant metal city that dominated the foreground. Mercury was just a backdrop for the steel station visible between the giant rotating spokes that held the station to its hub.

There were other ships moored at the hub, but The Cluster was by far the largest mass around. As with most stations, mercurystation spun to simulate gravity on its outer edges. The center of the hub, or axis, was one of the largest districts of the city, as it had to hold both docking bays, and other station functions that were more efficient when performed geeless.

Mir was trying not to think about Puja emigrating to mercurystation. He didn't exactly relish the thought of trying to meet more kids on board. Not to mention feeling obligated to hang out more with Garret. He liked Garret more than he had when he'd first met him, but Garret was still brash and hard to deal with at times.

Garret opened his mouth as if to illustrate this point. "So does it look like home to you, Pipsqueek?"

Puja let the dig slide off him, ignoring it was probably the only appropriate response, and Mir once again felt a pang of loss at Puja's fate.

"When are you moving, Puja?" Mir asked. They'd be moored at mercurystation for at least a week while the miners sold off their ore and unloaded it into the station.

"I don't know. Mom said she's going to look for an apartment straight away. We have all our stuff packed already, so whenever she finds a place, I guess."

"Well, if you want any help moving, I think it'd be fun."

"We should explore the city as soon as we land." Garret chimed in. Now there was a good idea.

"I'll have to ask my Father," Mir said, "but that sounds fun. I heard there's a carnival in the hub."

Garret was the only one who didn't have to get permission, and when the view from the cantina was pretty much stationary (positioned a lot farther from the station than Mir would have imagined) they all split up to go get permission and supplies. They agreed to meet back near the docking locks in an hour.

Mir dashed through The Cluster's hallways and scuttles excitedly. He was jumping and moving faster than he probably should have. He was headed towards the mining stations where he thought he'd find Father. Even though there wasn't any mining to be done, Father had left the chamber that morning at his usual time. He was going to help with the docking and mooring procedures.

Mir cycled through the last lock, and pushed into the mining station chamber. There weren't many miners at their stations, but there was a crowd gathered around one station in a corner of the chamber.

He checked Father's station first, but it was empty. He made his way into the crowded corner. Everyone was quietly watching a com. The miners were hanging at odd angles to get a better view. There was hardly a spot for Mir to see what was going on, but he was small, so he snuck his way around someone near the ceiling, and poked his head through the crowd. There was a grumbling from most of the miners. The com screen showed a circular room with a table around the edge of it where a ring of old men and women who looked important sat qietly. It was a news vid, and if the info graphics could be believed, it was feeding live from a local mercurystation council session.

A man with an incredibly long grey beard (extending well off the com screen) began reading from a handwritten paper scroll. "It is hereby decreed then, that from this day forward, mercurystation will be known as Youth's Fountain. We shall adhere to a new set of laws and governance as decreed in this document I now hold. This document shall be available for comment and public discussion, as shall all documents of the new government."

The man was obviously going to continue at great length, but Mir was in a hurry to go station-side. He craned his neck looking for Father, but Father didn't appear to be in the crowd.

Mir didn't know if there was another part of the ship his Father might be at to help with navigation. He pulled up the com at his Father's station, and asked for a map to the navigation room. Elroy appeared on the screen without a message icon or any other warning. "Hi Mir." he said. "Are you looking for your father?"

"Yes I was! Is he still helping with navigation?"

"Well, yes and no," Elroy said cryptically. "There hasn't been anything for anyone to do here in navigation for quite some time now. But he is here, and I can let you talk to him."

"OK, thanks." Elroy said.

Father's face filled the screen. "Hi Son. What is it?"

"Well, we're docked now, right?" Father looked like he'd been very busy. He was obviously in one of his 'now is not a good time.' moods. "And you said I could go station-side when we got here."

Father frowned. "Now may not be the best time for you to go exploring the station, Mir."

"Is it because of the change in government?" Mir knew it was going to be something like this.

"Well, yes, things have gotten... complicated both on the station, and here on the ship for us, son."

"But Father," Mir knew he was whining, but he found he couldn't help himself. "Puja and Garret and I just want to go visit the midway. It's on the Axle, so it can't be that far away. We'll only be gone for a few hours..."

Father's resolve wavered. "You'll need money if you're going there--"

"I've got a cube with three months allowance from before we left earthstation that I haven't touched. You won't have to do a thing!"

Father sighed. "Well, alright. As long as you promise to come back or check in with me if you're not back at the chamber in the next three hours." He gave a small grin. "The mercury midway *is* fun. Enjoy yourself."

Mir thanked his Father, and switched off the com, shooting out of the cube at top speed toward the lock back to the back of the ship. It was probably a good thing he had to stop every twenty meters to open another lock, or he'd have been going far too fast for his own good. Lots of geeless accidents happen because it's so easy to speed up without any gravity. And navigating with your hands is not something the human species is very adept at.

Puja and Garret were not there yet, so Mir waited in the chamber just outside the locks. Just then the old spacer who he'd met and listened to in the cantina cycled through from the station. "Why, hello there!" he greeted. "Going out for some sightseeing are you?"

Mir smiled. "Hello Ringo. Yup, I sure am. I'm going to go check out the midway."

"I hope yer not going by yourself then." The old miner said, then cupping his hand in front of his mouth like he was telling a great secret, he said, "It's not entirely safe in there if you are."

"Nope," Mir laughed, "I'm meeting a couple of friends in this very spot before we set out."

"Ahh, good to hear it, then." The old man pulled himself on through the chamber to the lock back the way Mir had just come. "Mir asked, were you out site-seeing too?"

Ringo looked back over his shoulder at Mir, "No, I don't think you could call it that, not rightly. I was buying and selling, buying and selling." He turned away and as he cycled through the lock in front of him said, "It's the only game in town, you know, and I'm good at it."

Mir frowned. Did Ringo mean the only game in mercurystation, or the only game worth playing anywhere? The old man wasn't exactly the most lucid person Mir had ever talked with. He cycled through the lock, and Mir didn't catch a glance of either Puja or Garret through the lock in the next chamber forward. Mir had thought he'd be the last to arrive, but maybe Puja and Garret were having troubles getting permission to go gallivanting all over the station. Time was sliding!

Mir was on the verge of seeking out the nearest com to try and contact them when Garret cycled through the lock.

"About time." Mir accused.

Garret scowled. "You're lucky I'm here at all. My mom saw me trying to sneak away, and demanded she know where I was going. I had to spend fifteen minutes convincing her we'd be fine without adult supervision. I had to agree to wear this stupid wristcom."

"A wristcom? Sweet, let me see!"

Garret's mother's wristcom was a simple model that just did vid and audio. Mir played with it for a few minutes before realizing he could use it to call Puja.

"Hello?" Qristy's face appeared on the com screen. Mir was almost sad that the screen wasn't large enough to show her in more detail.

"Is Puja there?" Mir asked.

"No, he said he was going to be with you." Qristy frowned and it was like the entire universe had collapsed.

Mir would have said almost anything to get rid of that frown. "I'm sure Puja is still on his way. When did he leave?"

"Only a few minutes ago." The frown wavered.

"I'm sure he'll turn up." Mir stammered. "He'll be here any second now. I'll call you right back if he's not."

Qristy seemed somewhat relieved. "You do that," she said. "Let me know if you don't see him in the next ten minutes."

When the screen had darkened, Garret said tactlessly, "Puja's mom sure is hot."

Mir wanted to agree, but he somehow felt that talking about her like that would cheapen her attractiveness.

Puja showed up moments later, and all three boys cycled through the lock onto the docking bay. There was a short tube to the Bay itself, but once they were there it was one of the biggest open spaces Mir had ever been in. There were two huge space cruisers being repaired in the bay, and they only filled a third of it. A red marked path covered by an awning led the boys through the bay, between large piles of industrial equipment and stacks of storage crates. Mir thought the awning was probably there to keep people from floating off into the vast open spaces of the bay. He imagined losing your grip and floating very slowly without any objects to throw to propel yourself. You could be adrift for days!

Here and there a personal jet sat in a parking space reserved for it. At one point Puja and Mir had to convince Garret not to walk off with a sonic screwdriver that someone had left lying out on a crate. It was the argument that security cameras may be monitoring their every movement that finally convinced Garret to put the thing back down where he'd found it.

Eventually they found themselves at a very large airlock door. Above the door, a man wearing an official looking jumpsuit and matching helmet that read "station security" was taping a hand painted sign to the wall that read "Youth's Fountain". He was the first person they'd seen so far inside the station.

"Excuse me, sir." Mir attempted to get the attention of the station security guard, who glanced their direction, and returned to his taping before asking, "What can I do for you?"

"We're headed for the midway. Do you think we could bother you for some directions?"

"It's easy as pie." The station security guy said. "Out this lock you'll find yourself in the main avenue up here. Keep on it till you see signs for Axis Midway. You'll take a right hand turn a few intersections down. You won't miss it, I shouldn't think."

Puja and Mir thanked the man, and cycled the lock. It took a few seconds for the outer door to open, and when it did, Mir was immediately reminded of the slightly dirtier air that stations had. EarthStation had the same odor about it. Human sweat and skin was what did it. Any place that has over a few hundred people on it, where the air is recycled has a particular odor about it. They say that dust is primarily dead skin. Mir believed it. Dust smelled just about as bad.

"Wow, have you ever seen this many people in a *hallway* before?" Mir asked. Puja just shook his head, and Garret seemed too distracted to chime in for comment.

Not only was the air fouler, but also there were hundreds of people in sight, smoothly flying or walking without touching their feet to the ground. Zero gee at the hub, and everyone was expert at moving in a large crowd of people from one place to another, something Mir had never done before.

He resolved to be good at it someday.

Posted on Nov 16, 03 (2300 words)

mercenaries and roller coasters

"The Corporation wants us too." This from the com officer, or anyway the miner who sat at the com chair, and was monitoring transmissions from earthstation. Jasper wasn't clear on everyone's names yet. He thought it was rather unlikely he would have been invited to this meeting at all, except that he happened to have been on the deck when the first message arrived. He was helping with some last minute navigational issues pertaining to the ore unload that would commence in the next couple of hours.

The com officer cleared his throat and continued, "They're offering steady wages in the Corporate Navy--"

"Anyone heard of that before?"

"--and hazard pay for the length of our occupation."

There were a few exclamations and incredulous mutterings.

"Do they know about the offer from YF?" Everyone on the bridge had already taken to calling Youth's Fountain by an abbreviated name.

"There's no way they could possibly know unless they received word before we did." This came from a screen with a vid-representation of Hubble, The Cluster's on-board computer in charge of life support. Hubble continued, "The message arrived six minutes after the one from YF, and there is right now a four point seven minute time delay from Earth."

"Too soon, time lag."

"What's the Corporate Army salary, anyway? And what's hazard pay, time and a half?"

"I think the YF offer is much more appealing."

"Hey! Some of us have families back on earthstation! I'm not siding with anybody."

"Would the Corporation want us to fight?"

"Hang on everybody." Ramrod spoke up. Not loudly, but somehow his voice cut through the clamor that had erupted. "Keep in mind we are not a decision making body. We can make recommendations to the Collective, but everybody owns a piece of this ship. I doubt seriously you're going to get everyone to agree to join someone's army."

So the proposition from earthstation was out, but that still left the original question. Were they interested in becoming mercenaries for the new government?

"No doubt the Corporation just wants us to keep everyone in YF contained until they get here with some real troops."

"So if we join YF, we'll be the ones on the front lines."

"Or if we join them, there may not be any front lines. We've got to entertain the possibility that our involvement might keep the fighting to a minimum."

"How do you figure?"

"Are they really going to risk whatever ships they send this way just to get into the station? And how many ships can they possibly send anyway? I've never heard of us having a military budget. Anyway, the collective is a big ship, large crew. Unless the send some kind of fleet, we can probably do some serious damage. I'd be willing to bet they'd turn right around and go home."

"I wonder if that's what YF is thinking?"

"I'll bet YF is working on other angles too. They probably want to pay us just to keep us from siding with the Corporation."

"I wonder if that's true. I wonder if they'd give us some money to stay neutral."

"I'll bet they've got fighter ships. I wouldn't put it past those bloodsuckers."

"Who, the Corporation, or the YF?"

"Both, I don't know."

"Well, whatever they've got, I'll bet our miners can out-maneuver them."

"I'll take that bet if they've got fighters. Our boys weren't built for combat."

"We could always replace their spectroscopy lasers with the industrial kind. Blow some holes from far away."

"I'm sure they'll have thought of that."

"But it doesn't take much for an industrial laser to take out a com array."

Jasper pretty much kept silent. He was new to the group, and didn't want to speak too soon. He approved of Ramrod's method of speaking rarely. Besides, it was good practice keeping his mouth shut.


---

Mir, Puja and Garret navigated the crowded hallway, turning right at the next big intersection as they'd been instructed. Sure enough, there were posters all over the walls as they approached the lock for the midway. They cycled through a large lock with about ten or fifteen other people, many of them their same age. Nobody spoke to them though, and the boys were quietly absorbing the new environment. The walls of the midway lock were painted like a blue sky, with green hills all around. As they entered the midway proper, there were clowns to either side of the 30 meter wide hallway.

The coroder opened up into a wide alley, with booths on either side proposing skill challenges you could win prizes by winning. Puja and Garret wanted to play the first one they saw, one where you threw a ring, and tried to get it to loop onto a bottle at the far end of the booth. There were sevearl bottles, actually, and each bottle had a different point value. The different prizes had different points too, and Mir noted that you had to play the game at least six times to get the biggest prize, a stuffed space alien with green fur.

Mir pulled them both along. "We don't have that long to be here, and I want to see everything there is to see before we spend our money on stupid shit like that." he said.

In the center of the wide path, there was a glass cube with a juggler in it. The juggler bounced his balls off the cube walls in every direction. His throws would set him spinning in the middle of the cube, but he always ended up in the right position to catch the next ball. It was truly amazing to watch, and while they stood there transfixed, he never touched the walls of the cube, he just kept throwing balls in different directions. The juggler kept throwing faster and faster until he hit what must have been his finale. He caught all of his balls, and bowed from within the cube, in four different directions. Then he threw a ball at the floor repeatedly until he reached teh top of the cube. He opened a hatch into one of the two beams reaching from floor to ceiling, and disappeared behind it.

They walked a little farther, and saw entrances to fun houses and rides at every turn and corner. Eventually, they emerged intoa part of the coroder where the ceileing was made of some kind of plexiglass, and behind it you could see many of the rides in action, all weaving in and around each other in a large room you couldn't get into without being strapped onto a ride.

All three boys were excited to ride some rides, so they got in line for the next rollercoaster they could find. It was called the Fancy Schmancy, and boasted to have the highest gee rating of any ride at the park. There were dozens of warnings at the beginning of the ride. "Please keep hands inside the ride." "Please secure all loose items of clothing." "Warning, you will experience three gee on this ride. Those with faint hearts or other medical conditions should consult a physician before attempting this ride."

The wait wasn't terrible, and within minutes they were at the head of the line. Mir presented his data cube, and the ticket girl swiped it in front of a reader, handing it back to him. Puja and Garret followed, and they were led down a short corroder and through a lock to where the coaster seats were just emptying. There was another line to wait in here, but only a few people deep.

Mir curiously examined the clothing of the passengers in front of them. They were wearing skin-tight fitting clothing, covered by very loose hanging clothes that didn't cover anything. Their jackets all had frilly edges, and wide collars that pointed well past their ears. Yet, the jackets didn't appear to be very warm, and you could see the tight clothing underneath. Mir looked down at his own grey jumpsuit, and imagined he probably looked like someone from out of town. Puja and Garret were dressed the same, although at least Puja's jumpsuit had multiple colors on it, and a belt at the waist.

The coaster started out slow... it led them up over the giant window in the corroder they'd just been in, and then crisscrossed a bit of it's own tracks, coming precariously close to mid-air collisions but each time narrowly avoiding itself.

Then they appeared to be ramming straight towards a solid wall. But the wall had a well hidden hole in it, leading into this whole bit in a tunnel, and they emerged on the other side of the station walls, hurling out into the dark shadows of space. Just as quickly they were jerked back inside, and began looping in circles around the other roller coasters. Nearly the entire time they were pushed back into their seats by the iron hands of acceleration and centrifuge.

At the end of the ride they passed through a tunnel with high wind velocities pulling them toward the ceiling. It was a good thing they were strapped into their seats, or they'd have been pulled up with the wind. Mir briefly wondered what the wind tunnel was for, until he noticed some nasty bile floating up out of the seats in front of him. Someone had obviously lost their lunch, and the tunnel was cleaning up after them. He felt his stomach churn just thinking about it.

They staggered out of the ride, hanging onto handrails to feel a sense of stability. Mir wished for some kind of gravity to get his bearings. His inner ear was playing tricks on him. He no longer felt oriented just by looking around and reading the signs because somehow the signs were rotating when he looked closely at them. Of course they weren't really rotating, but he was quite disoriented.

"Does anyone else feel sick?" Puja asked.

"Don’t be such a wuss," Garret responded typically, "Lets find the next one, that was some wild stuff"

"I feel kinda sick too, Puja, it's crazy!" Mir corroborated. "I think I'm going to have to wait a bit to go on another one. Maybe we shouldn't have done the highest gee in the park first."

"Awwwwe, fine. I'm going to have to come back by myself and do all these again anyway." Garret grumbled.

The continued down the wide hallway, Mir making a point to stop frequently and look at posters or little displays that were set in glass all over the place. Looking at something stationary was helping his stomach get back to where it was suppose to get. The little displays had neat stuff in them. Some were little flea-robot circuses, where tiny specs that were barely visible did all kinds of funny stuff, mostly on trapezes and trampolines. These didn't help his stomach though. Others had historical information in them, some about how the midway had been built. Others had information about the founders of mercurystation. Mir remembered that it was called Youth's Fountain now, and wondered who had thought of that name, probably the same committee who had written that document they'd been talking about.

On either side of the corroder they were passing more booths and attractions. Some booths just had food for sale, but most were for more skill games. Puja was almost sucked into one that was themed with a character from some of the old novels he read. "It's Tom Swift!" he exclaimed, we have to play it!"

Garret and Mir promised him they'd play it next time they passed it. Mir checked the time on Garret's wristcom, and realized they'd have to hurry just to see everything, much less do it all before he had to get back.

Posted on Nov 17, 03 (1968 words)

things begin to happen

Game is on board mercurystation. She's following Mom, who hasn't spoken a word to her the entire time they've been walking from the maintenance dock. Dad decided he wanted to clean the scuttles, so they parked their ship on the outside spinning part of the station. This meant the ship acquired the station's centrifugal gravity, and Dad could vacuum up all the debris that would subsequently fall to the floors in every scuttle. It also meant Dad got to give his neglected electromagnets a workout, as they'd be holding the Silkworm to the station.

Game was wearing her softsuit and backpack with all her possessions in it. She was also wearing a beltrope that Matches had given her just before Dad had poked his head into her scuttle to announce that they'd be matching the station's velocity soon, and wouldn't everyone go help the little ones get used to the idea when they docked? Dad had seen that they were both crying, and had winked at Game, in that way that was meant to say he was trying to give her some encouragement. She felt a little better about leaving then.

The station was as huge as Game had remembered it, and they'd landed in the middle of one of the poorer neighborhoods. It was closest to the bar where Mom was meeting the trader, a sleazy run-down hole in the wall called the Nuts & Bolts. Always before, Mom had sat down at a table, and they'd scoped out the restaurant before she met her contact. Game had always stayed at the table. This time, Mom marched right in to the back room. There was a dim light fixture hanging from the ceiling, and a round table sitting underneath it. There was a card game happening on the table, with five people sitting around it holding cards. The light was focused so you couldn't actually see any of their faces, and you couldn't even see most of their bodies. But Mom somehow knew which one was Longfingers. Of course, it could have been his hands.

"Do you have time to discuss some business?" Mom asked. She'd emailed ahead, so this shouldn't have been news to Longfingers, but he acted plenty surprised to see her anyway.

"Of course! For an old friend, anything is possible! Come to the back room with me." Game and her Mom followed Longfingers back into the darkest corner of the dark room where another door was hidden in the shadows. When he opened it, the lights in the room inside automatically turned themselves on. This didn't mean you could see anybody's face, but at least you could see where you were going.

"What do you have for me?" The door shut behind them, and Longfingers rubbed his hands together greedily.

"We've got three or four tons of processed ore, four percent trace metals. It's a good haul. I'm looking for a favor in return."

Longfingers hands stopped rubbing. "You don't want cash?"

"I've got a dilemma, and I want you to help fix it." Mom paused for what was surely dramatic effect. Game was only half expecting what was to come. She'd known something was up from the beginning, and was patiently waiting for the rest of it to unfold. This was the kind of thing she was trying to get away from. Mom planned out their entire lives. Game wanted to plan her own life for once. But she bit her tongue. Whatever Mom was about to do, she could just as easily run away from it if she felt it was going too far.

"You've met my daughter, Game. She's not in the system. And she wants to be in the system. She'll need an ID, a place to live, maybe a job. Just to help her get started."

Game resisted the urge to yell "Mom!" accusingly. This was way too much. Surely Longfingers wouldn't agree to all of these things anyway.

But all he said was "Already done." Did that mean he had already done them, or was it just a figure of speech?

Longfingers fished into a pocket, and pulled a datacube and picture ID from it. He handed the cube to Game, and said "for expenses."

The picture ID was clear where the photo should be, and he brought it up to his eye, looking through the clear part at Game. Longfingers waved at Mom to move out of the picture, then he did something on the card, there was a bright flash of light. He waved the ID in the air for a few seconds, then handed it to Game. She looked down at it, and the ID was slowly resolving into her own image.

"Your apartment is 733, in the third quadrant, city district, maybe a mile from here, and all the way up to the seventh floor. If you want, you can take the train."

Game was trying to absorb all of these details. She realized she was clutching the datacube tightly, and shoved it into one of her suit pockets. She looked over at her Mom, and she was smiling. "You are too good to us, Longfingers."

Longfingers' face couldn't really be seen, but Game could tell he was smiling. His voice was gruff when he continued. "You can work at the Nuts and Bolts until you find a better job. I'll have to point you at some vids about interviews and resumes and things like that. We can talk about this later. I imagine you'll be wanting to get to the apartment now." Get out of here, he was saying, before I change my mind.

Mom stepped closer and kissed Longfingers on what Game was pretty sure the mouth. She turned away and opened the door back to the first back room. Mom joined her only seconds later, with Longfingers just behind. Mom flashed Game a smile, and opened the door back to the bar. She turned back to Longfingers, and said "The usual docks for the shipment then?" Longfingers nodded, and the light from the Nuts and Bolts hit his face, and Game saw it for the first time. At first she thought him not entirely unhandsome, but then she noticed that one entire side of his face was covered in scar tissue. Game tried not to let her surprise show. It must have been a terrible accident. And that he would leave the scars uncorrected meant he either liked them, or wanted to remember something very powerful. She followed Mom out of the bar.

Mom turned to Game outside of the bar. They had still not spoken a single word to each other. Game didn't know what to say. Mom took a hold of her shoulders, and squeezed very hard, but still keeping Game at arms length, staring at her, no doubt burning the image into her brain. Then she abruptly turned and walked away. It was obvious she didn't want Game to follow, although Game got the impression it was still not too late to turn back. She could follow Mom, and everything would be as it had been.

Game looked at some numbers on the doors across the hallway and figured out which way she needed to go. She turned away from Mom's back, and set out for a new life... on her own.

Posted on Nov 18, 03 (1221 words)

freakshows

Mir, Puja and Garret were heading home. There was far too much to see all at once. The midway was absolutely huge, and the corridors all looped back on themselves, threatening to get Mir and his friends lost in the maze-like hallways. They'd passed what seemed like dozens of rides and roller coasters, a haunted house, a wax museum, a hall of mirrors, a funhouse, a stage with a different musical act every forty minutes... Everything seemed equally compelling, and they'd indulged in a few of the things they found more exciting than the others. When Mir's stomach had recovered, they'd purchased some mini-donuts. They were created geeless, so they were especially fluffy.

The clock was finally beginning to call strongly to them. If they spent any more time in the midway, Mir was going to have to call his father for sure, and tell him where he was. The group turned round a corner that they were certain would lead back to the entrance. Unfortunately it was just another path they hadn’t been down. This was the fourth or fifth time they'd thought they had it figured out.

This time Puja's eyes lit up. He began moving methodically toward the blinking sign across the way. The sign read "Real Live Freaks". Garret groaned. Mir bit his lip. There was no way they had time to go inside, but at the same time, this was Puja's hobby. How could they not let him go?

"We'll have more time to go next time." Mir pointed out.

Puja didn't waver. He was making a b-line straight for the entrance, while his eyes scanned the posters around the entrance and along the walls leading to it. The posters were mostly visages of people who were supposedly holed up inside this joint. The boy with an alligator body, the girl with two heads, the talking housecat, all were on display just inside. Puja paid for his ticket, and Mir and Garret had little choice but to follow his lead.

Inside, the lighting was dark, and there were red curtains lining a hallway that appeared to stretch off and curve back around to the other side of the entrance. As Mir and Garret entered, they noticed several curtains part farther down the walkway. Did this mean they weren't suppose to open the curtains closer to the entrance? Mir didn't want to touch anything, so he followed Puja, who was walking toward the open curtains the way a moth is drawn to flame.

Behind the curtain was a window into a small room that could have been someone's bedroom. There was a short bed, and on it sat the smallest man Mir had ever seen. The man's feet had to be about the size of Mir's thumb. The man waved at the three boys, but Puja had already moved to the next window.

Inside this window there was another bedroom, but this one decorated entirely in black and white. The walls were papered with spider web designs, and the bedspread was a giant black spider symbol. In a rocking chair, reading a book was a little girl. She held the book with two hands, but underneath the book, on her lap, she was knitting what looked to be a sweater with four arm holes. It was then that Mir noticed her four knees. The book she was reading was Charlotte's Web.

Puja seemed hardly to be even looking in the windows, so fast was he on to the next one. Mir looked at Garret and shrugged his shoulders. Garret appeared to be trying to get the spider girl's attention. He was waving his arms frantically, and spinning himself in circles in the air, but she didn't even bat an eyelash. She did turn a page in her book, however. Garret finally gave up and pushed toward the next window, muttering something sulky under his breath. Mir gave the spider girl one last glance, and she looked up at him and winked! He blushed, and pushed too hard toward the next window. He had to catch a hold of Garret to stop himself in time to look inside.

"Watch it, bozo." Garret said distractedly.

Inside this window was a pair of twins who were joined at the shoulder. The next one contained a man with leopard fur all over his face. The one after that was a baby with flippers instead of hands nursing from a mother who had flippers instead of feet. By this time, Puja was pretty far ahead. Mir decided just to catch up, and glance in the windows as they passed each one.

Puja was at the exit, and they had to follow. He looked pretty upset. "What's wrong Puja, nobody you knew?" Garret laughed at his own joke.

"Don't mind him. You hardly looked at anything in there. What's up?"

Puja folded his arms across his chest, and made a frumpy sound before replying. "They're all fake. Every one was something I'd read about someone faking before. It was a freak show in that there were no freaks." He looked seriously upset about this.

Mir tried to hold back his laughter. "Don't you think there might have been one that was real?"

"Nope, I'm sad to say it was all fake. I'd seen them all before."

---

Trixyz and Amile were in their cabin as they, and everyone else on board, had been ordered to be. The ship was approaching Mercury's orbit. They had a little less than two hours before they'd be disembarking and moving their luggage off the ship and onto the station. The luggage was all packed and ready. Their four suitcases were all bound together as they were suppose to be. Most of the deceleration had already been performed, and what was left was all going to happen in the last few minutes before they arrived at the station. But Amile and Trixyz were already sitting in their acceleration chairs just to be safe.

They'd been reading about the succession all morning. So far, there was no reason for either of them to think it would be any more dangerous on Youth's Fountain than it had been on mercurystation. Amile was a little worried there would be some extra taxes or something added to their prepaid hotel accommodations, Trixyz didn't care, she knew it'd get paid for one way or another.

It was the politics that interested her. Trixyz had read their entire Declaration of Independence, and she found it fascinating. She didn't think there was anything in there that was all that different from what the corporation promised its employees, but in this scheme you weren't an actual employee of anybody unless you wanted to be. Also, rights were spelled out explicitly, which she couldn't remember having seen in any corporate documents.

Ideas about ownership and property were changed too. In the Corporation, for example, Trixyz' father didn't own the business that he himself had started. He'd had to apply for permits and permission, and then the Corporation decided whether they'd give the business unit a budget. In her father's case, the budget had been negative dollars. This was just one of the possible forms that taxing the business could take. If the business did well, he could still get rich by running it.

A right to property and ownership was spelled out in the Declaration. Trixyz wondered who owned the station? If it was still the government, how was that different from the Corporation owning the station?

Posted on Nov 19, 03 (1249 words)

politics and threats

Trixyz was startled out of her thoughts about political schemes by a vid screen popping up in the corner of her window.

Trixyz had always been interested in history. She'd heard somewhere that history was a subject that used to get taught by itself. Learning about the past had been separate from all the other disciplines. Of course, that wasn't the case anymore. Now it was only History of Physics, History of Mathematics, History of Computing, History of Communication, or History of the Arts. At least, those were the broad categories. Politics was something to be distained, not learned about. Then again, there was obviously politics involved in who made it to the board of directors. Nobody really seemed to care, and they weren't overly coveted positions unless you were one of the ultra-ambitious fast-track manager types. But you had to test very highly in multiple fields to get into that category. Or at least, that's what the company line had always been. "Management is reserved for those exceptional individuals who have proven their worth to the company and it's people."

Of course, The Corporation made the schooling programs. The tests were all decided on very high up at a corporate level. People's very aptitudes and attitudes were no doubt shaped by the corporation, for the corporation. Trixyz shuddered to think what would happen if the corporation ever gave in to any kind of moral corruption.

In the corner of the com, the stewardess was explaining the exit procedure.

"Please sit in the comfortable acceleration cushion chairs, and relax as we begin our deceleration procedure."

Trixyz was having trouble paying attention. She felt light headed, and was not able to focus properly. She found herself wondering how the corporation came about in the first place. Why was it not something people knew about?

"Fasten the seatwebs that will have appeared to either side of your chair."

"Amile, have you ever thought about how the corporation first started?"

Amile looked at Trixyz like she was crazy. She'd never given the corporation much thought. Nobody even really talked about it. Why would they? The Corporation had a pretty hands-off approach. Local governments always took precedence, unless the crime was particularly nasty. Even then, the corporation mostly hired mercenaries to clean up messy situations, they almost never got directly involved.

You only needed to know about the corporation if you were starting your own business, or if you were somehow stealing money from them. They didn't like that much. The whole idea of rebelling against the corporation seemed ridiculous to Amile. Why rebel against something that wasn't there most of the time? mercurystation had been performing genetic experiments that were technically illegal for a very long time. Hell, much of that kind of thing happened even on EarthStation. As long as nobody got hurt, it was hardly anybody else's business. The only thing the Corporation seemed to really come down hard on was cloning. Start a clone shop, and you might get some very unhappy visitors. But then again, you'd also get a buttload of protesters.

"I'm not sure who started it, but I'm sure it was before space travel, wouldn't you think?" Amile went back to listening to the stewardess.

Trixyz wasn't sure the Corporation had started after people left earth. She thought it was probably older than that. She wondered what kind of government existed on the Earth. Did the Corporation exist down there too? It was easy enough to travel from one to the other, but she'd never heard it talked about.

Finally Trixyz felt the slight tug of the deceleration beginning. "How much longer till we get there?" she asked, feeling like a little kid on a trip. She grinned at Amile.

"It's only been ten minutes." Amile said. "You're going to have to wait another hour I'm afraid. I hope you went to the restroom."

---

As Mir and Puja and Garret finally found their way to the entrance of the midway, Mir noticed that not all of the posters on the wall were related to the amusement park. There were political posters as well, sporting slogans like "Support your local management." and "Discover freedom through rebellion." and "everlasting life, you don’t have to wait till death to get it." It was hard to tell which signs were supporting the recent revolution, and which were supporting the company that called Eternal Life Services. Now that Mir looked closely, the logo that Youth's Fountain was using had actually incorporated the logo from ELS. Of course Mir had heard of Eternal Life Services. They were the professional (and legal) front for the vampire cult.

It was rumored you could come here under the pretense of getting a full body massage, and leave with a new set of gene constructors floating around in your blood, pumping the new sequence into your body, Developing you into whatever you chose. You could be a superhuman, a gorgeous hunk. Anything was possible.

Mir had always been more interested in robotics. He felt it would be cool to have an artificial eye. Then it was always possible to upgrade, should you need to later.

The three boys tried to squeeze into the lock, behind a group of parents and their kids. The kids were clutching giant balls of cotton candy, and Mir was on the opposite side of where Puja and Garret were. They went through the lock first, with all the cotton candy eating brats. Mir waited and went through with only three other people in the lock. Two of the three were standing quite close to Mir, and they had their hands in their pockets suspiciously. Mir wasn't suspicious so much as he was curious. It seemed odd that they would stand so close, but maybe it didn't seem close to them.
Of course, just as he was thinking this, the third man gave some sort of hand signal, and the other two grabbed at his arms and legs. It took Mir a second to figure out what was happening, and that second would probably have given him enough time to escape their clutches, but after the second, the best he could do was give one of the men a black eye, and the other a good knee to the gut. The one Mir had kneed doubled over, but the other guy just grabbed tighter, and Mir's hands were bound before the lock finally opened.

"Puja, Garret, help!" Mir yelled. But he saw they'd had their own problems. Garret was putting up a good fight, but Puja was already tied up. There were at least four other men surrounding them both. The kids with cotton candy were nowhere to be seen, and had no-doubt run away quickly when the fighting began.

Posted on Nov 20, 03 (1127 words)

gone with the goons

Mir called pitifully for help. Strangely, the corridor that had been teeming with people only just three hours ago was nearly empty. At the far end, near the lock back to the hanger, Mir spotted a man waving all the other people past. Mir yelled at them pitifully. He couldn't be sure anyone could hear, and he was afraid no one would even care. He was drifting. Normally the best thing to do when drifting was to take careful stock of your surroundings, and assess the situation, but Mir didn't have time for that. He focused on the nearest object, and calculated his trajectory. He was headed for a far wall, but not very fast. He turned, and had to watch as his friends were subdued. One of the goons held a white handkerchief over Garret's mouth, and in a few seconds he stopped struggling long enough for them to bind his arms and legs the way Mir's hands were bound. Mir watched the process closely. It was some sticky substance that molded to whatever it touched as soon as one of the goons zapped it with some kind of taser looking device.

Puja was already bound, and had tape over his mouth. The goons were careful to put the tape over Garret's mouth only, so they obviously wanted them alive. Of course, if they'd just wanted to kill them, it would have been far simpler to just have used some kind of gun.

Finally one of the goons actually spoke. It was the one who had given the order to attack Mir in the lock. "If you stop screaming, and promise not to struggle, we won't hurt your friends any more than we already have." he said.

Mir wasn't really in any position to argue, and his cries weren't attracting any attention. He stopped yelling and waited for a goon to get to him. The goon was being careful, and Mir decided there was no way he was going to be able to kick off him and launch toward the other end of the hallway with his hands bound as they were. He allowed the goon to manhandle him back to where Puja and Garret were tied up. He saw a hand coming toward his face with a white kerchief, and then all went black.

---

Jasper allowed four hours to pass before he started to worry. He'd told Mir to check in at three hours, and usually he was pretty good about things like that. He was sick to death of debating the pros and cons of taking sides with either government. He didn't really give a shit either way, and wanted nothing to do with the conflict, if there was going to be one.

Unfortunately, some of the others had been miners for a long time, and felt that it was time to change careers. Here was the perfect opportunity to become mercenaries. For most people, mercenaries were an untouchable class. How did one become one, it was a little like hearing stories of the Wild West. All the beset mystery vids involved mercs in some way, and everyone had a story or two about having seen one doing something heroic at some point. Jasper had never seen one, and he really had no clue what they did outside of chase fugitives and criminals. He had serious doubts the life was as glamorous as everyone made it out to be.

Hubble, Elroy and Ingrid, the The Cluster's three onboard computers were all in agreement with Jasper, but perhaps that was because their positions after the switch to mercenaries were a bit more tenuous. They'd all have positions on The Cluster as long as it existed in its present form, but Jasper wondered about what they'd do if The Cluster became a ship full of bloodthirsty soldiers. Computers in general were noted for their pacifism. There had been exceptions, of course, and at least one famous computer mass murderer, but by and large, computers were very logical, and reluctant to act without knowing the full consequences of their actions. Whether this was because they still relied so heavily on humans for their existence in the first place was not exactly known, at least not to Jasper.

Even Ramrod had spoken up saying he would not be opposed to taking sides with the new government, as long as they negotiated their contracts to include some clause about only using their services as a last resort. He seemed to think that getting into the mercenary business was not a bad idea as long as nobody actually had to fight or loose their mining robots.

The group had grown quite a bit in size in the last hours. Many of the other "senior" spacers on board had been brought into the discussion. The group that was present was representative enough of the miner population to actually vote on issues involving the entire Collective. It was for precisely this reason that Jasper hadn't yet left the room. He was afraid they would pass a motion and his mining career would be over without having really gotten started.

One spacer in particular, an old grizzled pirate of a spacer, whose name was Ringo had been the most vocal about taking up arms on the side of Youth's Fountain. He said he knew for a fact that they could write regenerative clauses into their contracts, and they could receive various medical procedures for free if they negotiated correctly. Someone had asked how he was so sure, but he'd evaded the question. To hear him speak of it, he would be dying in the next few months without these procedures, and he *needed* The Collective to take action if he was going to survive. Jasper didn't really think the old spacer looked that old. But then again, if he'd been receiving regenerative therapy already, he could be any age at all.

Jasper excused himself for a few minutes, making his way to an unused com away from the hubbub of the group. He hadn't been paged, and he had no messages from Mir or the other two children. It was probably time to check in with the other parents. He messaged Garret's parents, but they were not in their chamber. He left a message asking if they knew whether Garret and Mir were back or not, and called Puja's chamber. His mother Qristy answered the phone.

"Hello?" she asked questioningly, making the one word sound more like 'what's wrong?' than 'who is there?'

"Hi." Jasper intoned. "Do you know where Puja and Mir are right now?"

Qristy appeared to mentally compose herself. "No, I was wondering that myself," she said. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, and Jasper realized he'd been looking at it unconsciously. He made an effort to look her in the eyes.

"Do you know where they went, exactly?" he asked. He was more concerned that Mir might have lied and not actually gone to the midway than if he was still there, and had just lost track of time.

"He told me they were going to explore the station." she said. "I didn't want him to go too far, and he sore he was just going to the midway. I know how big it is, I'm sure the boys just got lost."

"I'm no so sure." Jasper said. "It's really not like Mir to forget to check in with me, and I made sure to tell him to call if he wasn't going to be back in three hours."

Qristy bit her lip, and Jasper noted how young she looked. She couldn't have been that old when she'd had Puja.

"Puja doesn't have a wrist or handcom, does he?" Jasper asked.

"No, not that I know of." she replied. "I've never seen the need to get him one."

Jasper was beginning to regret not having picked one up for Mir the last time he'd had a chance. It just never seemed like a practical gift when they were going to be cooped up on a ship with full coms in nearly every room.

"Well, thanks anyway." Jasper said. "I guess we can't do much of anything but wait for them to call or get back."

"Yes, it's too soon to call mercurystation... er, Youth's Fountain's authorities. Besides, I'm sure they just got lost."

Jasper closed the connection, and noticed he had a new message in his inbox. It was marked urgent, so he opened it without thinking. There was a picture of Mir, Puja and Garret. They were kneeling in a hallway. Each of them had tape over their mouths, and their hands were tied behind their backs.

Underneath the photo was a short message.

"Your children will not be harmed as long as you do not side with The Corporation. Politics is personal. signed, --vigilante for youth's fountain"

Jasper just stared at the photo for a few more minutes. The image could have obviously been faked. But then why hadn't Mir checked in yet? Mir was also wearing the jumpsuit Jasper had seen him in earlier. Then again, Mir didn't own that many jumpsuits.

Jasper went back to the group of spacers. He moved into the center of the group and cleared his throat until he had everyone's attention.

"I have some disturbing news." he announced. "There has been kidnapping."

Posted on Nov 22, 03 (1562 words)

clubs and kidnapping

Trixyz and Amile moved with the rest of the cattle out of the ship and into the loading area. Their luggage had already been picked up by the valet, and would supposedly be waiting for them in their hotel room when they got there. Such were the luxuries of the liner versus the tugboat that their original tickets had been good for.

Amile wanted to go out and see the station right away. Trixyz wanted to sleep, but she admitted that it would be fun to go try and see some sights before they retired. There was a fetish club at the bottom floor of a bank of elevators that spanned the entire height of the station called the Mercury Rising. Their hotel, Ephemeral Living, sat on top of the north quadrant of the station's gravity wheel.

Trixyz wore black jeans and t-shirt. She didn't feel like getting all dressed up, but Amile dressed in her slinkiest fake-leather miniskirt and haltertop. They wore matching dog collars with spikes on them, and looped a chain between the two. This assured they wouldn't leave each other's side the entire evening. This was Amile's idea, and Trixyz got a thrill thinking that Amile liked her that much that she would even consider such a commitment.

The club was dark and a bit cramped compared to some of the ones back at earthstation, but the locals seemed nice, and there were lots of people dressed for the occasion. Trixyz was glad to be back in simulated gravity after their week with only sporadic acceleration-induced gravity.

The dance floor was filled with bodies that were close to naked. Almost no women wore tops inside the club, and after an hour or two, Amile and Trixyz took theirs off too. The music was a rumbling jungle of beats and atmospheric noises, waves washing over them, stretching each moment into an infinity encapsulated in the stretch of one sine wave.

As the night descended, the club got wilder and wilder... there were couples having sex on the dance floor, there were whole groups of people standing in line for public flogging at the front of the club. The place didn't seem to empty out at all, instead the less "hardcore" folks left, and were replaced by fiendishly exaggerated fetishists. Trixyz and Amile stayed, at first out of fascination and curiosity, but later out of sexual appetite.

"Do you want to go back to the hotel room and get each other off?" Trixyz asked after a few hours. She and Amile were dancing with skins touching; the chain that held them together was grinding between their breasts.

"You don't want to do it here?" Amile asked.

"Not... yet." Trixyz replied. She wasn't entirely sure she wanted to be that 'on display'. Besides, it was only their first night on the station. They could come back every night if they wanted to.

They made their way towards the exit, picking their tops up from a barstool in the corner where they'd left them. Amile kept stopping them to kiss Trixyz' neck and shoulders as they walked, and over her shoulder Trixyz noticed the slimy vampire guy from the liner enter the club. He was dressed in the same ancient looking getup, but here his cape looked at least somewhat fetish, and he blended in far more than he had on the ship. He still gave her the creeps, and she pulled at the chain, dragging Amile out of the club, and all the way back to their hotel room.

---

Jasper's fellow spacers were suitably outraged. The decision was obviously moot now for as long as the children were missing. Qristy and Garret's parents were called to the meeting, and the news was broken to them quickly. Garret's mother and father had been miners for years, and were grizzled veterans of the cold and solitary life of asteroid mining. But they'd had each other, and Garret, until now. Garret's father was a particularly burly man. thick skinned and big boned. His real name was Griff, but everyone who knew him called him Gristle. Garret's mother was a sharply contrasting beautiful woman named Helena. She was very tall and long boned. It was obvious she'd grown up geeless, and probably without proper gene therapy in her youth as well. People who didn't get the treatments until later in life had very spindly looking bodies, but for her it was just enough to really enhance the length of her arms and legs, narrowing her head and face into shapes that appeared just different enough to be exotic and interesting.

Jasper had already called the port authority on board Youth's Fountain, and a computer named Jorgenson had answered. Jorgenson had promised to relay the kidnapping to the proper authorities, who would be contacting everyone on board The Cluster as soon as they had a chance. If Jorgenson had been human, Jasper would have been back on the phone as soon as he'd disconnected, but he trusted that a computer would be true to his word, and they really would hear from someone of higher authority shortly.

In the mean time, Gristle was organizing a search party to go look for them in the midway, even though it seemed incredibly unlikely they were still there, he was a man obsessed.

Jasper heard the page, and rushed back to the com. "Yes?"

"Jasper, this is Eldrick, a council member for Youth's Fountain." Jasper recognized the man from the vids, he'd been one of the councilors behind the one reading their entire declaration. "We're incredibly saddened to hear that one of our citizens has taken it upon themselves to tip your hand, and especially in such a drastic and dastardly way. We intend to do whatever we can to recover your son and his friends as soon as possible." The council member appeared sincere. By this time, Qristy and Helena were standing behind Jasper, looking on with obvious and desperate interest.

"Do you have any leads?" Jasper asked.

"Unfortunately, we have nothing. Our corridors are not monitored due to our strict privacy laws, and no one has come forward indicating they saw anything at all transpire in that vicinity at all today. I have the Port Authority computer you spoke with, Jorgenson, working to reconstruct their afternoon in the midway from ticket sales and cameras in various privately owned locations throughout the midway. He is also conducting inquiries in other avenues throughout the station, and leading an investigation that will scour the entire station before we are finished. I personally have employed five of our highly competent volunteer police for the task. I am incredibly confident we will find your children and bring them safely back into your hands."

Eldrick didn't exactly appear confident however, and his eyebrows betrayed a weariness that Jasper didn't want to contemplate.

Qristy wasn't afraid to pry, however. "Do you have any reservations, councilor?"

Eldrick's brows became even more furrowed. The man's forehead was wrinkled to a degree Jasper would have thought impossible. "There is another matter I should be candid about with you. There have been other kidnappings on the station recently. We have not yet found the source of the disappearances, but let me assure you that this matter has escalated our efforts to do so tenfold. It might seem that random kidnappings and this political blackmailing are unrelated, but we are hoping that heightened security efforts will solve both crimes in due course."

"We are of course also curious about the proposal sent to your Cluster from this council. We would of course be overjoyed if your faction would like to join our cause, but under the circumstances, we can understand if you'd prefer to remain neutral. Of course whatever your decision we will still work toward finding your missing children."

"My husband is organizing a search party." Helena injected. "Is there anything else we could do to be of help to your investigation?"

The council member frowned. "I don't think so, mam. I would recommend against it. Although it is obviously well within your rights to search for your missing children, I think the chances that you would find them in a public place are incredibly low. I would recommend you stay on your ship."

Jasper could tell that answer would not appease Helena, and quickly interjected before things got hostile, "Thank you, Councilor Eldrick, for your candidness about the previous kidnappings. We will wait... patiently... for any news. Please keep us informed."

"Of course." Eldrick replied.

The connection was severed, and Helena was obviously angry. "I have a million questions for that-- that bureaucrat," she spat. "Why'd you disconnect?"

Jasper tried to be placating, "I know how you feel." he said, "but I think it's best that we actually do as he says, and try to calm down before we rush headlong into anything rash." Helena looked about ready to launch into a tirade, so Jasper held up a finger to indicate she should wait before she yelled at him.

"At the same time, I disagree with Eldrick that a search of the station's public areas would be useless. I can see why he wouldn't want a bunch of angry spacers running around in his midway, but he didn't say anybody else was going to be doing it. You and Gristle should continue on your search, and let me know as soon as you can if you find anything. I'll stay here and try to just be available for communication."

Helena nodded, and turned to join her husband and the crowd he was gathering.

Qristy was crying quietly, obviously distraught. Jasper pulled her towards him, and gave her a hug. She didn't hug back, but leaned her head into his shoulder appreciatively. "I'm sure we'll get them back." he reassured her. This is all political, and will be over soon, I have no doubt. Mir is a good kid, and I'm sure Puja is too. They've got their heads screwed on right, and aren't going to do anything stupid. They'll be back soon. I know it."

Posted on Nov 23, 03 (1679 words)

everybody wakes up

Her com was chiming at her when Game woke up. She hadn't even known she had a com. Her own com. It was definitely her first. The apartment was small, but perfectly adequate. There was the kitchen area, and the main living area. The bed she'd slept on was collapsible into the wall. It was a good thing it'd been open when she first arrived, or she might not have found it her first night. She wondered what other furniture was available but simply hidden from view. She felt a warm glow thinking about exploring it. It was *her* apartment, and for now, that was reason enough for her to love it.

She sat up and looked around. There was a cup she'd found in the cupboard above the food dispenser on her counter. It had a tiny ring of coffee in the bottom that had evaporated overnight. It was her one accomplishment from the evening before. She'd gone out, bought some instant coffee, and prepared it all herself, in her new apartment.

Waking up had felt decidedly strange. It could be that she was just not used to gravity. She definitely hadn't slept in a bed before that she could remember. She felt some strange marks on her face from where her skin had been touching the soft part of the bed. She had tossed and turned before falling asleep, trying to figure out what was the best position to sleep in. She'd finally decided on her side, with her arm underneath her head. She'd never realized the true use of pillows before. Now that she understood, she was prepared to go out and buy one that very day. She'd been a bit cold, and missed her blanket from the ship.

After a few seconds enjoying her revere, she snapped out of it, and rushed to the com. She didn't even think to check herself for preventability as she touched the screen, accepting the call. Longfingers was on the other end of the call, looking close to impatient.

"Hello sleepyhead. How was your first night on you own?"

"Uhhhh..."

"Good! I've got a big day planned out for you. You can start by picking up the package I've had delivered to your apartment, and delivering it to this address on the south side." An address flashed screen, attached to the vid message. "When you're done with that, come on down to the bar, and I'll see what else we can get you working on."

Longfingers flipped off the com, and Game was left alone with her thoughts. She hadn't exactly planned her first 'job' to be messenger girl for a criminal barkeep, but it would probably pay more than the average waitress gig. Besides, she hadn't figured on how she was going to find an ID, or money to start out with, and this was better than sleeping in the ducts and vents.

Another chime sounded, different from the call waiting sound, and this chime was accompanied by a loud THUD. A panel next to the main entrance opened into the living room, and a package spilled out onto the floor. Game frowned at the size and apparent weight. How was she going to cart that all the way across the station?

She headed into the restroom for a shower. If she had a full day's work ahead of her, she might as well look presentable. Showering on the SilkWorm had been a luxury, and she was going to live it up to the fullest extent of her new luxurious accommodations...

---

Mir woke, his eyes sore, and a bile in the back of his throat... no, he felt something else in the back of his throat. He panicked as he realized he couldn't swallow, as something was blocking the passage. He wanted to kick and struggle, but his limbs were sore, and he was too tired to really try very hard...

He moved his fingers... at least he could do that. His knuckles felt swollen, and everything was so very slow. His toes felt like they were asleep. However they had him tied up was cutting into the joints just behind his knees, and he felt a sharp pain there, and could feel nothing below it.

He realized that his jaw hurt because his mouth was forced open by whatever was also keeping his throat open. At least he could still breathe. He tried to make a sound, but it hurt, and came out quiet and muffled to his ears.

The blurry bulkheads above him suggested he was on a ship of some kind, and no longer on the station. He couldn't move his head to see if Puja and Garret were with him in this torture.

But he was so tired. The adrenaline from his initial panic faded, and he felt a relaxing calm overwhelm his being. He knew something was subduing him. He fought, but it was painful, and eventually sleep claimed him again...

---

Trixyz woke up early, as she always did, no matter how late she'd been up the night before. She kept her eyes closed, remembering the wild and passionate sex that she and Amile had enjoyed before finally falling into sleep in their huge four-post hotel bed. Her left arm was still nestled softly against one of Amile's breasts, and she imagined the dark nipple there, dark as all of Amile's features, dark and compelling. She was tempted to have some of Amile for breakfast, but then remembered the day spa her father had purchased... It was a tough choice, staying in bed for a quick bout of sexual gratification, or getting up to enjoy what would surely be a full day of sensual relaxation.

Eventually, she worried that the spa passes were only good for certain hours, and, despite having already begun to caress Amile's stomach, pushed herself out of the soft blankets and sheets to go check their appointment times.

Of course they were already late. They'd only gotten home at four in the morning. If Trixyz hadn't been laying in bed enjoying the memory, she might have only just barely made it to the spa on time. She smiled to herself. Since they were already late, it could hardly hurt to be a little *more* late, now could it?

She went back to the bed, and burrowed under the blankets to wake Amile with a kiss...

---

More or less an hour later, Amile and Trixyz, none the worse for wear, and sporting a particular glow about themselves, walked through the large domed courtyard outside the hotel. The courtyard was an impressive sight; with the sunshine filtered through the dome above it was possible to look at the surface of the sun itself. Mars was also visible as a crescent, back facing its mother, and the stars still shone behind them both, like tiny pearls through the dome.

In the center of the courtyard was a fountain in the likeness of a lion spitting water from its mouth. Trixyz noticed a plaque beneath the lion bearing just the name "Ponce De Lion".

There were dozens of shops and stores that faced the courtyard, and at least two restaurants where you could eat out in the open. Amile clutched Trixyz' hand tightly, and exclaimed that they'd have to eat at them all before the week was done.

The spa had a large storefront three doors down from the hotel. Out of the corner of her eye, Trixyz spotted a woman with purple hair wearing sunglasses at one of the tables at a restaurant they passed on their way. She avoided looking in that direction, but she couldn't help but wonder about their encounter on the luxury liner again. What had the woman meant about her and her father taking a risk? She didn't even talk to her father, and had never worked for him until her job with the vats. She knew the job had been a bit dangerous, but she was certain there were safety precautions in place. Her father would never have let her take the job if the danger had been life threatening.

She shook the memory from her mind, and pulled at the glass doors into the spa, walking to the counter where an absolutely beautiful woman waited for them with a perfect smile plastered on her perfect face. The woman wore what was obviously some kind of spa uniform, a white nurse's dress complete with stethoscope and a headband with one of those circular mirrors on it,

The woman spoke directly to Trixyz before she even opened her mouth. "You must be Trixyz Gallifrey. We've been expecting you of course. Won't you please step this way?" The woman turned and walked quickly toward a door to the right of the entrance. She had a tone that betrayed a slight annoyance. Was it because Trixyz was late? Trixyz felt impertinent. Surely it didn't matter that much if they were an hour late for their appointments when they were scheduled for the entire day? Then again, she didn't know what kind of schedule the spa kept. She looked at Amile, shrugged her shoulders, and followed the woman. Amile made as if to follow, but another woman stepped out from a door behind the counter, speaking to her,

"Can I help you, mam?"

Amile stopped, and gestured toward Trixyz, who was disappearing behind a sliding door with the first attendant. "I have an appointment."

"Ahh, your name?"

"Amile."

"Yes! I see you here." This woman's smile was definitely more genuine than the other woman's had been. She was also quite beautiful, but not in a way that suggested perfection. She wore a similar dress to the other woman, and had the stethoscope, but not the headband. She also wore a nametag that read Stacy. Stacy appeared to be checking something on a com behind the desk. "You are scheduled for an exciting day! A full body massage and oil wrap, followed by our specialized pedicure, manicure, and sexycure." Stacy looked up at Amile slyly. "I see you have both sexes, so you'll enjoy that part twice as much, I'm sure. Now if you'll follow me..."

The beautiful woman directed Amile toward a door in the left wall, the opposite direction that Trixyz had disappeared. Amile couldn't help but feel a little guilty that Stacy seemed much more accommodating and pleasant than Trixyz' attendant had been. Hopefully both doors would lead to the same place. She told herself not to worry about it. They could always compare notes later.

Stacy led Amile to a room with a hanging robe and short table to one side. In the center of the room was a massage table. "I'll be leaving you here." Stacy said. She sounded genuinely disappointed. "Take your clothes off and put them on the table. No need to get into the robe just yet, you can climb up onto our heated massage unit, and someone will arrive shortly to begin. Have a wonderful day!" Stacy winked at Amile and the sliding door shut behind her.

As Amile took off her clothes she stopped feeling guilty, she thought to herself that Trixyz must surely be away from her unpleasant attendant by now. Hell, her massage was probably already under way!

---

Unfortunately, Amile's assumption was wrong. Trixyz was still following her nurse through the corroders of the spa. Just past the sliding door, she'd passed through a corridor that had appeared to be a giant scuttle, the kind they use in ships. Just after that she'd passed through an airlock. For a second she wondered what one was doing this far inside the station, but she realized the rest of the spa had looked very much like the inside of a ship too, so maybe it was just a spaceship themed spa.

She'd twisted through a few other spaceship looking corridors, every once in a while the nurse would look back at her as if she was making sure Trixyz was keeping up. She was certainly in a hurry. Amile did her best to keep on the woman's heels, and eventually they made it to a room that appeared to at least mildly resemble the spas that Trixys had been to before.

There was a place for her to hang her clothes, and on one end of the room was a large complicated (and no doubt jet filled) bathtub.

"Please quickly remove your clothes and step into the pool." The woman appeared a little less hurried now. She turned away from Trixyz and held her right arm up in the air. Trixyz realized the woman was using a wristcom. She was still incredibly gorgeous, and Trixyz was imagining her naked as she peeled herself out of the clothes she'd only just put on a few minutes before.

Just as Trixyz put her first toes into the strange looking tub, the other woman turned back around. She smiled in what seemed a genuine fashion for the first time. "I'm sorry I'm in such a hurry. Normally I would explain to you what's about to happen, and give you the whole disclaimers and assurances, but hopefully all that can wait until tomorrow. We simply must get you started if we're going to give you enough time between your sessions. As it is, I think we're going to have to start a little later tomorrow just in case." The woman winked at her. "That'll give me some time to explain the details to you then, if you like."

The woman peeled back a section of the wall next to the tub while she spoke, removing a hose from it. "Now put this in your mouth dear, and lay back into the water."

By this point Trixyz had about a million questions to ask, but the mouthpiece was practically being forced down her throat, so she just complied with the woman's request, and sunk deep into the tub, letting the water cover her. She didn't know what to expect. There were no jets, as she'd initially thought there would be, but she did feel a tingling, and something in the water certainly affected her strangely.

---

"I know this is your ship, captain, but this is my research!" The voice was practically yelling, and it cut through the cloud in Mir's head like a large plane slowly emerging from behind the cumulous. "I will not loose data and specimens, not to mention countless precious hours of work just because you're starting to feel heat from the councilors *we* put in power in the first place!!"

Another voice, quieter, but just as angered entered the dense fog. "It's not just the councilors. You know they came forward recently, and soon we'll have The Corporation breathing down our necks. You know you can't keep them placated forever!"

"I can and I will! My research is the single most important thing happening in this miserable solar system, and I will not put it behind schedule by months because you or anybody else is afraid of some measly government. The councilors came forward because I told them the time was right. Nobody even remembers who The Corporation is anymore. It's not like in our youth, when you couldn't turn the corner without someone singing the corporate anthem or wearing a logo and spouting about how proud they were to be an employee. Don't you see it? Now is the time to sever all ties! The corporation is just another customer, and they'll be clamoring for what we provide the same as everyone else..."

There was a brief pause. Mir gagged again, and tasted the bile at the back of his throat. The second voice started up again. "I think you've gone too far this time. You're choosing subjects at random now, and you know that's unethical. Not only that, but you chose those mining brats this time, and they're not going to just disappear like the others. You're going to have to explain their disappearance to somebody!"

Mir was struggling to understand everything. He knew they were talking about him now, but in what context? Was he some kind of experiment? The first voice had regained control of its anger, and it spoke calculated and convincing, "You know we've got that covered. It's perfect timing! Besides, Corporation wanted me to do it! It's a beautiful double cross. The Corporation stooges think they'll be able to sway the miners to mercenaries by blaming the kidnapping on the station folk. But I'll produce documentation when they get here that pins the whole thing on corporation scheming. The miners battle The Corporation fighters, and we pick up the pieces!"

The same voice continued, "If three little boys are lost in the shuffle, who cares?" Mir began to panic again. This was an even worse situation than he'd imagined. "Besides, I needed subjects that matched their ages and profiles. I didn't count on the vampire blooded one, but even he can be of use to me." *Puja!*

The voices faded from hearing, and Mir dared open his eyes. He was still staring at the bulkhead. He couldn't turn his head, but he felt his strength returning, and was tempted to try anyway. He still couldn't feel his feet, but the pain behind his knees had subsided to a dull ache. In fact, it was less an ache and more a throbbing pain that felt like it was shooting up his legs.

As Mir began to struggle for consciousness, he realized he had been awake for some time... much longer than the first time... and then... sleep.

---

Game arrived back in her apartment after a long day spent delivering packages and waiting on tables. Her new identity was G. Monet, the daughter of a wealthy bioborg, who funded her dream, to become an influential bio-cosmeticist. This explained the packages she had delivered to her apartment with some regularity full of research equipment and bio samples.

Apparently the Monet family was a popular scapegoat on mercurystation. Nobody actually went by that name, but it was rumored that there were several Monets who were Company employees receiving regular paychecks. Whenever an anonymous corpse surfaced, it was jokingly referred to as "one of those crazy Monets".

Game made herself a cup of instant coffee. She searched around some, and discovered a chair that inflated from the wall in front of the com. She spent the night searching for references to her new identity, and found plenty already in place. She made a welcoming vid post on a local newsgroup, and replied to a few others looking for company on the station. She wanted to go out and see the sights, but she decided she could wait for her day off. She had worked far too long that day, and was deathly tired. She hadn't gotten around to picking up a blanket, and so she fell asleep in her chair, head cocked at a strange angle, and eyes glued to a late-night vid on how to get rich quick in the mining industry.

---

Trixzy woke with a start. She'd been dreaming about drowning. She'd only been submerged in water maybe ten times in her life. Yet in the dream she was deathly afraid. She had been swimming. She'd never been in more than a bathtub, yet in the dream she'd been swimming in a pool the size of a large ship. It was what they called a lake dirtside, or maybe an ocean. She'd seen an ocean the last time she was dirtside herself. She'd even had an opportunity to go swimming, but she had declined.

The dream faded, and Trixyz risked a trip to the restroom. Amile wasn't back yet, and after a while she fell back to sleep.

---

Jasper lay in Qristy's net. They'd spent the night clinging to each other for companionship. Jasper couldn't sleep, but neither could he move, he'd disturb Qristy, and this was the first peaceful moment she'd had since they found out Puja was missing with the others. Even their lovemaking had been almost painful. Qristy broke down at one point and began to cry. Jasper had stopped and held her close. "Do you want to stop?" He asked, "Do you want me to go?"

"No!" she'd sobbed. "It's helping. Don't leave me. It's helping."

Earlier in the afternoon, she'd called her father and mother. She hadn't wanted to see them yet, but she felt they should know. Of course they'd rushed up to the Cluster to be at Qristy's side in person.

"I know someone on the council" her mother said, "I'll call her first thing in the morning and sort this out."

Her father hadn't said much of anything at all. The lines of his face were hard and set; Jasper saw him visibly shake with anger. He only spoke to tell Qristy that he loved her. Jasper thought he understood why Qristy hadn't wanted to see them. They were just as emotional as she had been, and they didn't help her calm down at all. After they left, she insisted he get high with her in her chamber. Jasper didn't really believe in getting high, he preferred to stay completely aware of his surroundings at all times, but they turned off the com first, and he told himself that this was more for Qristy than himself.

So he lay in the arms of the first woman he'd slept with in at least ten years who was not his wife, wondering whether his son was all right--and knowing that he wasn't.

---

Trixyz woke up in her bed in the hotel room. Her whole body ached. She felt as though she had the worst hangover she'd ever had, combined with the worst cold she'd ever had. Her skin felt completely bruised.

She had no idea how she'd gotten from the spa to her hotel. The last thing she remembered was sinking into the water. She sat up slowly and shook her head.

Amile walked to the side of the bed and put her hand on Trixyz' shoulder. "Hiya sleepy head!"

Trizyz groaned. She tried to ask how she got back to the hotel, but she had a strange frog stuck in her throat.

"Did you have a good time at the spa?" Amile asked.

Trixyz coughed and tasted a metallic hospital flavor in the back of her throat. "I don't remember anything. How did I even get here?"

"Um... You were here when I got back. They just told me at the spa you'd left already." Amile bit her lip. "You don't remember coming back?"

Trixyz moved the blanket and was going to stand up, but she found she was far too sore. "I don't remember anything." She repeated. "Do I look bruised to you? My skin is SORE."

"No, you look fine." Amile said. She tried to smile, but Trixyz could tell she was starting to get worried.

"How was your day at the spa?" Trixyz asked, changing the subject.

Amile looked relieved, then her eyes rolled back into her head and she fell backwards onto the bed. "It was wonderful!" Amile continued from on her back, "I've never been so relaxed. I feel amazing."

Trixyz wished she could say the same. She was definitely not going to go back to that place ever again. She decided she just needed some sleep, and she'd probably feel fine.

"Did you want to go back to the club tonight?" Amile asked, sitting up on her knees on the bed.

"I don't think I can handle it." Trixyz said. "I feel incredibly hung over."

"Were you drinking at the spa?" Amile asked. "Maybe that's why you don't remember."

"I think it was weirder than that... I mean, the last thing I remember was getting dunked in this weird tub full of liquid--"

"I'll bet it was hooch." Amile interjected.

"It just seems really weird."

"Well, I'm going without you then. I had a great time last night, and I'm hoping to repeat the experience."

Trixyz was sad that Amile thought she could repeat the experience without her along. "I'm going to take a nap." Trixyz said. "I'll be here when you get back."

---

Mir awoke, and gagged. Again. The tube in his throat was really starting to piss him off. He surged with anger. He'd never felt so angry in his life. He felt the anger in his arms and legs. He could just barely feel his feet, but he could feel the anger even there. He marveled at being able to flex his toes. He opened his eyes and saw the bulkhead again. The bulkhead made him angry too. He was so angry he would tear the heads off those fucking scientists if he ever found them. He would do unspeakable things to them. He would repay them for this torture a hundred times over.

The strangest thing was how he physically felt the anger surging within him. It was spreading outward from his head... from the back of his neck, actually. It felt like it traveled through his skin. Then suddenly it was in his eyes! The pain! He shut his eyes tightly, and still the pain!

Somewhere in reality there were voices, but all he felt was pain.

"Is he actually awake?"

"It appears he is! Quick up his--"

"I already have. He should be sedated. His levels are far higher than what you or I could wake up from."

Mir wanted to scream, but all that came out was a hollow breathy noise. He couldn't close his throat. His eyes were burning holes in his skull. Then darkness.

---

Amile rolled into bed. She was sweaty and hot from the bondage club downstairs. Her pulse was still racing, and her blood-alcohol level was probably way too high. She tried to close her eyes and pretend she was at home, but the sheets were too soft, and Trixyz' hot body was too close. She felt herself stiffen remembering the spanking she'd received in the club. She'd had plenty of offers, but she would have felt guilty going home with another guy... or girl.

She thought about Trixyz' body, and didn't regret her decision. She rolled onto her belly, and reached out a hand for Trixyz. She pressed her fingers into Trixyz' thigh, and stroked downward--a move that typically elicited a response even in sleep.

There was a response, but it wasn't the one Amile had expected. Trixyz' eyes shot open, and her gasp was decidedly not one of pleasure. "Ouch!" she yelped.

Amile lessened her pressure immediately. "Did I hurt you?" she asked. "I'm *so* sorry. I must be more drunk than I thought I was."

Trixyz groaned. "No, I don't think it was you. I feel like a giant bruise. I think my trip to the spa was something like going through a meat tenderizer. I'm sure you meant well."

Amile, heartened by the kind words, snuggled closer to Trixyz, flicking her tongue on Trixyz' neck.

"No, I'm sorry, it's too much. I'm too sick. I'm sorry."

She pushed Amile away, gently, but firmly. Even that small movement was almost painful.

"Maybe I'm sick, or something." She said. "Maybe it was something in the water at the Spa."

Amile sulked for a moment, wondering what had happened at the spa exactly. If they had really submerged Trixyz in a vat of alcohol, why? Had her father thought she would enjoy such a thing? Maybe there was some kind of mixup, and she'd got a treatment someone else had asked for... or maybe it was something more than that. Maybe they had dirty facilities, and Trixyz'd had some kind of reaction to the chemicals or something.

Whatever the case, Amile fell asleep horny and unsatisfied.

---

Game woke with a start. Her com was chiming at her again. This time it was two feet away, and she felt like throwing something at it. But instead she reached forward instinctively and touched it, falling back into the chair she'd spent the entire night in.

"Good work yesterday. I see you're capable of earning your keep." Longfingers was chipper as usual. Game wondered if he used some kind of drug to wake up so alert so early in the morning.

"I had meant to wait much longer before giving you an assignment like this, but there is dire need for someone to assist at the gene vats up by the hotel. You'll need a passcube, and I've had it couriered to your door. When you get there, enter the Spa and ask for a man called the Captain. He will be your contact, and will tell you what to do."

"When you finish with your duties at the Spa, you can take the rest of the day off. Do some exploration, enjoy the sights, buy some expensive food. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

Longfingers reached forward as if to sign off without letting Game get a word in edgewise, but then he stopped suddenly.

"Oh, and take a shower before you leave." he said. And the screen went blank.

A few minutes later, Game heard a package drop into her mail slot. She rolled out of her inflated couch, and retrieved the passcube. She set it on the counter while she took stripped off her softsuit and headed for the shower.

Warm water sprayed her skin and was sucked back down into the bottom of the shower. What was she going to do in a spa?

Posted on Nov 24, 03 (4907 words)

becoming vampire

Trixyz groaned... there was an incessant chiming coming from the room com. She rolled out of bed, and ambled slowly toward the com. She hoped they would close connection before she got there, but no such luck. She answered audio only. "Yes?" She asked.

Her father's face appeared on the vid screen. Five or six seconds passed before he said "Trixyz, is that you? I'm not getting a clear picture over here."

"Yes, it's me Dad. I'm not exactly dressed yet, so audio is all you get."

She knew it'd take him a while to answer. The speed of light would set his answer back, and the com had a little readout on the side that told her the approximate time delay was currently eleven seconds. She took the time to find a shirt to pull over her head and turned the vid back on.

"Fine darling. The spa told me you were late for your appointment yesterday. I know I didn't exactly tell you what you were getting, but I wanted it to be a surprise. Are you happy with it?"

"Happy with what?" Trixyz furrowed her brows. What she was getting? What did he mean, 'getting'?

"Dad, I'm never going back to that place. I hurt something fierce, and I don't even remember what happened while I was there." What she was getting. Boy was she stupid. He got her some kind of gene therapy. Spa equals front for illegal gene clinic. And she had arrived late, so the woman didn't even tell her anything about the therapy. "Um--" Her dad's reply cut her off...

"Didn't they tell you what was going to happen to you!?"

"No. No they didn't. But I think it may have been because I was late." Trixyz paused for a second. "Dad, what did you get me?"

The delay jumped from eleven seconds to forty seconds. Either one of the relays went down, or there was an obstruction, and the signal had to be routed through another location. Trixyz knew this call was costing her father plenty. Suddenly Dad looked a bit upset. "You have to go back!" he practically shouted. "I didn't buy you just any trip to the Spa."

He visibly calmed down some. "This time delay is a bitch." He said. "I don't think I should really talk about this over the com, honey. Just go to the Spa again today, and make sure they explain everything to you. I'm paying them enough they ought to be able to do at least that." He appeared to think for a second. "I'm going to sign off now. You say goodbye too, OK?"

The screen went blank, but she knew she was still transmitting for as long as she'd like. "Bye Dad... thanks... I think." She blew a kiss at the com, and turned the screen off.

This was just too weird. She felt violated. What had they changed? What was going to be different about her? She hoped it wasn't too cosmetic. She liked her body the way it was, thank you. She didn't feel like she was growing wings or anything. That had been one of her dreams when she'd been a little girl. But that was a pretty obvious biomod, and people were occasionally deported from earthstation for things like that. It seemed unlikely her Dad would purchase something that blatant. More likely he was enhancing her creativity or intelligence or something equally dull.

Whatever it was, it put a huge damper on her vacation.

She checked the clock. Dad had called to wake her up! _He'd heard she was late for her appointment yesterday._ Of course he did.

Amile had slept through the entire phone conversation. Trixyz slipped on some clothing and then kissed Amile on the forhead. Her eyes fluttered open. "I'm leaving for the Spa, sweety."

Amile looked slightly surprised. "I thought you weren't going back?"

"I found out my dad got me some kind of gene therapy. I don't know why he didn't fucking tell me in the first place, but that's why I don't remember any of yesterday. I'm sure it'll be the same thing tonight. Have a good day today. I'd love it if you're here when I get back."

Amile stuck her tongue out and rolled back over. She was probably upset.

Trixyz was still hurting all over, but not badly enough that she couldn't make it to the clinic on her own. She hurried out the door and into the elevator. Lights were already set to 'day' in the hallway, and her eyes definitely weren't adjusted yet. She hit the button for 'lobby' while squinting through the first two fingers on her right hand.

She made it out of the glass lobby, and into the courtyard, which was of course even brighter. She felt like a complete loser staggering into the Spa, but the woman who'd greeted her yesterday was there waiting for her.

"Hello again Trixyz. Follow me." The woman led her back again through the Spa. Trixyz didn't look closely at anything. She still felt incredibly hung-over.

"Is it normal for me to feel like this?" She asked when she was finally back in the room with the tub in it.

"Well, I should probably go over everything I was suppose to go over with you yesterday now. Let me start at the beginning, OK?"

Trixyz nodded.

"Your body is going to reject the treatment until the third day. You'll feel bruised and battered, but let me assure you that there is no actual permanent damage inside you." Well, that was a relief.

"You may experience any number of additional side effects. Have you ever had gene therapy before?"

The woman actually looked surprised when Trixyz shook her head. "Oh you poor thing." she said, "I just assumed you had. Normally customers who get the full monty have been in before. I'm sorry I rushed you through it yesterday."

"The full monty?"

"Oh, that's just our little slang for the mod you purchased. You know, the works, the whole shebang, the kit and caboodle."

Trixyz didn't want to admit her ignorance, but this was getting ridiculous. "Listen, lady, I didn't purchase anything. This was my father's gift. And he didn't tell me what it was. He said you would tell me. I know it's stupid, but *I don't know* what's happening to me!"

There was silence for a minute. The gorgeous woman looked utterly shocked. "I... I'm truly sorry... You're getting immortality. You're getting sensory enhancement. You're getting the works."

She licked her lips. She clearly wasn't used to this kind of thing. "You'll never age, at least not for appearances. You will have fewer diseases. Your senses will be twice as sharp as they were before, and your reflexes twice as fast. You'll be probably three times as strong, and you won't have to work out or work to stay fit ever again."

Trixyz contemplated this for a few moments. The implications were enormous. What was the catch? There had to be a catch.

"What are the drawbacks? What's the downside? There has to be a downside."

"Oh let me see now... we haven't had anyone complain of side effects in over two years. Our techniques are the most advanced that money can buy, and each mod is tailored to the individual. You'll show up on a nanoscrub, but most people do these days. More difficult to explain away will be your lack of aging in ten or twenty years!"

Trixyz wondered if the woman was remembering lines from a brochure or something. There most certainly had to be side effects, but it was probably too late to turn back now.

"How is the... mod tailored to me as an individual?" Trixyz wondered out loud.

"Well, you... or someone who loves you... sent in a DNA sample, and we planned out all the necessary modifications ahead of time." The woman put her finger to her lips. "Oh," she pouted, "I did think of one statistical side effect... There is a thirty percent chance you'll be sterile after the procedure. It happens to about a third of our female patients. If you do happen not to be sterile, you'll pass on your modified DNA structures the same as you would pass on other traits to your children. In other words, they may have some or all of the mods, or they may have none. It's really up to chance."

The woman checked her wristcom. "Now, if you don't mind... we really should get you in the tank. I know this may be hard for you, but you really are having excellent work done. I seriously doubt you'll ever have cause for regret. As you've no doubt guessed, I've had the same procedures, as well as some other cosmetic modifications." The woman winked.

Trixyz got undressed. She sure hoped there weren't any cosmetic modifications happening to her. She stepped into the tank, sinking her feet into the thick water. Her body still hurt, and she wondered how she was going to feel when she woke up again, but she didn't want to ask if it was going to be better or worse later. She didn't want to know.

She put the mouthpiece in, and let herself fall into the water, taking her first breath, sinking into the dark water, sinking into oblivion, sinking into vampirism.

---

Mir realized he was awake at the same second he realized that he could feel the air in the room change. A lock had opened and closed. Someone had just left the room, but he didn't know how he knew. Maybe, he thought, it was because he could still hear them walking away in the next room. It wasn't just that he could hear them; he could feel the steps too, vibrating ever so slightly. Dozens of other vibrations made them difficult to distinguish, but hers were the only ones he could also hear, fading rapidly into the distance.

Still, how could he hear anything through an airlock? And how did he know it was a she? The smell that still lingered in the currents of air circulating the room were definitely a female perfume. Mir couldn't remember ever having had a particularly well defining sense of smell, but he could now smell three or four distinct people in the room.

Three, he decided. He was sure the woman was gone now. Her scent was even fading.

He realized he knew the other two smells were Puja and Garret. They were just somehow... familiar. And their smells conjured images of the times he'd been near to them physically.

Mir remembered the pain in his eyes. His entire body was a dull ache, but no more so in his eyes than anywhere else. He tentatively opened one eye, and when it didn't hurt, he opened them both. The same bulkhead loomed above him, but it was slightly blurry. He tried to blink away the sleepiness, and decided it was more than sleepiness. There was some kind of film over his eyes that wouldn't blink away. At the same time, he thought he could make out slight imperfections in the struts of the bulkhead that he'd never noticed before. He wanted to rub his eyes to see clearly, but he still couldn't move.

The same familiar pain was running up his legs, but now he could hear a mechanism at work that throbbed with the pain. His toes still felt numb and tingly, but at least he could feel them.

He heard the whir of the mechanism change: just slightly, and only for a second. Then he felt the drowsiness return. He was being sedated! He struggled against the sleep. He was enjoying his newfound senses, and didn't want to give them up just yet.

He realized he wasn't supposed to be awake. The sedative was no-doubt on some kind of timer, and he was waking up consistently before it... Maybe next time he woke up he could work on getting free... Maybe next time...

Posted on Nov 25, 03 (2007 words)

game meets the Captain

Game arrived at the Spa. The only entrance she could find was the main front door, under a giant dome that looked out onto the swirling red and grey planet below. There was some blond bimbo working at the front desk. She didn't know why, but she felt a kind of animosity toward anyone so perfect looking. Game took a deep breath and walked into the spa.

"I'm looking for someone named the captain." She tried to smile at the bimbo, whose nametag read Stacy.

"Oh yes, he's been expecting you." The bimbo smiled. Game thought maybe she wasn't so bad after all. "Follow me back here."

Game followed Stacy behind the counter, and back into a corridor that curved around to the right. She really hoped she wasn't going to have to wear the uniform that Stacy was wearing, an old white smutty nurse's uniform.

Stacy led her to a large changing room. There were some lockers, and a shower in the corner. Stacy pointed to one of the shelves on a wall toward the back. "You'll have to wear one of the jumpsuits, but you can wear it over what you're wearing now, if you want."

"There is an airlock at the back.. You'll find the captain through there. You'll need to use your passcube to get through it. You do have a passcube, don't you?"

Game nodded.

Stacy turned to leave, but Game spoke up. "Do you know what I'm suppose to be doing here?"

Stacy laughed... "No, not really. Probably just feeding the patients."

Game was still wearing her softsuit. She pulled the white cleansuit over it. when she pulled it down from the shelf, a pair of white clumps of cloth fell down with it. She realized they were sock-like booties that were probably meant to go over the soles of her suit. She pulled the little white booties over her feet they sealed to the cleansuit. She stood up and stretched out. The suit was loose and obviously meant to be one-size-fits-all. There was a weird lump where her softsuit bulged in the back for her helmet, but otherwise it fit just fine. She noticed there were gloves and a mask to fit over her mouth on the shelf at the end closest to the airlock. She put the gloves on and stuffed a mask into the large pocket the suit had in the front.

She walked over to the lock and realized that she'd left the passcube in the pocket in her softsuit. She had to unzip partway to pull it out and hold it under the scanner. The lock opened with a large click, and she stepped inside.

She walked through a wide scuttle, and cycled through another lock. Geez, she thought, am I going outside, or what?

The lock cycled, and she stepped forward into a bridge of sorts. There was a bank of chairs facing a very large and very blank com screen. In the center of the room was a captain's chair. And in it sat, presumably, the Captain.

Game resisted the urge to call him sir. "Captain?" she asked.

The Captain appeared to be staring off into space. He acted as if he'd just woke from a long nap. "Ahh, you must be Game," he said, before turning to her. Game noticed a flashing light that trailed just behind his eye. He'd been in 3V then. Submerged in com work, or maybe some other universe entirely--in a vurt or immersion training or any number of other possibilities.

"Sorry to disturb you."

"No, not at all. I was just finishing some things up here..."

The Captain was not a very good liar, and even Game could tell he hadn't been working.

"...I'll show you to the tasks I've got planned for you." The Captain motioned without actually getting up from his chair for her to accompany him through a door opposite the large com screen.

It was then that Game noticed he didn't have any legs. He appeared to disappear directly into the seat of his chair. His clothing hid the transition, but he was either borg or some kind of cripple. His chair moved by an unseen mechanism, floating without noise or outwardly apparent propulsion. It kept him at about eye height.

He followed her through the sliding steel doors.

As if the bridge hadn't been indication enough, the next room she entered would have solidified her suspicion that she was now on a space-faring ship of some kind. She was walking on a catwalk through the center of a cargo bay. There were steel bulkheads like giant ribs lining the inside of the curved walls in either direction. She would be walking along the spine, and about two stories below her there were stacks of boxes and crates organized into rows and isles.

Why a ship existed inside the station was not something she understood, but she didn't think to comment on it. There were plenty of reasons she could think of for it. The original purpose could have been some kind of escape vehicle in case of drastic emergency. Or perhaps it was in a personal hangar.

Whatever the reason, a ship could have independent life support from the rest of the station, and probably would have separate power supply and utilities as well, an ideal position for an illegal gene warehouse.

"We really are just understaffed." the Captain said. "We've had an influx of new patients, and many of them need... supervision."

Game reached the end of the catwalk. There really wasn't anywhere else to go, so she waved her passcube under the lock for the next room, and was rewarded with a stark and sterile hallway. Doors lined both sides for at least another hundred meters with no apparent turns or intersections.

"This is our ward," the Captain intoned dryly, then, "Take this pencom."

Game turned and accepted the pen the Captain removed from his breast pocket where at least two others like it were clipped. "Clip it securely, and you should be able to access the ovurtlay."

Game didn't know what an 'ovurtlay' was, but when she clipped the pen to her own breast pocket, the 3V in the pen tracked her eyes, and suddenly she was not looking at the stark and barren hallway she'd been looking at moments before. Now the hallway was lined on either side with doors marked clearly with their patients' names and faces on them. Next to each door was a hanging file folder.

"Just touch a folder to access its contents. The folder will stay open with you until you specifically close it, which I recommend you do between patients. There may be different tasks for each patient. The system logs each task that gets completed correctly, so I'll know at the end of the day if you've done a good job. You'll only have to do the tasks flagged as yellow for now. Work your way down the hallway. Let me know if you need supplies or anything by saying *Oh Captain, my Captain.* I'll come running."

With that, the somewhat grumpy Captain turned and left the way they'd arrived, presumably to go back to whatever 3V he'd been enjoying when she first interrupted him.

Game turned to the first file folder next to the first door, and touched it tentatively. She felt nothing, but the folder opened and hovered where she'd touched it, relative to the direction she was facing. When she turned to face the opposite direction, the folder turned with her. However, she could move her head and eyes freely, and the opened folder stayed in place. She did notice that if she tilted her head back far enough, the pencom lost track of her eye completely, and the ovurtlay disappeared quite abruptly.

The first patient's name was John. There was what looked like a yellow sticker, and a bunch of green ones pasted just inside the inside of the folder. The yellow sticker said the nanoprocessor was low on calcium. She almost called out for the Captain, but she happened to glance at the door to the room first. The door seemed mostly transparent. She could see into the room as if the door were made of glass.

On the other side of the door, a large yellow arrow pointed to a recessed shelf next to the entrance. A small container on the shelf was outlined in yellow, and inside the container were relatively small cubes labeled with their contents. The cubes labeled sulfate were all glowing faintly yellow inside in addition to being outlined in solid yellow. Game grabbed a handful of them for the nanoprocessor, and immediately the arrow changed directions.

The room was long and narrow. There was a single bulkhead "rib" visible at the far end of the room. Under the rib was some machinery that looked fairly complicated. Clear tubes led from the machinery to a vat resembling a coffin or covered bathtub in the middle of the room.

Game followed the new arrow to a yellow outlined panel on the machinery. As she passed the vat, she glanced through the top of the clear cover into the pool below. John floated serenely with a single tube coming from a mask that covered his mouth and nose. She thought she could just make out the movement of his breathing through the murky nanowater.

She reached the yellow panel, pressed a button that opened it, and dropped the silicone cubes she was clutching into the gaping maw of the machine. Her yellow sticker immediately switched to green, and all the visible occurrences of the yellow outlines faded from view.

She returned to the hallway. She wasn't immediately sure how to close the file, but when she moved her hands to either side of it, and pushed the edges together, that did the trick.

Game moved to the next patient across the way. She opened the folder, and scanned it for yellow flags. This isn't too bad, she thought. She was getting the hang of it just fine...

Posted on Nov 26, 03 (1676 words)

breakout and rescue

Mir stirred again. This time his first thoughts were of escape. He'd mentally prepared himself to wake up and fight. He tensed the muscles in his arms, or tried to. He could feel his arms, but they didn’t seem to be responding to commands at the moment. But he remembered last time he'd been able to wiggle his toes!

He tired the toes again. It was like pushing through a thick underbrush. He could just barely see his goal in the distance, obscured but coming quickly into focus. He concentrated hard on them, and his toes moved. He tensed his arms, and they felt like granite. He was pressing against something very solid. He couldn't even see how they were bound, but he could feel the metal against his wrists and forearms.

He thought about trying his luck with his legs, but the shooting pain was still too great.

He could hear the pulsing of the machine again, and was certain it was pumping something into him from the back of his knees. A liquid of some sort was definitely being pumped through something. He heard the same sorts of sounds to his left and to his right, and he could only assume that Puja and Garret were getting the same treatment.

Mir was afraid to try and move his head. He didn't know how far down the tube sticking out of his neck went. But he was sure if he moved his head that he was bound to break something internally.

He flexed his fingers. His motor skills were definitely returning. And he felt stronger than he'd ever felt before. As with his senses, everything seemed overwhelmingly powerful. He tired to flex his arm again and heard a loud pop. A metal bolt or rivet flew up and hit the ceiling before dropping to the floor again. He flexed again, straining against the metal, and suddenly his arm was free. He quickly groped at the tube coming from his mouth. It didn't feel particularly attached to anything, so he pulled at it.

The tube pulled quickly free, Mir gagging the entire time. When he'd pulled the slimy end all the way from his esophagus, he leaned his head forward and vomited clear bile all over his chest. He sucked in the air painfully, before finding the mechanism to free his left arm. A piece of jagged metal still hung loosely from his right arm, and he found that he could bend it away like tinfoil, despite its half-inch thickness.

By this time, he was able to look around the room. His neck was sore, but otherwise he felt just fine. He noticed a flashing red light on the contraption that held his legs from the thighs down enclosed within it. There was a small com on the front blinking the words 'manual-shutdown'.

Mir couldn't even see his legs behind all the machinery, but he knew he was going to have to stop the injection from happening one way or another.

To his left and right were two more machines exactly like the one he was still sitting in. Puja was just barely visible, head tilted back behind a just slightly more complicated face-mask contraption than the one that had been stuck down Mir's throat. Garret, to his right, just had the same tube and restraints as Mir. Neither of them appeared the slightest bit awake.

Mir returned his attention to his legs. He didn't want to just start ripping apart the machinery, because he didn't know what was happening beneath it.

He felt sure he could rip it apart if he needed to. He tried peeling back a bit of the metal that surrounded his thigh, just to see what was beneath it. He caught a glimpse of a red tube with what was most likely blood flowing through it, and stopped. It wouldn't do for him to bleed to death in the middle of escaping.

He thought about trying to use the com, but he had no idea what the controls were, and touching the screen didn't appear to do anything.

He was just about out of ideas when the door slid open. A man in a hovering chair flew into the room.

"Please, help me!" Mir implored.

The man in the chair didn't say anything. He waved his hand in Mir's direction, and a clear shield dropped from the ceiling to the floor, completely encasing Mir behind it. The clear glass or plastic surrounded Mir on three sides. The fourth side was open to the bulkhead behind him.

Mir heard a whir and a click coming from the metal around his legs. The com on front of the mechanism blinked "auto-shutoff", and the throbbing in his legs quit completely. A few more seconds, and the pain behind his knees had subsided somewhat. The front panel with the com face on it flipped forward completely, and Mir was free. His legs were bare, and his pants had been cut ragged just above the knee. His legs looked very pale, and his feet were cold.

On the other side of the glass, Mir could faintly hear the man in the chair talking to someone else who obviously wasn't present.

"Let me get this straight, you think I should vent him? But even if it was successful, he'll still suffocate!"

Mir risked standing up. His legs were rubbery and weak.

"Wouldn't you prefer to be present for this?"

They started to tingle and Mir realized he could feel the blood returning to his feet and toes.

"Of course it's recording."

Mir had to sit back down while the feeling returned to his legs.

"We'll get his reactions just fine."

Mir stood back up and pounded on the clear divider.

"I guess we'll know soon enough."

The clear material was as solid as steel. Mir could have been pounding the wall for all the good it did. He picked up a piece of the chair restraint that had been holding him down and tried to hit the glass with it. There was a bit of a bend in the glass, but it wasn't going to give in that easily.

Outside the glass, the man in the chair moved farther away from the glass. He waved his hand again, and a panel in the bulkhead opened. Mir heard a loud whoosh, and the air was sucked out of his cage. He happened to see the bulkhead open, and glimpsed the stars behind a metal grate. He had just enough time to squeeze his eyes shut tight and hold his breath before he was slammed against the metal grate, and the air was gone...

---

Game had checked on a total of five rooms. Some had been as easy, or easier than the first, some had four or five yellow flags, and had taken quite a bit longer. Most of the patients had been in nano vats, as the first one had been, but some of them were laying out under bright lamps, or hooked up to complicated machinery. Her new habit was to read the patient dossier before or while she was fixing her little yellow flags. Many of the patients were important people; politicians and vid stars, musicians and heads of companies. They were all, no doubt, ridiculously rich. One was having a third eye installed in the back of his head. The one under the bright light had been developing photosynthesis. Most of them added longevity to the bill while they were at it.

In the middle of checking a patient, Game saw a red flashing light superimposed over the ceiling lights through the door in the hallway. Of course the door wasn't open, but she could see out of it just as she could see in it from the other side. A second or two later, she saw the Captain floating by at a high speed.

Game quickly finished the task she was in the middle of, and proceeded to close her current patient's file. When she got to the hallway, she glimpsed the back of the Captain disappear into one of the rooms much farther down the hallway.

It was the red lights that convinced her she should investigate. She stopped outside of the room the Captain had entered, and touched the patient dossier.

Through the door, she could see the Captain outside of a transparent cage of some sort. A boy was inside the cage, about her same age. She saw him turn around to pull some metal from the chair he'd been sitting in. The backs of his knees were bloody.

Then the boy proceeded to beat the cage with the metal he'd taken from the chair. It appeared hopeless. The boy was definitely very angry.

Then the Captain, who had been looking on this whole time, touched a room control for the cage, and a vent into vacuum opened up behind the boy. Game took a step back. How horrible! The boy was immediately sucked toward the vent, then the air was gone from his cage, and he fell limp to the floor.

Strangely, there was no blood. The boy was not bleeding out of his ears or eyes, and although he had his eyes tightly shut, he didn't appear hurt by the vacuum, and got up and actually walked back to the glass, where he pounded his fists uselessly.

The Captain appeared to be having an animated argument with someone that only he could see. Game couldn't hear him, but he turned abruptly and flew toward the door. Game thought at first that he could see her, but then she realized that he would have been looking right through her, and obviously didn't have the patient's file open. Game quickly opened the file for the room across the hall, and ducked into that doorway. She watched as the Captain flew quickly down the hallway back the way he'd come. Game could see through both doors, but not to the boy's cage. She could see another occupant of the room in a strange chair like the one in the boy's cage. She looked at the names in the file she had open in front of her. The boy in the cage didn't have a name, he just had a number. All three boys in the room were just numbers.

Game noticed the flashing red lights had stopped. The problem had been eliminated, she thought bitterly. She made a split-second decision without thinking about it, and leapt through the door and across the hallway into the other door. She didn't even look to see if the Captain had seen her.

She went straight to the com controls for the cage, and closed the gate into vacuum. She didn't know how to open the cage though, and there was obviously still no air in the room inside. She looked to see if it was too late. If the boy's skull had exploded it was pointless for her to continue. But he was still completely intact, and looking frantically around the cage as if trying to find a way out. Then he pressed himself against the cage in front of her, looking at her with an intense piercing gaze. He was imploring her to help him. His eyes were a deep and incredible blue.

She scanned the com controls floating in front of the cage until she found the controls for the cage itself. Not knowing a better way to restore pressure inside, she pressed the 'open' icon...

---

Mir slammed into the back of his prison forcefully. The air had all rushed from his cage, and he'd been drawn out with it, but he didn't fit through the gate that covered the opening. A few seconds passed.

Mir marveled that he wasn't in pain. He didn't feel as though his ears had ruptured. He was very cold, and could feel ice crystals forming around his nose and mouth.

He was still holding his breath.

He knew his eyes should have ruptured despite having them tightly closed. But strangely, they felt just fine, There was a slight tightness all around his body, as though something was holding him together. Or maybe it was the vacuum pulling at his skin.

Mir began to doubt that he was actually in a vacuum. He opened his eyes, and an ice crystal fell away from each of them, shattering on the floor where it landed.

He still held his breath as he searched around the room. The cloudiness of his vision from before was even worse now. He could still focus just fine, it was like there really was a cloud in front of him or something else obstructing his vision. But there was nothing he could find that would help him. No hardfoam, and no exit.

Outside of the cage the man in the floating chair was gone. And in the man's place was a beautiful girl that Mir had never seen before. She had short black hair that was chopped off in tufts, as if she'd done it herself, and she had just a hint of the geeless look about her--long limbs and elfin features. She was looking in through the glass at him, and he tried to give her a look that said 'get me out of here', and 'please hurry!'

Another few seconds passed, and then the glass cage disappeared upward into the ceiling. There was a strange sensation as Mir felt the air rushing in to fill the vacuum. Mir turned to where the hole had been in the bulkhead behind him, but there was nothing there. Mir realized was safe, for the time being, and only then did he take a huge gulp of air, feeling it scratch harshly at his throat as it flew into this body.

Posted on Nov 27, 03 (2299 words)

rally and escape

Game bent down, tentatively touching the shoulder of the man she'd just saved. His skin was hot to the touch, and almost burned her. She pulled her fingers back quickly.

"My name is Game," she said, "What's yours?"

Mir looked up at her, still a bit winded. "I'm Mir," he said between gasps. "Thanks for saving me."

Behind Game the door slid open. She turned around just in time to see the Captain re-enter the room. He looked over the situation, and his face turned from a calm resignation to a sort of violent anger. He saw game, and stammered, "You... you... "

Game decided it was probably time for her to stop working for the Captain. She looked back to the figure still kneeling on the floor in front of her. He stood up, weakly, and took a step forward, to the other side of where the cage had met the floor. He obviously didn't want to get trapped in there again.

The room was larger than the others she'd been working in, and it had another door on the same wall as the first, but on the other end of the room from where the Captain stood. She looked at Mir, wondering whether he could run with his bloody legs.

Mir yelled, "Run!" and they both made a break for the far door.

"Where do you think you're going to go?" The Captain yelled after them. Game realized he was blocking the only direction that she knew to go to get off the ship.

She didn't know where she was headed, she thought, but she didn't want to stick around and find out what the Captain intended to do to ex-employees. She ran down the hallway away from the captain, Mir right on her heels. He kept pace without getting winded, and it seemed as though he could easily have outdistanced her. She didn't understand how he could even walk, much less run, but then again she didn't understand how he'd survived in vacuum without losing his eyes either.

The Captain was on their tail, waving a gun now, an old fashioned pistol.

Mir ran behind Game, letting her lead the way. He didn't want to leave without Puja and Garret, but neither did he want to get shot by the man in the hoverchair. They were nearing the end of a hallway, which ended in a T-intersection. One direction led down a set of stairs barely visible as they ran, and the other curved back toward the other direction and toward the far end of the ship. Game shot a glance back at him as if asking if he knew the right way to go. Mir's confidence faded. She didn't know which way to go either.

They just had to get back to the station, Game figured. Once they were out in public, surely the Captain couldn't follow them there. But it was going to be easier said than done.

Just as they reached the intersection, Mir watched a bullet punch a hole in the wall in front and to the side of them. Then he heard the sound of the gun firing. The Captain had missed.

They reached the end of the hallway, and Mir decided Game had taken too long to choose a direction. Mir grabbed her hand and pulled her to the left, away from the stairs. Game noticed that her hand wasn't burning. Mir's skin must have cooled since his exposure to vacuum.

They ran around the bend, and straight into a lock. The door wouldn't cycle until Game waved her passcube under the handle and it opened at once. Inside the lock they felt safe for a moment. Game caught her breath. A lock won't open from the outside when someone is in between the two sets of doors.

Mir pointed at the red light to the side of the second set of doors. "It's an outside lock." This was a lock that led to vacuum. They didn't have anywhere to go but outside, or back into the clutches of the Captain.

"I'm wearing a softsuit." Game mentioned. "I saw you open your eyes in vacuum. Can you do t again?"

"I--I don't know." Mir said. He didn't know what had happened back in the glass cage. It didn't make any sense. He'd not only survived when he should have at the very least suffered from all kinds of vacuum sickness and its effects, but he'd even opened his eyes, and felt fine within seconds afterward. It seemed as though the changes to his body had hardened him against the outside cold and vacuum.

They had a choice. Back toward the Captain, or forward into the vast cold of outer space.

"I'll risk it," Mir said. "Promise me you'll get me to the Cluster."

"The Cluster?" Game asked.

"It's the mining ship at the docks. Or anyway it was at the docks. I don't know how long I was in here. It doesn't feel like it was that long. Do you know what day it is?"

"I think it's Friday." Game replied. The truth was that she didn't even know herself. She'd never been very good at keeping track of dates and times. "I'll get you to the Cluster, one way or another."

"I have to hold my breath." Mir said. "So we can't be out there long."

"OK. We'll move fast." Game pulled her hood over her face, and attached it to her softsuit. When she did so, she noticed the folder from her pencom was still open to the file on Mir and the two other people in the room. It disappeared as she pulled the hood over her face. She checked the other seals, making sure they were closed tightly. She nodded to Mir, knowing they wouldn't be able to communicate other than with hands and gestures as soon as they opened the lock.

Game pressed the button, and Mir shut his eyes. He felt the air leave the lock. He opened his eyes and again the solid tears fell, but he could see just fine.

There was a problem though. The lock opened into space, but there was still gravity. Fortunately, they poked their heads over the edge of the lock, and there was the floor of the hanger less than five meters below.

Game leapt without thinking, and Mir decided to risk it. He fell fast and hard, but landed with surprisingly little impact. Game landed in an expert looking roll, but was slower to get up. She appeared to move just fine after she did, however, and they ran quickly toward a lock set in the side of the hanger. Mir was much faster, and Game, behind him, marveled at his bare feet. The lock's outer door opened at his touch, and Mir waited for Game to arrive before cycling the lock. He caught his breath seconds after the lock filled again with air.

This time Mir noticed his external temperature. There were parts of the jumpsuit he was wearing that were beginning to singe at the edges. They retained the heat much longer than he did, and were hot against his skin. He also noticed a popping in his ears when the pressure returned around him. He ran his hand over the exposed skin on the back of his other hand. It still felt like normal skin to him. Whatever had happened to him was truly amazing.

"Come on," Game said, "They might just be waiting for us on the other side of this door."

But nobody was waiting for them after all, at least not there. They took tentative steps out of the lock, and after following a few corroders and turned at random hallway intersections, they finally stumbled onto a directory listing that also pointed the way to the Spa exit.

The exit was obviously for staff and employees, and was just another door like all the others. There was a break room to one side, and another room opposite it, and the exit itself was merely a door that opened with Game's passcube.

But on the other side of the door there were two men waiting for them. Game and Mir took a few steps back. These men were obviously expecting them, and just as obviously didn't have any qualms about hurting them to get them to stay. Game practically ran into another goon who stood behind her. Mir looked around. There were two men who had stepped out of the break room, to block their escape back into the Spa.

Mir got very angry rather than scared. He wasn't going to be taken so easily this time. He was back in gravity, where he felt comfortable with his kung fu, and what's more he now felt very, very strong. Hadn't he been able to bend metal back in the room with the cage? He got into an offensive stance, and moved toward the two men beyond the door.

He met the first one at the door itself, and was able to punch him in the stomach before the man could do anything to protect himself. It was an expert punch, and delivered with all the force Mir had in him. The man crumpled into a fetal ball of gasping pain, clutching his solar plexis. Mir took another step forward toward the next goon. This guy swung at Mir's head with his fist, and Mir stepped easily sideways, away from the attack. In the next second, he stepped back toward the goon and delivered a fist under the man's armpit. Mir thought he'd heard the man's ribs breaking along with a loud yelping noise. The goon never knew what hit him. He staggered sideways and clutched his ribs, falling into a wall to the side of the door.

Outside the Spa, Mir was in what appeared to be the equivalent of a dark alley. It was a hallway off the main hallways, with a flickering light at one end, but essentially nothing but back doors and a few crates piled against one wall.

Mir turned back to the door. It was closing in apparent slow motion, and Mir could see one of the goons holding Game with his arm around her throat. She was putting up a good fight, keeping the other goon off of her with kicks and punches, but the two of them were going to subdue her sooner or later. Mir got back to the door just as it was about to shut, and put his hands between where the two portions were going to slide together. He would normally have been crushed, but with his newfound strength and resilience, he was able to force the door back open. After a certain threshold, the door gave up and hung limply in its frame. Mir stepped through and aimed a kick at the goon Game was fighting. He slid a few meters down the hallway. Mir just grabbed the other goon's arm, where he was choking Game, and squeezed very hard. The goon let go, and Game stepped free.

Mir kept squeezing, and watched as the man's face twisted in agony. Mir saw the large bruises forming around where his fingers dug into the man's arm, and he realized that it would be easy for him to squeeze just a little bit harder and break the man's arm. Seconds passed, Mir standing above the man whose arm was on the verge of breaking. Game put her hand on his shoulder and said gently, "Maybe we should go, huh Mir?"

Mir looked into the eyes of his opponent. He realized he'd been standing there, thinking about breaking the arm for far too long. The man was obviously in agony. His eyes were pleading for Mir to stop.

Mir let go. He had never felt this kind of power before. The man made a noise that was half gasp, and half sob, and then actually said "Thank you." between clenched teeth. Mir didn't think for a moment that he'd been merciful though. He felt like he'd done something wrong, he felt vaguely ashamed.

Game pulled him through the broken door and out into the alleyway.

Posted on Nov 28, 03 (2029 words)

preparing for battle

Jasper and Qristy were back on the deck that had recently been re-named the war room. It was really a lounge, but the chairs were always filled now, with miners in heated conversations about either the possible impending war or the kidnapping of three of their crew. There were some miners, mostly those led by Ringo and Ramrod, who had already started to modify their robots, turning them into weapons. They traded schematics and design ideas over cups of coffee or tea.

Jasper's eyes closed involuntarily. His body was catching up on the sleep it had missed the night before. Qristy had spent the entire morning in contact with various people from Youth's Fountain, trading bits of information and new contact names to try and establish some understanding of who or what they were dealing with. So far she hadn't had any luck. Jasper was proud of her though. She'd been talking about the kidnapping all morning, and had only broken down in tears twice, between calls, and never during an actual call.

Jasper startled himself awake. He'd thought he heard Mir's voice, but it must have been a dream.

There were two spacers discussing the possibility that the Cluster could be intimidating enough to keep all ships on Youth's Fountain docked until they found the three boys. There was a luxury liner docked, and due to leave in three days time, but otherwise, all space traffic was local between the station and the smaller settlement actually located on Mercury's surface.

Jasper shook his head. Youth's Fountain was a big place. Over a million people lived and worked there. No one would agree to stop everything because of a few kidnappings.

Then again, what the more militant among them were advocating did not actually involve anyone "agreeing" to anything.

Jasper had to admit that it was a quite compelling idea. Get everyone to care about his son, and he might well see him again.

Jasper sat up and rubbed his eyes. He could stay awake at least long enough to hear back from Eldrick, who had promised to call him back in the next hour or two. Eldrick said his men were onto something, but he hadn't exactly been forthcoming with his details. Jasper tried not to doubt the old city councilor, and hoped he was right to put faith in the new local government. There wasn't a lot he could do about it, he thought. There just wasn't.

One of the coms in the war room chimed and blinked that it had a personal call for Jasper. He wouldn't have even noticed, but many others did, and pointed it out to him. Jasper moved over to the screen, and eagerly accepted the call. Qristy was still talking or on hold with one of the other councilor members.

"Hello?" Jasper said questioningly. The call was from an unlisted number from Youth's Fountain.

Jasper sighed when he saw the expression on Eldrick's face. The news was obviously not positive.

"My men made a raid this morning on one of the better known terrorist organizations located on Youth's Fountain. Unfortunately, we did not find your son. We also didn't find any evidence supporting that organization's involvement in the kidnappings whatsoever. I'm afraid we're going to have to repair their quarters at great cost to our new government."

"I'm sorry to hear that." Jasper feigned his condolences. "Has there been no other progress?"

"No, I'm sorry. Now if you'll excuse me... you look as though you could use some rest."

Jasper closed the connection. The councilor had been right. Jasper needed to get more sleep. But he couldn't bring himself to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon when so much could be happening.

Jasper decided to check on Griff's search party. Griff and those volunteers who were still with him had taken to the streets and hallways of Youth's Fountain. They were systematically but thus far fruitlessly searching the public areas of the starship.

Just as he was thinking this, Griff floated into the war room looking particularly defeated. "No luck at all?" Jasper asked.

"No. This is a bigger station than it seems it should be." Griff looked worn down. Jasper doubted he'd slept at all since yesterday. "I am taking a break. I'll return to the search after I've slept." Griff looked like he didn't even know why he'd entered the room. Somewhere inside he'd hoped there would be good news.

"Thank you for all you've done, Gristle." Jasper said. Griff moved off toward the exit again, and Jasper turned back to Qristy, whose eyes were closed.

Jasper thought he heard Mir's voice again, and shook his foggy head. The last thing he needed was to be hearing voices.

Then he heard Mir's voice again, this time more clearly. "No, I'm afraid he's not with me, Griff. Help me find my father so I only have to say all this once."

---

Mir and Game ran their way from the back alley to the nearest public lift that would take them to the hub of the station. They had to wait ten minutes for the lift to arrive, and spent the time nervously watching the entrances to the station over each other's shoulder.

"Thank you for coming back for me." Game said, sitting on the edge of the bench at the station. Mir sat across from her on an adjacent bench.

"Of course!" Mir said. "I couldn't leave you there after you'd just saved my life. You don't have to come with me, you know. I've got to get help, but then I'm going back for my friends."

Game ignored the question of whether she was coming with him. She didn't think she could just go back to her apartment now. She sighed at the thought. She hadn't exactly wanted to work for a gangster anyway. This way she'd have to start a new life like she'd planned originally.

"The others in the room with you were your friends?"

"Yes. What were you doing in their ship anyway? And why is there a ship in the middle of the station?" Mir's brows furrowed as he desperately tried to understand everything that had happened to him in the last few days.

"I don't know why the Spa has a ship." Game said. "I would guess it's some kind of escape ship left over from when the station was first built, but that would just be a guess. I was working there doing some maintenance on some of the other gene-mod patients. I have no idea how many of them were there involuntarily, I hadn't gotten to your section yet though, and I did notice that you were the only patients who didn't have background information in my com. It was my first day. I had been..." Game looked like she was deciding how much to tell him. She made some kind of decision and continued. "I don't even know why I helped you really... I mean, I guess I knew what was happening there wasn't strictly illegal, but then I didn't think anybody was getting hurt either. At least, not until I saw how the Captain treated you."

"The Captain?" Mir repeated questioningly. "So it was his ship?"

"Well, I don't even know." Game replied. "He was the one who gave me my instructions. The only one I talked to in the Spa, really."

"So it was a Spa?"

"I think that's their front. I definitely entered through what appeared to be a resort Spa. Most of the patients I saw inside were getting illegal gene therapy or body-mods."

"Huh. I always wondered how it worked on this station. I knew that was what people came here for all the time, but I would never have known how to find a place like that. Of course, I've never been here before either."

"I think there are lots of places like that." Game said, "This one is just on the more expensive end of the pricing spectrum. There are all kinds of hidden body-shops and gene clinics in the backs of bars and barber shops. Most of them just don't offer the kinds of mods that they had back at the Spa."

The lift ran from the donut portion of the station all the way through one of the spokes and up to the hub above. The circular lift was in the middle of a dome that surrounded a slightly raised platform. Pillars stretched four or five stories up to the ceiling from the platform, and a fence kept the passengers away from the column the lift would take until it arrived.

Mir was lost deep in his thoughts when their lift arrived. It was really just a circular platform. There were posts throughout the platform to hold onto, and some benches around the edges. The lifts ran every fifteen minutes, but there were still a good twenty or thirty people who got onto the lift with Mir and Game.

Game made sure they positioned themselves near one of the entrances, so they didn't have to have their backs to anybody. But the ride was uneventful. Eventually they reached the top platform, and Mir realized there was no longer gravity. He hadn't even noticed when it disappeared.

Mir noticed that Game was a natural in zero gee. She moved far more gracefully than Mir did, and there were several times she had to stop and wait for Mir to catch up.

After following signs for a while, they reached the intersection that Mir recognized. He looked down the corridor toward where he and the others had been abducted. There was no sign that there had ever been a struggle there. He pressed the pad that would open the lock into the hangar.

Again the hangar was disserted. Game followed Mir along the red awning pathway. As they reached the lock to the Cluster, Mir noticed that there were two men outside the lock with rifles in their hands. It was too late to hide from the men. They'd probably noticed Mir and Game before Mir had noticed them.

"You stay here." He told Game. I'll check it out. If those guys are with the kidnappers, get to a com and try to get a hold of my father on board the Cluster. His name is Jasper. OK?"

Game nodded her agreement. She didn't know what was to stop the men from shooting both of them if they wanted to, but she backed off to a distance that was far enough away that she felt moderately confident she'd be able to get away if need be.

From far away, Mir approached the two men, and their eyes lit up. One of them punched button to open the lock, and Mir turned around and waved. Apparently these guys were ok. Game rejoined Mir at the lock.

"Didn't mean to scare you, we're just beefing up security after your disappearance." One of the guards said before the lock closed.

"The guard told me right where to find my father." Mir said. "Apparently they've been up both nights wondering where I've been."

They raced down corridor after corroder, and Game began to imagine she would get tired of living in a Cluster if this was all there was to it. Eventually they reached another corridor that looked just like all the others, but this one had a man emerging through one of the scuttles. Mir greeted him enthusiastically.

"Hey Griff, it's Mir!"

The man looked very tired, but his eyes lit up when he saw Mir. "Is Garret with you?" he asked.

Mir lost his enthusiasm immediately. "No, I'm afraid he's not with me, Griff. Help me find my father so I only have to say all this once."

Griff pointed behind him, and turned back down the scuttle he'd been coming out of. "Follow me." he said gruffly.

Game followed both of them, and stood apart from the crowd that surrounded Mir as he emerged. A man who Game figured for Jasper spent the longest hugging Mir before Griff compelled Mir to tell them where Garret and Puja were.

This was the first Game had heard their names. Somehow hearing them personalized what was happening to them for Game. What kind of a person could do such a thing to someone, Game wondered. She noticed a woman off to the side of the group listening intently with tears streaming down her face. Eventually Jasper also noticed her, and went to her, putting her head on his shoulder as he listened to Mir talk.

Mir explained how he'd been abducted. This was the first time Game had heard it, so she listened carefully. It didn't sound to her like there'd been any reason for the abduction. Mir obviously didn't know of any either. He told about how he'd been in the chair for two days, coated at random in the nano-fluid, waking up at unknown intervals feeling differently each time. He skipped over most of their escape, and just told about the location. He didn't mention his ability to walk in vacuum, or even that they'd been in vacuum. But he didn't leave out about the ship. When he told that part, Griff gritted his teeth. He obviously didn't like the idea of the ship taking off with his son still on it.

A woman named Helena brought up the station schematic for the area around the Spa, and several spacers took to examining the best way to infiltrate the ship. Griff wanted to rush in with rifles blazing, but several others convinced him to give the local authorities a chance first. Ramrod offered up the idea that some of the new modified robots get launched and head to the same area on the outside of the station, just in case the kidnappers decided to launch their ship.

This seemed like a good idea, and Ramrod left the war room with a few other spacers in tow.

Jasper and Qristy called up Eldrick. "Mir has escaped from the kidnappers, and we know where they're hiding."

Eldrick looked very surprised. "That's... that's great news!" he said. "Where are they?"

Jasper gave the details, letting Mir fill in details when needed.

Eldrick promised to have a patrol search the area in twenty minutes, and he'd get back to them within the hour. Now there was nothing to do but wait.

Mir sank into one of the webbings. He introduced Game to everyone he knew, and didn't worry about the rest. He noticed that Qristy and his father were staying quite close to one another. It was odd to see, but he also noticed Game was staying relatively close to him. Then again, he was the only person she knew, and not even him very well.

"Are there always this many people?" she asked him when most everyone else was either busy or not paying them any attention.

"Well, no, not really. I think this is a special circumstance." Mir said. "Everyone works alone, but in a large room together though, when they're mining." Game sat above him in the same webbing. They'd oriented themselves sideways, and were sitting facing one another.

"I'm not much for mining though." he added. "What about you? What do your parents do?"

Game was silent for a minute. "They're spacers." she said vaguely. "I moved away from them less than a week ago. Things haven't gone so well for me though, I guess." For the first time since he'd seen her, Game looked vulnerable. He didn't know if it was thinking about her parents that did it, or just reminding her of how she'd probably lost her job, but she was obviously on the verge of crying.

"My Mother died... three months ago." Mir blurted out. He didn't know why he said it, but maybe just to show he had things he was sad about too.

"I'm sorry..." Game looked apologetic, and wiped her eyes with the back of her suit.

But Mir just felt like an idiot for making light of her sadness. "No! I'm sorry. I'm not thinking straight. I didn't mean to make it sound that way. I don't know why I said that."

Game sniffed, and giggled. "We're both idiots." she said. "No big deal then."

"OK." Mir agreed, and they smiled at one another.

---

Eldrick sat in his office in front of the com. It had been blank for the last half an hour. He was thinking. This situation was turning more and more dangerous. He should never have let Eula convince him that abducting those boys was a good idea. His contact aboard the cluster said they were no more ready to start fighting for the Corporation than they were ready to fight for Youth's Fountain, so at least that was going well.

Eula was becoming more and more of a threat himself these days. Everyone on the council owed him their lives because of his genetic modifications. Not that Eula was a scientist himself. He was just the salesman who had been in the right place at the right time. He'd helped fund some of the early experiments, so he was rich, but he was much more than rich now. He was a megalomaniac, and needed to be stopped. Nobody even knew about his latest experiments. He would only say that he was working on a defense plan for Youth's Fountain. Everyone knew that when genetics and military minded action are combined, nothing good could come of it. Then again, half the people on the police brigade had their strength and musculature enhanced. Even extra-sense was common--better hearing, perfect eyesight with telescopic abilities, unnaturally sensitive touch. Youth's Fountain was a veritable menagerie of mutants. It was not that part that bothered Eula. He just didn't want the menagerie to have only one particular manager.

Eldrick sighed. Even now, corporate metaphors were the norm. You couldn't talk about government without them, it seemed.

Eldrick did some more thinking. He hoped he could use this situation to his advantage. Eula definitely needed to be stopped. Random kidnappings couldn't continue. That was no way to run a company, much less an independent government. Eldrick reached for the com...

---

Over an hour passed before Eldrick called back. "I have good news and bad news." He said. "The good news is that we're fairly certain that yes, your sons are indeed inside the station at the location you've specified. The bad news is that we don't think we have the manpower to get them out." Eldrick looked like he wanted to say more, but was holding back. Jasper became conscious of the fact that this man was a professional statesman, and no doubt had the ability to stage such moments if he wanted to.

"Are you asking us to go in and liberate them ourselves?" Griff asked brashly looking around at the other spacers for support. "Because I have no problem with that."

Eldrick looked uncomfortable, and barely squeaked out a quiet "Yes."

Jasper felt that there was more going on here than was at first apparent, but he didn't know what exactly. "What kind of resistance do you expect?" he asked.

"Good question." Eldrick admitted. "We're not entirely sure, but we think they have multiple individuals with enhanced strength. Some of our own police are also bio-athletes, but we are not, as yet, equipped to take out any large group, or attack a well defended and fortified position."

Jasper decided not to ask about the group that Eldrick alleged his government had taken down earlier.

Eldrick continued, "I think we know the ringleader's name. I want to give you that information, but it has to be confidential. There are quite a few people in influential positions on Youth's Fountain who have used his services before. If I have your agreement to proceed, I'll give you has name, and some other information that will help you bring him to justice."

This last part seemed to be particularly important to Eldrick. If he really was going out on a limb for them, maybe it wasn't so much that YF didn't have the manpower so much as that Eldrick didn't have the manpower.

There was a murmur of accent, and Eldrick continued. "The man's name is Dr. A. C. Eula. He's a sort of mob boss here on mercury... Youth's Fountain, and has been able to do whatever he likes for far too long. He funded some of the original anti-aging scientists who, as you may know, moved to mercurystation when it was still far enough away from civilization to be attractive to that kind of illegal crowd. Those scientists are much of the reason Youth's Fountain is as populated as it is, and the research Eula funded has made him a very wealthy man. My guess is that he's commissioned new research, and is conducting experiments on kidnapped patients, perhaps even without the knowledge of the scientists involved."

Eldrick looked as if he'd given too much away. "I will have five men stationed outside the Spa where your boys are imprisoned." Eldrick continued. "They'll make sure nobody escapes, but it'll be up to you to actually get them out of there."

Griff was eager to be on his way, and sick of the history lesson. "I'll have twenty men there in the next twenty minutes." He said. Then he turned from the com and yelled "Who's with me!?"

There was a small but enthusiastic yell, and people began shooting toward the scuttle door. "Meet station-side in five people!" Griff yelled over the ensuing hubbub.

Jasper didn't know where his place was. He wanted to go, to help rescue the boys, but the truth was, he'd never been much of a fighter. He'd put Mir in kung fu for that very reason. He hoped his boy would be able to protect himself, where Jasper had never really been able.

Jasper floated near Griff, who was gruffly giving instructions for people to collect equipment and weapons from his chamber. Griff turned to Jasper, "Jasper, I think you should stay here and keep in contact with Eldrick and myself." Griff tapped his wristcom. "Let me know if anything new comes up, and I'll do the same." Then, a bit quieter, he said, "Keep an eye on Qristy too. I don't know how this is going to turn out, and I'd hate for something to happen to her when we find out her son has been turned into grey goo."

Jasper nodded, relieved.

As Griff prepared to leave the war room, he noticed Game and Mir following the other spacers who were headed for the station.

Griff caught up with Mir and pulled him to a stop. "What're you doin' going back out, young man? Don't you think your place is here with your father? It's going to be dangerous out there, you know."

"Sir," Mir began, "I think you're going to need our help getting around once you're inside the place. After all, we're the only ones who have been there before." Griff nodded. He'd thought the same thing himself, but he wanted to make sure the boy knew what he was getting into.

After Griff had passed them up, Mir turned to Game with much the same idea. "You know you don't have to go back." he said.

"Of course I know." Game replied. "But I know way more of the layout of that place than you do. Besides," she winked, "I've seen what you can do, and I know you'll protect me."

They turned and moved toward the station lock. Game was glad Mir had been as embarrassed by her comment. She didn't want him to see how red she'd turned after she said it.

Posted on Nov 30, 03 (3960 words)