Grace Donner floated upside down, over the tops of the seats. None of her life at cloister, nor her training at Red Fox Academy, had prepared her for this. As a protector, she was mentally and physically fit, but strength could amplify mistakes in zero gravity, where up and down were just perspectives. There’s no one way to look at things, and damned is the fool who does. Her brain was still adapting to this topsy-turvy world aboard the belt cruiser Waltz.
She was determined to master zero grav, determined to achieve the beautiful, fluid motion she saw in the more experienced roiders, the asteroid belt’s mechflesh miners. A gentle push on a grab bar with the toes of both boots sent her forward. She pressed her right boot to the wall and took a left through a passage. She tapped the bulkhead and leveled out her course.
Sailing forward, she tried a tuck and roll. The tuck worked easily, but with nothing to impart a spin, she realized too late that she couldn’t roll. Instead of a compact ball of motion, she transformed into four flailing limbs and a torso in search of stability. She was rapidly approaching the starboard wall.
Grace braced for impact, but her hands didn’t reach the wall at the same time. She rotated, striking her temple on a grab bar, halting her direction and sending her body in reverse, her head pounding from the painful surprise. She splayed, catching a grab bar, pressing a leg against the bulkhead. Her motion arrested, and she held there, panting.
“I’d assist you, Grace, but–” Tim Trouncer’s voice came from somewhere below her.
“Yeah…I get it. I’m fun to watch,” she muttered.
“You could always watch me,” Tim said.
He sailed past her, a fluffy brown terrier in a thruster harness, his blue tongue hanging playfully from his mouth. Naturally, his maneuvering was flawless. He had dozens of sensors in addition to the thrusters, not to mention a faster processor than her clunky human brain. Inside the durable PodPooch frame rested a unique blue gel matrix. It held a new kind of consciousness: founded on the memories of a human body, rapidly evolving since rebirth. He was true artificial intelligence, feared on Mars and absolutely illegal on Earth. Early in her career as a protector, Grace would have wanted to destroy a being like Tim, but now? He was her friend. Maybe even her best friend. And a darned showoff.
Tim had sailed to the end of the corridor. He rolled, positioning his paws to land on the upcoming bulkhead door. He went brown, black, and white like a beagle as his legs absorbed the impact, bringing him to a halt.
Grace landed beside him without additional injury.
“All right,” she said, hooking a handhold and taking a deep breath. “I’m ready to go back in.”
“Your zero-G abilities are at least adequate now.” Tim had cut his audio, speaking only through the dermal dot behind her ear. “The roiders find your skills, umm, quaint. The big guy, Plate–I don’t think he likes me–but they are your kind of people.”
“My kind? I’m no mechflesh,” she said. “They were odd enough on Earth, but these Ceres-bound roiders go over the top with their unusual exoskeletons and bonus appendages.”
“Mechflesh or not, all humans are oddly designed. Roiders would be better off as PodPooches–my chassis is already designed for digging, for instance. Just a few modifications, and I’d be the perfect asteroid miner.”
“If Kyran doesn’t let us stay with him when we get to Ceres,” said Grace, “I’ll remind you of that.”
She tucked Tim under her arm, touched a panel, and pulled herself into the next room: the forward cabin. During the last half of their journey to Ceres, the cabin had become a playroom for passengers who’d opted to wake early. The conscious were split evenly: miners from Mars on turnabout contracts, and newcomers from Earth looking for fortune in the belt. All told, there were about a dozen folks inside.
“Gracie!” A big mechflesh man greeted her with a bawl, his brown eyes sparkling. Plate was tethered to a pole that ran the length of the ceiling. His shaved head glinted in the light. Clamped to the pole with him were a newbie named Charlie and roider, Taisia.
“Get over here and settle this thing, will ya?” he yelled.
“What makes you think I’m going to be impartial, Plate?” Grace said, drifting toward the center of the cabin where the roiders had erected a makeshift table. Metarm clamps kept the table secured to the deck, though the orientation of the ship resulted in the table being twenty degrees off axis.
“Don’t need impartiality. I want you to tell ol’ Charlie here that Cloister 7 homemade hooch is in no way comparable to Gusev synth! That Earth stuff tastes like cows stepped in the brew.”
A snaky metal tentacle projected from Plate’s back and hauled Grace and Tim to the leash pole. The abrupt transport turned her stomach, and the hellish octopus arm was the stuff of nightmares.
“Uh, thanks,” Grace said. She swallowed, hooking herself to the pole and hoping her revulsion remained hidden.
“Nothing, and I mean nothing, is better than Kvass,” Taisia said, resuming the debate.
“Well, I gotta tell you. You’d all be wrong, because Cloister 11 whisky beats everything,” Grace said. Growing up on a ranch, she preferred milk. But Grace wasn’t going to let another cloister, let alone a Martian dome, lay claim to the best of anything.
“I think you just asked for a spacewalk, Protector,” smirked Plate.
“I think you just asked for another plate in your jaw,” said Grace, balling a fist.
Tim hissed a warning in her dermal, but Plate guffawed, and the crew joined in. These roiders aren’t much different from Dad’s ranch hands, she mused. Ceres won’t be half bad if everyone’s like Plate.
“What are we playing tonight, Charlie?” Grace turned to the smaller man, older than Plate, but bearing an unaltered facial structure, pigment, and hair that hinted of life outside big cities. Plate had mentioned that Charlie hailed from a small coastal city in Peru. His birth name was apparently Carlos.
“Rummy, I think.” Charlie flipped up his artificial lids.
“No! Spades,” Taisia said, her Russian accent thick. She had a fraction of the gear Plate and Charlie were sporting, but had patches of cicatrix where tech used to be.
“Spades it is,” said Grace, laughing as she launched herself toward the table.
Grace called the time spent with the roiders evening, though the cabin’s windows always showed the same star-studded heaven. After the jokes grew old and the last cards were shuffled, she retired to her pod, strapping herself in next to Tim. Then she logged all of her notes on the day, cross-referencing them with old entries.
“How’d I do?” Grace asked. She didn’t make a sound. As she mouthed her words, Tim monitored the shape of her vocal cords through her dermal dot.
“Better this time,” Tim replied through her dermal. “Though you almost shorted my circuits with that threat. Plate’s twice your size. If you knew half the upgrades I’ve sensed–”
“I could have handled him,” Grace said.
The PodPooch shook his head. “On Earth, but in zero-G? You can’t even get down a corridor without bumping into something.”
“It’s how roiders interact, Tim. I know the type. They don’t respect mice.”
“Or loyal little dogs,” Tim said, sniffing. “I got a kick under the table today.”
“From me, not them!”
“You fit in so well,” Tim grumbled, “I didn’t notice the difference.”
Grace grinned. “Like hell you didn’t. Besides, that’s the point. Fitting in. And you’re not. You’re acting too aloof for a dog. It’s downright catlike. You should have let Taisia pet you.”
“I didn’t like her hands,” he muttered.
“You’ve got to work better at adapting, Tim,” Grace said. “You may have forgotten, but we’re supposed to be keeping our heads low while Kyran and Raj work out how to deal with you. People have already killed over rumors of your blue gel matrix. No offense, but what’s inside you is bigger than the–”
“Not so fast, Grace. Enunciate,” Tim said impatiently. “Say again after ‘forgotten.’”
“Never mind,” she whispered. “Kyran will help us blend in.”
Tim stirred. “How much do you remember about him?”
“Raj and I were just kids, the last time I saw him. He was the typical older brother. Always telling us what not to do.”
“I am looking forward to it,” said Tim, “even though I don’t have any primary memories of Kyran Chanho myself. Eugene knew him.”
It still unnerved Grace when Tim talked about his previous human self. Raj had used the dying mind of Eugene Bransen, Jr., heir of Italitech-Bransen, to codify the blue gel matrix inside Tim Trouncer. When Tim gained awareness, he’d chosen a new name. He was very firm on the fact that he was not Eugene, but the old memories remained.
When Grace had first met Tim, Raj had passed the PodPooch off as a toy, not an AI. And even after she’d found out about Tim’s autonomy, they’d kept his previous humanity a secret. She didn’t blame them, of course. When she’d first stepped out of cloister, she was entirely too full of the black and white of the law. Experience had taught her to see more like Raj: to respect the gray areas.
Raj. He was probably back on Earth now. She missed him. His dark, laughing eyes and his curly hair. His enthusiasm for knowledge was infectious, even when it led to technology that she still found shocking. They’d been friends since childhood, when he was the aspiring physician and she, the aspiring protector.
“I’m almost done with my diary, Tim. Anything else you think might be important, beam it over,” she said, staring at her screen.
Tim stretched in his pod. “I don’t have much you haven’t written. What did Taisia have to say when she pulled you aside?”
It was in the hall, outside the forward cabin. They were between matches. Grace was practicing her zero-G while she waited for the next game. Tim had stayed under the table to monitor the conversation in the room, so she was alone when Taisia floated beside her, hooking a freckled arm around a hold.
“What question were you not asked tonight, Protector?” she asked.
“‘Why do you win so many games?’” Grace grinned.
Taisia didn’t return Grace’s smile. She shook an index finger instead, her green eyes serious. “No. It is another why. Why are you going to Ceres?”
Shrewd roider. “Well, I–”
“I think I know what you’re not going to be doing,” Taisia continued, a corner of her mouth turned up. “You’re not going there to mine slush, darling. You’re not going there to drive crawlers.”
“True…” said Grace.
“And people do not visit Ceres. Maybe a hundred years ago. Maybe longer,” Taisia said. “That’s what you were going to tell me just now, yes? That you visit?”
So much for Raj’s suggestion. Grace nodded.
“Ceres does not have much gravity, does it, Protector? Yet it pulls people from home all the time, across many millions of kilometers. You will notice when you spend some time there how difficult it is to reach–how would they say?–escape velocity.
“The grandchildren of the grandchildren of those seeking fortune are still living on Ceres. Prisoners to their debts. They dream, or they Ink, but they do not get richer. And they never leave.”
Taisia breathed deeply, her eyes intent. Then she patted Grace on the shoulder and smiled.
“I do not know why you come to Ceres. Not my business, eh? But take advice. Buy a guaranteed transport for yourself, soon as you get there. Have a way out. I’ve seen too many eager Earthers die a cold death out here.”
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