Review: Castoff World

Okay. Okay. Okay.

Welcome to December the 2nd, 2011.

I wrote this yesterday and promised a follow-up, so here we are again, again!

RNG results: Tone, Nitpicks, Content

Castoff World is a fairly predictable beast – a post-ecotastrophe story set on an automated garbage-collecting ship in the Pacific Ocean, occupied by a young girl and her grandfather (spoilers: the grandfather dies). There’s quite a lot going on in the background: the protagonist is stuck in the middle of the ocean because of some unspecified political upheaval back on dry land, there are roaming bands of pirates she has to hide from, the ship gradually gets smarter to the point where it actively takes care of her, ultimately depositing her back on land. Much of the exposition is handled by back-and-forth conversations between the child and the grandfather, which are filled to the brim with euphemism and the kind of deliberate baby-talk that some find touching and others find kitschy; I didn’t enjoy wading through them.

This, coupled with the very leisurely pace, made it difficult for me to feel anything as the story progressed. It certainly didn’t help that pretty much every element of the plot save the machine’s growing agency was so utterly predictable that I could probably have stopped reading a third of the way in and still been able to deliver a decent plot summary. Of course the grandfather gets sick and dies. Of course the girl gets reunited with human society. Of course there’s a final scene where an animal frequently associated with the girl’s deceased mother is prominently featured, because you can’t let the scientists be right all the time. Aiyah.

Nevertheless, I don’t mean to condemn it utterly – there are some nice moments of techno-speculation, especially improvised uses for high-tech plastics, and while the plot is ploddingly conventional, the themes are at least somewhat less so – yes it’s after the apocalypse, but at least the blame (as much as there is any blame at all) is laid at the feet of purely human matters rather than being apportioned to science and technology – indeed, technological progress is identified as the reason everything isn’t yet completely fucked.

At the end of the day I can’t say I dislike this story, but that’s mainly because I really don’t care about it – there’s nothing strong or clear enough in it to provoke a reaction of any sort in me.

Three and a half stars.

  • reviews to date: 1
  • average score: 3.5

The next one will probably be up some time two years from now. Don’t hold the line.

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Big Dumb Objects

“Everyone here? Good, let’s get started. Projections are showing that this may be a very narrow window of opportunity, so the sooner we’re in the field the better. Now, if someone can turn the lights off… good. An external trawler noticed this and sent it through to us about eight hours ago, realtime.”

“Ah, sorry I’m late! Hi, Captain! Did I miss anything?”

“Just the deadline, Connor. Now, I’ll ask Dr Pearson to explain-”

“Ow!”

“Sorry, Angela! It’s a bit dark, couldn’t find my way-”

“Yes, thank you, Connor. Dr Pearson, could you please run us through this?”

“Of course, sir. We think we’ve picked up another mayfly phenomenon. The trawler’s viewers haven’t been configured for local conditions, so it took us a while to notice that there was anything unusual going on here. We’ve touched it up a bit with false colour here. As you can see, the expected view of the local star is obscured by an object that our records confirm wasn’t there – or anywhere else nearby – twenty minutes prior, the closest time we have reliable visuals of the area.

“Subsequent pictures taken with better-adapted hardware… so, and… so, make it fairly obvious that we’re not just dealing with a stray asteroid or piece of human space junk. By our best estimation, the object is an upside-down cube, following a fairly standard orbit around the star, but near enough to the second planet that it ought to be a satellite. The surface is featureless, as far as we can tel, and none of our examinations to date have shown any indication of recent activity. Its temperature is well within the expected range of orbital debris, there have not been any disturbances-”

“Um, Dr Pearson?”

“-any disturbances in the local-”

“Excuse me, Dr Pearson!”

“-planetary yes Angela, what is it?”

“Upside-down?”

“Tipped a hundred and eighty degrees from its customary orientation.”

“But it’s a featureless cube. How do we know which way it’s supposed to be facing?”

“Angela, if you’re having me on-”

“I mean unless you’re about to show us some images of the interior that clearly demonstrate the proper orientation-”

“Look, Angela, I think we really need to move on.”

“-but barring that there’s no way to say that it’s upside-down. There’s, like, a one-in-six chance.”

“Angela! If this is your idea of a-”

“Thank you very much, Dr Pearson. Howes, that’s enough backtalk.”

“I-”

“And even then, orientation is purely a matter of convention. It’s not as if the way the thing being tilted relative to the plane of the ecliptic actually means anything-”

Will you shut up, Howes-”

“-and at any rate, we can just reorient on approach and have it at whatever configuration we want-”

“Howes!”

“I’m not sure that she’s actually plugged in, sir.”

“-though if it’s just another piece of funnily-shaped rock then reorienting will be as much of a waste of time as approaching in the first place-”

“What, you mean she just sent a persona?”

“-still not sure what we’re meant to be looking for, anyway-”

“A pretty hastily made one, too. Much less convincing than Stephanie’s.”

“Connor! How dare you!”

“See? At least hers has enough awareness to react to direct challenges.”

“-all this need-to-know nonsense really isn’t helping-”

“Dr Pearson? Really?”

“I’m sorry, sir…”

“You mean the upside-down cube thing didn’t tip you off? It’s not the first time she’s gotten a heuristic to string together bits of jargon for a report.”

“Connor, that’s really mean!”

“Except that you’re just software, and chances are that Stephanie didn’t consider this meeting important enough to request a digest, so odds are she’ll never know I even said this.”

“Connor!”

“Um, hello? Dr Pearson? Captain Schultz? I am talking to you, you know.”

“Dear lord. Are you really here, at least?”

“Yeah. I was feeling bored when you called.”

“You too, Connor? You know, it’s really rude to talk over someone when she’s trying to make a point.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Look, the window’s probably expired already – mind dropping down to meatspace and having a real talk, face to face? We need to be sure this wasn’t just another false alarm.”

“Sure. Twenty minutes real?”

“Done.”

“Hey, don’t ignore me! I’ve got things to say as well!”

“For the love of God, will you shut up, Angela! You always have to ruin everything!”

“Oh, well at least you’re paying attention to me, Dr Pearson.”

Stop it! Will you just stop talking!”

“Jesus Christ. I’m breaking, Connor. See you in twenty.”

“Just snapping out like that? Some officer. At least Connor had the courtesy to disengage by going out the door.”

“Oh my god you stupid pile of subroutines, will you quit it?”

SP_PHYS:   Does it go on much longer?

BC_ENG:    maybe another two minutes subjective
           she ends up going back to talking about geometry until
           you end up punching her in the face

SP_PHYS:   And you're being completely level here?
           You didn't just sim this up in your own time?

BC_ENG:    really happened, I swear
           you think I have the imagination to come up with upside
           -down cubes?

SP_PHYS:   Let's not rub it in, okay? At least my personae know
           when the jig is up.

BC_ENG:    it was still pretty mean for you and angela to bail
           like that
           thought old man schultz was going to cry for a minute

SP_PHYS:   Okay, okay. I see where this is going.
           How much to keep quiet?

BC_ENG:    what, to angela? let's call it three shifts

SP_PHYS:   You're a bastard, Connor.

BC_ENG:    well, I didn't punch her

SP_PHYS:   Neither did I! It wasn't even Angela who got punched!

BC_ENG:    if it means that little to you...

AH_COMS:   Hey guys!

BC_ENG:    hi

SP_PHYS:   No, no, you win. Shoot me your schedule and I'll take
           whatever I can fit into my own.
           Oh. Hi, Angela.

BC_ENG:    done.

AH_COMS:   Haha, you two been wagering again?
           I keep telling you not to bet on news, Pearson.

SP_PHYS:   Yeah. I guess some day I'll learn to keep a closer eye
           on current events.

I have no idea what I have just written.

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Blaugust

So. It’s August. Things are happening here and here and here. And while I didn’t make any promises per se, I sure as hell hinted that they’d be happening here as well.

What gives? I can honestly say that it’s not entirely due to laziness. I’ve been writing probably three days a week – less than the five I’d promised, but still something. So, let’s make a story of it. It’s what I’m here for, after all.

I deliberately took the first two weekdays of August off – I had things to attend to, and I was intending to substitute the otherwise-sacrosanct weekend for my first two updates before moving to a straightforward weekdays-only schedule. I even used some of those early days to throw ideas around and see if I could come up with anything interesting, which is funny in its own way, because that was when disaster struck. I found myself afflicted by a condition that I had never suffered before. I must stress that this was truly unprecedented. Even back in May 2011, when I updated this thing every single day of the week and was forced to chain my hands to the keyboard while flailing up and down in the hope that I could produce something through a variation of the thousand-monkeys-with-a-thousand-typewriters method (I call my version ‘Bogoscript’), I had never experienced this problem. But for better or worse, it happened: I had gotten an idea for a story.

The novelty of the situation didn’t really impress itself upon me at first, as I was too busy sitting down and putting pen to paper, wanting to capture as much of the concept as I could before it could realise its own impossibility and evaporate. Naturally, that’s where the problems began. At first it was small things – just tweaks, really. I decided that my choice of protagonist wasn’t ideal and swapped the point of view to their offsider. I decided to switch the narrative to the first person. I decided to change my protagonist back to the original character. I felt that shifting to the present tense would aid the storytelling process. My early drafts grew about as relevant to the story as the wikipedia page on tigers (and less amusing than some sections of the talk page).

This was not the end of it, of course. I decided to change the details of the setting. The ending, which had been the element that the entire story concept had crystallised around back when I first worked on it, turned out to not be so clever – naturally, I did not have any idea of how to improve it. My protagonist informed me in no uncertain terms that she was a woman, not a man. She stopped being a politician and became a soldier. Her rival for protagonism got jealous about her being a soldier as well as him and went off in a huff, which may or may not have prompted her to change careers once more, briefly flirting with being a criminal before becoming a journalist. I had to figure out why the lifts didn’t work properly (no seriously this was a huge headache for a while). My newly reacquired borrowing privileges at the Barr Smith library led to me being reminded by Ursula Le Guin that all knowledge is local and all truth is partial. I decided that the story would mostly be about space, even though the action had not at any point taken place less than a kilometre underground. I began to think that perhaps I might have to revise my publication schedule, since my long-standing plan of “tomorrow night, for sure!” had yet to produce anything. My protagonist was now a demigod, and also no longer sure that she wanted to be a protagonist.

At this point I realised that I probably needed to sit down and think about it before just writing more stuff, and shortly after admitted that it probably wasn’t going helping the cause of updating once every weekday, since ten of them had come and gone without any blog-related action. Ah well, at least it makes for a good excuse.

So! This thing can sit on the backburner for a while and I’ll return to my horrible old ways and vomit out something resembling words for the rest of the month, and lift my embargo on reading actually interesting* words for fear I infect my own work with competence. See y’all tomorrow.

*(not a guarantee, seeing as I haven’t read them yet)

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NaNoWriMo 2012, part 2

Yesterday was a write-off, but at least there was a write-in today. Still behind par but at least I’m writing!

I checked my watch; there was still an hour before I needed to meet up with Vanessa. Not long enough to head out of town but longer than I could waste just walking around.

I made my way to a park – the weather was clement, so I decided I could use the time to start organising my notes. Information was good, of course, but I needed to come in with a coherent narrative to string it all together.

Half the problem was that nobody was quite sure how much of our history belonged to us and how much had been retroactively added when the mystics had arrived. The upheaval brought on by the arrival of dozens of new intelligent species had disguised a concerted and deliberate effort to scramble most of the world’s reliable historical accounts – the only surviving records that most authorities trusted were the hardcopy archives. Sifting through them had proven to be a tedious, frustrating process, as each document brought its own voice to light, with no agreed consensus between clashing accounts. Memory was also unreliable, outside the accounts of ghosts like Sylvia; the merging had mixed up everybody’s recollection of what had gone before.

Historical research was a robust field, as a consequence; my efforts with Sylvia were just a drop in the bucket, as there were thousands if not millions of people around the world working to uncover what facts they could and re-establish a consensus.

It had been a rocky road. Competing schools of thought disagreed vehemently on the sequence of events, the motivations, and even the veracity of major events in our past. There were whole university departments devoted to unravelling the Cold War, the Enlightenment, the world wars…

My field was perhaps less glamorous than many, but it was a critical one nevertheless. The gap between the first and second world wars – reckoned now to be less than thirty years – was the most likely origin of countless social, technological and political revolutions – a few decades of upheaval and change made all the more remarkable by the fact that there had been no major conflict to drive it in the fashion of the later years of the twentieth century.

To make matters worse, the same time had also been an active one in Faerie. Fake memories were full of vivid impressions of wars, journeys and great works of art – and given the astonishing diversity of mystic culture, it was quite difficult to tell how many bizarre accounts were foreign and how many were simply too strange to believe, despite their truth.

“Ghosts” like Sylvia, for some reason, seemed not to have been scrambled. The popular theory was that they were a reaction of our own world to its scrambling; a repair mechanism of sorts, as the world found itself suddenly trying to reconcile two incommensurable pasts. Researchers in the hard sciences frowned at theories like those of course, but teleological explanations carried a lot more weight in a world that had found itself resembling a storybook.

This naturally made her account highly valuable, at least if she had been truthful. There had been a few instances of mischievous shades abusing the near-sacred trust given to their accounts and filling the heads of their interviewers with nonsense, and despite my optimism, I had to be prepared to cross-check Sylvia’s account with the agreed-upon facts as I knew them.

As I sat down on a bench and began unpacking my notes, I caught sight of a group of fairies standing near a pond. They were too far away for me to overhear their conversation, but I found myself wondering what they were up to. Most public gatherings of mystics tended not to last long; the police did not look kindly on otherworldly people, fairies in particular. Governmental nerves were still raw in the wake of their appearance, and even now most mystics still had few if any legal rights. Gathering together in the middle of the city was a serious risk, given how thoroughly surveilled it was.

My suspicions were uncharitable, perhaps – fairies had as wide a range of interests and social expression as humans, so for all I know this group was simply feeding the ducks. Still, they were certainly alert; there was always one pair of eyes directed outwards and the first sign of blue uniforms triggered rapid dispersal. One of the group, leaving by the path I was seated in front of, acknowledged me with a cool nod.

I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them, despite my mistrust; they certainly hadn’t wished for the ostracism they were subject to, and while they were often deceitful and unpredictable, I had never heard of them behaving any more maliciously than humans had been known to.

Life wasn’t very fair, I thought.

Vanessa hadn’t arrived when I got to Solomon’s, so I grabbed a table and sat down to wait. There weren’t many other customers, so I ordered a coffee to get the waiting staff off my back. The counter was adorned with the plain green diamond that indicated that this establishment would serve anybody, regardless of their origin.

The staff were all human, of course – inner city places tended to avoid hiring mystics, given most of their customers tended to be conservative, middle-aged sorts – but the tag showed that this place seemed to be driven by more by pragmatism than by prejudice.

Some cities had been seriously affected by the merging, with whole suburbs being transformed or relocated according to whatever logic had been behind the part of Faerie they had overlapped. Some places had simply been replaced by their otherworldly equivalents. Adelaide, however, had survived almost wholly intact.

A more subtle transformation had followed, of course.

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NaNoWriMo 2012, part 1

Well, November has rolled around and I’ve found myself signing up to National Novel Writing Month, with the hopeful objective of managing to pound out a fifty thousand word novel by the 30th. Fun!

My NaNo profile is here, but I intend to post my work in progress as it’s written – perhaps daily, perhaps less frequently if chapter breaks make it better to wait a little. It’s certainly not my best prose – my inner editor is seething at, well, pretty much everything about it! – but the demands of speed mean that I’ll have to settle for it being a bit rubbish and go about fixing it up in December. ;)

So… here we are. Canorus, for your reading pleasure!

1.

I shivered. All of a sudden, I felt colder than I ought to be.

The winter weather didn’t help – grey skies matching the grey of the city – but I’d dressed warmly, with two shirts and a woollen jumper making it hard for me to articulate my arms under a down jacket. Rugged up like this, I certainly shouldn’t have been feeling the cold; my recent exertion even had me sweating under all the layers. And yet I still felt a chill pass through me.

I was nervous, I supposed. Wasn’t it natural to be nervous about meeting a ghost? Not that “ghost” was the polite term, anyway. The pedestrian lights changed to green and I made my way across the scramble crossing, weaving from side to side around fellow pedestrians who weren’t interested in matching my pace. I’d cut it fine, of course; there were only ten minutes before my scheduled meeting with Sylvia, and I still had three blocks to cover.

It wasn’t my best plan, but I’d left things late enough that my research presentation needed something drastic, something showy. My classmates could spend all the time they liked trawling the library and the internet, but I doubted that any of them would be able to produce anything as compelling as an interview with an eyewitness. My pace quickened as I reached the final block and caught sight of the office we’d agreed upon as a rendezvous. It wouldn’t do to keep a lady waiting, after all, even if she’d been out of commission since before I was born. My stride quickened into a slow run, drawing a few glances from the people I passed. I noticed a few large, golden eyes tracking me, and shivered. The fairies unnerved me.

Of course I knew that only the most harmless of them were allowed to run wild in public; most if not all known fairies were tracked down by the government and very closely monitored. But there was still something about their shapes, their gait, and their strange piercing gazes that troubled me – as if they knew something I ought to, but didn’t.

The building loomed in front of me, covered in garish neon advertising and tattered old posters. I didn’t bother waiting for the lift – the stairs would get me there just as fast and without giving me time to stand around and maybe lose my nerve. The door pushed open and the stairwell drew me in; I took the steps two at a time, running uphill like a madman. In the end, my frantic effort ended up distracting me too thoroughly, and I didn’t realise I’d overshot my destination until I saw the “7” on the landing. I laughed nervously and turned around, jolting down the stairs until I reached the sixth floor. Focus! I thought, and snarled. If I wasn’t even able to pay attention to the stairs I was climbing then it wouldn’t put in me in good stead to pay attention when I was interviewing Sylvia.

This floor of the office was empty, of course – likely between tenants – but I still looked around before knocking on the door of the corner office. These days it paid to remain aware of your surroundings. Still, I didn’t notice anybody, and a friendly “Come in, dear” tugged my attention back in front of me. Swallowing and reminding myself that I really needed this interview to avoid failing, I gripped the doorknob, turned it, and pushed the door open.

Sylvia was, as usual, perfectly composed, hair in a neat bun and hands sitting primly on the desk in front of her. The blinds were shut, and the room was only lit by a lone, pale fluorescent tube, so she almost looked like she was genuinely sitting there. She had clearly noticed my frantic state, as she graced me with an indulgent smile.

“Sit down and catch your breath, Stephen. There’s no need for you to go rushing around.” There weren’t any chairs directly in front of the desk she had occupied, so I shifted one from the facing wall, feeling painfully self-conscious as I did. Why did she always make me feel like I had two left feet?

Age was an obvious factor, of course. It’s always natural to feel less adept than someone who’s been around longer than you, and Sylvia had more years on me than anyone I’d ever met. This was why I’d gone to her in the first place, after all, but it still struck home from time to time that she’d been dead longer than I’d been alive. At times like these I really envied my parents, who’d at least had their childhoods spared from the supernatural disruptions of the last two decades.

A delicate cough brought me back to the moment. I apologised to Sylvia and she gave me the same smile as before; subtle and understanding.

“So, Stephen,” she began, “I presume that you have had enough time to give my proposal some thought. Given that you have returned, would it be safe to say that you wish to proceed?”

I nodded. “You’ve lived through the most fascinating events of the interwar years, and your account of them is something I genuinely want. I’m happy to meet the price you’ve offered.”

Her smile returned, but with an edge of condescension. “If you are willing to proceed then I ought not to quibble. I’ll see you at eight o’clock tomorrow evening.” She winked. “Make yourself handsome.”

“I’ll be sure to,” I replied, restraining the urge to roll my eyes. “And your part of the bargain?”

“Well, since I have your agreement, we can proceed right away. What is it you wish to know?”

Nerves still shook me, but now a feeling of triumph suffused them – I finally felt that all the tit-for-tat I’d exchanged with this memory of the past had been worthwhile. I gave Sylvia a smile of my own and fished my notebook out of my pack.

“Many things, Sylvia. But let’s start with… let’s say February, nineteen thirty-one.”

Heading home, it was all I could do to keep from jumping wildly with excitement. Everything had gone perfectly. Sylvia had probably had an exceptional memory in life – some theories pointed to that as a reason for people returning as echoes in the first place – but even by the standards of the remembered dead, her ability to recall specific and relevant details was astonishing. With the notes I’d taken, I would probably be able to paint a better picture of life in her time than even the most eminent and best-researched historian.

There had been a price, naturally, but it was one I was glad enough to pay. Sylvia may not have been truly alive, but her loneliness and nostalgia were real enough, or she would not have been able to furnish me with the vivid detail I had sought. As such, her desires ran in directions I felt happy enough to indulge.

What harm could come from offering a dance to a ghost more than sixty years dead?

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Excursion

It’s too dark for me to see much, but I can feel the floor roughening beneath my feet as I move forward, so I know I’m going the right way. The texture is far less welcoming than the flowing lines of the transitways, and the helpful slopes and swerves that normally show the way to exits are absent here; the only consistent pattern points opposite to my path. The structure is subtle in its own way, but predictable enough that I know exactly what it’s trying to tell me: keep out!

I step out of the corridor and into a larger room. It’s still dark here, but the lights are better tuned to my eyes and there’s a faint echo inside. It seems to just be a junction; there aren’t any features on the walls and the floor tells me there’s no reason to linger around the edges. I pace forward and feel out the thresholds of the exits. Two are just like the one I’ve come in from, albeit better lit, with gently ridged markings that quietly push me back in the direction of the life core. The next one is sharp and familiar, and I step quickly past it. The first time I’d moved past one of those markers had been bad enough even without the lecture Themis gave me afterwards.

The fourth one is new to me. For once, its patterns invite me instead of rebuffing me: they’re wider and more yielding than I’m used to, and a thrill of discovery runs along my spine. A new kind of passage is far more than I was expecting, and today I have the time to investigate it. I finished early with my work today, and Metis isn’t expecting me for at least another shift.

I test the pattern again with my feet. It still has the same rough structure as the half-hearted warnings I’ve been pushing through, with two guiding ridges coming together at a point, but each ridge has a furrow running through the centre where there ought to be a peak. The gap between the two ridges seems to actually dip below the level of the rest of the floor, enough that I can’t stand properly when I put one foot into it while keeping the other one on level ground. There’s still one more passage I haven’t checked on yet, but I ignore it. I don’t have enough time to bother checking up on extra twists and turns when something as novel as this is waiting.

I dig my toes into the pattern to get a feel for it. Wherever it leads, I don’t want to miss the trail. The passage beyond it doesn’t look special, but the structure never lies: there’s something there that wants to be found.

Who better than me to find it?

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Examination, part 2

:(

Needs so much editing but better to post it now and do that later, I need sleeeeeeeep

Alex was still breathing steadily as Sarah stepped up to the table. She passed a hand over his head and was reassured when she sensed the impulses that told her his brain was functioning. Her right hand stayed above his temples while her left settled on his upper arm. She breathed deeply and then flexed the parts of her hands she felt extending beyond her own skin; the gloves started to blur their way into skin and muscle, nanoscopic agents working to fetch samples and negotiate with Alex’s own machines.

Displacement tugged at her. There was something fundamentally strange about the sensations the gloves gave her, feedback from beyond her body that nevertheless felt as much a part of her as her arms and legs. There were stings of repulsion as her patient’s defences hailed her, a whirlwind of information about his blood and muscle and nerves, and the strange feeling that she could just keep on pushing through the skin and come out the other side.

Sarah snapped forward at a ping from her right glove; something had upset it. She thought she recognised the pattern it was showing her, and after a moment of uncertainty her net confirmed it: Alex seemed to be dreaming, but the machines in his brain were in a frenzy. She pulled away breathed deeply.

“Can you fix him?”

Sarah turned to see Rachel staring at her. The pilot’s customary scowl was gone for once, replaced by naked worry. Sarah looked back down at Alex and shook her head.

“I don’t know.” She looked back at Rachel as the aquatic stood up and walked around the couch to stand next to her. “His machines aren’t letting me in; I’ve only got what I was able to grab from his blood and an indirect brain scan, which is that his body is sleeping.”

Rachel nodded but said nothing more. After several seconds, Sarah decided to venture a question.

“If you could tell me how he ended up-”

“Don’t know. Ask that one.” Rachel’s arm waved at the lounge where the prisoner sat with her head in her hands. “She was there before I arrived.”

Sarah pushed herself away from the table. As she turned away, Rachel caught her by the wrist and pulled her back. There was a trace of the old snarl in the pilot’s voice as she whispered in Sarah’s ear, but it was far outweighed by fear.

“And while you’re at it, you can ask her how she has Alex’s face.”

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Examination, part 1

Sarah knew that she was in trouble the moment she heard the knock at the door. The house systems had told her that Ruby’s code was being used to sign for entry, but she’d been told that nobody would be coming back to the safehouse until the evening. After double-checking that the code matched, she told the house to go ahead and grant access. Ruby charged inside less than a second after the lock released, with a body slung over her shoulder and a fierce look in her eyes. The sight shook Sarah so much that she couldn’t manage a better greeting than a frightened “What happened?”

Ruby heaved her cargo on to the trestle in the middle of the room. Sarah moved closer and felt a rush like vertigo when she saw that it was Alex. Ruby rapped her knuckles on the edge of the table. “Our boy here got himself into a big mess, that’s what happened. Get your game on, girl, we need you to get him back on his feet.”

Sarah swallowed and nodded. “Can you tell me anything more specific?”

“Afraid not – you’re going to have to figure out what’s wrong for yourself. He’s still breathing for now, anyway. Best guess is that the fella who jumped him managed to hit him with poison or a shutdown virus.” Ruby shook her head and pushed herself away from the table.

“All right,” Sarah said, forcing herself to breathe steadily as she leaned on the table and looked Alex over. He seemed physically unharmed, at least; there weren’t any obvious wounds and his breathing was regular. His eyes were more worrying, stuck open and staring blankly ahead. Sarah looked up to ask how he’d been attacked only to see Ruby striding back out of the door. She came back in after a few seconds with a second body, covered in blood. Rachel entered right behind her, dragging a stranger behind her.

The girl was obviously terrified – her face was tear-stained and she was looking frantically around the room as if trying to find a way out. Rachel snarled and shoved her into a couch while Ruby dumped the second body on the floor next to Alex’s table.

Sarah caught Ruby’s eye and gestured at the newcomer. “Who’s she?”

“A prisoner,” Rachel snapped, showing an uncomfortable amount of teeth. “Now get moving, girl, Alex is a vegetable and we need you to tell us why.” The aquatic’s hands worked open and closed and she let a muted growl escape from her throat.

Sarah stared before Ruby gave her a warning look. The security specialist pulled her aside and lowered her voice. “We can sort that stuff out later, Sarah. Alex is more important right now.” Sarah nodded as the older woman gave her a tense smile. “I’m off to bring the rest in, but we should be back soon. Stay focused and you should be fine.”

Ruby stepped away and had a brief, muted discussion with Rachel and her prisoner before powering outside and locking the door behind her. Sarah had the feeling that there was more to Rachel’s raw nerves than her Alex’s injuries, but she didn’t have time to figure it out – she had a patient to see to.

She headed over to the next room and grabbed her pack. Her gloves were in the side pocket where she’d left them, and they came to life right away, interface icons lighting up one at a time around the edges of her vision. There was a slight tickling as the gloves sealed themselves around her hands, and then the last of the lights went green.

She was ready to operate.

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Galacian Espionage

Field report

Commander,

The young lieutenant is mostly keeping on top of her duties. She’s been doing most of the logistics supervision herself, and has done a very good job of it – it’s obvious that she’s got an agile mind and a strong appreciation of how tenuous our supply situation is.

Orders of battle have mostly been delegated down to group leaders, but she’s kept an eye on who’s performing and who isn’t and has mostly been successful in maintaining our battle-readiness. In the absence of a proper engagement with Boscan forces, it has been impossible to judge her performance under fire.

Discipline has been problematic; her age has led several soldiers to openly challenge her over command decisions, and she has frequently failed to actively assert her authority in these situations; I suspect that she is having difficulty adapting from consensus-driven decision making to our hierarchical model. Junior officers have followed through on these breaches, but her soft approach leads me to believe that insubordinate behaviour and attitudes will not abate; in the absence of strong disciplinary action, the troops will continue to take liberties with their young and untested leader. All issues to date have been low-level, but I have made several security arrangements in case my models are inadequate and we find ourselves facing open dissent.

She has had initial difficulty interacting with unaugmented civilians and Boscan soldiers, which is to be expected given her insulated upbringing and training. After the first week, however, she has managed to acclimatise herself and has learned to exaggerate her body language when conversing with subjects unable to interpret her empathic projections.

I have not been able to compromise the security of her reports to you, and I have therefore attached my own estimation of our force’s disposition, including details of supplies, maintenance, personnel and forward scouting operations. Given the lieutenant’s history in the regular army, I do not expect any inconsistencies between her report and mine, but I nevertheless recommend reviewing both of them.

In the absence of any serious misconduct, I will maintain my surveillance and continue reporting to you. I have composed a shortlist of junior officers who I would consider capable of replacing her should she lose her nerve at a critical moment; with your permission, I will be selecting one of them to groom as an acting commander of our force if I am forced to relieve the lieutenant.

Report concludes.

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Prosthetics

late late late and lame lame lame

I’m not squeamish about prosthetics. I want to make that clear right from the start. So when I was asked if I wanted to swap my legs out for prosthetics, I didn’t refuse because I was afraid. Sure, it’s tricky to grow replacements if you get sick of the metal, but it was peacetime then and there was no shortage of clinics willing to do it for the right price.

I guess I balked at it because it wouldn’t really have made a difference to my ability to do my job; I was working in communications on a carrier, so it’s not as if I had to worry about taking a bullet or having to run with a pack on my back. An upgrade wouldn’t have made me a better soldier, so taking the upgrade just felt selfish; the state would have paid the bill and received nothing in return, and I’d have been off duty for two months while they checked out the new parts.

Some of my friends took the offer, of course, and I didn’t give them a hard time about it, but I know for a fact that they just picked it up because it was free. To me, that kind of attitude was just wasteful – I’d almost say greedy. But I guess that’s all part of the recruitment drive, after all; the ADF didn’t pay particularly well and it was always starved for personnel, so it used free cybernetics as an inducement.

No, they weren’t compulsory. Your doctors have already given me the once-over, so you should know that everything below my collarbone is flesh and blood. I suppose some of the special forces might have only recruited soldiers who were physically augmented, but they were strictly a volunteer assignment and their work was dangerous as hell. Don’t you guys have fitness standards for your infantry? There’s no point recruiting someone who can’t carry their gear and run for hours, because they’ll slow the rest down, yeah? Well it’s the same with our guys, except that they can run all day and night and they could pick up two of your boys and knock their heads together.

What? No, that’s not a threat, it’s a fact. Oh, come on, don’t just leave…

[interview ends]

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