CHAPTER ONE

Embrace Your Organic

 

An infection warning pulsed a shrill, staccato alarm.

Sifar jerked in his seat, heavy boots clunking in the cramped cockpit footwell. A rivulet of sweat ran down his neck. Dry air rattled through his breather. He checked his entrance vectors, then clicked his tongue.

“Firewalls, my ass.” This is why he hated shuttles. Security flaws any kid with an out-of-the-box implant could crack. But Miki swore she’d scrubbed the rental clean. What joker would try to backdoor him in the middle of a descent?

A frenzy of subroutines spilled across his neuronet. Synched to the shuttle, the cluttered mental display clogged his thoughts. Piloting a craptrap like this using top-of-the-line brain hardware was like playing badminton with helicopter drones. But the shuttle’s auto-guidance only ran to approved destinations, not landing pads in the middle of chamois paradise.

He reached into the shuttle computers and triggered a quick scan. Corrupted sectors lit up, scattered like mouse turds. But no fix on the code that had chewed it’s way through. Crap. A messy one. If it spread to his neuronet, it’d take days to dig out.

He could feel distortion already, a stutter along the bridge that connected his interface. Instruments sputtered garbage.

Couldn’t risk a distress call. If Nox got wind of his intentions, there’d be hell to pay. But he had to try something, fast.

A power cycle might flush the malware. Couldn’t dump the whole system at once, but maybe in stages. He started loading processes onto his net. Avionics molded around his body in a web-like sense-image. Hyperawareness flooded his matrix, leaving him flush and dizzy. Scans ran double-time.

Still no hits.

Did the elusive infection even exist? Maybe the antivirals themselves were out of whack.

As he freed each system, he tripped the power. His mind shivered tingling itches—ghost limbs teasing the edges of his consciousness. Lights on the dash dropped black, then recovered. The main feed rebooted, cycling post routines.

For a moment, the distortion quieted.

Then red pulses flashed across his vision. His neuronet kicked into failsafe mode, recommending a human interface disconnect. Shit. If he pulled out with half the systems frontloaded, he’d screw his descent. End up a smoking crater on the mountainside.

Senses tangled. Noise, a horrible, buzzing white noise, swelled in his skull. Sifar tried to pull back, cycle down, but the noise roared louder. Insatiable as a swarm of locusts, it whined until it formed a storm of battering thought.

<Stop.>

He panicked. That voice. It had seared into his mind at Makon-Tau, chased by the nightmare of a white ship. He thought he’d outrun it. How had it followed him all the way here?

Maybe the infection wasn’t in the shuttle. Maybe it was inside his head.

With a mental lurch, Sifar yanked out of synch with the ship. Warning lights flashed. Nausea twisted whirlpools in his ear canals. Turbulence shook the cockpit. He dug his boots down against the rubber mat of the footwell and braced. Gone. Please, let it be gone.

The buzzing rose again. A little subdued, but insistent, like a thousand tiny whispers.

<Listen.>

 No, he’d scrubbed every implant he owned a hundred times since Makon-Tau. Always came up clean. This had to be something else. Something remote.

Damn neuronet. Comes with its own quantum transponder, they said. Uncrackable. Bet those Scrapers on Makon-Tau thought the same thing.

Boxed in hazy menus, he found the system controls, but the commands slid away. Tried again, but it was like scratching at a polished, white wall. Whatever was in him carved out territory quick.

Blinking through watery eyes, he reached for the backup manual input pad on the dash and tapped the key sequence for an emergency decent. The shuttle computer responded, feedback sluggish. Vectors edged into orange, then held. It would have to do.

Reaching down, Sifar found the multitool stashed in his boot. Eased it out into his palm, slick with sweat and fumbling. His hand trembled. He’d seen the training vid, knew the emergency procedure for a manual transponder shutdown. An inch off the mark and an infection would be the least of his worries.

But that was the point of this jog, wasn’t it? All or nothing.

He flicked out the tools’s smallest knife, then felt along the stubbly skin on the shaved half of his head. A finger length in from the end of his eyebrow, he found the small, squishy dent in his skin.

His breath sounded ragged in his throat. Hadn’t said what he needed to say, to Kol or anyone, but if he died here it would be without that noise in his brain, slippery and fierce.

It hissed now, high pitched enough to crackle his nerves.

<You belong with us.>

Shut up. SHUT UP.

He jammed the knife in.

#

A concussive boom jolted Tal awake. He flopped off the garden bench and ended up face down in the grass.

Squished under him, his tablet prodded his ribs. He freed the slim, flexible machine, then rolled and lay blinking at the still-dark sky. No sign of a disturbance marred the night. Around him, the garden slumbered amid the tranquil flutter of insects.

A ring of round lanterns cast the rows of foliage in soft orange glow. Above the moss-laden stone wall, Mondieux’s twin moons outshone the dusting of stars. Tal hauled himself upright and stretched. Maybe a shuttle down in Villeneuve had popped an engine. It had sounded close though.

He craned his neck, half-expecting Père Bertrand to pop out of the bushes and scold him for falling asleep in the garden again. Last time, he’d only woken when the bells sounded for morning prayers. Bertrand had lectured him for forty-five minutes while Tal fought down coffee cravings. You’d think after three years the abbot would have warmed a little.

Beyond the garden wall, the squat, stacked towers of the monastery nestled in sloped-roofed silhouettes against the mountainside. The contrasting angles birthed a strange lovechild between an eccentric goat herder’s cottage and Chinese Dougong that only the French could imagine. Nights like this painted the building with the rugged, idyllic charm that had hooked Tal in the first place. A strange pairing with the labs in the basement, but somehow the Safinians made it work.

Tal padded the short walk to the gate. Just as he opened the latch, the back door of the monastery banged open and a pack of monks rushed out. Tal ducked behind the garden wall, then chided himself for acting like a kid caught breaking curfew. He gathered his courage and stepped into the gateway, but the monks passed without a second glance. Instead, they hurried down the path to the lower terrace, flashlights bobbing, and turned onto the narrow gravel road leading out to the landing pad.

They didn’t really need the flashlights out there. At night, the pad illuminated a bright slice of the mountainside, broadcasting a vivid declaration to the entire valley. Alongside the row of spot beams lining the concrete platform, bright plasma screen signs shouted Safinian propaganda to the heavens: Return to your Roots; Embrace your Organic; Human Destiny is not Machine Made; Rejoin the Human Race.

Tonight the signs seemed hazier than usual, and Tal realized that a billowing cloud of dark smoke kept them obscured. For a moment, he thought Nico had managed set the storage shed on fire sneaking out for his nightly cigarette. Then he saw the crippled shuttle perched half-tipped off one edge of the platform. As he watched, a bright gush of flame burst from the nacelle. The monks began shouting and some of the Brothers ran for the tin-roofed shed where they kept their emergency gear.

Tal decided on the spot not to join their efforts. The Brothers had training for such events; their isolated lifestyle demanded it. He’d only get in their way. His few practical skills would be better suited elsewhere.

He rolled his tablet with a quick twist and tucked it under his elbow. The back door swung open on its hinges. Inside, he padded down the stone stairs to the basement. The regular supply shuttle wasn’t due for another month, and the Monastery of Sainte-Safine only received one other kind of visitor. If the Brothers extricated any survivors from the crash, the real work would begin. Brother Guillaume should be woken, the lab prepped. That, Tal could help with.

#

During his three years at Sainte-Safine’s, Tal had encountered cyborgs of all kinds and shapes. Junkies, mostly—thadine addicts and lektrofreaks half-paralyzed by micro-strokes. Bad cases could lie comatose for months after surgery. If they were lucky, their brains clicked back on and they started acting more human than vegetable. If not, Bertrand shipped them off to the sanitarium in Villeneuve to live out their days staring at windows.

Then there were the victims of botched or cheap surgeries—back alley cutters promising affordable services to the less fortunate. Those always got what they paid for, but still many of them were stupid enough to buy two, three, even a half-dozen implants from the same dirty knife. They showed up here, swollen and feverish, because Sainte-Safine’s never asked questions or refused treatment without insurance. Those types never stayed longer than they had to and shuttled out while the bandages still concealed their shame.

Sometimes, they got the genuine religious fanatics who’d found faith in a pamphlet they found in the gutter behind the local zap den or maybe they were raised by organic farmers in a biodome on Mars and came out searching for a purer existence. Most of those tagged along through the prayers and cleansing rituals for a while until they got bored and heard about some hipper commune out in the asteroid field. A few became real converts and never left.

But the worst types by far were the Nox pilots. The company laid out harsh reprisals for employees who messed with their gear, but every once in a while, a pilot would fall off the reservation and end up at Safine’s. Near-suicidal and suffering from any of the six most common mental illnesses associated with the profession, some  wouldn’t shut up for days. They signed up for the surgeries in a blind rush, then backed out as soon as reality set in. During Tal’s placement, only one had ever lasted though the full removal process, and that had ended in disaster all the same.

So when the Brothers wheeled their newest patient in through the swinging lab doors on a gurney, the first thing Tal noticed was the Nox patch sewn into the left shoulder of the unconscious man’s flight suit. The second was the multitool rammed into the side of his head. Tal’s heart skipped two beats and ran a third.

Mon hostie de vierge!” muttered Guillaume. “Emergency medical first, then get him into the scanner.”

The pilot’s stats read stable enough once they got him plugged in. No one dared remove the tool yet, so Frère Ruben began the task of stripping off the flight suit and breather. As the grey flex weave peeled back, Tal sucked in a sharp breath. He’d seen people collect implants like Yummy Noodle prizes, but this… large octagonal patches of photosensitive nanofilm coated the man’s skin, undercut by finely worked polyalanine tattoos. In a few places, thicker metal plates lay fused into his flesh—the most elaborate one covering a section of his upper chest. A silicon mask with metal underwiring encased the entire left side of his face, half of his scalp shaved to accommodate a web of electrodes. Around his right ear curled a gold-plated, shell-like instrument. That one Tal recognized—these days you couldn’t qualify for a deep space pilot license without a chorus implant. The rest though, looked like state of the art, fresh out of the nanotech baths kind of stuff. Who the hell was this pilot? Someone Nox considered worth the investment of a few billion n-kreds, apparently.

“Was he alone?”

Ruben nodded. “What do you make of that?” He gestured at the multitool. “Too eager to wait for Guillaume’s knife?”

Tal glanced up and caught Guillaume scratching his chin with squinted eyes. He motioned for the other brothers to get working.

“So how long before we hear from the lawyers?” asked Nico. “Any bets?”

Guillaume silenced him with an aimed glare, but Tal knew the surgeon feared another lawsuit. Nox treated its pilots like property and policed damages to their investments with the swift strike of their legal hammer team. Sainte-Safine’s weaseled out of the previous forty-eight suits leveled at them by hiding behind the Religious Freedoms act. Still, it was only a matter of time before Nox bought enough votes to push amended legislation through the Assembly.

All those expensive upgrades on the company dime hadn’t helped this pilot escape the crash unscathed. Burns marred his limbs, bad enough in places to melt the nanofilm. The monks cleaned off the toxic residue and spread on the patented safin jelly they’d developed, designed to dull pain while boosting pluripotent cell growth. A sour smell, undercut with a hint of citrus and mint, wafted through the room. Frère Guillaume went to work on the nasty gash in the more human side of the man’s forehead, snapping his fingers at Tal whenever he needed a new tool.

“That should do it,” said Guillaume at last. “Wheel him into the scanner. Let’s see where the real damage is.”

#

Frère Guillaume’s office on the third floor of the monastery still unsettled Tal every time he had to spend more than five minutes inside it. As head surgeon, Guillaume enjoyed certain privileges, and he chose to display his status with an eccentric collection of ancient oddities and medical paraphernalia. Tal hunched in the guest chair, upholstered in some long-extinct reptile skin, and tried to avoid eye contact with the two-headed human fetus in the jar on the desk. On the wall beside him, a plasticized severed arm held an antique bone saw. At least Guillaume had a sense of humor.

“Talsin, I asked if you wanted some tea.”

“Uh, no thanks. I’m fine.” Tea sounded nice, but he didn’t trust Guillaume’s taste in liquids. He waited while the other man poured a cup from an enameled china teapot.

“Now, tell me, petit corbeau, how is your research going?”

“Same as yesterday.” Did Guillaume ask him here to talk research? Tal’s thoughts strayed downstairs, where the Nox pilot lay in recovery, a small seri-seal patch covering the knife puncture.

“I thought we might discuss your future here at Sainte-Safine’s. Il était temps, non?”

Tal blinked. “Is there a problem? I thought we’d agreed on another six months.”

Frère Guillaume scratched his thumb along the stubbly edge of his grey-streaked beard and hummed. “We are of course fully supportive of your academic pursuits. I expect you will defend your thesis successfully in the fall, despite the troubles with your supervisor. No, what I would like to offer you is a home here, on a more permanent basis.”

Tal was glad he’d opted out of the tea. He would have dropped the cup. “Are you offering me a job?”

“A place in our Brotherhood, should you wish it. Dans notre famille.”

“I’m flattered, but I think I’d make a lousy monk.”

“I know you don’t yet share our faith, Talsin, but you certainly share our ideals. I would hate to see you wasted in some pharmacological think tank on New California. I see many applications for your research here, and I think your talents could be expanded into the surgical field as well.”

“Sure, but…”

“You know your university will just bury your work. The Big Five depend on cybernetics; they’ll crush alternatives without a second thought if they think it will affect their bottom line. We may be making do on the fringes, but I think you’d be happy here. You seem to have embraced the lifestyle well enough, n’est-ce pas?”

A slight smirk twisted Guillaume’s lips and his gaze fixated on the bare foot Tal had propped up against the desk during the course of their conversation. Most of the brothers wore sandals, but somewhere along the line Tal had given up on footwear altogether. He fiddled with the hole in the knee of the old, rolled-up jeans he wore and tried to remember how many weeks it had been since he’d last done laundry.

“I’ll… have to think about it.”

Bien sur, there’s no rush. I merely wanted to plant the thought in your mind.”

“Have you discussed this with Père Bertrand?”

“I can assure you, Bertrand accepts my judgment in this matter.”

“He doesn’t like me.”

“No, he doesn’t trust you, or outsiders in general. If you decided to take vows, he would come around. Anyway, Bertrand is my problem. Your research is still the most important thing right now. Speaking of which, what do you think of our new patient?”

Intriguing? Dangerous? Possibly attempted a self-inflicted lobotomy? “I think he looks like lawsuit number 49.”

Guillaume chuckled. “It would be just our luck, wouldn’t it? His sedatives should wear off this afternoon. If you can get his consent for the first tier procedures, I’ll let you assist.”

Tal perked up. He was curious what else lurked under the pilot’s skin. “Deal,” he said. “But if I get named in the suit, promise you won’t let Bertrand throw me to the wolves.”