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Joe Pitkin’s “Before Concord”

Joe Pitkin has lived, taught, and studied in England, Hungary, Mexico, and the United States. His short stories have appeared in Analog, Black Static, Cosmos, Kaleidotrope, and other magazines and podcasts, as well as on his blog, The Subway Test. He lives in Portland, Oregon, in the shadow of a small extinct volcano. Stranger Bird, his first novel, was published in 2017; his second, a science fiction thriller, will be published by Blackstone in the coming year.

 

Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:

 

Before Concord

by

Joe Pitkin

 

  1. Ariadne Rojas

I send her down the vent shaft of the ruins. I bring her out into level 8, access hallway B. Still in stealth mode, I fly her through the arch into the atrium. She’s in pitch black—no lights running, just the IR camera and the mic. The mic picks up only the whisper of the rotors.

I slow her down. This is the first time I’ve brought Vashti this far in. I still had Nona, my old drone, the last time I flew down into level 8. I’m down here for the same reason now—escaping a kill up on level 4. That last time, I was just a creeper and I lost Nona in the end—another creeper chased me down and took Nona out with an IR homing missile.

That was two years ago, around fall midterms sometime. I was still in school then, whenever it was. Back then I was taking Nona down into level 8 every few days. I promised when I lost her that I wouldn’t ever take a drone that far down into The Warrens again.

Here I am, breaking my promise. But who did I promise? Myself? Vashti?

When you can see her, Vashti looks like a creeper-sheeper—90% beat-up off-the-shelf parts. I’ve had creepers get a photo of her with their crappy-ass drones, give me smack about her in the comment threads. I just let that roll off now. I’d much rather be underestimated.

Vashti’s got a few tricks under her skirt—a little smoke module, EMP grenade launcher, stuff you wouldn’t even find on most panops drones. She took out four drones in the battle royale up on level 4.

I don’t know what she got hit with up there, but her power is spotty now. If I can hole up here until the battle is over, I won’t lose any ranking on the forums. More importantly, I won’t lose Vashti.

Something’s not right down here. Vashti’s readings are OK, but something feels wrong. I want to fire up her floodlamp, take a real look around. Nothing’s coming up on infrared—not that I would expect to see people down here—but there are no heat signatures at all, no drones, nothing. Why not just kick up the lights?

This is where the sub-twos would’ve lived back in the first colony, before the fire. Before we were called sub-twos. Working class, maybe, or whatever. Not that every creeper is a sub-two. I’ve seen creepers writing in the forum threads that must have gotten better grades. For that matter, when Chroniccthonic was doxxed on the Panoptica forum it turned out he was faculty.

And anyway, what does sub-two even mean? If it means you’re too stupid to do anything but clean toilets more cheaply than a robot can, then yeah, sub-two is kind of a dirty word. Or number, whatever. But if it just means you don’t fit in, then why create a name for us using the vocabulary of the system we don’t fit into? Call me a panops—damn, call me a creeper—but don’t just call me a number.

Here’s the thing about turning up the floodlights—that’s a newbie creeper move. Trolls have cameras posted all over down here. See, don’t be seen—that’s the rule. Someone gets a shot of your drone when the lights come up, and suddenly you’re the joke of the day on the forums. Honestly, the whole system is pretty stupid—you’re a creeper if anyone catches you down here, but you’re a panops if you manage to sneak around in the dark with an IR camera, wishing you could actually see something.

I study Vashti’s readings. There’s a very slight drag on her, especially hovering over the center of the chamber. The temp is -62.7 °C, more than four degrees lower than what I remember when I was here last.

Or any other time. This level is practically sealed off, way below surface—it’s always been -58 °C down here.

Something is up. I hover there a minute, two minutes. At last curiosity gets the better of me—I kick up the floodlamp. The light blinds me for a second and I lift my helmet up, and once again I’m sitting in my dorm room, ten kilometers away in the New Colony, in the climate control and one atmosphere of pressure.

I pull the visor back over my eyes and look at what Vashti is seeing. The place is empty—just the high vault of the hall and scorched concrete beams. There’s a wisp of frost on one edge of one pillar.

I’ve never seen that before either—it’s been dry as a bone down here since the fire.

I sweep all three of Vashti’s cameras around and take a long look. Above her, one of the ducts from the old HVAC has collapsed, the aluminum tubing crooked like a giant hollow finger pointing into the atrium.

There must be a downdraft out of that duct dragging on Vashti. That also solves the mystery of the vanishing 4 °C.

I’m fixated on that hole above the drone, the breeze dropping out of it from the surface of the planet, 200 meters above. It’s hard to imagine that old wind worming its way down into the ruin of The Warrens. For a long time that’s the video feed I keep my eye on—the gaping hole of the broken HVAC duct. Only after a minute or two does the drone’s third camera feed, the one sweeping the ground ten meters below, catch the corner of my eye.

At the bottom of the atrium, directly beneath the open vent, a body is splayed out, mummified by frost in the thin Martian air.

  1. Wendel Gabbay

It was one of those mornings when your inbox is sagging with a million mails like wet tea leaves in the compost. But before you can think about sifting through them, you need a little more tea.

I was sipping a good hand-rolled Earthborn gunpowder green. Just letting Mars stretch out my spine, as they say. Scanning the day’s news: Stern’s grad students squabble over inheritance. Faculty senate to vote on future toxo research. US-UR trade talks stall over IP concerns. The news is that perfect holding pattern, a sign that you’re a serious guy, even though you haven’t actually done any work today.

My browser windows folded up when the call came in. I had a second to move my tea out of the field of view and straighten my jumpsuit before I took it.

A young girl came up on the monitor. She looked maybe in her last year of secondary or in first year university, sitting in a darkened dorm like a troll.

My drone found a body on level 8 of The Warrens.”

She seemed calm, especially for a kid. The ID script at the bottom of the screen read “Ariadne Rojas, GPA 1.8, non-graduate.” She didn’t blink, didn’t drop her eyes while I sized her up.

“When did you see the body?”

Just now. My drone is still down there. I can patch in a video feed to you if you are ready.”

In a different situation I would have laughed at the kid’s cool. Here was this creeper, admitting that she had been drone trespassing down in The Warrens, and she didn’t bat an eye.

I took a breath and rattled off my old familiar lines: “Citizen student, University Republic law requires me to inform you that our interaction from this point forward may be recorded, including but not limited to acoustic recording and recording in any electromagnetic spectra. Do I have your consent to proceed with this conversation?”

Yes,” she answered with a world-weary sigh, as though she had had to answer that question a thousand times before. Which, given that <<NO ARREST RECORD>> scrolled along in the chyron under her name, I knew she hadn’t.

I clicked Accept on her video feed offering and her face receded to the left half of my monitor. On the right the drone feed came up: very high res, almost research-class. She was no ordinary creeper, this Ariadne Rojas, GPA 1.8.

It took me a moment to see the body down there. It was lying with arms and legs at sickening angles, a dark ragdoll among the rock benches of the old Level 8 atrium. Male presenting, maybe 1.9 meters. “Ariadne, can you descend and drift about a meter to the right, so I can look at the face?”

The drone turned an eye on the frosty bald head of the man, staring back through us to the end of the world. I grabbed a screenshot and clicked a facial recognition request.

Are you alone, Ariadne?”

Yes.”

What are you doing down there?”

Now she pauses.

Listen, classmate,” I followed up, “if you had nothing to do with this, if you just found the body down there, you have nothing to worry about. Nobody is going to pinch you on a trespassing charge if you cooperate. OK?”

OK,” she ventures. “I was part of a drone war up on Level 4. My drone got hit and I dropped down here to keep from getting captured.”

Don’t worry, kid. You didn’t rat them out—we already knew about the drone battle.” Not exactly true, but when is there not a drone battle going on somewhere in the Warrens? And I didn’t want her thinking that she was snitching on her creeper buds. “Do you have enough power to keep the drone down there 20 minutes?

I hope so. I’ve been down here a long time—I’m at 12% battery power.”

I logged the call, heard the buzz-up in the drone barn behind me as the crime scene surveyors were dispatched. I woke up Hamlet, the station’s coroner bot, and grabbed my pressure suit from its hook. Five minutes later I was suiting up in the car as it wound its way up Percival Street towards the Out-Dome airlock and the ramps leading down into The Warrens, into the founders’ settlement.

As the car sped me over the rusty hardpan, I looked out at the approaching ruin through the windshield. I had been living on Level 5 when the Terraform Ecology Lab exploded 28 years ago. They tell you Martian concrete will burn—anything with that much orthorhombic sulfur in it will burn—but for people who grew up on Earth, which was nearly everyone in the UR back then, it’s hard to believe that concrete will burn until you see it burning.

Some of the old timers haven’t been able to talk about the place since The Burn; they can’t even look at The Warrens. Others would have been happy enough to reseal the place and go on living there, never mind that over 10% of the colonists died in the fire.

For a long time, I would have put myself in the second group. The car approached the honeycomb shell of The Warrens spanning Immigration Trench, then over the causeway into the dustbucket of level 1, then down ramp after ramp to level 3. From there, I would have to walk and climb down. I pressurized the suit, turned up its heating system against the cold I was about to walk into.

I switched on my headlamp and handlamp as I stepped out into the old complex. I could see down below to the landing of Level 4, where the lights of the crime scene drones were already ahead of me, making their way down to Level 8. Hamlet skittered ahead too like a centipede down the access ladder.

I dropped down onto Level 4. Hamlet was waiting for me at the bottom of the ladder. I made my way through and down again, stepping over broken props and smashed drone cameras, by the pockmarks in the walls of drone missile strikes that had gone wide. Was this little crater from today’s drone battle? From one of a thousand earlier ones? Some drone jockey at headquarters could figure that out. Whoever had been fighting here was gone. I felt the horrible silence of the place.

Hamlet and I moved down ladders and stairways and ramps into the old waiting room on Level 8. The three crime scene drones had already been there a few minutes, flying around snapping photos, revolving around the body like moons around a dark planet. I saw the ductwork broken open and dangling above us. The kid’s drone was perched on one of the benches in power save mode.

An alert came in from the station on my visor display: Facial recognition algorithm potential match. This icy slab of humanity had been given the name Gang Cheng, postdoctoral researcher in the Weiss lab, residence 1911 Morgan Hall, Takahashi Dome.

I looked over the body of this reputed Dr. Cheng. I could see the spread of a massive dark stain on the upper left breast of his dark jumpsuit. An obvious candidate for an entry or exit wound, though I’d been fooled by that before with bodies found outside the domes. Even a flesh wound would have bled him dry out here.

Rigor mortis not present appeared across my visor, a message from Hamlet. This wasn’t much of a surprise, considering the temperature. That only meant he either died out here, or his body was brought out here soon after he’d died. Probably the second one, since he was a long way from anywhere, at the bottom of The Warrens without a pressure suit.

I had Hamlet spin the shroud around him, wrapping him in the polyethylene the way a spider wraps up a fly. While Hamlet worked, I looked over the kid’s drone. It didn’t seem like much at first glance, but someone who knew what to look for would know that this was no creeper-bumble: the floodlight alone was probably worth more than a thousand credits. I tapped the mic.

Ariadne? Do you think you can get your drone out of here safely?”

I saw her text back on my visor. I think so. I probably have another 20 minutes’ worth of power.

I think we have the information we need from you for right now. I’ll be in touch if I have any questions.” Something told me I would be in touch.

  1. Oz Weiss

When Inspector Gabbay arrives, I wonder briefly why I had suggested a meeting in my office. Probably I had intended for the meeting to be conducted on friendly territory; perhaps I had hoped to convey that I had nothing to hide. Whatever my true reason (adopting, for a moment, the fiction that there is such a thing as a singular “true reason” for any human behavior), I am heartened to see the inspector taking in my office with the shock of an offworld transfer student.

There are seven such offices in the University Republic. Mine takes up the 20th story of Morgan Hall, one story above my postdocs’ apartments, two stories above the dorms of my graduate students, three stories above our lab. When the members of my team decide to have dinner together, we have our food brought to us in our conference hall. My bedroom suite is here, behind the wall where the inspector stands gawking. What reason do I have to leave Morgan Hall, then? The inspector can pay me a visit right here.

Cho is here, looking at datasets with me, when the inspector arrives. He knows, I’m sure, why the inspector is here; for all I know, the inspector has already interviewed him. However, Cho betrays no reaction when he shakes the man’s hand. He merely nods crisply at the inspector and me, shuts up the spreadsheets with a wave of his hand, and departs.

I ask the inspector whether he would like any coffee. He turns from the windows where he has been staring over the city below, and at Immigration Trench beyond, to shake his head. “That’s very kind of you,” he says, “but I drank too much coffee in my student days. It disagrees with me now.”

A pity, I tell him. The Legree lab downstairs has engineered strains of arabica finer than all the cultivars of ancient Ethiopia. Legree’s work won’t be on the market for another year, but her lab already keeps me well supplied.

I sit at my desk and the inspector sits across from me. We dispense with the formalities about recording. “I want to say again how sorry I am about Dr. Cheng’s death” he says. I know he must have studied my reaction when the news was first broken to me. Probably he is studying my reaction again.

But I have no need to dissemble: it is a shame to have lost Cheng. Of course, I also know from the news that Cheng’s death is being treated as a murder investigation.

Any information you could provide us about Dr. Cheng would be helpful,” he says. “Will you tell me how you know him?”

I embark on the bargain tour of my acquaintance with Cheng, mixing in readily available information about his life with a few details which only a member of our lab could possibly have known about him. Surely inspector Gabbay had discovered by now that Cheng had been born at the turn of the century in Guangzhou, had degrees from the University of Washington and Stanford, that he had immigrated to the University Republic two years ago to work in my lab as a post-doctoral researcher. But I also tell him that Cheng had been an uncommonly good phylogeneticist, an uncommonly bad squash player, and that yes, my lab does have its own squash court, on the 16th floor of the building.

Were you aware that someone had removed a subcutaneous chip from Dr. Cheng after he died?”

I do not have the luxury of worrying about whatever reaction I might betray now. “I was not,” I say. “But I am not surprised that Cheng had a chip. Many of us are chipped.”

The inspector has been trained, of course, not to betray any reaction to me. However, I wonder whether I have detected him pausing there, a quarter of a second, over my answer.

Do you know what Dr. Cheng might have been carrying on a subcute?”

I really have no idea, inspector. What would any of us carry on a subcutaneous chip? A memory prosthesis? An onboard statistics package? Cheng used a great deal of statistical analysis in his work. Or perhaps he had some vision impairment that I was not aware of.” The inspector nods with a weary equanimity over my full, even fulsome, answer.

What kind of work did Dr. Cheng do for your laboratory, Dr. Weiss?”

Here I am on firmer ground. I take on a kindly expression, or at least an expression which I have reason to believe others would regard as kindly. “This lab engineers microorganisms, mostly bacteria, for industrial and medical uses.”

Is there something you’ve been working on recently that Dr. Cheng might have stored on a subcute? Anything that a competitor might want to steal?”

I am afraid our current project is confidential intellectual property of the University Republic of Mars. Perhaps you could approach the Intellectual Property Committee of the Faculty Senate for a warrant with respect to Dr. Cheng’s work.” I intended this last as a simple statement of fact; indeed, I said it in as friendly a way as I knew how (which, I grant you, is not my strong suit). But it is impossible to invoke in a friendly way the need for a warrant from the Faculty Senate.

But if Gabbay took my statement as a threat, he betrayed no reaction to it. He smiled that ancient, overworked smile of the civil servant, a smile which one of Gabbay’s ancestors could have let slip 3000 years ago. “Yes,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll do that.”

Gabbay asks a few more questions, but his energy for the conversation is clearly waning. When did I last see Cheng? Had Cheng seemed at all anxious or otherwise strange? Was it typical of him to have left Morgan Hall at that hour of the day?

At last he stands and straightens his tunic with a crisp, military firmness entirely at odds with the slouched and rumpled man who was sitting before me a moment ago. “Well, I’m grateful for your cooperation, Dr. Weiss. Your public profile has my contact information; please connect if you can think of anything at all about Dr. Cheng which may be useful.”

And you clearly have mine. Please be in touch.” It was one of those empty pleasantries that I immediately regretted having said.

  1. Hui Jing

Let’s meet at the Terra Form,” I said to the inspector.

The undergrad bar down on Bradbury? Really?”

It’s not my regular place, if that’s what you’re getting at. But we can talk a little more freely there.”

I was there first, holding down a booth while undergrads milled about with their beers and curly fries. None of them seemed to recognize who I was, which I suppose was one of the reasons we were meeting at the Terra Form. I ordered an orbital sling (I was surprised to find that the bar carried Kentucky Bourbon); the drink emerged from the bar’s Alchemist over a perfect sphere of ice.

He was probably not much younger than me, but Inspector Gabbay had a bit of an undergraduate look about him: a face still boyish in a slightly sandblasted way, the shuffle and slouch of a paunchy kid who had a thing for beer and curly fries.

He seemed to recognize me immediately. I suppose it’s easy to pick me out of a crowd of children. When he extended a hand, I got the fleeting sense that he was a little star struck. He knew who I was, of course, but he was an original colonist, not some Jon Carter who had just matriculated. In a colony of 60,000 souls, none of us has the luxury of celebrity. We’re all classmates here.

Off the record?” I asked him.

Off the record.” He held up his empty hands, as though the way you record people is with a tape recorder in your hand. However, I did trust that he was not recording. If he was lying, he would land in a lot of trouble for not reciting the relevant UR law to me at the beginning.

I have an idea what was on Cheng’s subcute,” I told him.

Now he was all ears.

What do you know about toxoplasmosis, inspector?”

I know the faculty senate just voted to criminalize toxo research.”

Not exactly. The Senate Bioethics Committee just voted to move the bill to the full senate. The votes are probably there to approve the ban, and the Laureate says she’ll sign it.”

Do you intend to vote for it?”

This seemed to me an odd question from a campus security inspector, but I nodded. “I don’t want the UR to go down in history as the country that brought mind control to humanity.”

So that’s what toxo does.”

Even non-engineered Toxoplasmosis does that, apparently. It’s a big reason we don’t bring real cats to the UR: cats carry toxo, they pass it to the people in the house, and the bacterium gets into their brains. It’s one of the few organisms that can get past our blood-brain barrier. And, once you have it, toxo alters your behavior: it can make an infected person more flamboyant, make her take stupider risks. It’s where Earth’s crazy cat lady stereotype comes from.”

And now the faculty senate wants to criminalize work on toxo?”

They want to criminalize engineering of toxo. Here’s a bacterium that can get past our blood-brain barrier, settle into the amygdala, and then change who you are. Think about what engineered toxo would do. Let’s say you engineer toxo to respond to some low frequency electromagnetic signal. Once someone got toxo into you, a person could make you freak out as violently as a juicer with a single radio signal to your head. A different signal and the person could make you work 18-hour days in a drudge warehouse without ever wishing for anything different.”

And this is what the Weiss lab has been working on?”

For at least the last five years.”

Inspector Gabbay made a slow schoolboy nod. “How far have they gotten with it? Did the Weiss lab figure out a delivery mechanism?”

I shrugged. “There are a million ways to deliver a bacterium, especially an engineered one. It could be injected, inhaled through the HVAC, slipped into your food.”

So for all we know, all these kids may be drinking it in their beer right now.”

I confess that thought had not occurred to me.

Do you have any idea who would want Cheng dead?”

Someone who wanted what was on that subcute. An offworld competitor, maybe.” Or, I was afraid to say, someone who didn’t want toxo research leaving his lab on a subcute. Someone like Weiss.

Had you seen any new people hanging around Cheng before he disappeared?”

I don’t know who he socialized with. He was one of Weiss’ gnomes—I rarely saw him outside of Morgan Hall.”

Seems like Dr. Cheng didn’t have a lot of friends.”

Not enough friends, certainly. Look what happened to him.”

The inspector shot me a look of—what? Respect? Recognition? For a moment I felt the urge to reach out and stroke his arm for comfort—some buried mammalian instinct calling out from a world before subcutes and pressure domes, the stirring of my old animal self.

But it was just a moment. The inspector thanked me, said I had his profile if I came across any more information.

I do have one more thing,” I said. “If that subcute had Weiss’ work on it, we don’t know how that information was stored. If Cheng was stealing it from the lab for somebody, he probably made only a single copy. But if Weiss was trying to hide the data with Cheng, it would have been very foolish for them to store it all on a single subcute. It would have been a lot safer to split up the data in some way.

I don’t get it. Why would Weiss only put part of his data on a subcute?”

If his lab ran a Shamir’s Secret Sharing on the data, then their work would have been split into shares, and no one would be able to figure out anything from a single share. A thief would have to gather a quorum of shares before any of it would make sense. If Weiss stored the data that way, then somebody else is walking around with a different share of the toxo data. Maybe a few somebodies.”

The wheels seemed to be turning in Inspector Gabbay’s head for a second. “So, assuming that Cheng was killed for this toxo data—”

Somebody is on the lookout for another subcute.”

Or a few of them.”

           5. Patricio Dooley

The knock at the door startled me, even though I had spent all morning expecting it. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all. I opened the door to find one of the college mail employees, an elderly licentiate 3-point who probably finished her degree before I was born. She bowed just a bit, as though hoping to rehabilitate the custom and yet simultaneously embarrassed by her solicitude.

“Senator Patricio Dooley?” she asked.

I returned her ironic little bow. “The very same.”

She looked puzzled a moment, as though not certain that I had said yes. She handed me a padded envelope and a signature board for my thumbprint. She thanked me and withdrew, and I heard her steps recede into Hawkins Hall’s labyrinth of corridors.

I retreated once more to my office as a turtle would draw back into its shell. I steeled my courage and emptied the envelope (blank, no sender listed, in breach of protocol) into my right hand: it was an old-fashioned wristwatch, heavy as a shot glass, the faceplate bearing the insignia of the ibis and the palm tree beneath the half-circle vault of a dome. The inscription on the back read The University Republic of Mars gratefully acknowledges Dr. Patricio Dooley for his 15 years of service to the Faculty Senate, 5th day, 6th week of Fall Term, 2145.

So this was the secret over which Cheng was killed. What could be the purpose, then, of entrusting the same secret to me, now that it had been stolen already?

I had asked this of Weiss when he approached me. The secret I had was not the same secret, he explained. He had split his work into pieces, encrypted: Cheng had received one and I another. He’d given distinct shares to a few others, allies, as well as a share of the cryptographic key. A thief would be able to do nothing with Cheng’s data, or mine, unless they were also able to steal a third copy. And, in exchange for my help, Weiss would vote for my proposal to add five more credits of history to the social sciences course distribution for undergraduates.

I set the watch down on my desk as though it were a thing of little value. Then the chiming of my workstation interrupted me: it was time for my noon pills. I opened the desk drawer and regarded the bottle, still unfamiliar to me after a week. I felt again that anxiety which has always come upon me when I take a new medication, that dread which even as a child I felt taking my first vitamin D capsule. What if I’m allergic? What if my pharmacogenetics screen was corrupted? What if, what if, what if?

In the pills I had been taking, too, I had placed my life in the hands of good Dr. Weiss. Of course, Weiss’ lab had merely conducted the research that brought me this medication; I was obliged to place my trust as well in the compounding lab, in the goodness of the fab that had actually engineered the bacteria that synthesize this mystical protein, the confederation of minds conspiring to keep me alive. And so, by an act of will, I chose to trust the pill on my tongue, as miraculous and trustworthy an enterprise as any bridge or spaceship or pressure dome.

I knew that I could not tarry forever because of my dread of the new pills (or because of that other, deeper dread which perhaps masqueraded as my fear of the pills). I still had to work, watch or no watch; I pulled up a folder of essays that needed my comments. The AI of the learning management system had already assigned grades to the papers, although I had set my preferences such that I responded to essays without knowing how the computer had graded them. Reading that way was a bit more of a high wire act. But writing the comments and questions that came to me over the course of reading a piece, neither mounting a defense of the computer’s grade nor indulging in the absurd ego-stroking of the students going for their summas and magnas, opened for me that door to centuries past, the dialog between teacher and student that stretched back all the way to Oxford and Cambridge, or further, even, predating all grades and credentialism, to Socrates and Glaucon discoursing on the nature of justice.

I read a while into a student’s essay on Earth’s Age of Discovery. But I couldn’t link the sentences together as I read: my mind scrambled, unwilling to devote ten seconds’ attention to anything that was not the wristwatch on my desk.

I had to breathe. I would not survive six months of this horror. I am safe, I told myself. All the resources of the Faculty Senate were arrayed about me; campus security had a double guard roaming Hawkins Hall and another at the door to my building. I was in fact safer from death than I had been before I had received the data. And where was the data? Was it the entire watch? Buried within it? A chip to be removed like a pit prized from an avocado?

I needed to move, needed to walk, to bleed off a bit of this nervous energy. I was afraid to leave the wristwatch and afraid to wear it. And yet, wasn’t that the idea of the watch? Hiding the data in plain sight, separable from my frail body, suggested that Weiss and his cabal on the Intellectual Property Committee had despaired of protecting the lab’s work in the way they had with Cheng, with subcutaneous implants. I was merely a trustee of the data; no one expected me to guard the secret with my life.

Still, I had to walk, so vividly I imagined my thousand deaths. I descended the ramps of Hawkins Hall and walked through the wide arches into the horticultural dome that gave on to my building. I strolled the path like an old parson-naturalist among the serried beds of kale and lettuce on their wheel-of-fortune belts. A passel of workers, young 2-points and 3-points, looked up from their harvesting to nod at me with all of the deference due a faculty senator. I greeted them in a voice that I hoped conveyed some sense of cheer.

I rounded a curve in the path and saw Hui Jing walking in my direction. I looked away, as though engrossed in the kale, hoping for some alternate path through the hort dome that might bypass Jing. Yet I could see that she had seen me and that I was her destination.

I thought that was you, Patricio,” she called out, pronouncing my name with the perfect crisp accent of a highland Mexican, a fidelity of Spanish pronunciation that I found discomfiting.

Hello, Hui,” I said. “I’m surprised to see you so far from Clement Hall.”

Everybody needs to take a walk sometimes. I like Hawkins’s hort dome better than the ones over by Clement.”

I took another tentative step along the path, a signal to her that I was on my way somewhere. Yet she matched my step, beginning to walk with me along the path where she had just come. “Interesting days in the senate,” she said, as though she had not just reversed course, as though reversing course were the most natural way for her to walk.

I resigned myself to the dread: dread would find me, even on a walk through the hort dome. Yet I mastered my fear, more ably than I would have thought possible a day ago, to say “a historian like me has to take the long view. But I suppose that these are indeed interesting times.”

I mean the key you just received.”

She didn’t beat around the bush. I felt again the jag of panic catching in my breath. But, again, I set my historian’s sights on the long view and it calmed me: I would die, Hui Jing would die, the entire University Republic would one day pass into ruin. My petty cares were not even a mote to trouble the eye. “I didn’t realize you were on the Intellectual Property Committee now,” I said.

I’m not. But people talk. Not everything is as secret as the Intellectual Property Committee would like.”

I stopped and turned to look at her directly, squaring my shoulders like some warlike forbear. “What do you want with me, classmate?”

I’m not your enemy, Patricio. I’m trying to help you.”

You are not a quarter from which I look for help.”

Dr. Jing exhaled audibly while she picked her words. “Look, Patricio, I know we don’t see eye to eye very often. But this is more important than the debate about distribution requirements for undergrads. I’m telling you: the key isn’t what you think. It’s definitely not worth losing your life over. If I were you, I would just leave it on my nightstand table and wait for it to disappear.”

We continued in silence a while. “Thank you for your advice, Hui Jing. I’ll take it into consideration.”

She looked at me as though she knew I would not take it into consideration. “Anyway, if you get in over your head, you know where my office is. Don’t message me; don’t call. Just stop by during office hours.”

She walked with me in silence another ten meters until the path forked, and without a word of goodbye, she turned to make the long walk back to Clement Bioinformatics Building.

I hadn’t expected the walk to solve my problems. However, I returned to the office feeling more alone and set-upon than ever. The wristwatch lay on the desk, palpitating in my imagination like the tell-tale heart. It read barely 1500 hours, but I knew I would accomplish nothing else today, that it was better for me to go home and pull the covers up over my head than to make any further attempt at responding to student papers.

Yet I realized, too, that dread was not all I felt. Another feeling, a new feeling, crept through me as well, as though delving into me, deep in the core of my being. I felt an inexplicable desire for the watch rising up, in spite of my dread, or underneath my dread. I had never felt anything like it before, the pull to this fated object which seemed at once so horrid and so precious, as though the watch were drawing me by secret paths deeper and deeper in love with it. I knew at once I would defend this watch; I would kill for it if the watch demanded it.

I strapped the watch to my wrist and called it a day.

           6. Ariadne Rojas

I’ve got another drone. Besides Vashti, I mean. I built Vashti for the Warrens. But my first drone, before Vashti, before Nona, I built for flying around the domes.

I never gave it a name. It’s that much of an off-the-shelf creeper kit. Now I’m buzzing it in a cloud of other creeper bumbles, real snow globe work, high in the Euler Dome, looking out over the foot traffic around the train station.

At first, I couldn’t get the guy out of my head—what he looked like, what his name was. Dr. Cheng. I kept thinking about his frosty head under Vashti’s camera.

The shift happened so slowly, I almost didn’t notice how over time I thought less and less about the dead and more and more about the living. Who had killed him? They were on the loose, whoever they were.

My old drone, old no-name, buzzes in the cloud of other drones, the press drones and scammers and traffic monitors and voyeurs. Probably Inspector Gabbay has a drone in the swarm too. All taking pictures of the folks below.

I run the shots through the facial recognition app. Every layer of UR society is down there, milling around in Euler Station. Sub-twos, Deuces, Treys. Licentiates. Undergrads. Grad Students. Postdocs. Faculty. Plus dozens of tourists and foreign visitors. Like the fucking Canterbury Tales on Mars.

I let the camera follow a young woman whose name I recognize when the facial recognition app spits it out. I don’t know why I recognize it. Is she a senate aide? A laureate scholar? I have no idea where I heard her name before. But she looks like she could be my older sister, only better dressed and hurrying across the Euler Dome.

Two male-presenting kids are flirting with each other on one of the benches. They look like they’re about 15 years old, first boyfriends. An old guy, a professor or a lab manager maybe, stops to watch the sunset while he waits on the platform for the train to HGW Dome. The app gives the name Dr. Patricio Dooley—another name I’ve heard before, but I have no idea where. A group of buskers kicks up a light show as the sun disappears outside. People coming home from classes and labs and fabs stand and watch them for a minute or pass by. I wonder for the ten thousandth time what I’m doing in my room.

What am I hoping to see? Will the killer just walk by under my camera? Well, yes—if the killer is anywhere in the UR they’ll probably walk through this station sooner or later. Just like every other human being in the country.

Just what am I hoping to see, though? It’s not like the killer is going to walk across the station in a blood-stained smock. Campus security, if they’re interested in the case at all, don’t seem to be doing anything. Maybe there’s some crony of inspector Gabbay down there that I don’t recognize, sizing people up as they get off the red train pulling in from Takahashi Dome. More likely they’re doing what I’m doing: there’s some drone jockey back at the station watching the feeds from the security drones up here. I bet half of the swarm is security drones. All for some classmate watching the monitors spit out our human data and metadata.

The boys are making out now by the railing. People are dancing in the light show. The professor, Dr. Patricio Dooley, has seen enough of the sunset, and he turns to board the yellow train for HGW Dome as it pulls in.

           7. Mike Marlowe

Cho told me about the guy even before the last share had gone out.

I watched his entire route. Out of Hawkins Hall, past the fourth hort dome, down Avenue of the Discoverers to the Euler Transit Center. Then the Yellow Line to the Inceptor Towers Apartments. A bit down-market for a faculty senator, but he had a suite on the 20th story.

It took a couple of days to work out the route. Drones everywhere along the avenue, creepers out tagging each other—my drone just slipped into the cloud of them. I waited in the atrium of the Euler, watching my drone feed for hours. All so I could board the Yellow Line when he passed by.

On the third day, I follow. He’s soft. Paunchy, scruffy—more like a professor of 100 years ago, not a faculty senator. Walks like a bear—what’s the word? Ambles.

I need five minutes with him. Less than five. Only three shares to make a quorum, according to Cho: Cho has one of the subcutes in his arm, we snagged number two from Cheng, and this guy is number three. So there’s no need to take as much care with this one—no dragging anything out to The Warrens afterwards. Just pocket the last chip, and whiff, I’m a space man—I get myself to Chinese territory on the other side of Hebes Chasma and up the Ieoh Ming Elevator.

I buzz his apartment.

Yes?” His voice comes back tired, irritated.

Dr. Patricio Dooley? I have a delivery from Dr. Weiss’ Laboratory.” When you say you have a delivery, the trick is to be someone they were expecting. Cho was supposed to be delivering a fiberglass combat knife and a muzzle-loaded ceramic pistol to Dooley today, courtesy of the Weiss lab. Stuff he could carry around the UR without detection. Just in case he got attacked.

He buzzes me in. No questions. I go through the magnetometer in the doorway. I’m clean, of course.

I don’t like the close quarters work. And everything on this job has been close quarters work. In the elevator, I pull The Muddler from my messenger bag. Small and quick, like a tiny baseball bat or an angler’s priest—not much bigger than an actual bartender’s muddle. Polished black honey mesquite, brought all the way from Ciudad Juárez. It’s easier to kill with a knife, but I can’t get his blood on me. I’m wearing my traveling clothes.

As soon as the man cracks the door open I push my way in. But the push-in is too easy—it takes me a second to realize that I haven’t taken advantage of his surprise. No—he stepped aside to let me push in. That way I lose my balance a little, and before the door has slammed shut behind him he’s pounding on me like a gorilla. I lift my left arm and he pounds on it. He’s stronger than I gave him credit for. Cho was right—the toxo has made him tough.

I’m able to tangle up his arm when he swings at me, use the leverage to get a knee into his gut, knock the wind out of him. That gives me a second to get a good whack at him with The Muddler. He takes it on the cheekbone, hard enough to snap a man’s neck, and he looks surprised for a second, like someone has interrupted his lecture with a good question. Then, just when I expect him to drop, his eyes refocus, and he lunges at me faster than I can step back, crushing me in a bear hug.

I need to get free or he’ll choke the life out of me. I consider a head butt, but what would that do to him? Nothing happened when I clocked him with The Muddler—why would he go down from a head butt?

Then a lucky break. He lifts me up off the ground, arches his back.

I try to knee him again but there’s no leverage. But he’s off balance now, and I roll my weight forward until he staggers and falls and his grip loosens enough for me to break out from on top of him. I get a good whack at his temple with The Muddler. Then another. Then one more, an exclamation point.

No time to fool around now. We made some powerful thumps. If someone heard us on the floor below, Campus Safety will be on its way already.

I start stripping the body, looking for any sign of a recent subcute incision. But before I’ve even gotten his shirt off, I see the wristwatch. I peel it off him: between the faceplate and the body of the watch there’s a band running around the circumference. Just a feeling.

I pull the polymer knife from my pocket. Pry back the band around the watch. Underneath it, a dataport. Share number three.

           8. Hui Jing

What could I have said to save Dooley?

Nothing, probably. The toxo was in him already, who knows how, when I spoke to him. Maybe Weiss slipped it into his drink or his morning pill. The bug had already set up camp in his amygdala by the time I saw him. Weiss could have been controlling Dooley by the time I found him walking in the hort dome.

What does it matter that we criminalized Weiss’ research? Any law that the UR passes is a temporary rebuke to the offender, at best. This week Weiss sent two of his post-docs out to the UR’s Enceladus station; I’m sure he’ll just restart toxo research out there on the frontier.

There’s a ring at the door. It’s Inspector Gabbay, like a shabby crow in the doorway, here again on an unasked-for visit. And yet, busy as I am, I can’t say I’m sorry to see him. He has a shabby girl in tow this time, maybe 17 years old. She glances around like she expects me to pull a knife on her.

I see you’ve brought an assistant,” I say.

He teases out his lopsided smile, as though one half of his face were momentarily paralyzed. “This is my friend Ariadne.”

I smile at the girl. It’s the same smile I would give a student who was in over her head. But putting people at ease, or whatever you call it—charisma?—has never been my forte. She pinches out a terse little smile in return. I can tell that she’s sizing me up.

To what do I owe the pleasure?” I ask Gabbay.

He sits at the edge of the chair, motions for Ariadne to take the one next to him. “We have an ID on a perpetrator.”

I’m curious about why you’d be bringing up this topic in present company,” I say. Now it’s my turn to size up the girl.

Ariadne’s a friend,” Gabbay says. “She’s the panops that discovered Dr. Cheng’s body.”

I scrutinize her again, as though seeing her for the first time. She is an unkempt child, with bitten-down nails and dirty hair and a canvas jacket scrawled with ridiculous anarchist bombast: Fuck Campus Safety, things like that. I’ve wondered more than once about the panops that found Cheng. I’ll admit I had imagined her as a brilliant young EE or CS major, as a floppy-haired Asian male, such are my biases about panops.

Did the same person kill both Cheng and Dooley?”

She opens her mouth for the first time: “We don’t know—but it seems likely. Inspector Gabbay asked me to scout around the colony with my drone. I saw the man in Euler Station just before Dr. Dooley was killed.” She explains how, after Dooley was killed, she and Gabbay inspected her drone feed from the station to see who Dooley had interacted with. One man out of everyone at Euler had watched Dooley get on the Yellow Line train, and the same man took the next Yellow Line train a few minutes later.

His name is Mike Marlowe,” Gabbay says. “He enrolled as a mature student in the Amato lab after doing a tour in the Weiss lab. I’ve trawled through his emails on the UR servers; he’s had a lot of communication with an Anthony Cho, a post-doc who left the Weiss lab the day Dooley was killed. Marlowe also exchanged a lot of messages with an off-world contact, an American who we think is a pharma scout. Cho and Marlowe are off-world now, but we’ve got an alert out to the Americans to pick them up.”

Impressive. Both of you. What lab do you belong to, Ariadne?”

She looks at the floor. “I’m not in a lab. I dropped out last year.”

I thought we might have some research work for her,” Gabbay says. “On uncovering the toxo story. Maybe you have some funding for a lab assistant?”

I find it hilarious how much funding everybody thinks I have. Still, this kid has helped us a great deal. I imagine what I could scrape together for these friends who stumbled across my path.

* * *

           9. from A History of Late Paleohuman Republics, 1945-2231 Chapter 17, Sol Quorum Educational Concord

In the centuries before the Neohuman Awakening, technological innovation was employed as often for purposes of exploitation and domination as it was for purposes of liberation. For example, no technology in paleohuman history had more transformational effect on the species than the discovery of quorum governance; however, humanity’s first hesitant steps towards full and free telepathy, through the genetic engineering of the Toxoplasma gondii bacterium, began with the oppression of subject populations through mind control. The last century of paleohuman existence saw in many human societies, particularly on the inner planets of the Sol System, the expansion of a massive underclass whose behavior was modified through mind control into a perfect blend of tireless production and tireless consumption, always for the benefit of a tiny and phenomenally wealthy elite.

But even in that dark time we can find the philosophical roots of quorum governance at work in the minds of a few devoted, lonely individuals, reaching out to one another as they groped toward a new society, however dimly they may have seen it. The socialist utopias and dystopias of the Industrial Age, and the communitarian experiments of the Information Age, yielded the development of academic city-states such as the University Republic of Mars, where Toxoplasma gondii, forerunner of the Concord Germ, was first engineered. Today we can forgive the citizens of those primitive governments who saw more danger than promise in the engineering of toxo (the response of all human societies of that time was to attempt to ban genetically engineered toxo). The decades of mass dehumanization that followed the lifting of the ban would have seemed to the typical faculty senator of the University Republic dispositive proof that the ban was necessary. That such a tool of oppression was used later, at the beginning of The Neohuman Age, to restore the essential dignity of the human person and to inaugurate a society of full equality for all, casts into stark relief the pains that attended the birth of toxo engineering and the Concord Germ that followed. It is this restoration of human dignity which is the focus of our next chapter.

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Johntavius Alexander Galoon
Johntavius Alexander Galoon
4 months ago

I could see this being a sci-fi series on a streaming service for sure… brilliant!!!

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