So here they all were, Geoff and his three best buddies, way too early one Tuesday morning, in the spinning habitat city of Zekeston that lay buried a kilometer below asteroid 25 Phocaea’s rocky surface: about to mess with the bugs.
Geoff and Amaya stood in the shadows near the university plaza. Kamal crouched behind a low wall on the mezzanine overhead. Kam’s job was to call the op and film it. Ian sat blogging about rocketbikes at a nearby coffee kiosk on the edge of the plaza, eating a pastry and keeping an eye out for any city or university cops that might show up.
Geoff checked his heads-up. The timing had to be just right. A few seconds off in one direction and eight months’ effort would be wasted. A few seconds off in the other and they would all go to jail. His heart was pounding harder than it ever did when he was out in the Big Empty, racing his rocketbike.
His fear wasn’t of getting caught. No; what scared him was that in two minutes the whole solar system would know whether it would all pay off. All those hours of isolation; the sneaking around behind their parents’ and teachers’ backs; the endless succession of foul smells, burns, and stains that had ruined their clothing and scarred their hands—the risks he’d pressured his buddies to take, to help him do this—if this didn’t work, he’d look like a fool.
Nearby, a handful of drowsy, puffy-eyed university students slumped on plaza benches. Class scrolls lay inert, half-furled in their laps, blinking unnoted. Pastries and bulbs of coffee or tea cooled beside them on the benches. The air was chilly and still, as always. Birds and ground squirrels—refugees from Kukuyoshi, the habitat’s arboretum—snatched crumbs at their feet.
The fountain that dominated the plaza’s center was called El Dorado. It was a tumble of rhombic, trapezoidal, and rectangular gold and platinum blocks jutting up at various angles in a metallic bloom. As usual, the fountain was turned off, though the toroidal pool at its base contained brackish liquid with bits of debris floating in it. The sour smell of spent assembly fluid wafted across to Geoff and Amaya in their hiding place. It seemed really noticeable to him, but no one in the plaza seemed bothered by it.
Kam radioed them. “A minute-fifteen before the cameras go live. We need to move now. Amaya, Geoff—you set?”
He and Amaya exchanged a glance, nodded to each other. “Set.”
Kam’s voice whispered the countdown. “Ten seconds … five … two, one. Amaya, go!”
Amaya strode into the plaza, not glancing up at Kam’s shadowed spot, nor over at Ian. Kam said in his ear, “… two, one. Geoff, go!”
Geoff crossed the plaza, about six paces behind Amaya and to the left. He might as well have been invisible. Amaya had dressed up in Downsider chic: bustier, translucent beaded overshirt, short-shorts, lace-up sandals; makeup, hair, neon animated tattoos that ran the length of her exposed flesh; the works.
She transected the plaza, headed away from the fountain, pulling the college students’ gazes along in her wake. Geoff reached the fountain. He tossed the packet of triggering proteins he held into the dirty water. Then he headed for the coffee shop. No one seemed to notice; everyone’s gaze was on Amaya as she strode breezily away.
Geoff sat down next to Ian at a small table near the plaza. His heart beat so hard it hurt. He tried to catch his breath and as nonchalantly as he could, turned to look.
Some guy had fallen in step with Amaya, trying to chat her up.
“Shit!” Geoff started upright, but Ian grabbed his wrist.
“Relax, doof. We’re chill.”
Geoff forced himself back down. Ian was right. Amaya shed the college student—smiling with a shrug, turning to walk backward as she made a reply, then spinning again to continue at a swift, casual pace—without even breaking stride. She exited the plaza.
Geoff checked his waveface again. The blackout had just ended—the “Stroider”-cams were now live. It was close. He couldn’t tell whether she had been on-scene or not when the cameras came on.
“Stroiders” was a reality-broadcast back to Earth. Up to two billion Downsiders tuned in to see what the good people of Zekeston were up to at any given moment. The “Stroider”-cams made it hard to be sneaky. But there were always ways to get around the cams. You just had to put your mind to it.
Sneaky? They had been downright paranoid.
Geoff had done the bug programming. That was how it had all started. In Honors Programmable Matter last semester—the only class he’d ever done truly well in; the only one he cared about—he learned that assemblers were made from complex silica-based molecules.
You manipulated assemblers by washing them with certain chemicals in set sequences. In response, they gathered all the right molecules trapped in their suspension fluid—a silicone-ethanol colloid with metal salts and other stuff—to build what you wanted. The resulting tiny machines burned alcohol and excreted tiny glass pellets that under the right conditions clumped together and made what everybody called bug grapes. Geoff had always wondered what those lumps were at the seams and joints of the utility piping. Yep, they were bug turds. Spent bug juice contained lots of these glass pellets, which ranged in size from marbles to grains of rice. Which was why bug juice spills sparkled under the lights so beautifully. He had always wondered about that, ever since he was a little kid. Who would have thought spewage could be beautiful?
So yeah, it had been the glass turds that had given him the idea. Assemblers shit glass turds! How cool was that? It was a shame to let them go to waste. But to pull this off, they needed real bug juice. Since the good stuff was closely monitored, they would have to steal used juice, and see if they could distill it down and make it usable for their purposes.
Amaya had figured out how to tap the assembler discharge lines. They ran inside the maintenance tunnels that fed down the spokeway utility lines into the Hub. She had enlisted the help of her boyfriend, Ian, and they had spent two months collecting, distilling, and priming depleted bug juice until it was at sufficient strength to handle Geoff’s programming. The resulting juice was feeble, but Geoff had figured how to make it work. (In a lab. If he had gotten all of the glitches out of the protein code. If, if, if.)
While all this was going on, Kam had been making a detailed study of all the mounted cams, rovers, and motes in the university plaza. He calculated camera angles, paths, and ranges of view, based on their technical specifications, and created a surveillance shadow map. His efforts had been aided by a field trip their class had made up to the surface of 25 Phocaea to visit the “Stroiders” broadcast studios.
Two half-hour “Stroiders” blackouts occurred every day, to give Zekies small islands of privacy in their lives. One occurred at two a.m. and the other cycled between three a.m. one day and one a.m. the next. The rest of the time, Zekeston’s citizens were under scrutiny by billions of people they would never meet. Mostly, it was just an annoyance that everyone put up with that resulted in a stipend in everyone’s bank account every month. It was only when you were trying to be sneaky that it mattered when and where the “Stroiders” shadows were.
The main way “Stroiders” got their Zekeston data feed was from the stationary cams and the rovers, but when something important happened, “Stroiders” motes typically showed up, a hazy glamour emitted from jets in the assembler dispersal piping. You couldn’t hide from motes. So next Kam did a science fair project: mote density versus “Stroiders” audiovisual resolution.
He sampled motes around the city and compared them to what people saw, Downside. (Phocaeans could not experience “Stroiders” the way Downsiders back on Earth did—as a fully realized, 3D virtual world—but they could sample it in video in small snatches, by submitting a request to the library and waiting a month.) The lowest mote concentrations in the university plaza typically occurred between four-thirty and eight a.m. on Tuesdays. This pinned down the time and place for the event. (He also got an A+ on the project, and second place in the senior-level information systems category.)
It was sheer serendipity that the best time to stage the event turned out to be the morning after high school graduation. The project became their secret graduation present to one another.
Over the past week and a half, they’d been spiking the fountain with bug juice. They had agonized over how to get the bug juice into the fountain without alerting everyone—“Stroider”-cams might black out periodically, but the plaza’s security cameras didn’t. And there were security guards and scary sorts prowling the nearby Badlands. Geoff and the others had no way of knowing when the plaza was being watched. So during one of the nighttime blackout periods, Ian had climbed down into the maintenance tunnels from an out-of-the-way entry port, made his way to beneath the plaza, inserted tubing into the water line for the fountain, and piped the juice in. If the university students or staff had noticed that the fountain was leaking, no one said anything about the leak, nor about any strange smells emanating from the pool. When the dribble stopped, Ian went back into the maintenance tunnel and removed the tap.
Geoff’s final task was the riskiest. They had a plan to avoid the camera, but there would be people in the plaza even at that hour. So Amaya had volunteered to be a distraction. She wasn’t into the whole clothes, tattoos, and makeup thing, and Geoff was dubious about whether it was a good idea. But when she had shown up in Downsider drag this morning, Geoff and the others had barely recognized her. (“Say one word,” she’d warned them fiercely, “and I will pound you.”)
Geoff’s biggest worry was that her path was longer than his, and she might not exit the plaza before the “Stroider”-cams went live. The cops would be all over those “Stroider” broadcasts to see who might have done it, and Geoff didn’t want their attention directed to Amaya. If anyone would take the heat for this, it should be him.
Geoff radioed Kam. “Well?”
Kam checked his own wavespace display. “Yep. Just.” They were careful not to say too much, in case their broadcasts were being monitored.
She wouldn’t show up on the monitors. She’d gotten out clean. Geoff let out the breath he’d been holding, and drew another one in. He leaned on the table, trying to see what was going on without obviously staring at the fountain. Instead, he and Ian linked wavefaces and pretended to look at pictures of rocketbikes.
Then he saw Ian tense. Geoff shifted in his chair and looked at the fountain, trying to act casual. He couldn’t believe anyone watching was going to buy their performance. Then he stopped caring.
Something was moving in the water. First a bubble, then two. He held his breath. Soon the water was boiling and seething like a live thing. The students sitting near the fountain began to notice. They scrambled back, scattering coffee bulbs. Flocks of panicked birds rose from their perches on the fountain blocks as dark shapes began to emerge from the surface of the water. A hand bone here. A foot bone there. Part of a skull. Teeth in a jawbone. A spine and pelvis.
The shapes began assembling themselves into skeletons. Most had a hunched, gnomish look. One or two were deformed, with feet where their hands should be, or heads growing out of their butts. Geoff frowned. That glitch again. He thought he had fixed it.
Soon whole skeletons were lurching up and collapsing back into the brew. The glitch seemed to have fixed itself. Good. Soon there were a dozen. Twenty at least!
For a minute Geoff thought that would be all they’d do, and that was dramatic enough. But then they began climbing out onto the tiles of the plaza. They joined bony hands and began to dance. The skeletons made a line and curved through the plaza. Students stepped back and watched as they skipped and capered and leapt, banged on their arms, rib cages, and thighbones, waved their bony arms. They didn’t sing—they couldn’t; Geoff didn’t even know where to start, to program larynxes and lungs—but they sure could shake their bones.
They didn’t last long. They were made of spent juice and glass beads, after all, spun together by weak silica tendrils. The first shattered as its dancing and banging and clattering brought it in contact with a corner wall. Soon another burst. Even their own hands or elbows or knees were enough to cause them to fall to pieces. One burst in front of Geoff and Ian, who leapt back, knocking over their chairs—startled despite themselves. The air filled with clear, tan, and silvery beads and spidery strands of silicone.
In moments the skeletons had all burst. It was over. The plaza tiles were coated in tiny beads.
Geoff realized how many people had gathered. Someone started clapping and laughing. Others joined in—but he could see irritation on some faces, and hear grumblings, and that had its own rewards. People began to disperse, carefully stepping among the beads. One young man slipped and fell. “Stroiders” camera motes had come, too, just as Geoff had hoped, and now swirled in the air currents like fairy dust, smelling of ozone and faint, bitter mint.
Ian pressed his hands over his mouth. “Cool…” Geoff looked over and grinned. “Domo, doof.”
“Come on. Time to spin the sugar.” Ian grabbed his sleeve and dragged him into the plaza. They dashed down the lane to meet Kam and Amaya, slipping and sliding on bug grapes.
Geoff desperately wanted to go home and watch the news. But not today. Today was the big ice shipment, and nothing—not even Geoff’s bug-turd art obsession—could be allowed to interfere with the ice harvest.
* * *
They got separated at the spokeway elevators. Amaya squeezed into a waiting elevator, and then Ian, who was holding her hand, but Geoff and Kamal stood one layer too far back in the crowd when the warning lights went off.
“You’ll miss the harvest!” Ian said.
“We’ll take the stairs!” Geoff shouted, as the doors closed. He and Kam headed off at a run. “Meet you in the Hub!”
* * *
Zekeston was a fat, spinning habitat wheel buried below the surface of the asteroid. The city’s spin generated a gravity gradient, which ranged from barely a thousandth of a gee in the Hub to about three-quarters of Earth’s gravity at the outermost level. The university was on that highest-gee bottom level. That meant that the first fifty levels of Geoff and Kam’s travel to the Hub were a brutal climb up the dual stairway that wound around the inner walls of Eenie Spoke. Geoff dodged around other climbers with an “On your left!” here and an “Excuse me!” there. Kam came right behind. They were gasping for air before they were a third of the way up, despite the light tailwind wafting up from the lower levels, which dried their sweat and boosted them up toward the Hub.
Zekeston used to be called Ezekiel’s Town, but it wasn’t just one wheel within a wheel. It had twelve spokes that connected twenty-five nested wheels, stacked one inside the next, to the Hub. Each wheel held ten stories, for a total of two hundred fifty levels. Upspoke, where gravitation approached Earth’s, surfaces were flat—walkable and/or rollable. The lower-gee levels near the Hub were honeycombed tubes separating webbed open spaces. As the boys gained altitude the climb got easier, and by the time they’d reached Level 150, they began to make better time. At Level 80, the low-gee ropeworks appeared and they lofted themselves up into it. Thereafter they made swift progress. Finally, they launched themselves out into the microgee Hub.
The Hub was a sphere nearly a quarter kilometer in diameter. The entries to the twelve spokeways ran around the Hub’s girth: a ring of big holes, each with its own lift shaft, a dual spiral staircase and ropeworks visible inside. The Hub also housed YuanBioPharma’s main research facility and manufacturing plant; the main city hospital, Yamashiro Memorial; and the city assemblyworks.
Ian and Amaya stood in the queue for the big lifts up to Phocaea’s surface. They faced away from each other. Amaya had her arms crossed, and Ian’s jaw jutted out. Geoff exchanged a look with Kam as they crossed the Hub’s ropeworks toward their friends.
Geoff groaned. “Another fight.”
Kam rolled his eyes. “Why don’t they break up and have done with it?”
Geoff said, “I don’t want to listen to them bickering. Why don’t you offer to partner with Ian this time, and I’ll go with Amaya?”
“Why do I have to go with Ian and you get to go with Amaya?”
“I took Ian last time.”
Kam held up his fist—rock-paper-scissors. Geoff sighed. “Oh, all right.” He chose scissors and Kam chose paper.
Kam dropped his fist. “Bastard.” Geoff just grinned.
After a few minutes, Geoff began to doubt that he had the better end of the deal. Amaya remained furious all the way up in the lift. When they reached the asteroid’s surface, she catapulted out of the lift so fast Geoff couldn’t keep up. He found her at their bikes in the hangar. She had changed out of the Downsider outfit, but she still had the makeup on, and he got glimpses of her tattoo, as it ran out onto her hands and up onto her neck.
“You want to talk?” he asked.
She threw her diagnostic tools into her kit. “I was the one who came up with the plan for getting the juice. I was the one who figured out how to get it primed. I’m a better mechanic than Ian is. And I can kickyour ass in a race.” She glared at him. Geoff opened his mouth to argue. But maybe now wasn’t the time. “And all he gives a flying fuck about,” she said, “is how I look in a beaded bra.”
Geoff refrained from telling her that she really had looked pretty amazing, and merely nodded.
“It’s all about how big your tits are, whether you had your ass done, whether you put out,” she said. “That’s all anybody cares about. I could be Einstein, for fuck’s sake.” She glared at Geoff, daring him to argue. “I’m not saying I’m Einstein. It’s just that nobody would care if I was! The only thing that matters is how tight a slab of ass I am.”
“Oh, come on. Nobody thinks that.” A storm gathered in her gaze. He lifted his hands. “That’s not what I meant. What I mean is, we couldn’t have pulled the op without you. You had great ideas. You are the best mechanic we’ve got.”
She gave him an appreciative look, mollified. Then she tossed her tools into her kit and mounted her bike, waiting for him to finish his own checks.
As he tightened his fuel lines one last time, he added, “But … not to chafe you or anything … but wasn’t that the whole point? You were supposed to get that kind of reaction. It was your idea.”
He swung up onto his rocketbike and started the engine.
She leaned her chin on her forearms, braced against the handlebars. “I thought it’d just be a good joke. But it got me to thinking. I get way more attention dressing like a sex sapient than I do for anything I actually do that means anything. It just pisses me off. And then Ian…” she sighed. “He just doesn’t get it. I told him what I’m telling you now, and he says he wants me to dress like that all the time. Butt floss, pushup bra, and all. Like all I am is girl-meat.” She sighed again. “I wish he cared about more than how big my boobs are and whether he’ll ever get the booty prize.”
Geoff nodded with a rueful sigh. Ian’s brains did go out his ears sometimes. Especially when his chinpo was involved. Geoff gave it fifty-fifty odds that Amaya would get tired of waiting before he figured her out.
Copyright © 2011 by Laura J. Mixon-Gould