EXCERPT FROM NEW STAR RISING
COPYRIGHT © CAMERON COOPER 2020
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Kachmarain City, Kachmar Sodality, The Karassian Homogeny.
They had survived ten days in the Homogeny, yet Sang still found it difficult to ignore the constant attacks upon their concentration. Screens were everywhere—disposables, transluscents, impermeables for wet conditions, building-sized, thumbnail-sized, embedded in windows, luggage, shopping bags, vehicles and clouds. The spoon they used to eat breakfast had a long, narrow screen running along the handle. The faucets in the ablutions areas featured rosette screens on the activation sensors. Each and every screen offered a different data stream, a unique offering designed to seduce and hold the viewer’s attention.
The babble had been overwhelming, at first. After ten days it had evolved into merely distracting, which was why Sang failed to notice they were being observed, until the man made his move. By then it was too late to counter.
Sang held still, on alert. They put their spoon down. Regretfully, they would have to miss breakfast.
The eatery was busy, even this early. Many of the screens were displaying a show featuring a self-confessed biocomp called Chidi who mocked and disparaged the people he met. The Karassians seemed to enjoy the show, enough to train screens to focus on it. Sang did not understand how they could enjoy the derisive negativity. It made Sang uncomfortable.
Therefore, Sang did not watch the screens as so many in the eatery were. They pretended to watch, which allowed them to measure the man’s progress toward the far corner where they were sitting. The man would have to move around six long tables, with every stool occupied by noisy Karassians.
The man did not look enhanced. He did not look Karassian, either. He did not have blond hair or the pure, rich brown eyes that Karassians valued. That made him an outsider, as was Sang. Yet he was not Eriuman, either.
Was this the one? Sang waited with tense readiness.
“Will you look at the pretty one, then?” The question came from behind Sang.
“We’re going to sit down right next to you, sweet one.” A different voice. This one, female. Sang was jostled from behind, forcing them to look away from the stranger and up at the pair addressing them.
“You don’t look like a Karassian, sweet thing,” the woman said. She was native Karassian, visibly enhanced. Her bare arms featured metal sinews that sat on top of her white skin. There were plug-ins at both wrists. She would be strong, then.
The male narrowed his standard brown eyes. He had no chin and a large mouth. “That’s a thick lip you have there, little one.”
The swollen lip and the bruise on Sang’s cheek were courtesy of a scuffle two days ago, when Sang had explained physically why they did not appreciate a hand groping under their skirt when they were trying to board a carriage. Sang had assumed that the disfigurements would deflect interest. They had not.
“Move over, sweet thing,” the woman said, bumping Sang’s shoulder with her hip. Her metal enhanced hand gripped Sang’s arm, tugging them sideways and almost off the stool.
The man was pulling a third stool over to the long bench.
Sang sighed. “I do not wish to keep your company,” they said.
“We’re good company,” the woman replied. She put her hands around Sang’s waist and lifted them, then pushed the stool aside with her foot. She placed Sang on the relocated stool, her hands lingering. “Heavy,” she remarked. “You may be enhanced under that odd skin of yours?”
“I believe the lady said she did not want company.” The third voice was that of the man who had been watching Sang.
Sang was surprised to feel a sensation of relief trickle through them.
“She’s with you?” The woman was irked.
“Told you someone would have her,” the man muttered.
Sang looked at the stranger. “I am not with them.”
His nod was tiny. “She is with me. Move on.”
The woman looked at her partner. “He doesn’t look enhanced.” Her fingers curled inward, in preparation.
Sang braced for action. They were close enough to the woman, but they would have to turn to get a grip on her. It could be done, even against an enhanced.
The woman shot out her hand toward the stranger. It was very easy to pick her wrist up as she thrust it past Sang. Sang squeezed. Metal tendons bowed. The woman shrieked.
A few heads turned, though not as many as Sang would have expected.
The stranger who was not Karassian gripped Sang’s upper arm, not hard, but firmly enough for Sang to know they would not be able to dislodge the grip without causing damage. “Let her go,” the man said quietly. “You’re drawing attention.”
“We are not nearly remarkable enough to do that,” Sang said with a confidence built over the last ten days. Only Karassians like Chidi, with their extremes of social behavior, held anyone’s attention for long.
The man shook Sang. “Let go.”
Sang let the woman go. She snatched her arm back and cradled the wrist. “Freak!” she hissed.
Sang smiled. “If you insist.”
The Karassian man pulled the woman away.
Sang got to their feet and moved past the pair. The stranger held on to Sang’s arm as they threaded back through the tables. Outside, the sun was dazzling. Sang adjusted their vision.
The man hurried them through the early morning crowds. Karassians did not stay at home if they could find a reason not to. Even though the standard work day did not begin for a while yet, the footpaths were as busy as they would be for the rest of the day.
“Where are you going?” Sang asked the man.
“There is such a place here?”
The man glanced at Sang over his shoulder. “I suggest you not speak again until we reach that place.”
Sang remained silent. The man did not remove his hand. Sang didn’t protest. It would ward off others, if Sang was seen to be under his control. It simplified things.
The private place was one Sang should have anticipated. The day pod was the third in a row of ten sitting on the edge of the footpath between pedestrians and the occasional ground car. A retreat pod was one place where privacy would be honored, especially if the two of them were seen entering. Karassians liked their pornography, yet they still preferred a closed door for their personal couplings.
The pod accepted the man’s scan and opened. He pushed Sang inside and sealed it again.
Sang sat on the wide divan that was the only piece of furniture, while the man turned off all the screens except one. He called up the pod controls.
The sounds of the high street muted. Then the walls turned transparent, allowing bright morning sunlight into the pod.
“It’s one way only,” the man said. “I need to see if anyone is taking an interest in us.”
It was possible to make the walls transparent in both directions. The first time Sang had seen such an arrangement, they had halted, unable to look away from the pair frantically mating on the divan. Others had also stopped to watch the spectacle with mild interest, masking Sang’s surprise.
“That is sensible,” Sang said, of the man’s setting of the walls.
The man sat on the edge of the divan, then swiveled, bringing one knee up onto the thin cushioning. The flowing robe he wore spread over the divan.
“You’re an android,” he said. “Passing as a woman, which means you’re from Erium.”
Sang remained silent. This man was not a Karassian. He was not Eriuman, either. There were still too many unknowns for Sang to speak freely.
“You referred to yourself as ‘we’,” the man pointed out. “You gave yourself away.”
Sang was genuinely startled. “I did?” they said carefully. They had been diligent with their references since arriving.
“No one noticed, not with the woman caterwauling about her wrist.” The man grinned.
Sang held still, waiting.
His smile faded. He tilted his head, his eyes narrowing. “You’re bruised.”
“I miscalculated,” Sang admitted. “Our study of Karassia told us women were legal equals of men.”
“Legally, they are.” The man’s tone was very dry.
“The objectification of women is of an extreme I had not anticipated,” Sang added. They looked up and around the interior of the pod.
The man rolled his eyes, taking in the pod, too. “Why did you not pass as a man, then? It would have been easier.”
“There are reasons why being seen as a woman would be useful.” Sang shut up again. There was no need to reveal anything yet.
The man considered Sang. “Two outsiders in Karassia. I have not seen another for days. The last was a convict worker. I have to believe that you being here is not a coincidence.” He studied Sang with eyes that were not Karassian brown, but a gray-blue that was flecked with brown, an odd, discordant coloring that marked him as a stranger, as did his black hair and the growth on his chin and cheeks.
“You are not Eriuman,” Sang said.
“I am a free citizen.” He frowned. “We could circle around each other for days, too cautious to break the silence. One of us needs to speak.”
Sang didn’t answer.
The man smiled. “You would not voluntarily enter the Homogeny, given how they feel about androids. You were sent. I am hoping you were sent by the man I reached out to, three weeks ago.”
Sang drew in a breath and let it out. “Who might that be?”
Sang let their shoulders sag, as if they had relaxed. “What might the message have been?”
“Still cautious. Very well. I told him I thought I might have found his daughter, Bellona.”
“Bellona Cardenas has been dead for more than ten standard years,” Sang said.
“She’s here on Kachmar.”
“A member of the Scordini clan here, among rabid Karassians?” Sang shook their head. “That is not possible. The enraged outcry would have been heard across the galaxy, all the way to Erium.”
“Not if they don’t know who she was.”
“Her genetic markers alone would raise suspicions.” Sang curled down their mouth. “Clearly, you have never met an Eriuman.”
“I have met more than one,” the man replied. “Many times. I realize now that is why the Cardenas sent you. You are different enough to pass as a stranger, not an enemy. As a woman, you can get closer to Bellona without raising suspicions.”
“I was sent because my loss would be an acceptable one.”
The man frowned. “Reynard Cardenas did not believe my message, then.”
“He sent us,” Sang pointed out. “Me,” they corrected.
“Yet he does not hope.”
The man shook his head. “I have a DNA match.”
Sang considered it. “You have seen her.” Only someone who had been physically present could have acquired viable DNA for matching. Sang curled their fingers in against the little spurt of excitement and reminded themselves that they held no more hope than Bellona’s father did. This was a fool’s mission, gladly accepted to serve the Cardenas family.
“I have seen her,” the man confirmed.
“It is impossible. Here?”
“She does not look as you remember her. Karassians think her to be one of their own, a very sharp tool in their war chest.”
Sang laughed. “Now we know you are lying. Bellona would never fight against Erium. If a member of the Scordinii chose to side with the Karassians, the Karassians would have trumpeted it with heralds. They would have trained every screen in the Homogeny to lengthy broadcasts about her deeds. She would be a cause célèbre, a crack in the Erium Republic’s united front. The Karassians would remind its people of that at every turn.”
“You are more right than you know,” the man replied. “For that is exactly what the Karassians do with her. Only, they do not parade her as a turned Eriuman, for she is not. She is one of their most prized warriors and Karassians everywhere cheer her exploits.” The man delivered the rousing litany with a downturned mouth.
“If she is not Eriuman, then…?”
“Bellona Cardenas does not currently exist. The woman you once served is now called Xenia.”
Sang shot to their feet. “The app?” They shivered and wrapped their arms around themselves.
“Application, appliance, I know not what the proper name for them is, but yes, that is she.”
“Apps are androids,” Sang replied as calmly as they could manage. “Programmed for destruction, enhanced beyond belief. They fight. When they are not fighting, they are corralled away from Karassians who prefer their intelligent assistants not compete with them for attention.”
The man spread his hands in an open gesture. “I do not disagree with you on any of those points bar one. Apps are not androids. They’re people, reprogrammed for Karassian use, their natural talents enhanced. When they are not slaving at Karassian orders, they are tucked away and kept harmless and helpless.”
Sang rubbed their arms, even though they felt no cold. “If this is even possible, then knowledge of what the Karassians have done would emerge. Rumor, at least, would have trickled out. How could you, a stranger to this place as much as I, possibly know what the rest of the galaxy does not even suspect?”
The man shrugged. “I know, because I was one of them.”
* * * * *
Ledan Resort, Ledania, Karassian Homogeny.
Xenia spotted Thecla on the other side of the lagoon and gladness touched her. She made her way around the still, green water to where Thecla was limping along in the soft sand, a medic next to her. Thecla was holding her human hand next to her body, as if it was injured.
“Thecla!” Xenia waved to catch her attention and hurried as fast as she could to where Thecla halted, waiting for her. She couldn’t walk fast because her quads were sore from a training session. Her back ached, too. She couldn’t quite remember the dance movement that might have strained her muscles so much, yet Dana, her coach, assured her that her rehearsal had been excellent and the soreness would soon pass.
Thecla smiled when Xenia got closer.
“You’re hurt!” Xenia exclaimed.
“Just my other hand. And my ankle.” Thecla held out her human hand to display healing burns. “I spilled lead on it.”
Thecla was a sculptor, which was why she had the metal hand. Although Xenia had never seen any of her work, she suspected that Thecla was very good, as she lived here in Ledan. “Did you go away?” Xenia asked. “I didn’t know you were gone.” It was only now she realized that Thecla had not been around for a while.
That was often true of her other friends here in Ledan. Xenia frowned, staring at the sand. “There was someone else, too…they didn’t come back yet.”
“Thecla went on tour,” the medic said jovially. “To show her work.”
“How wonderful!” Xenia exclaimed. “I’m so happy you’re such a success, Thecla!”
“Do you two want to have lunch together?” the medic asked.
“Yes, please,” Thecla said.
“Yes,” Xenia said. She liked having lunch with friends. There were lots of friends…weren’t there? Now she was thinking about it, she couldn’t recall any of their names.
She looked up at the medic, uneasy.
“Come and have lunch. Forget about the rest. Food, then a nap and everything will be good again.”
Xenia smiled at him. “That sounds nice.” She followed them across the sand to the dining hall where lunch would be waiting, wondering if she was hungry.