sheramil: Jack Vance alien by Phillipe Caza (Default)
[personal profile] sheramil
Unlike the last place I'd been, this one had a name, of sorts: Soko, or Sogo, or perhaps Shoquo - the guide had been translated from Japanese, so I'd had to sound it out. Temperature was just up from god damned freezing, and the atmosphere was a mixture of methane, carbon monoxide and CO2. Socco CH4CO. It didn't sound promising. No free oxygen meant I'd had to shell out for a rebreather and a supply, the first of many new addictions, I supposed. Add to that water, food, a safe place to sleep and, a very distant fourth given the atmosphere, THC. I was not looking forward to this. "Things do not get better, but worse," as Edward Gorey had put it in that limerick.

I'd used my last check, realising it was my last check; paid premium transport rates, meaning I'd been dumped in the warehouse rather than ejected into space in the general direction of the planet. Whoever they were, they seemed to like dropping things from a great height. I hadn't broken any bones, but only because I'd landed on top of someone who had. I was appropriately apologetic until I realised he'd died in the fall. First on, last off. Always a smart move.

He didn't have anything worth taking in his pockets. He didn't have any pockets. Who has the nerve to travel naked? Was he even a tourist?

No sign of the transport factors. It was like they never went near what they were selling. I never seemed to get to meet any of these haulers in person, if they had such, but if you were transporting cattle, or, or drifters, or unintentionally hauling rats, you wouldn't necessarily want to talk to them. I was just glad they'd left the hold pressurised. Talk is cheap, anyway, although I was continually surprised how many could do without it at all. Another misconception I needed to lose.

So, a new place; unknown territory. There were three ways to do this. The best chance for survival involved finding a guide, preferably a human, although sometimes they looked like guides and turned out to be predators, depending on how hard the place was, and this place didn't look very friendly. The second was to try to figure it out for myself, which was close to suicide. The third *was* suicide, but I hadn't come here to die.

Everyone else had cleared out of the warehouse, some of them limping, so I turned the dead guy over. No genitals. I grabbed a hand, examined it; no fingerprints, no nails. Face blank, anonymous; no nostril hair. No teeth. Peeled back an eyelid; plastic eyeball. I dragged it over behind a support column, made sure I was alone and then sliced down the front with my thumbnail, from breastbone to crotch. The outer cover peeled away, revealing a cheap fabbed frame of tetrahedrons and hundreds of small plastic bags full of light blue powder.

Oh, shit.

Okay. Peel the fake skin off the frame, humming "now doesn't it make you feel better?", turn it inside out - exposing the rough, unfinished blue side - and it becomes a lumpy carry bag full of... whatever the hell it was. It was mine, now. If they'd wanted to keep it, they would have protected it better. It couldn't have been legal here, or it wouldn't have been hidden. The motors that held the frame together were the cheapest kind of actuators, like drinking straws over pipe cleaners, pure reactive architecture, designed to make its way to the drop without a brain or senses or -

I adjusted my rebreather, set the O2 feed, checked the meter: I had two hours to find more. It was never a good idea to show up with luggage, or even to be seen with bags, so I'd need to find somewhere to stash the stuff until I knew how to get rid of it profitably (it was mine, now, even if it wasn't legal). I went to the gate, looked out. Grey, miserable looking sky over grey, miserable architecture, all of it as functional and as impersonal as a garbage disposal. No advertisements. Nothing like a cafe, although there was a central square where people (I use the term loosely - none of them looked human) slowly paraded around, anti-clockwise, occasionally entering or leaving garage spaces. I saw someone paying for something with paper money. This was a good sign; it meant they still had the equivalent of an economy, unless they were acting. Wouldn't have been the first time.

I left the frame in the warehouse. Given a couple of hours I could have worked out where it had been going, but I didn't have a couple of hours. It couldn't have been far. It would have been moving blindly, and eventually would have bumped into someone who would have been offended by the move. Looking out for anyone who might be looking out for a naked blind guy I found an alley that led to the broad supply lane that ran around the back of the garage spaces, flat concrete road with guide rails for automated carriers. No trash containers; that was a bad sign. It meant they were recycling everything, which meant they were fabbing. They were still using currency, so things hadn't totally gone to hell, but I could see the beginnings of signs, and they made me feel uneasy. Little things. The uniformity of the buildings, like they'd all been decorated with the same square tile pattern. The approaching night held back by the faint glow from the paving panels. The measured pavane they were dancing; it had the look of a kind of ritual, designed to cover something they didn't want to admit to doing, or being. Or knowing.

Another bad sign: no security cameras around the back anywhere. I made two slow circuits of the whole place, taking care not to get out of breath. If someone was going to break in, they'd do it from here, so... what? This was either the safest place in existence or one of those deceptively tranquil settings that would kill you if you walked in the wrong direction, even once. There were lines carved into the walls at the back of the garages, hinting at doors securely closed. I couldn't leave the stash here.

Screw this cautious narrative. I joined the sparse crowd walking around the square, trying to ignore the stares. Only a few had masks. One of those looked familiar. I tried to keep behind this one while checking out the silhouette... yep. I could feel the bottom dropping out of my stomach. Gah. How many copies had they made? The damn things were everywhere. Okay... remember: they don't like being called clones; they usually know what's going on, and they're usually mixed up in shady business but not at the top (or bottom, depending on which end you looked at it from). Mid-level-ish. Not to be trusted at all. Give away as little as possible.

I caught up and made eye contact. "Hey, Dutch."

She slowed a little, looked me up and down. I don't think her attention lingered on the lumpy blue bag I was carrying, as far as I could tell. "Hey... you. Long way from home." She had no idea who I was - none of them ever did - but the fact that I'd approached her meant I was after something, which gave her the advantage. Which would put her off her guard, just a little.

"Any action?"

Her eyes half-closed. She had me pegged. Just another mooch. "What do you need?"

I tried to be nonchalant. "Oh.. oxygen, water... place to get out from under the halogenation. It's rough on the attire," plucking the seam of my shirt-sleeve. It hadn't started to decay, but it would eventually.

One eyebrow raised underneath her rebreather's mask. "You got anything?"

Now, this was always tricky. You come on with the paypal routine and they laugh and demand precious metals; you offer them sodium or magnesium and they roll their eyes and tell you it's all about energy here. You offer them polonium and they smile while signaling behind their backs for the cops. "I got, but I'm," stall, you idiot, say anything, but stall, "going to need to count it first."

Her expression didn't change. Very bad. Completely the wrong thing to say. "You can count? I might could get you in on a small local operation, looking to expand," oh sweet creeping Jesus, expand? EXPAND? Were they insane? I had to fight to keep my breathing regular, "... needs accountants. Kind of sort of."

I really wanted to throw the bag at her and run, but I couldn't spare the air, and there was nowhere safe to run to. "Accountancy? Sure. Check it, I'm not proud."

She did that wry half-smile very well. It almost looked attractive on her, and not for the first time I could feel my lips move in the direction of imitating it. Watch that. "It's more in the line of forgery, but that's always how it starts, right?" She waved at the crowd, evenly spaced, strolling through the chill early evening. Some of the nearer ones shied away, just a little, in case she had a weapon. Another bad sign. I tried to think what was worse, too many cops or no cops at all.

Accountancy... forgery. Expanding the business. My stomach didn't stop sinking, but it wasn't sinking as fast as before; I'd only just gotten in before the gate closed. I could make this work, but it meant I'd be leaving sooner than expected. This place was just as doomed as the last, only they didn't know it yet. At least this particular doom could be dealt with. "So do I sign in blood?"

I had managed to knock one level off Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs but the sage words of the Reverend Ivan Stang were haunting me: "You just wait till you haven't been able to SHIT for three days. THEN you'll know what's IMPORTANT in life." On the one hand, I wasn't about to throw it away. Not here; not in this situation. On the other, I'd never descended to the level of poopsocking, and I wasn't about to start now. I still had some standards. Besides, I only had one pair of socks, and I was wearing them. On top of that, I hadn't eaten for a week before arriving. I wasn't Newkind, so I couldn't run off electricity, but there was no guarantee of anything edible on this planet, aside from Dutch. I figured I had... about three days. I needed information more than anything; information I could trust. That meant asking someone other than her...

(but - what if I.. no. Not yet.)

She'd been nice, but not so nice that I might suspect she was stringing me along. Just nice enough. When They'd mass-produced her They'd left out things like empathy, fear, shame and a sense of humour, so anything she did was entirely self-motivated, but she was human - more or less - so she knew we only had networking to differentiate us from the jellyfish. I just had to locate the point where our interests diverged and screw her over before she screwed me over.

Not that there was going to be much screwing going on. They'd left that out of her as well.

She had given me directions to the place where she stayed. She didn't sugar-coat it: the place was a hole. Horizontal closet sized apartments with no lights, no running water, no amenities beyond metered oxygen at what were very reasonable rates. Again, immediate suspicion. It would be nice to be able to relax, but as the Man said, safety is the most dangerous condition of all. I carefully made my way along narrow inner-city streets with a low buzz of unfamiliar sounds, no words, nothing I could even pretend was music; insect creaks and liquid surges that sounded like someone spitting out a mouth full of water. The place she'd sent me to was bare, rooms more like shelved drawers radially arranged around a courtyard, where something I'd never seen before outside of a Jim Woodring animation - top-heavy, shaped like a hot air balloon - shuffled out on four short legs, warily shifting sideways. We did the introductory moves to the trading game, established how much it would cost just for basic air and shelter, with the added moves that gave me an idea of how much I could put on my tab and what the interest was. I could do better. One hundred minutes of oxygen left. Turned and left while the four legged balloon was still dancing, which was rude, I'd heard, but I wasn't planning on coming back unless I absolutely had to.

I didn't ask how long Dutch had been staying there. Who would have? It didn't seem important at the time.

Wandering an alien city at night would be creepy under ordinary circumstances. I'd only had about fifteen years of ordinary when I was growing up and it was hard to remember; things had been random ever since. Nobody bothered me because I was an unknown quantity. Nobody was going to risk attacking something that might have a deadly response until they knew more. Dutch wasn't stupid; she wouldn't have given much away, and I intended to maintain the mystique. God knows there were things in humanity's past that would have scared most people, again, 'people' being anyone or any thing choosing to live here. People were things and things were people, albeit strange people and perhaps not the ones you'd choose to share an apartment with, but differences in body chemistry kept inter-species predation to a minimum.

That didn't mean it was safe, but you had to establish trust before you could abuse it. There were always exceptions, but I knew most of them. I was gambling on finding a niche and learning more before I ran into an exception. The usual strategy for dealing with exceptions was to run like hell, but you could only run so far here. I could stow away, but that was usually fatal. I'd never done it before and I didn't know anyone who had and survived.

On the opposite side of town - not far; this was a small city - I found an almost welcome sight. They didn't have names as far as anyone knew and one of their clades actively hated humans, or pretended to, but the rest of them were... not friendly, but accepting. They depended on thermosynthetic microbes that required CO2 in higher levels than were naturally present and from past experience would accept my presence in their hive, a four-storey conical spiral shell.

The hive leaned up against the side of a fusion reactor, huge square building made of undressed stone. I studied the symbols carved into the side, but what leaped out was that there weren't very many of them. A simple reaction that put out a lot of energy. Perfect. Anyone who used a big hammer to solve a problem wouldn't care about small amounts of waste. I walked all the way around, read the symbols again; hydrogen... carbon... helium... methane, heat, oxygen, water, electricity. The heat drove a generator and they threw away the oxygen and water (pollution! now that was nostalgic). Some of it was piped into the shell.

I stopped at the front of the hive and was about to start the trading game when they came out and made the daring move of gently encouraging, then pushing me inside. Tentacles. I almost smiled, thinking of the xenophobia of the 20th century and the xenophilia of the 21st but, again, there wasn't going to be any screwing. Sealing the door behind me could have been scary but I'd stayed with people like them before and I knew the ropes. Or the tentacles, so to speak. Some might make threatening gestures now and then but we were practically symbiotes. They knew the score.

Dim orange-yellow light puddled at the edges of the spiral tunnel, running down a shallow gutter from above, just enough to see the air quality meter on my thumbnail. Levels of monoxide and methane were low enough near the middle floors to risk taking off my rebreather. Eighty-nine minutes of oxygen left. From here up the place looked empty, felt empty. I spent a few minutes with my eyes closed and fingers spread, sensing faint vibrations from below, infrequent subsonic shudders from the reactor next door. Downstairs, they were quiet; one of the best things about them. I shrugged, bunched the inverted skin for a pillow (contents of the packages shifting about greasily), curled up and began internally reciting "Go The Fuck To Sleep". If the air went toxic, I wouldn't find out about it.

Despite my optimised intestinal flora still working away at my last meal, I could feel my energy reserves beginning to drop. After cranking the rebreather to force more oxygen into the coiled reservoir I crept downstairs, drank some tepid, glowing water from a trough, bitter with Coelenterazine, masked up and walked across town to check out the job Dutch had steered me towards. Still dark outside, and colder; things were quieter.

It was in the back of a dimly lit warehouse sized market, nothing I could buy and nothing I would want to but the shelved produce arranged in hexagonal towers raised a faint nostalgic memory. The few other customers were about what you'd expect to see shopping at three a.m. Nobody was here to meet friends. I couldn't spot any obvious security hardware but shoplifting was a good way to get killed, no matter what planet you were on. It would also draw unwanted attention. So far I was just another bipedal masked creep, and I wanted to stay that way.

Archway carved into the back wall, principles of structural engineering being universal. There was a Thing at the threshold, one of those fur-covered smoothly shifting and changing Things arranged in such a way as to be hard to make out. Different senses might have worked better; low light wasn't the best. Of course I could always use my, uh -

- again, no. Not until I had to. Not until I was near death. The one addiction we'd never been able to give up, not since we picked up that thigh-bone a hundred million years ago and used it to bash gazelles to death on the African savannah. Not since it made us lazy and well-fed and stupid and we'd turned on each other for lack of anything else to occupy our time. I was going to do this the hard way. Because once you gave in and did it the easy way it was so easy that it turned you into a big stupid helpless two-legged opportunity with a flashing sign saying RAPE ME hovering overhead. So easy that it turned you into Newkind, which was about as stupid as you could get without becoming sessile (and some Newkind were). Did I mention I was trying to avoid attention? Stupid is obvious, and obvious is stupid.

I stood near the archway, waiting while the Thing checked me out. Buzzing, tickling sensation, reinforcing the emptiness of my stomach. I could imagine ripples in the load of water I'd drunk; active acoustics, the focus wandering up and down my torso. I held one hand out to the side, palm forward, spreading my fingers, counting one two three four five. The Thing retreated, trailing limbs or tails or tentacles curling in a manner suggestive of enticement. I followed at a respectful distance.

High tables, raised to about armpit level, well above the Thing's height. Ragged-edged scraps of cloth, or skin, with rows of straight lines scribed on them. Graphite sticks sharpened at both ends. They were forging currency barcodes, adding lines at the ends of the rows to inflate the value. Where did this put them on the poisoned well scale of economics? More to the point, how much did it pay, and in what?

I examined the lines, spotting patterns, decoding them; binary isn't hard to parse. Presently Dutch came in and showed me how to overscribe the notes, making them four times as valuable, to within the limits of where you were allowed to draw. If I could secure a supply of the materials I could forge original notes. After all, I did know how to count. This looked promising.

Then Dutch smiled inside her mask - a different smile to the one I liked to see on her - and handed me a square package, just a little larger than her hand; yellow plastic wrapper... "oriental" flavour, nutrition information in english. Instant noodles. The package still had a price tag. "What you get for showing up. There's more coming, a lot more."

I nodded my head once, accepted the package and repressed the urge to push her over and run... twice, in two days. I was right, right not to trust her and right that this place was about to become congruent with hell, but now a slightly bigger and more pervasive hell was coming from directly above. I went back to carefully drawing grey lines on the "money", spent the morning happily contributing to the oncoming ruin, knowing that it didn't matter any more. Forget trying to learn about the locals; I had even less time that I'd thought. Crap, crap, crap, do while(1) {Crap;}.

The Newkind were about to invade.

Just when you think you're safe. Just when you think you've seen the assholes ruin everything that could possibly be ruined, everything there is, the potential for everything that could have been, everything they can get their clawed mitts and ceramic reinforced teeth into. Just when you think you've found somewhere quiet, somewhere without anything they might want to spoil... there they are.

I didn't waste a lot of time cursing them. Their limited capacity for self-examination made it hard for them to understand why they were so despised, and technically there were more of them than us... so... technically... statistically... at this point in time... they *were* humanity. They were human and we were the new Neanderthals on the block, although they didn't see us that way. They thought we were like them. They were unable to see that we were different. They were unable to see that *they* were different. About as blind as you could get without removing the top half of the head, and some of them even did that, and the very idea that they couldn't tell that someone missing half their brain was different to someone who wasn't... ah, it didn't make them worse. It made them Newkind. Thinking about them made me feel sick. They made me feel sick. I had to do something, accumulate enough wherewithal to get away again. I couldn't stop them, nobody could; but I could run. For the moment.

I scribed lines, thin lines and thick, ruling them against the edge of my 'phone. That was acceptable; there was no charge in the battery. Nobody could fault me for using a 'phone as a ruler.

Some time around mid-afternoon Dutch came in and paid me again... unmodified notes (which told me the forged ones were dangerous to use). "Come back tomorrow morning, and don't tell anyone, you know, because..." ending the sentence with a small frown to show she meant it. Again, I replied with just a single nod, not giving away any more than I had to. She smiled from the nose down, reinforcing my impulse to back away. Despite being genetically debased, an engineered artifact, Dutch wasn't Newkind, but she had to be working for them in some way; a scout or something like it. I should have wondered why she was here, and only now did I wonder how long she had been here.

I wandered around the market, taking a closer look at the produce. That one looked like blood-red beans sealed in clear plastic; preserved nodes carved out of the back of a farm animal like a yards-long leg-thick millipede. I'd had a job wrangling them once. Not edible. This one: toothpaste? No; alien aphrodisiac (I'd seen a human try it. An hour later, I had to help dispose of the dissolving pieces of his body. The stuff had some potential as a weapon; you wouldn't want to brush your teeth with it). That one; a jar of brine. All it was missing was a single pickled onion. All kinds of randomness... flat packs, tubes, clusters of grapes the size of ping-pong balls filled with glowing green mucus. Labels in dozens of languages and scripts, a few animated pictograms; one of them made me wince and look away. This wasn't the snack section. I hoped it wasn't the snack section.

At the other end of the market the shelves were empty. Awaiting a new product line. Things the Newkind would want to buy. Some of them still ate "food" - that's what they called it, quotes and all - and it was edible, but it was all proteins and additives; almost zero carbohydrates. It wouldn't keep me alive. Until I could find something to eat I was dependent on Dutch's noodles, and wandering around looking at labels I couldn't read wasn't going to help. On top of that, I didn't think forgery paid well enough for a ticket out of this hole. The idea of trying to live alongside the Newkind when they arrived made my lips curl with nausea. If they knew I was here there wouldn't be any avoiding them, but I couldn't hide all the time.

I walked back to the hive by a different route to the one I'd taken to the market and found something interesting; a scrap yard (note: you can learn more by exploring than you can by asking questions). The pickings were slim, most likely because the locals were recycling everything they could get their tentacles around to provide materials for their fabbers, which I wanted to keep as far away from as possible. Another addiction I had painfully learned to surrender. There was no fence around the scrap yard, just an empty city block where people dumped things that were beyond fixing and which didn't come apart easily. My eyes darted about, scoping out the possibilities, and lit on an electric motor core, the size of my head. I smiled beneath my mask, the smile of a heroin addict who had just found a spoon. I looked around; nobody appeared to be laying claim to this junk, and it wasn't bounded by the corrugated borders that marked the spaces of the trading game. I shrugged, hefted the core - lighter than I'd expected - and, with a vague idea forming somewhere behind my eyes, I collected stray parts. Heavy-duty springs. Finger-thick flattened metal tubes joined by perfectly machined fictionless bolts. Straps made of a cross between leather and foam-rubber. I wasn't sure if this was going to work, but it would give me something to focus on while I fell off the wagon, and this idea wouldn't work if I was on it.

The unredeemable addict can always find rationalisations for giving in. One more won't put you back on, everybody's doing it, it's not like it'll kill you, there's no choice, it's a matter of survival... yeah. Survival. If none of the regular excuses worked any more, telling yourself "life is addictive" would do it. You could excuse all kinds of stupidity supporting that one. Giving in and lying down in the street to die wasn't considered cowardly. It was more an act of defiance. Not going to play this stupid game any more. If you'd arrived at the point where you didn't think change was possible, where you didn't think you could effect any change, lying down in the street to die seemed like a pretty good idea.

But not yet. Just one fix. Once I'd made that decision, all kinds of supporting half-truths came to mind. It had been a while since I'd actually had to deal with Newkind; maybe they'd changed (although this was unlikely; they feared change, unless it supported their narcissism). Perhaps this half-assed plan would work. It might even be fun. Kind of a challenge. Who doesn't like cosplay?

I lashed the straps around my haul, looked around again in case someone was about to kill me for stealing their stuff, and headed... well. It wasn't home. I headed that way.

The problem with Just One Fix is that it led to another. I told myself, watch that shit, but I knew I was sitting at the back of the wagon, facing forwards, and that things were about to speed up.

Do while(1) {Crap;}.

I passed the warehouse they'd dropped us in. New shapes were staggering out. No naked blind guys (make a note: work out a way of finding out what that blue shit was), just the now-familiar fin shapes, bulging giant adenoid shapes, four-legged balloons-and-canopies, roiling masses of ribbons, low-slung squat six-legged gorgonopsids with parasitic plant growths acting as brains. And a single humanoid silhouette. I ducked back around a corner and stealthily shifted sideways until I could observe discreetly.

She stood in the gate of the warehouse, just as I had, projecting confusion with her stance. Face hidden by a bigger mask than mine; short, slim, feminine hips, short hair, staggering awkwardly as a scale-covered wardrobe pushed past on dozens of short legs. No trace of confidence in her movements. Well... if she was Newkind, she wouldn't last long. If she wasn't then I might have some competition, assuming she knew how to count. I didn't want to share the one human job on the planet with anyone until I could afford to leave. I didn't consider the possiblity of friendship. Who would? I just didn't want the complication. It was going to be hard enough to survive the coming storm of idiots.

Newkind. They were on their way. My options were to run - and I'd need some collateral before I could buy my way off this dump - or to stay. If I stayed, my options would be to hide, to avoid the Newkind... which wasn't going to happen, given the way they did things... or to join them. I didn't have the two hundred years of necessary inbreeding and I was not going to get a lobotomy. I could fake it, but that would be like pretending to be a rodeo clown so the other clowns didn't turn on you. Some degree of interaction was indicated here... but there was a small chance that if my cosplay was good enough, I could pass for an alien. Newkind didn't get on well with anyone outside of their own networks, and they had an appalling record with interspecies contacts; I felt one of my most important jobs was to inform others that humanity was better than that before the Newkind turned up and proved me wrong. It would be like riding the rapids, but the biggest problem wouldn't be the Newkind, but the autonomous, ubiquitous machine systems that kept them from eating their own fingers. Those systems weren't exactly intelligent, but they could occasionally surprise you with a burst of unexpected perception, and they existed for the short-term gratification of Newkind wants and needs. The smart thing to do was to step aside and let them blunder through. Some humans had done well for themselves as guides and even scavengers - the Newkind were notoriously wasteful, and often threw away perfectly good food and machinery - but I was not going to be the local shoe-shine who shows Bwana Dik the best restaurant in town. While there was still a town. No matter how picturesque - and, face it, this place was not at all - the Newkind always had to change it for the "better".

I had to get my disguise ready, and for that I needed my 'phone. There. I said it. I felt sick, but I honestly felt I had no other good options. I might even be able to find out when They were arriving.

I got back to the hive, waved to the tentacles that were lurking about near the door (and they waved back). I considered trying to warn them; the trading game didn't cover that. Maybe when I got my 'phone working I could get the word out, preferrably anonymously. Assuming the locals didn't already know. If they had known, the place would be empty.

Up the ramp to the place where I'd left the fake skin bag full of packets of blue powder; I set my haul down, removed my mask. I hand-cranked the compressor for one thousand turns - supposedly enough to fill the reserve - but I didn't feel it catch at the end, so I kept cranking, two thousand, three thousand... the indicator crept around spirally, further, twelve hours, eighteen, twenty-four... I snarled to myself. The asshole I'd bought it from had barely filled it. I removed the crank and exposed the two pins that could drive the electric motor if you happened to have access to power. If I was going to descend to the level of using electricity I may as well go all the way.

I unpeeled the lining of my coat. Underneath, the material was sticky to the touch but didn't leave a residue on my finger. Perfect. I set it aside, picked up the electric motor core and, squinting by the dim chemical light, found the end of the strand of insulated copper where it joined the commutator; plucked it off and began slowly, carefully, methodically unwinding it from the core. It took all night, but I kept at it - knowing Dutch didn't give a damn when I turned up for work - turning the spindle, rotating it, anticipating the lay of the wire, gently spooling it onto my outstretched fingers, getting into the primate zen of the modern age's equivalent of chipping flint tools. As usual, there seemed to be more wire when it was unwound; machine precision. I shuddered, admiration and dread memory.

I started near the inside back pocket and lay the wire in a broad circuit on the sticky inner lining, around and around again, the loops of the spiral as close as possible. I kept going until I had almost used it all, then I ran the other end of the loop to the pocket; two ends of a power reception antenna terminated in short metal posts. There was just enough tack to hold the coat lining in place.

I got the 'phone out, checked it; flat battery, of course. I opened the case, blew some of the dust out, checked the seating of the memory card, snapped it back together, and carefully poked the ends of the copper wire into the two holes at the base. The charging circuit was an old design, intended for a wide variety of incoming waves, so this was going to work; it was just a matter of how well. The 'phone went into the inner back pocket, I put the coat on and moved slowly up the spiral ramp until I felt a brief three pulse buzz in the small of my back. The antenna was picking up electrical activity from the reactor, enough to start the 'phone charging. Three pulses meant it'd take about nine hours to charge fully, but I had to put in an appearance at the back-room forgery office. I'd have to leave it here; tried to pretend that having some asshole steal the 'phone would be in my best interests in the long term, although it was unlikely; drank until I felt sick, kept it down, put on my mask and started getting used to the idea of freezing on my way to work. Chances of finding a second-hand clothing store hereabouts were pretty low.

My biggest concern was that without my coat I looked particularly human, and that wasn't the game plan. Being human, or even looking human, was going to become particuarly unpopular in the near future, and I didn't want any of my neighbors remembering me from before I got my cosplay on. It was too early for much attention anyway. I jogged, indulging in my rebreather's newly discovered capacity. Damn, I could even *sleep* out here if I wanted to, now. I smiled inside my mask.

It was only when I arrived at the market that my stomach gave the faintest growl and I remembered I'd completely forgotten about the noodles. I wasn't starving yet, and maybe Dutch would have something better at the end of the day. I was also starting to think that perhaps forgery wasn't the most socially useful work I could be doing here; if the locals had left useful copper wire lying about, there would be other recoverable items. I needed to find out if the scrap lot was owned in any way, and by what. It could be a commonly-agreed dumping area. It could just as easily be a shrine to the ancestral gods. One of these could be profitably looted. Try to edge them away from accountancy-style commerce. Barter wasn't much of an improvement, but it was something. You didn't get futures trading around barter. Come to think of it, ruining their fledgling economy with forgery might be just what they needed.

I thought about acts of ruin as I worked, slowly drawing lines in irregular rows. There was a difference between tearing down the fabric of society (such as it was here) and demolishing the money-changers' stalls in the temple. They could get by without a temple. They would be better off without the money-changers. I hadn't seen any yet, but they had to be out there. If they weren't, they would be when the Newkind arrived.

I'd never taken an active stance against the Newkind. Many times, more than I wanted to think about, I'd been tempted to punch one of them, hit them with a length of steel pipe, push them in front of a transport; it was futile. Their systems would heal them. Even caving their skulls in wouldn't be much of an impediment, since their skulls didn't contain much they ever used. I'd always restrained myself by considering that we shared at least sixty percent of our DNA. I wasn't about to go all Mistah Kurtz on them... but there was no reason I couldn't sit back and watch them fail to adapt. This would be the first place I'd ever seen them invade that didn't have a breathable atmosphere. Surviving in places like this, you had to be careful, and that wasn't the Newkind style. They were all about changing the environment to suit themselves, and if they tried that here, they would be opposed. I brightened at the thought: interstellar war, Newkind versus everyone else.

"What're you smiling about?" Dutch asked, collecting a pile of forged notes.

"I don't think you'd find it funny."

She shrugged, adjusted her mask. "Suit yourself." She handed me a flat pack about the size of half a brick; more noodles, and some peanut-butter-based protein bars, wrapped in clingfilm. My eyes widened involuntarily; the clingfilm would be useful in putting together my disguise. "They're setting aside a section for home foods, out there; first delivery's in seven days."


She snorted derisively. "Hardly. It's a nice idea, but it's not a practical one." Maybe not in your view, Dutch, but I was already thinking of running up a small cafe - a niche, a hole in the wall that would seat ten at most, sealed environment... possibly run a conduit from the reactor's outfall... exclusive. You didn't get in or even find the place unless you knew the proprietor, which would be Dutch. I wasn't going to go near it. Place like that would serve as a distraction while I was preparing to get the hell out. Would she accept the job? Of course she would. She could sell the Newkind dirty water in a clean glass and charge any price she thought they could stand.

"You're smiling again."

I met her gaze through the masks. "Okay. How does this sound..."

I visited the scrap yard after work. Nobody had complained, so I went nuts, picking up anything I thought might be useful; cones, discs, rods, boxes, lengths of cable, empty cylinders, all manner of trash including a pile of what looked like fabrication rejects - someone had tried to make fish-bowls, hundreds of them, only the fabber had run too fast, leaving gaps. I gathered it all up in a queen-sized sheet of plastic corduroy-substitute, threw it over my shoulder and -

It was cold and I was tired, but I let the bundle down, peered at the flagstones, then got down on my hands and knees for a closer look. It wasn't easy to tell under the ambient light, but it looked like lichen. Gods below! Plant life, growing here, despite the conditions, despite the low light levels and smothering atmosphere. I wanted to cup my hands around it and protect it. Wherever it had come from, whatever animal it had hitched a ride with, it had reached this place and was growing, slowly, five yellow-grey coin-sized blooms joined at the edges. I laughed out loud, not caring if anyone heard; it was doing better than I was. For the first time in years, I had found something I wanted to take a picture of.

I picked up the bundle, carefully stepped around the lichen and found myself eager to see if my 'phone had charged. Taking a picture of the first plant life I had found here seemed a better rationalisation for using the 'phone than anything else I'd come up with, although the only person I could show it to would have been Dutch, and she wouldn't care. This was for me.

When I got to the hive, the tentacles seemed agitated. They let me in, but they made a big show of holding the door shut afterwards; then they dropped back, others came up to replace them, they pushed at the closed door, dropped back also, then they all lay flat as if exhausted. I stared at them until they slowly writhed off into the darkness of the basement. I'd never seen them do that before. I really had to get that 'phone running, if for no better reason than to use its limited translation aspects. Perhaps they weren't happy with my bringing home large bundles of junk. When they got upset it was best to keep as quiet as possible, so I soft-footed up the spiral ramp. Just as well; the new arrival, the one with the short hair, was there, going through my stuff. The tentacles had tried to keep her out, unsuccessfully, and had been trying to apologise.

She didn't hear me, so I waited, hoping it was just curiousity and not larceny. The fake skin had been rifled; packets of powder were spread about (but unopened as far as I could see) and she was examining my 'phone, still trailing wires from the coat. She hadn't figured out how to turn it on; it was a very old model. The newer ones sensed neural patterns.

I dropped the bundle, a brittle clacking sound of metal on plastic. She dropped the coat, leaped up from kneeling faster than I was comfortable with, turned and backed up the ramp, half-crouching, hands held down, fingers spread to show she hadn't palmed anything. She was still wearing her mask, a flat reflective shield that hid her face. From what I could see she was about my age, but she couldn't have been Newkind; she wasn't dressed for it. Grey top, grey denims and grey boots. Another wanderer? That didn't mean I could trust her.

I shut off my rebreather and removed my mask with a slow, exaggerated movement, as if to say "the air's okay". She straightened from her crouch and slowly - cautiously - lifted her mask away from her face. A little younger than me, with the blank, empty, regular features of a fashion model. Short ash-blonde hair with traces of grey and white, over anime-large grey eyes; she appeared to be staring at my greasy coif while I stared at her face. Self-consciously - it had been a long time since I'd showered - I pushed my hair back, and she shuddered. Not what I was expecting. No detectable scent from her. There was something out of place in her stance, or her expression, as if she was unwilling to move until I showed her what was acceptable here. I was tempted to stare at her until she did something, but screw that noise; I wasn't exactly hungry, but I could stand to eat tomorrow, so I took the noodles out of the coat pocket, scooped some water into the least porous of the fabbed fish-bowls and tore the noodle packet open. She flinched slightly at the sound, and the next sign that something was outside my experience: one eye stayed on my hair while the other glanced down at my hands, then back up. I couldn't do that unless someone hit me on the head with a brick.

I kept my eyes on hers, and she kept her eyes on my hair as I crushed the brick of noodles into the water, opened the 'flavor' sachet and sprinkled on red-brown powder. Hot water was a luxury. I stirred the noodles with my index finger and again her right eye glanced at the bowl, then back to my hair. It was unsettling, but not a Newkind thing. They hardly ever looked at you even when they were talking. It was possible she'd had some kind of neural mod, the sort of thing I avoided because I regarded it as creeping Newkind-ism. It had been a while since I'd had any contact with home, and things had been pretty chaotic.

I set the bowl down on top of the blue skin bag, pushed it down so it'd sit evenly then leaned against the wall, slid to the floor and activated my 'phone. Cautious as always it started up with no communications, reported power and free space - almost full, as usual. Perhaps I could delete some of those high-definition television shows I never watched, but the pack-rat urge won out. I did a passive scan of trex signals, wifi, moofi and the rest; not much available. It was mostly a human thing. That would change when the Newkind arrived.

The translation aspects were up-to-date, over three hundred different languages and dialects represented in full plus another hundred with partial exchange tables, most of them audio-based. Wasn't much I could do with people who spoke with pheromones, although there were a few sign languages the camera could read. I turned the 'phone off. I'd need the power in the next few days.

She was still staring at my hair. Okay. This was making me self-conscious. I crawled over to the water trough and dipped the top of my head in. She made a clicking kind of sound with her tongue. I scrubbed my scalp, wondering if the Coelenterazine would make the top of my head glow, then I dried my hair on my sleeve, sat back and regarded her. Still no words.

It would take a while for the cold water to soak into the noodles, so I thought I'd risk getting some sleep. If she wanted to attack me she would have done it by now. I put on my coat, 'phone secure in the inner pocket, stared at her staring at my hairline for a few more minutes, then closed my eyes.

She was still there the next day. I worked on my disguise for a while, fitting metal tubes together, sliding straps through slots, attaching counterbalancing springs to convenient holes, taking the most time over the complex ankle joints and flat, plate-like hooves. She watched. Eventually: two spring-loaded supports that could be strapped to my lower legs, digitigrade-fashion. I tested the movement; resilient, smooth, and quiet; the springs didn't ring or squeak. Adhesive was needed to attach the horseshoe-shaped shock-absorbing foam pads I'd carefully cut out with my thumbnail, but I could probably get something at the market, now that my 'phone could read the alien labels.

I prodded the noodles with my index finger. Soft enough to eat. Slowly, carefully, one mouthful at a time, chewing each for two minutes, I ate about half of it, with my guest watching avidly. The flavor sachet didn't do much.

I shook the bowl gently, stirring the brown and beige contents, held it out to her. She stared at it. Was she another robotic frame full of drugs? If so, she was more detailed than the first one, and not even the Newkind had machines this good. Her eyes looked real, and she was breathing shallowly.

I put the bowl down on the blue skin, put on my mask; connected earbuds to 'phone, put them on, set the translation aspect to recieve/general and put the 'phone in my coat's breast pocket. There was a small grommet that lined up with the camera. She watched, with no more animation or interest than a tracking security camera.

Okay, this was getting creepy. "You got a name?"

She actually met my gaze. "Thel." Croaky voice, like a heavy smoker. My 'phone peeped and said "William Blake, 1789, from the Greek, meaning 'desire' or 'will'." Right. "Ima go work, me." Slipped the mask over my face, checked the rebreather - fifteen hours, if I could trust the meter - and went downstairs, with Thel following. The tentacles waved to me, smooth sine-waves rippling up and down; my 'phone saw it and prompted "breeding season soon, laughter". What? "Don't give me none of that guff," I muttered, knowing they couldn't hear, waving my index finger at them warningly. They imitated the movement with more sinuous laughter. Thel gave them a wide berth. Perhaps she was just a newbie, or shockspun; what they used to call "owl-blasted". Well. I wasn't going to baby-sit her. If she'd made it out this far, she wouldn't need it.

I stopped at the scrap yard to photograph the lichen. When I straightened, I noticed she hadn't put her mask back on.

"Oh, for the love of -" I grabbed her mask and pushed it up over her face. The reserve was empty. I gave her a long, sour look and kept walking, the faint street sounds occasionally triggering a translation, like "them now two (numeric)" and "votes for the bitches" and "old for new". In the square, the slow dance was still going on, with perhaps fewer dancers. Thel matched the pace like a seasoned traveller, with an ease that I had to envy. Not as owl-blasted as I thought. I led her past the stacks of sealed boxes near the door of the market; sorting through the likely candidates, my 'phone reading out the labels, I found tubes of cyanoacrylate dots; apparently, some kind of snack food. They were cheap, so I left one of Dutch's good notes and took four of them. Thel followed me, more like a lost child attaching herself to any stray adult than an agent (I had to consider that she might have been an agent, perhaps for some Newkind machine with enough foresight to want to check out the new territory before they arrived, but that wasn't their style). We were going to have to have a talk about her mask, but preferrably not where Dutch could overhear. I checked out the section set aside for Newkind stock. The shelves had been fitted with high-impact clear acrylic boxes, a familiar security measure to prevent shoplifters. I'd only ever seen this on Earth, and only in places where Newkind frequented. Most of the boxes were empty. What did they have so far? Thin black nylon socks and black elastic duct tape. Of course, I thought sarcastically; the two things anybody would need, arriving on a new world. I bought one of each, shoving currency into the slots below the boxes to get them open. Disguise material.

Work was boring. It was getting familiar enough to do it without thinking. Thel didn't seem to mind waiting; she stood and watched avidly. After a couple of hours Dutch came in, carrying two foam cooler packs by their straps. She nodded at Thel. "Friend of yours?"

"She followed me home. Thought I'd keep her," thinking I could provoke the grey girl into protesting, to take a more prominent place in the conversation. She didn't. Happy to be wallpaper.

Dutch hefted one of the cooler packs up onto the table, popped the seal, opened it; candle-shaped tubes of iced tea. Yuck. She offered me one, cracked open a second and sucked on it. "Any more ideas on how to get air into that proposed cafeteria of yours?"

"Yours. Not a place I would want to frequent. I'd need a compressor... fill a cylinder and drag it down here. Not optimal. I'd rather set it up to run unattended. I was wondering if there are any underground drains or pipes we could run a hose through. The reactor isn't close enough to run them through the streets without someone wondering why."

Dutch frowned, her eyes unfocused in thought. "There's a civic services map on trex 23. Don't know how detailed it is. Never watched it." So she knew I had a working 'phone. I expected that she did, also; and like me, she wasn't gauche enough to wander around reading it to the exclusion of all else. That was another Newkind trait.

"Something to check out, I guess. 23 might say something about that square on the other side of the warehouse, the one with all the junk lying about."

Dutch raised an eyebrow. "Used to be an open-air museum. Over time, by unspoken... community consensus... it became a dump." Great. I've been stealing artworks. "And if you're worried about public health ordinances or taxes, don't. There's no law here, and aside from the reactor, no services."

I glanced out of the arch at the market shelves and the people browsing them, each at least five steps from anyone else. "Yeah. I got that impression."

It was late, well into the short night-time. Back at the hive, I glued dots to hold the foam pads to the bottom of the hooves. Finished the noodles; Thel didn't want any. Connected the coat antenna to the rebreather, tiny motors whirring and pumping air into the reserve, slower than cranking it by hand but it would run all night... well, it'd run until the reserve was so full the motors couldn't mote and then they'd shut off. Worked on the rest of the disguise; built up the mask until it didn't look human, ribbed horns that swept back from the sides. I put the new socks over my hands; crude, but that would disguise my fingers and opposeable thumb.

Thel watched. She hadn't tried to interfere with any of my actions. She hadn't eaten or drank or recharged her air reserve. We were going to have to have that conversation eventually; perhaps tonight. I could test the disguise at the same time.

I peeled a layer of translucency off the inside of my mask, leaving it with a mirror sheen on the outside; added ridges of duct tape with emphasis on diagonal lines that would distract a casual viewer from picturing a human face. I tried it on, leaning over to accomodate the paired wires trailing to my coat pocket; passable.

I dug around in my 'phone's archives until I found an aspect that would record a spoken phrase and then repeat it slower and louder, modulated with a 27 Hz square wave. There was a convenient mount inside the mask to seat the 'phone, earbeads providing translation at the same time as disguising my voice as long as I kept to short phrases. It sounded sufficiently non-human to put off most people, even Newkind, but I had to be careful; their machines wouldn't be fooled.

The only ones I felt I could trust with my intended secret identity were the downstairs tentacles, so they'd need to see me getting changed. I didn't think they'd give me away. Thel would know, too, but there wasn't anything I could have done about that short of physically ejecting her from the hive, and the memory of how fast she'd moved was a vivid one. She gave the impression of being a lot stronger than she looked. I was hoping she would be just as reluctant to talk to others as she'd been with me so far. She seemed harmless; ordinarily this would raise any number of alarms, but she didn't seem harmless in a deceptive way... and ordinarily *that* should have raised even more alarms.

So: leg extensions, gloves, mask (heavier than before), rebreather, 'phone and attachments, coat. I carried them down the ramp to the door, to where the air was unbreathable for me. Thel didn't wear her mask. The tentacles slowly coiled about in semicircular patterns to improve visual acuity. Their eyespots didn't work as well as mine.

I held up my pinkly human hand to indicate I was about to do something of significance. A few more tentacles joined them. I put on the mask first to avoid suffocation, attached the antenna wires to the 'phone, plugged in the earbbuds. The 'phone could see through the mask just fine. Sock-gloves, then I carefully strapped the digitigrade feet to my shins, boot-heels socketed into cross-bars, tightened straps, unrolled the cuffs of my pants past my ankles and then carefully struggled to my feet. I'd done this sort of thing once before and the muscular memories came back quickly. The tentacles were still coiling around us. They knew what I was doing, although probably not why.

I blew into the 'phone mic, and it coughed. Pitching my voice low I said "follow me", turned to face Thel. "F-o-l-l-o-w - m-e." I ducked though the door - the leg extensions added about ten inches to my height - and with a boldness I didn't really feel, clopped out into the street.

It had been a long time since I'd used the vocal click interface on the 'phone, but it all came back quickly. Using the 'phone to scan sound and vision for anything it could translate, at the same time as waiting for me to speak as well as displaying a light-amplified view in front of me strained the poor little processors, but it worked. The few others around at this time of the evening gave me a wide berth, informed with the kinds of kinesics I got when I'd first arrived, so at least they were fooled. I led Thel back to the scrap-yard / museum, practiced squatting until I could reach down and stroke the flagstones next to the lichen spots. Thel imitated me, bare fingers pale in the street light.

"W-h-y - a-r-e - y-o-u - h-e-r-e?", wow, I sound like a Dalek.

A long pause, then in a voice just as croaky as my disguised one she said "Watch you. Watch like you. Watch that will come."

I dismissed the vocal effects for the moment. "You know they're not like me."

She nodded once. "You fear New Kind."

I straightened, stalked around the square until I was near the middle. "There's a lot to fear about them. I've been running for years."

She nodded again, and gestured to herself. "Not human. Not Newkind. Watch human, watch Newkind, then act."

Oho! Here's me, pretending to be an alien. And here's her, pretending to be human. I reached out and gently pushed her mask up, settling it over her beautiful features. "No-one will know." So we had at least that level of trust; shared lies.

It was late, much later than I'd thought; the tiny wan disc of sunlight was starting to dust the horizon with lighter grey. Almost morning. Thel pointed at the ground behind me and said "Now." I turned. A dim circle of grainy red light was painted on the flagstones, wavering like ripples of water in a glass registering faint shocks. My hair tried to stand on end underneath my disguise as the circle contracted to form a radially arranged grid about two yards across. I grabbed Thel's hand and awkwardly dragged her out of the square, head down, my gait reminding me of General Grievous, loping up a side street that afforded a degree of cover.

Those were landing lights. The Newkind were here.

They were rich enough to afford better than being dumped out of a hatch. They didn't have their own starships, but they'd gone one better: they'd paid to have an entire building brought here, lowered on a ring of bright blue thrusters. Trying to assess the energy required made me feel sick. All of that, just to bring an apartment here. Trying to work out how much it would have cost to bring it here from Earth... that was just insane. The sort of thing they'd do.

The leading end looked like a giant, squared-off assymetrically detailed art-deco shampoo bottle just a little larger than the scrap-yard; it rotated until the corners could fit between the buildings, then descended, landing with a crunch. Good-bye, free scrap. Good-bye, lichen. The thrusters faded; the mesh framework that connected them to the building folded up like a spider afraid of getting its feet wet, then detached and flew off. A gigantic square peg forced the wrong way into a square hole. Again, the sort of thing they'd do, not for the effect; not to send any kind of message. They did it because they didn't care how it looked.

Thirty seconds passed. Windows opened on the two sides of the building I could see, and to my horror, hundreds of doves were released. They didn't get very far; apparently, real doves, no more able to breathe the local atmosphere than I could, spiralling out of the sky to hit the ground with soft impacts. I didn't know whether to laugh or scream with anger. I settled for muttering "I swear to god I thought turkeys could fly," felt a little ashamed at seeing all that bird meat fluttering around helplessly, slower, then stopping, thinking *protein*, but with no way to cook it. Carefully I edged closer, keeping the corner of the block between me and the apartment.

A three-car-garage-sized door folded up into segments, opened; the thing that emerged was only recogniseable as a vehicle because it ran on six large wheels. The rest of the shape was lost beneath a riot of fog-lamps, antennae, dishes, cameras, wipers, flags and what looked uncomfortably like the barrels of weapons. The machines that maintained the Newkind rarely let them have guns; they tended to accidentally shoot each other with them.

The paramilitary sports vehicle revved its engines and made it about five yards into the street before the engine died; internal combustion requires oxygen. A door opened on one side, mirrors and lights flashing as it folded up and back, and a man got out. He wasn't wearing a mask, and he didn't get much further than the doves. Then a woman - presumably his wife - followed, stepping over the man's body and collapsing a few steps further. I noticed that the top of her head was flat, and only came up to her eyebrow ridges.

Then a child got out of the car.

Okay, they're Newkind. They can afford to fly their apartment god-knows-how-many-light-years, drop it from orbit and release *doves* to celebrate their arrival but they didn't have the sense to -

They're not human. They are so rich that they aren't human. The parents might die, but their systems would recover their bodies, repair them and keep them running... still, I couldn't let a child die like that. I lunged forwards, scooped up the girl, maybe four years old, dodged around their truck and handed her to the outstretched mechanical arms that had extended from the back of the car-port. They snatched her up and dragged her inside. Hatches closed over her coughing and retching. Then I ran as the machine arms began to reach for the truck. They'd get to the parents eventually.

Stupid. Stupid stupid god-damned do while(1) {stupid;}. The kid was going to grow up to be Newkind. There are no genetic treatments for being that rich and that dumb. It was even possible to consider a point of view where she would have been better off suffocating, but I hadn't stopped to engage in a moral debate with myself, and as a result the Newkind systems would know what I looked like - so much for disguises - and, dimly, what I had done. They would be looking for me, now, either to reward me or kill me, Newkind machine logic being what it is. I recalled seeing the Newkind machine logo on the side of the building, looking like a flaming ass with a bite taken out of one side. I shook my head as I slowed my steps, Thel tagging along behind me. "Game over, man. Game over."

"You have fear of them, but you saved it from a death," Thel offered. I didn't have any reply. How long did I have? Where could I go? The market? Dutch would find a way to let Them know where I was, and I didn't have anything to bribe her with to do otherwise. If I went back to the hive the tentacles would get caught in the inevitable cross-fire; they didn't deserve that. There were any number of shops and work-spaces around the square, but that would be where the Newkind would go shopping once they'd worked out that they couldn't breathe methane. The only place that was sealed - principally to keep people like me out - was the reactor, and it didn't have a door.

At least, not one I'd seen when I cased the place, first time around. I started running. With the spring-loaded extensions on my feet it was somewhere between dream-like and nightmarish.

First, toward the reactor, slowing and stopping when I realised it was futile. For lack of anything better I went back to the central square, tried to fit in with the dance. It wasn't easy with those feet. I felt about as obvious as a giant chicken. Thel caught up, overtook me and turned into a shop-space; I followed.

It was empty, just wide enough for us to walk down, side by side, and a lot longer than I'd anticipated. Flat grey stone walls; the low ceiling was a single light panel. I began to wonder if it was electrically driven, or if the reactor was for something else. Mind racing, I paced down to the end of the space and stopped. They might be after me. They might not. I had to assume they were.

My 'phone started peeping; various networking functions were coming on as the Newkind systems deployed themselves; local GPS, kik, pandora, a youtube server, all the old stuff they couldn't live without. I shook myself out of my mathematical-point spin-cycle and clicked my tongue, told the 'phone to look up trex 23.

It was a diagram; a flat plane of lines that ran below the street, reminiscent of a circuit board with endpoints beneath each shop space. One of them ended directly below our feet. They converged on the reactor, and they looked a little big to be power cables. Cable runs? I backed up a few steps, awkwardly kneeled and examined the floor. Hair-thin lines. A stone paver lid over an access tunnel with nothing to lift it with; no handles, holes, knobs, nothing. Inside the socks, my fingers clawed in futility.

I took a few deep breaths. The designer wouldn't have arranged it so you could get out but not back in again. It wouldn't be hinged, or mounted on a single axis swivel point; you could find those in nature. I waved my hand in a slow circle over the paver, more as a guide to thinking than anything else; then I stripped off the socks, pressed my palms flat against the panel, pushed up with my right and down with my left. The stone slab screwed out on four beveled rails which supported it when in place. I lifted the lid out, set it to one side and climbed down into the tunnel. Thel peered down at me. I told her "You - sit there and look innocent. I'll be back."

Not much light made it through the gap in the floor, but my 'phone made the most of it. I wasn't worried about running into anyone else down there; frankly, it would have been welcome. The tunnel met a slightly larger aggregate at a boringly right angle, led off to a point directly beneath the reactor where I lifted another screw panel from below to get inside.

Disappointing; no light, no control panels, levers, buttons or enigmatic floating holographic displays showing how long before the reactor went critical, which it never would, not having been designed to. A big empty dark room, judging from the echoes when I clapped my hands, and a faint hum. Whatever machinery was needed had been built into the structure out of sight, and out of the reach of meddling fingers.

Then I noticed the air quality meter on my thumbnail. A faint trace of methane, a hair-thin line indicating some carbon monoxide and dioxide. The rest was pure oxygen. The reactor outfall fed into this room.

All I had to do was block off the other tunnels and that shop space would have breathable atmosphere. How much oxygen did this process make? Who knew. I'd find out when my customers started fainting. In halting steps, it came together; sheets of plastic attached to pipe frames with duct tape to make doors, restrict the flow of air to what I was starting to think of as my cafe; simple airlocks. It didn't need to be air-tight as long as there was more O2 inside than out. I could carry water in, hiding in a modest subservient role. I had gotten used to the taste of Coelenterazine, and so would our clients. Hell, we even had bowls to drink it out of. Dutch's 'phone could serve as a payment register point; there was no way in hell I was going to let Newkind access mine.

I loped back to the shop where Thel was sitting against the side wall, arms around her knees, looking forlorn and, well, innocent. She looked at my hairline again, and I waved my index finger to draw her attention down to my eyes where she should have been looking in the first place. Well, she was an alien. Apparently. I'd never met a human who was that deluded. Unless she was cosplaying as well, and if she was, she was doing it wrong.

Tempting as it was to hide out in the reactor, I had a business to arrange, and a shipment of Charlies to fleece. Now, where would Dutch be right around now?

Six days went by before I could convince myself they weren't after me. By then I'd moved my few stolen possessions out of the hive and into the tunnel below the shop. Down there, I had shucked the costume and had located every other access panel to the surface and glued it shut, leaving a single path for the oxygen to follow. I installed a simple two-door airlock between us and the outside.

Dutch had jumped into the project with a degree of enthusiasm I found suspicious until I learned the Newkind had cut her loose. She'd done their set-up work and they didn't need her any more, so she was even more willing to scam them than I was. She'd cut some deal with some locals, trading the last of her counterfeit money for a bunch of plastic packing crates that served as chairs and a counter. Thel was her rather quiet assistant, and I hid in the tunnel and filled bowls from a small drain inside the reactor. It was clean, and chemically pure; I had no idea where the Coelenterazine had entered the water inside the hive. Tentacle pee? Nobody cared enough to find out.

Dutch charged enough for the water to be able to buy powdered additives from the market. The solutions were so weak it was practically homeopathic, but the Newkind didn't care. It wasn't about the product. They had somewhere to go to be noticed. They had to compete in order to get in. They had something to argue about. They had something to complain about. They appeared to love it, but in the end, it was the only place on the planet where they could get water. Typically they had only brought a small amount with them.

I kept as low a profile as possible; below the floor, most of the time, only emerging to serve water when Dutch had to sleep. The Newkind didn't need to. What they needed, it seemed, was to convince themselves they were real and that they existed, by telling others what they thought about anything and everything. It was the hardest part of my work; I had no idea where Dutch got the strength to listen to that incessant flood of pointless, inane gibberish. Who the hell cared how much some posthuman idiot had paid for an orbital property around a planet they couldn't remember the name or location of? It was like listening to small children brag about their imaginary friends, and it went on and on to where I was tempted to seal the floor paver and open the doors and let them all choke. They'd managed to accommodate themselves to the idea that they needed masks to survive, but they kept forgetting, getting angry and taking them off to argue properly and collapsing in the streets. The first time it happened, I looked at Dutch, who shrugged, and looked at Thel, who gazed at Dutch's forehead. The Newkind's machines usually retrieved the bodies and they were up and about again within a few hours, no harm done.

I was distantly pleased that the children stayed inside the transplanted apartments. I didn't want to think about them.

I liked to believe that the existence of the cafe kept the Newkind distracted for a few days to where it inhibited their characteristic assholery, but quickly it became apparent they didn't think the others on Shoqo were people. I never referred to them as aliens; for all I knew, this was someone's homeworld. It wasn't mine.

The Newkind either considered them to be decorative animals or tried to sit on them as furniture. As you might imagine, not everyone was happy with that, and, as I said, thanks principally to the distraction of trying to get a seat in the cafe, it was about ten days before the first incident, ironically enough, with the tentacles.

In my limited amount of spare time I tried to visit as many of the locals as I had translation aspects for, to warn them. Most understood the problem, or were able to see the situation in their own terms and give the Newkind some leeway. I was visiting the tentacles and chatting with them. They were, I think, pleased that I'd made the point that it was the least humanoid of people who seemed to understand humanity the best when a broad-shouldered vacant-eyed Newkind male pushed the door open, peering about with camera-enhanced vision in the dim rippling glow. "Need to clear some of this crap out," he declared in a loud and confident voice, waving his hand at the tentacles, "put in some tiles. That water feature is shit."

That was the standard Newkind term for anything they didn't approve of. They divided the universe into things they liked and things which were shit. I grinned behind my alien mask disguise, thinking of Connie Marble in John Waters' "Pink Flamingos", saying "I guess there are just two types of people, MY kind of people and assholes."

Evidently the tentacles weren't his kind of people, because he tried to uproot one of the smaller tentacles - a child shoot. An adult lashed out and broke his arm, and when he tried to retaliate in a blind panic they wrapped around him and shoved him outside.

The stupid bastard tried to kick his way back in, and the tentacles went to town on him, tearing his mask off and whipping red abrasions across his shoulders. I became concerned - like humans, the tentacles could get confused if angry - so I dragged the stupid bastard away, still flailing about and shouting about landscape gardening. I dropped him near one of the apartment doors and he crawled inside.

I went back to try to straighten things out with the tentacles, but they were - understandably - pissed off, and that pissed me off; this Newkind asshole had just made the first move in that conflict I'd predicted, and suddenly it didn't seem so amusing. I remembered a precept of sociology I'd learned long ago... if you add a teaspoon of sewage to a barrel of wine, you get a barrel of sewage.

That was just the first incident.

It had been a surprisingly long day. Dutch had been off doing deals. She never explained what she was up to, and I was getting concerned about how she had all of the "money" in the form of BakaSheesh, strings of encrypted data on her 'phone. She knew I wanted to get out, and I knew she wanted to get out. One day she wouldn't come back and I'd be stuck here with Thel, and the Newkind.

This one Newkind had been in the cafe for hours. He'd turned up in the morning, bought a fifty drink coupon and had been holding forth to a group of argumentative peers ever since. I would serve him a bowl of water, Thel would add a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar or talcum powder or baby laxative with pink dye and I would scratch a notch in the counter with a fork I'd found in the garbage pile behind the Newkind apartment. I'd bent the tines over so it looked like a hand giving the finger, and was the closest thing I had to a weapon.

Mr Fifty Drinks was up to number thirty-three. "I think you should branch out into fine wines and it's a good thing you're the only place open, or I'd go somewhere else like some place that serves wine because I know everything there is to know about wine so I could consult on purchasing, except you couldn't afford me, and my acclimatization cellar back home is bigger than this place, and you don't know what that is, do you? It's where you put new purchases so they can slowly reach the right temperature before you put them in the main cellar because only a complete idiot would chill them straight out of the store." He had to take a breath at that point, and took the opportunity to give his three stooges a superior, knowing look; they nodded, and he nodded back in the middle of sipping his laxative, spilling it down his front. He held out the bowl for a refill; I took it, wrapped my sock-gloved hand around the carafe I'd found with the fork, topped him up. I didn't bother counting it. I didn't care any more. I just wanted the day to end so he'd take his uncomfortably loud and penetrating monotone and go some place where I wouldn't have to listen to it. I could have said, using my menacing alien pretend translator "that's your limit. get out." but they wouldn't. They'd argue. They always argued. They argued with Dutch. They tried to argue with Thel, but she never responded, just stared at them with those grey eyes that, I believed, picked up more than she was letting on. That didn't bother them. They argued her side as well. I wished, not for the first time, that I had some of her patience.

When his 'phone started screeching, my first thought was a heartfelt prayer of thanks to Dobbs. His eyes started; all of the Newkind started slapping their asses and coat pockets like a crowd of mosquitoes had attacked. Eventually Mr Fifty Drinks produced his 'phone - a slab of black glass that contained more than fifty percent of his already limited neural capacity - and shook it.

A tiny hologram floated above the surface, and even from the wrong angle I could tell that some bad shit was going down. I could see Dutch, crawling out of the focus on her hands and knees. I could see some of the gorgonopsids smoothly circling her, opening their red-lined crocodilian mouths wide and snapping them shut again; an anger response. There were some Newkind staggering around in their drunken Chisso-Minamata fashion. While Mr Fifty Drinks shouted at his 'phone I put the carafe down on the counter and pushed my way through the airlock doors. They could drink it all for free. I quit.

There was a scene on the far side of the square, near the warehouse. The flow of the dancers was disrupted, river around a large rock, and Dutch was slowly making her way across the paving stones, on hands and knees, away from where the gorgonopsids were hewing into the Newkind, giant proto-lizard feeding frenzy. I saw blood pooling.

One good thing about these digitigrade legs; you could run faster than most things. Slowing down and stopping wasn't always easy, but Dutch's hand was out, I grabbed it, spun around and dragged her with me. Her mask had come loose, so I got her back into the cafe. The Newkind had left. One of them had forgotten his mask and was crawling slowly, then slower. Screw him. He had insurance.

I hauled Dutch up over the counter. There was a shard of black glass the size of my forearm sticking out of her right hip, with some kind of pink elasticated bandage wound around the end. I pushed my mask back. "The fuck is this?"

She turned, slowly, painfully looked down her side, winced. "Their parents don't let them have weapons, so the kids make their own. I was doing a deal with the Ghyakh-shelsh..." that would be the gorgonopsids - "and a group of teenagers decided they wanted alligator skin wallets. And tried to take some skin. I was backing out of it when the fight started."

This was a new low for them. "Are you saying they just tried to cut a chunk of skin off the back of those guys?"

She bared her teeth and hissed as I tentatively touched the blade. "That's what I'm saying. Never seen them do that before. I was... uh... taken by surprise."

Blood welled out from the edges of the wound in time with her breathing. All thumbs, I browsed a medical wiki, trying to see what major blood vessels were in that part of the body. I had no EMT training. "Do you have enough money to get medical attention from those assholes?"

She closed her eyes and exhaled. "I'm saving that."

I laughed incredulously. "It won't do you any good if you aren't around to spend it."

Thel was staring at the injury, much calmer than me. Perhaps she didn't understand the severity of the situation. She held one hand up, palm out, pushed me back gently. I hopped backwards awkwardly, foot-plates scraping the floor. Then she tore Dutch's pants, exposing the wound, deftly whipped the blade out (Dutch moaned), leaned over, kissed the welling blood and, and, my god.. she bit, once, jaw muscles working. Dutch screamed. I lurched forward and ran into Thel's hand, steady as concrete.

After a few moments Thel opened her mouth, straightened, blood dripping from her lower lip. She picked up the carafe, washed blood off Dutch's side. The knife-wound had been clamped shut, reduced to a red line. Faint teeth marks on either side. Dutch's eyes widened; her mouth opened, closed, and then she fainted.

We eased her onto the floor, lay her on her good side. Thel lay the blade on the counter and sat cross-legged with Dutch's head in her lap.

I scooped the puddle of Dutch's blood into a bowl, took it outside and finger-painted words on the door: WE CLOSED, along with a simple Newkind icon that reinforced the meaning.

I had been saving some of the counterfeit money to buy whatever food I could for the journey, if I ever made enough to get off this rock. I used it all, bought the most nutritious things I could find from the Newkind section of the supermarket. For Dutch, not for me. There were a lot of analgesics, but most of them were software that made Newkind implants mess with the peripheral nervous system. Dutch didn't have those implants. It didn't matter; I couldn't afford any of it. It was stupid software anyway, huge strings of one-use pseudo-monetary activation codes. Only the Newkind would be stupid enough to use that system.

When I got back to the cafe I pushed my mask back and handed the food to Thel. She looked up at me with the first emotion I'd ever seen her show; sadness.

"I've seen enough. It's time."

I hid Dutch down in the tunnels, where, cat-like, she spent most of her time asleep, healing. She wasn't a fantastically complex creature, Dutch, but resilient. I fed her Newkind vitamin snacks and cold water, and lurked in the darkness, occasionally probing the Newkind moofi networks, while Thel ran the cafe. Once I came up to replenish the water stocks and the three teenaged Newkind responsible for the attack were in there. One was missing his arm from the elbow down. The other two - at first I thought they were reciting an epic poem with a lot of repetition; eventually I realised they were trying to argue with Thel. They wanted the knife back. She calmly ignored their harsh tones, docked their 'phones for each drink, served them. I stood on the panel that led below, staring, arms by my side, doing a passable imitation of a statue.

After almost three god-damned hours of this pointless ranting they began to show signs of winding down. Thel poured water into three bowls, added cinnamon sugar, and then - you had to be quick to catch her - she palmed something from her back pocket, rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, sifted something into their drinks. Something coloured light blue. Last time I'd worked here we didn't serve anything light blue.

After the assholes had left I went below to check on my pitiful pile of belongings. I unwrapped the fake skin. Long ago I'd counted the packets. There had been one hundred and seven; now, one hundred and six.

I picked up a packet, held it up to my 'phone's light. It could have been powdered chalk, baby laxatives, Heisenberg's original recipe; anything. When I was very young I remembered pharmaceuticals came in neat foil packets, with a label that told you what it was supposed to be; sometimes, even, what it was supposed to do. Distrust of big pharma had eroded that down to nothing. As the Fab revolution had gained speed, medicine had become more customised, personally tailored, to where you didn't take something unless you'd either made it yourself or trusted the hell out of the person who gave it to you. One of the stupidest things you could do as a kid was to try something first. Usually with fatal results. I liked to think I wasn't stupid, but I wanted to know what this stuff was and why Thel was serving it.

Well, hell. She had enough of a grasp on the language... so I asked her.

"Single amyloid fold prionic agent, causing ablation of the cingulate gyrus and selective inhibition of transmission along the mesolimbic pathway."

The only word in all that I recognised was "prionic", and I knew it wasn't good. I had to browse my 'phone's medical wiki for about twenty minutes before I glanced up at her sharply. "Reduction of impulses related to volition," she added.

My eyes widened. "Slack," she concluded.

My laugh was mostly nervous dismay. "Won't they starve to death?"

She stared back at me. "Newkind are fed by their machines."

"But they'll... they'll become -"

Her eyebrows came down in what was, for her, a torrent of emotional display. "Less threatening." Her voice was even, calm; no anger, no hatred, no self-reproach. Just another day at the zoo.

I held the packet between thumb and forefinger, suddenly conscious of how thin the plastic wrap was. She reached out, took it, held it over the full carafe, smooshed it. The powder floated down, briefly formed a spreading mat on the surface, soaked through and began to dissolve. She was presumably immune to it, being an alien. I wasn't. Nervously, I backed away; already aware of what the answer would be, I had to ask: "What gives you the right?"

She stirred the water with the knife blade. "This problem is Newkinds' problem. Newkind do not see a problem, are not solving. By extension it becomes humans' problem. Yours to solve. Humans are not solving. Newkind attack others; it becomes others' problem. Others to solve."

A stone grinding sound behind me; Dutch was awake, pushing the panel up, peering through, blinking in the light. She yawned, waved a hand at Thel. "What's she up to?"

"Poisoning the customers," I retorted sourly. Dutch frowned.

"That's generally bad for business."

Thel dropped the knife. It embedded itself in the counter, point first. "Take it out of my cut," she said with the faintest trace of sarcasm, "before one of them takes a cut out of you."

Dutch's brow smoothed. "You have a point there."

I turned on her. "Are you condoning genocide?"

She waved her hand, then winced at the pain. "No. Not as such. Not in so many words. Not exactly. Well, yes."

My eyes widened again. "You can't -"

Wearily, she interrupted. "They shouldn't. Them. You know. Our customers. They shouldn't, but they do. There's no-one to stop them. They won't stop themselves, and their machines exist to validate their behaviour, not to restrict it." She closed her eyes, exhaled, and gingerly climbed out of the hatch. I reached down to help her. "See? That. You helped me. They wouldn't. They can't. They don't know that they're supposed to. With their machines, they don't need to help each other, so why would they help anyone else? If you want a justification, their development has taken them outside the social contract. They're criminals, if you want, and there are more of them than there are of us. If you want."

I looked down at my hooves, and sat down as far from the counter as I could get. "I don't want. If there are more of them than... us..." waving first to the alien, then the genetic construct, and then at myself, the outcast, "then they define what is normal. Their society, their rules."

Dutch gave me a pitying look. "Without impulses towards cooperation and altriusm, it's not a society."

I glared at her. She continued. "Besides, you're just worried that if someone can do this to them, they might do it to you. You don't care about them, and if you do, you're an idiot, because they don't care about you."

I pointed out in the general direction of the Newkinds' apartment block, with my left hand, which still had a sock over it. Angrily I tore the sock off and pointed again. "THEY aren't trying to paralyse ME with atypical encephalitis."

Dutch closed her eyes and exhaled. "If you got in their way, they would. The only reason you're still alive is because of your skill at avoiding them."

I stood up, pushed my mask down, drew my sock-gloves up to my elbows. "I'm not going to be a part of this." Thel didn't try to stop me. Dutch wouldn't. I pushed one airlock flap open, then the other, and marched up to the Newkind block. I found a garage gate and banged on it with both fists; no response. I banged again, and kept thumping until I heard a scraping sound coming from somewhere inside. I took a few steps back, expecting the gate to swivel out and fold back.

They shot me with a taser.

I don't know how long I was lying on my back, on the paving stones. The sun came up. I was aware that time was passing; I just didn't have any pressing urge to move. It was only until one of the gorgonopsids nudged me with its snout and then helped me up that I wondered if being tased was like being prionically infected.

I looked around. There were two adult tentacles nearby, their pinnacles inclined towards me in what I recognised as a gesture of interest, or possibly concern. The gorgonopsid was gently growling something that my translator passed through as a warning against the squareness. It was trying to warn me about the Newkind. I started crying. Not that I felt alone; the kindness of strangers, and the indifference of...

I got up unsteadily, waved my arms for balance, and went back to the cafe.

Dutch looked up as I came in. Thel wasn't there. Dutch said "She's getting fresh water."

I clopped over to a seat, sat down and started unstrapping my digitigrade leg extensions. "Right." I removed my mask and retrieved my 'phone, then looked in the direction of the Newkind's apartment. "From now on, all drinks are half price."

Date: 2013-07-19 02:18 am (UTC)
acelightning: bookcase full of books (books01)
From: [personal profile] acelightning
you've always been good at psychedelic dystopianism :-D
the "Newkind" sound like Iain Banks' "Culture" gone horribly, horribly wrong, possibly by being exposed to too much television.

(don't rinse the grenade casing before you pour my drink into it; i want that hint of a nitrate rush...)


sheramil: Jack Vance alien by Phillipe Caza (Default)

July 2013

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