The Skinner

Neal Asher

Tor Books

SKINNER, THE
1
In any living sea on any world there are always creatures whose fate is integral to the gastronomic delight of other ... creatures. Boxies might more correctly be described as lunchboxes, such was the purpose they served in the sea--and they knew it. Feeding upon occasional shoals of vicious plankton--which would make the experience of swimming for a human akin to bathing in ground glass--and the dispersing remains of those many other creatures which, at some point, always served as an entrée, the boxies swam at high speed and with a kind of nervous determination. Only by keeping moving like this could they reduce the frequency of leech attacks on their nerveless outer bodies. Only swift movement kept them from the sickle-legs of prill and the serrated claws of glisters, or from the mouths of larger leeches, which would swallow them down whole. However, a successful survival strategy for a species was not always so successful for all of its individuals: a boxy shoal increased with each addition of fry from each hatching of eggs laid on the stalks of sea-cane and decreased with each attack upon it by a hungry predator, and therefore old age was not a common cause of death in it.
The reif sipped at his clear drink through a glass straw and seemed to have his attention focused beyond his companion, at somewhere in the middle of the opposite wall. Erlin supposed he must be drinking one of the many chemical preservatives he used to prevent his flesh falling from his bones. The man who had just joined the reif sat with his back to Erlin, who now noticed that he had something on his shoulder. When this something took off to do a circuit of the room, she was fascinated. It was an insect as large asa severed thumb and the drone of its wings was loud in the subdued atmosphere of the shuttle lounge. The man was obviously indentured to a Hive mind, for the flying creature had to be a hornet from Earth--the eyes of a Hive mind. What the hell could bring a reif and such a man here, together? Erlin picked up her coffee and began walking across to them, till a thickening of the air and a vague feeling of disorientation made her pause.
From taking one step to another, Erlin realized that the safety field had tripped: a rough entry into atmosphere. But then, in her experience, things got steadily rougher from now on. She glanced to the windows that slanted out at forty-five degrees from the outer edge of the lounge. The shuttle was now circling above the honeycomb which was the Polity base on the island of Chel, and she observed how the sea surrounded the island in concentric rings of varying shades of green, as of split agate. The sea was calm down there, so what had tripped the safety field must be one of the many storms that ripped through the thick upper layers of cloud. Finally reaching their table, she turned her attention fully on the seated pair.
'Mind if I join you?' she asked.
There was little discernible reaction from the reif, but the man grinned at her and gestured to an empty seat. He wasn't bad-looking, Erlin thought, and his manner was pleasant, but he was not the man. Her man was somewhere down on the sea below. She placed her coffee on the table, then pulled out the seat, turned it, and sat astride it with her forearms resting across its back.
'I'm curious to know why a reification should want to come here, and why someone indentured to a Hive mind,' Erlin noticed the man frown, 'should come here also.' She looked with interest at each of them in turn, then glanced at the other passengers occupying the lander's lounge. It was clear that fear or disgust had cleared a wide space around the reif and his companion, and embarrassment had cast a pall over general conversation. Many of them were now trying very hard to appear not to be listening. Erlin shook her head as she focused her attention on the reif. He was no cause fordisgust. He didn't stink, as reifs were popularly believed to, nor was he any cause for fear--some of the augmented types here in the lander could have torn him limb from limb. But to Erlin he was a source of almost painful interest. What purpose had driven this man to want to continue functioning after his own death?
'I am not indentured,' said the reif's companion, then took up his drink from the table before him and sipped.
Erlin turned to study him. 'What?' she asked
'I'm not indentured,' he repeated succinctly, putting down his drink.
'Oh, I see,' said Erlin, inspecting him.
He wore jeans tucked into the hard-wearing boots of an environment suit, and a loose cloth shirt, which was open at the neck to expose a Maori tiki charm. There was no visible sign of augmentation on him, but that did not mean he was without it. Below unruly blond hair, his features were handsome and hawkish, and Erlin thought it likely he'd had his face restructured in the past, but long in the past, because character now showed through and had softened the aseptic beauty of the cosmetic job. In his left ear, he wore a single diamond stud--which was probably his Hive link transponder.
'Were you indentured?' she asked him.
'Two years,' he replied. 'And those ended about twenty years ago.'
'Two years ... that's the usual sentence for killing a hornet, isn't it?' said Erlin.
The man nodded and grinned, before reaching for his drink again. Erlin observed him for a moment longer, then curiosity drew her attention back to the man's companion.
The reification was clad in a utile monofilament overall of bland grey, and he had a smooth lozenge of metal hanging from a chain around his neck. He had obviously been a heavy-worlder when alive. Now his muscles were stringy on his thick skeleton, his hands bony claws, and what was visible of his face, under a half-helmet augmentation, was that of a grey mummy. Erlin next studied the aug: it was golden, had a cartouche inset into its surface, and had, extending from the inner side of it and curving round under the reif'sone visible eye, an irrigator fashioned in the shape of a cobra with its hood spread. The reif's eye was blue, and it seemed to be the only part of him that was remotely alive.
Of course, she could see now what might have brought these two people together: the fear and disgust of the others here. Most people had yet to dispel their atavistic fear of large stinging insects, and most did not like to share the company of corpses, no matter how interesting the conversation might prove to be. More than anything else in any world, Erlin wanted something to maintain her interest. She wondered just what stories there might be here.
The reif dropped his glass straw back into his drink and, with slow precision, he leant back. As he turned his blue eye upon her now, Erlin imagined she could hear the creaking of his neck. There came a clicking gulp from deep in his throat, then he spoke in a surprisingly mild baritone, his words slightly out of sync with the movement of his mouth. But then, Erlin thought it unlikely that his vocal cords actually generated his voice.
'Many would seek immortality here,' he said, and deliberately tilted his head to peer at the circular blue scar on Erlin's forearm. It was an easy conversational gambit to turn attention away from himself. Erlin pretended no reaction to his words, but suddenly felt very hot and uncomfortable. The secret of Spatterjay had been out for many years, and immortality was a commodity in a buyer's market. Why did she feel guilty?
'Many would find it and wish they hadn't,' said Erlin. Just then, the hornet droned back from across the room and Erlin could not help but notice how the other passengers flinched away from it, then tried to appear as if they had not. There was much nervous laughter in its wake. As it settled again on the man's shoulder he merely glanced at it, then reached into the top pocket of his shirt and removed a small vial. From this he tipped a puddle of syrup on to the tabletop. The insect launched from his shoulder to the table, where it landed with a noticeable rattle, then it walked stiff-legged to the puddle to sip. Erlin saw that the creature's thorax was painted with luminous intricate lines, as of a circuit diagram.They must mean something to someone--but not necessarily anyone human. On the table also lay a shoulder carry-case for hornets. Inside the case was another hornet, still as if sealed in clear liquid plastic.
After a brief silence the man said, 'There's a place, you know, where people live in the bodies of giant snails which float in the sky suspended from gas-filled shells.'
Erlin absorbed the comment with almost a feeling of delight. At the sound of the next clicking gulp, she turned back to the reification.
The reif said, 'On Tornos Nine, people live under the sea in giant mechanical lobsters. It's all for tourism, really. Every lobster contains its own hotel and restaurant. There are few private lobsters.'
The man laughed. Erlin switched her gaze between the two of them. She wondered if the reif would have smiled, if he could. She replied, 'On the ships here you have to wait for your mainsail to fly to you and take the mainmast. Through the mechanisms of the ship, it controls the fore and aft sails, and all you have to do is feed it. Every sail has the same name.'
The reif finally lifted the gaze of his one watery eye from its study of her scar.
'What name is that?' he asked.
'Windcatcher.'
'You have been here before,' he said. It wasn't a question.
'You know that.'
'So have I, a very long time ago.'
With a deprecatory grin the man said, 'I've never been here before.' He held out his hand. 'Janer.'
Erlin clasped the hand he offered.
'Erlin,' she said.
Janer nodded and smiled, and only reluctantly released her hand.
'You'll have to excuse me for a moment. I just want to see this.'
He stood and moved over to the slanting window, to watch as the shuttle finally came in to land. Erlin turned expectantly to the reif.
There was no clicking gulp this time before he spoke. 'Keech,' he said, and did not offer his hand, which, considering his condition, Erlin felt was only polite.
The hornet watched and listened.
 
'Land is at a premium here,' said Erlin as the three of them later walked down the shuttle ramp to a curved walkway running parallel to a parking area around the edge of the landing pad. She felt buoyant now, though that was probably due to the higher oxygen content in the air and the lower gravity she had felt immediately on stepping from the shuttle's gravplates. She scanned these distantly familiar surroundings. The sea made a continual sucking hiss underneath the huge floating structure upon which the gun-metal wing of the shuttle had settled, and the air was thick with the smells of cooling metal, decaying seaweed, and of virulent aquatic life.
'Just islands and atolls, no continents, and no island bigger than, say, the Galapagos islands on Earth,' said Janer.
'Yes,' said Erlin, 'and there are other similarities too, though you'll find the wildlife here somewhat ... wilder.'
'Wilder?' Janer echoed.
Erlin grimaced. 'Well, it's not so bad on the islands,' she admitted.
'But bad in the sea?'
'Look at it this way: most Hoopers are sailors, but few of them can swim.'
'Right,' said Janer.
Rank upon rank of aircabs were parked here along the edge. Beyond them, the sea was heaving but not breaking, and underneath that surface Erlin knew the water would be writhing with leeches, hammer whelks and turbul, glisters and prill. And all of them would be hungry. She gazed up at the misty green sky and wondered at her foolishness in returning here, then she followed her two companions off the ramps, her obedient hover luggage trailing along behind.
Keech was intent on getting to the first cab before all the other passengers swarmed off the shuttle. When there came a hissing crack, followed by a stuttering as of an air compressorstarting, Erlin noted how the reif snapped his head round and moved his hand to one of the many pockets of his overalls, and how Janer dropped into a semi-crouch. She studied them for a moment longer as they warily surveyed their surroundings, then they slowly relaxed.
'Over here,' she said, and led them to the rail along the seaward side of the parking area. Below this rail, the foamed-plascrete edge of the floating structure sloped steeply down into the sea. Erlin pointed to an object like a metre-long chrome mosquito that was walking along the plascrete, just above the waterline. She then pointed to a disturbance out in the water. Pieces of shell and gobbets of flesh were being pulled at and rabidly denuded by dark, unclearly seen, anguine shapes in the water.
'Autogun,' explained Keech. 'What did it hit?'
'Well, out there, probably a prill or a glister. Most of the large lethal molluscs here are not swimmers,' Erlin replied.
'Charming,' said Janer.
Keech stared for an interminable moment, but offered no further comment. Instead he turned and continued on towards the nearest aircab.
The vehicle was an old Skyrover Macrojet with a ridiculous and unnecessary airfoil attached, and its pilot was all Hooper in attitude and appearance.
'The three of yah?' he asked. He remained inside his cab as he cleaned his fingernails with a long narrow knife that Erlin recognized as a skinning knife, and she tried not to inspect too closely the memories that evoked.
The Hooper's skin was pale, and the circular scars on his arms and down the sides of his face were only just visible. She supposed that, like all Hoopers on the Polity base, he was on one of the Intertox family of drugs to keep the fibres of the Spatterjay virus in abeyance. Usually it was the bite of a leech that caused infection but, even though the virus could not survive for a long time outside of a body, no one was taking any chances. Polity scientists felt that, despite the so-fardiscovered huge benefits of the virus, it might still be some kind of Trojan. Erlin herself had not been infected by the bite on her forearm. Like many other viruses, the Spatterjayvirus could be transmitted by bodily fluids, and she knew precisely when she had contracted it.
'All three,' replied Keech to the Hooper.
The Hooper looked askance at him, then stabbed the knife into the dash of his vehicle. After a moment he transferred his attention to Janer, then to the hornets in the transparent box on Janer's shoulder.
'Can they get out?' he asked.
'Only if they want to,' said Janer.
'Look like nasty buggers.'
Erlin bit down on a burst of laughter. That from a Hooper on a world where just about every creature was a nasty bugger out for its plug of flesh.
'I assure you they are harmless unless forced to defend themselves,' said Janer.
The Hooper studied the hornets more closely. 'They got brains then?'
How's he going to explain the hive mind? Erlin wondered.
'They are the eyes of the hive,' said Janer.
'Oh, them ... hornets, ain't they?'
'Yes.'
'OK, stick y' luggage in the back and climb in. Y'want the Dome?'
'Please,' said Erlin as she stood aside to allow Keech to take his hover trunk around to the back of the cab. As he moved past, she caught a slight whiff of corruption. He glanced round at her, and perhaps it was her imagination that she was able to read a look of apology in what small movement his face managed. After dumping his backpack on top of Keech's trunk, Janer went forward and quickly climbed into the front beside the driver. Erlin gazed around before stowing her own hover luggage. She was here now, and she would carry on through with her intention, though sometimes she felt simply like ... stopping.
 
'Erlin Tazer Three Indomial,' said Keech as the aircab rose and boosted over the pontoons and floating pads of the shuttle port.
Janer glanced over his shoulder. 'I thought you looked familiar.You're the one who opened that particular box of ... leeches.' He shrugged at his little joke.
The hornets, Erlin saw, scuttled about in their carry-case and moved tail to tail so as to take in every view.
Janer peered down at them in annoyance, then gazed ahead through the screen at the winged shapes that glided in the haze over the island, like embers in jade smoke. He went on, 'There was quite an uproar after your studies were published and, as I recollect, the Warden here had to limit runcible transmissions. Big rush to come and live for ever.'
'Big rush for an easier option, but there never is one of those,' said Erlin. 'Our technology can extend life indefinitely, but even now there are ... drawbacks. The rush of people here was of those searching for something beyond life extension. They were searching for miracles.' She noted how Keech, at the word 'miracle', reached up to rest his skeletal fingers against the lozenge resting on his chest. Perhaps it had some religious significance.
'How does it operate here, then?' Janer asked.
'The bare facts?' Erlin asked, sensing the man had more than an intellectual interest in the subject. He nodded and she went on, 'The viral fibres bind every life form here ... They're the leeches' way of maintaining their food supply. They are very efficient parasites, though it can be argued that what happens here is a perfect example of mutualism. Nothing dies unless severely injured, and I mean severely.'
'It is ... logical,' said Keech.
Erlin had to agree.
'Surely the death of the prey is preferable?' said Janer, puzzled.
'No,' Erlin told him. 'Isn't it preferable for the leeches to be able to harvest their meat and keep the prey alive to be harvested again? Though they don't suck blood, the leeches are aptly named.'
'Why've you come back?' Janer asked.
'Just looking for someone: a Captain I knew. We have unfinished business.'
The Hooper turned and gave her a strange look but saidnothing. The Captains were the weirdest Hoopers of them all.
'Why are you here?' Erlin asked Keech. The reif did not react for a moment, then he slowly shook his head. Erlin waited a little longer, then returned her attention to Janer as he now turned to inspect her over the back of his seat. She knew that look.
'What about you?' she asked.
'I go where the mind directs. The ultimate tourist.' He grinned.
'No resentment?' she asked.
'Once--but only at the beginning.'
Erlin nodded. 'You said you'd served out your indenture twenty years ago?' She was curious: once people indentured to a Hive mind had served out their time, they were usually grateful to be rid of their little companions, particularly as those who made the mistake of killing a hornet usually possessed some deep-rooted aversion to the insects. Hive minds also had a reputation for sending their human servants into some really sticky situations.
'Why carry on?' she asked.
'Adventure. Money. In the last twenty years I've not often been bored, Erlin.'
She studied him more closely. He had originally struck her as being rather naive, perhaps not even out of his first century. She decided to reassess that judgement. Once, disease and accident had been the greatest killers of humankind; now the greatest killer was boredom, usually leading to the latter of the first two causes. Perhaps Janer was much older than she had first thought; perhaps he had the same problem as herself.
'Erlin?' said the Hooper abruptly, the content of the conversation apparently only just penetrating. 'Thought so ... It's the skin.'
Erlin smiled to herself at a remembered conversation aboard a Hooper sailing vessel called the Treader. Peck, the 180-year-old mechanic, had been attacked by a leech and it had unscrewed a fist-sized lump of flesh from his leg--a lump of flesh he had, after beating the leech to pulp, subsequentlyscrewed back into place. The wound had healed in minutes.
'Doesn't that strike you as a little odd?' Erlin had asked him.
'Who you callin' odd? At least I ain't got skin the colour of burnt sugar. Bleedin' Earthers, always callin' us odd.'
Peck had been very odd after his second ... accident, but Erlin, even now, didn't like to think about that too much--and wasn't even sure she believed it had really happened.
'Do you know Ambel?' Erlin asked the Hooper.
'Who don't?' was his reply.
With a complicated manipulation of the airfoils, he put the aircab into a spiralling glide. The three passengers gazed down at the long, partially artificial island below them. Around the much larger central geodesic dome of the Polity base clustered many smaller ones--as if the island had been blowing bubbles in the sea. There were also a few smaller ones at the centre of the island's widest stretch: transparent spheres dropped into the deep dingle that grew there. Erlin could just make out the groves of peartrunk trees speared with the occasional tall yanwood, and she reflexively rubbed at the scar on her forearm. A leech dropping from a peartrunk tree had been her first close encounter with the appetite of Spatterjay life forms. Later, Ambel had saved her from the persistent attentions of a creature innocuously called a frog whelk. Without his intervention, it would have taken her hand off. She gazed across the wide sea, remembering that other island where, if she could believe Ambel, the body of something which had once been a man was living an independent existence. It would apparently live well enough, but would have no intelligence. Ambel kept the Skinner's head in a box.
'The gating facility was closed, down here,' said Keech.
'Heat pollution,' Erlin told him. 'The Warden had it moved to Coram after an explosion in the hammer-whelk population around the deepwater heat sinks.' She also remembered that Coram, the moon they had so recently quit, by shuttle, had been named by the runcible AI--an artificial intelligence which was also the planetary Warden. 'Coram'was actually short for 'coram judice', which, it turned out, meant 'in the presence of the judge' in some ancient Earth language. It was a name she supposed indicative of Warden's opinion of itself.
'They had a gate here, then?' said Janer distractedly.
'It was established on-planet when the Polity arrived here. They had it here for about fifty solstan years before moving it. That was two hundred solstan years ago,' she replied.
In the roof of one of the largest dome, a hatch irised open and the Hooper brought his cab down through it. Earth light illuminated the inside, stark in contrast to the soft green light of Spatterjay. Forests and crops grew in neat patterns around a small city of processing plants and a single sprawling arcology like a giant plascrete fungus seemingly nailed to the ground by gleaming hotel towers. 'Dome-grown food' the Hoopers called what was produced in the fields here. It was what, if they did not have access to Intertox, stopped them becoming more like the Skinner.
With a cycling down drone of thrusters, the Hooper landed his aircab on a neatly mown lawn, near the edge of the arcology, and the three disembarked.
'How much?' Erlin asked, leaning to the open window.
The Hooper paused for a moment as he calculated how much he might get away with asking for. Erlin groped in the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a wad of New Carth shillings. The two notes she proffered he quickly took and, obviously pleased, he got out of his cab to unload their luggage. Janer appeared bemused and Keech, of course, had no expression at all. Erlin understood that the both of them hadn't realized they might need hard currency. She felt they had a lot to learn about this place, and was about to comment on this when Janer beat her to it.
'Perhaps we need a little guidance here,' he said, glancing at the reif. Keech showed no reaction to this either. Erlin was quick to reply; she had nothing to lose by being helpful.
'I have to do what I have to do here, but you're more than welcome to accompany me until you find your feet,' she said, turning to study them. Keech gave a brief nod in reply andJaner grinned at her. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, she turned away from that grin.
'You know that Polity law does not apply outside the main dome,' she said.
'It should do,' said Keech.
'Sometimes,' added Janer.
Erlin continued, 'Try defining assault or murder to a Hooper. They just laugh at all our rules. The way it works here is that the older a Hooper is, the more authority he has. This by dint of the fact that he knows so much more than you and that if you disagree with him he could probably tear your arms off. Ambel, the man I've come here to find, is old. I once saw him tow a deep-sea-fishing ship with just a rowing boat. His boat was specially strengthened, and the oars made of ceramal composite.'
'How old is he?' asked Keech.
'Seven centuries, minimum. He said he came here just after the war, but I wonder about that. Some of the early Hoopers are reticent about their pasts, and the viral fibres were very advanced in him.'
'Yeah,' said Janer, grinning. 'I've heard plenty of stories like that.'
Not looking at him, Erlin went on, 'His skin is mottled with leech scars overlaid one on the other. He's so packed with fibre it's impossible to take blood samples from him. I frankly doubt he even has any blood inside him. If ever he's wounded, the wounds close just like that.' She held up her hand and snapped it shut into a fist.
'You believe him?' asked Janer.
'At first I didn't, but I was with him for a number of years and I eventually ceased to doubt.'
'Perhaps ... Hoop is still alive?' said Keech.
Erlin thought about the head kept in a box on the Treader and refrained from comment.
'That's it then,' said the Hooper, standing next to their pile of luggage.
'Thank you,' said Erlin. She clicked her fingers and her hover trunk separated itself out from the pile of luggage andmoved obediently to her side. It had surprised her that Janer used merely a backpack, but now she realized he must be a seasoned traveller and so only carried a few essentials. Keech, however, could not possibly have carried his trunk very far, it being the size of a sea-chest.
'Luck,' said the Hooper, climbing back into his cab.
'Wait.' Erlin turned back to him and he paused at the door. 'Do you know where I can find Ambel?'
'On the Treader.'
'Where is the Treader?'
The Hooper shrugged. 'Nort Sea and the Skinner's Islands. Sou' at the atolls. East in the Sargassum or West over the Blue Wells. Buggered if I know.'
It was not the answer Erlin would have liked but it was the kind she expected of a Hooper.
'Thanks for you help,' she said dryly.
'This Ambel,' said Janer as the cab rose into the air above them and tilted towards the hole in the Dome, 'something more than clinical interest?'
'You could say that,' said Erlin. 'We go this way now.'
She led them down paved walkways from the lawns, through neatly laid-out rose gardens, towards the looming metallic wall of the arcology. Daffodils bloomed in bunches, neatly circumnavigated by robot mowers that munched their way across the grass like iron beetles. Some of these flowers were old-Earth yellow, but the rest were blue and violet. Ahead, wide arcades and boulevards cut into the wall of the arcology, and here there were more gardens and lawns, from which sprang coconut and fishtail palms, fuchsia bushes and the occasional pineapple plant--this diversity of life, as Erlin well knew, genetically adapted to survive the odd conditions inside the Dome.
'I thought you said land was at a premium here,' said Janer, scanning about himself.
'It is,' Erlin replied. 'All of this,' she gestured ahead of them, 'is sitting on ten metres of foamed plascrete, which in turn is sitting on a thousand metres of seawater.'
'Ah,' said Janer then, 'busy little raft they have here.'
Amongst these gardens strolled all manner of people: seasonedtravellers who lived only to use the runcibles and briefly see new worlds; altered humans--catadapts and ophids and the like; and Hoopers nervous in these garden surroundings, with the rolling gait of those more used to having a deck under their feet.
Erlin said, 'A lot of the people who come to see this world get no farther than this. Many come here not realizing that Polity law doesn't extend outside the Dome itself. They come here for the immortality you mentioned, and discover that they feel very mortal once they step out into the Hooper's world.'
'You did,' Keech reminded her.
'I like new worlds, new experiences. You gain nothing without risking something.'
'Trite,' said Keech. 'There should always be law.'
Erlin glanced at him as they moved into one of the boulevards, and then she gestured to a pyramidal metrotel entrance situated near the end of it.
'I'm staying here for tonight. Unless you have other plans, I suggest you stay here as well. Tomorrow, if you like, we can get equipped. It would be a good idea if you both bought some hard currency, as you won't get far here without it.'
'Which is preferred?' asked Keech.
'New Carth shillings or New yen. Don't bother with the Spatterjay skind--the exchange rate for it goes up every day.'
'How quaint,' said Janer.
Once they had entered the pyramidal metrotel Janer insisted on paying for all their rooms, by smart card at the automated check-in desk. Erlin reached down to her hover trunk and, into its miniconsole, punched one of the room codes the screen showed them--slaving the trunk to the hotel AI. For a moment she watched while it trundled off, then she checked her watch.
'Down here at about nine, then, solstan?' she suggested.
'Definitely,' replied Janer, and Keech gave his characteristic sharp nod.
Without further pause, Erlin headed for the room the hotel AI had allocated her.
'Don't forget that currency,' she said, glancing over hershoulder. As she entered a lift, she wondered what had possessed her to take up with these two. Loneliness, maybe? When she reached the entrance to her room, her trunk was there ahead of her. She followed it in through the door, then slumped on to the large bed provided. Tucking her hands behind her head, she stared at the ceiling and said, 'AI, I'd like some information about reifications'.
'Can you be more specific than that?' the hotel AI asked her.
'Well ... didn't the practice originate from some sort of religious sect?'
'It originated from the Cult of Anubis Arisen. It was their conjecture that souls do not exist, and that there is nothing more sacred than the body. They hung on to life for as long as they possibly could then, when they died, had themselves preserved and kept moving by use of the cyber technology of the time.'
Erlin recalled the decidedly Egyptian design of Keech's aug and eye irrigator. 'They were brain-dead though, and Keech is sentient,' she said.
There came no reply then from the AI, as its privacy restraints had cut in. It could not discuss other hotel guests with her.
'Reifs nowadays are often sentient--to all intents alive,' she persisted.
'The cult of Anubis Arisen is still extant, and now has access to mind-recording and mimetic computers. Some of those who have been technically dead can be repaired and brought to life using some of the newer nano-technologies.'
'With those mind recordings and mimetics ... are they alive?'
'The contention of most is that they have become AI. The lines become blurred and the arguments heated when reifs with partial use of their organic brains are discussed. On the whole, reifs are uncommon. Most physical damage to human beings can be repaired, and most humans with mindrecorders choose memplantation in an android chassis.'
'How do you explain Keech then?'
The AI didn't.
 
 
Once alone in his room, Keech opened his trunk and removed a clean pair of monofilament overalls, which he laid across his bed. Almost reverently, he removed his lozenge pendant and placed it on top of them. Then, moving with great care, he took off his used overalls and dropped them on the floor, before turning to a mirror on the nearby wall and inspecting his grey and golden reflection. As well as the half-helmet augmentation over his face, an area from under his armpit to his waist and then his groin was also enclosed in golden metal. This metal was deeply intagliated with Egyptian hieroglyphs. He stood perfectly still as he studied them, until his irrigator sprayed his right eye. He did not blink, but turned back to the trunk. Now he removed a golden case made in the shape of a small sarcophagus, closed the lid of the trunk, and placed the case upon it. In the surface of this case was an indentation ideal for accommodating the lozenge he had placed on the bed. He ignored this, though, and instead freed two nozzles, which came away trailing coiled tails of clear tubing. These nozzles he plugged into two sockets in the metal covering his side. Through his aug, he sent the activation signal to this device that really kept him from rotting away: his cleansing unit.
One of the coiled tubes turned dirty blue as the unit drew preservative fluid from his vascular system, filtered out a sludge of dead bacteria and rotifers, corrected certain chemical imbalances, then pumped the fluid back into him. The fluid in the return pipe was liquid sapphire. After a few minutes, a row of red-lit hieroglyphs on the unit began, one at a time, to flick to green. When the last glyph changed, the tubes cleared of liquid and he detached them and returned them to the unit itself. Next, he turned a disk on the unit and withdrew a cylindrical container filled with the same blue fluid. He turned to the mirror again and, using a swab that detached from the head of the container, he wiped himself from head to foot, at the last partially detaching his aug to swab at the skin concealed underneath. The now exposed left half of his face was ruin eaten back to bone, and set into that bone was a ring of triangular copper-coloured contacts.
Keech stared for a moment at the wound that had killed him before snicking his aug back into place with a wet click, then reaching down to press some pads on the metal enclosing his side. This shell lifted with a slight hiss and he detached it completely and put it on top of his trunk. The side of his body now exposed was mostly transparent synthetic skin under which could be seen organs repaired with synthetics, a network of blue tubes spreading from the two nozzle orifices, and rib bones that had been burnt black. After a brief visual inspection, he swabbed this area down too. When he had finished, he replaced the metal shell, then returned to the bed to don the clean overalls and his lozenge pendant. After yet another inspection of himself in the mirror, there sounded that dry click from his throat, and he spoke.
'Hotel AI, I wish to take a sum of a thousand New Carth shillings from my account, in hard currency. Do you have this facility?'
'I do,' replied the hotel. 'There is an auto till in the wall to your left. You are aware that a thousand shillings may be much more than you will require here. The exchange rate against the Spatterjay skind is very high.'
'I am aware,' said Keech, 'but I may be here some time.' He took a smart card from his pocket and inserted it into the slot in the wall. A hatch immediately slid open and the auto till poked his card back out at him. Behind the hatch rested a stack of hundred-, fifty- and ten-shilling notes. There was also a cloth bag containing coins. He opened this and took out one transparent octagonal coin, which he brought up to his eye. In an approximation of surprise, he raised the brow of this eye. He hadn't seen one-shilling pieces in a very long time--centuries in fact.
 
Janer lay back on his bed with hands folded comfortably behind his head. He thought about Erlin and felt a vaguely pleasurable buzz at the prospect of getting to know her. She was classically and strangely beautiful, with her white hair, black skin, and blue eyes, yet Janer felt sure her appearancewas not due to cosmetic alteration. These combined features were too much at odds with each other to be anyone's natural choice. In his experience cosmetic alteration fell into two camps: the extreme where people went all the way into something like catadaption or ophidaption, or the subtle one, where they just had some small alteration made to their appearance to make it more pleasing. More likely, he suspected, her appearance was the result of a past genetic alteration in her family line, as no doubt was her intelligence. This was how it was for most people now. He closed his eyes and summoned up an image of her to contemplate. This didn't last though, and his mind began to wander.
Nothing from the link at the moment--which meant that the Hive mind was preoccupied. That was good, as he didn't feel much like talking. There had been no communication from it for a number of hours now, but that was nothing unusual. The mind controlled a huge conjoined hive of something like a billion individuals, so it had plenty of other tasks on which to focus its attention. Janer considered how things had changed since the days of paper nests and maybe just a few hundred hornets.
Back then it had come as one shock in many when arrogant humanity had discovered it wasn't the only sentient race on Earth. It was just the loudest and most destructive. Dolphins and whales had always been candidates because of their aesthetic appeal and cute stories of rescued swimmers. Research in that area had soon cleared things up: dolphins couldn't tell the difference between a human swimmer and a sick fellow dolphin, and were substantially more stupid than the farm animal humans had been turning into bacon on a regular basis. As for whales, they had the intelligence of the average cow. When a hornet had first built its nest in a VR suit and lodged its protests on the Internet, it had taken a long time for anyone to believe what was happening. They were stinging things, creepy-crawlies, so how could they possibly be intelligent? At ten thousand years of age, the youngest Hive mind eventually showed them. The subsequent investigation had proven, beyond doubt, that groups ofnests thought as a single mind, not with the speed of synapses, but with the speed of slow pheromonal transfer. The nest in the VR suit had been linked, at that rate, to many other nests. It had communicated using the anosmic receptors inside the suit, and this had taken it many months. Now, every hornet carried a micro-transmitter, and the speed of Hive mind thought had become very fast indeed.
Of course, immediately after this revelation, there had been a scramble to find more of the like, and all the other social insects of Earth were intensively studied. Disappointment after disappointment finally brought home the fact that hornets, like humans, were a bit of an oddity. The only social insects that came close to them were the wasps, but they came in at the level of a chimpanzee as compared to a human. Bees, it turned out, did have Hive minds, but they were alien beyond the interpretation of the most powerful computers; their communication was limited to the 'now'--the concepts of past and future being beyond them. Ants had no Hive minds at all.
Janer considered how he himself had been plunged into this strange world: his payment--his service to this mind--for killing a hornet that had tried to settle on his shoulder in a crowded ringball stadium. It had been tired, that hornet, searching for somewhere to land and take a rest, tempted by the beaker of Coke Janer had been drinking. His reaction had been instinctive; the phobic horror of insects had risen up inside him and he had knocked the hornet to the ground and stamped on it. The court judgement had come through the following day, and not having the funds to pay a fine, he had signed up for two years' indenture. Killing a hornet was not precisely murder, as each creature was just one very small part of the mind. There were stiff penalties, though.
Janer sat up, swung his legs off the bed, then stood and moved over to the window of his room. The view was a mildly interesting one, between tower blocks and across crop fields and hydroponics houses, towards the wall of the Dome. It wasn't the view he wanted, though. Now he wanted to see outside the Dome, now he wanted something of more interest. In his two years of being indentured, there had beenno shortage of that, and it was the main reason he had gone directly from indenture-ship to paid service for this particular Hive mind.
'What's out there?' he asked.
When there came no response from his Hive link, he shrugged and returned to his bed. He knew something about what lay beyond the Dome itself, and anything else there was to know he would find out soon enough.
Copyright 2002 by Neal Asher