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A Small Price to Pay – Aaron Emmel

Walk as though you are accustomed to firm ground beneath your feet. Shake your hair loose. Let your arms swing away from your body. Increase the length of your strides as though you’ve spent your entire life surrounded by abundant space, more space than could ever be explored or exhausted—but keep your head down, because here on Earth you are not a free woman of the New Cities; you are a subject of the Perpetual Empire.

Solana Grayne repeated all of Frank Digane’s advice to herself as she followed him from the edge of the secure zone, where the cab had dropped them off, past four blocks of government-owned office buildings that lacked signs or logos. She knew they were being watched. She avoided gawking at the steel-sheathed towers looming above her. She did not turn or flinch as a pair of World Walkers emerged from the buildings’ shadows. She felt their eyes examine her. The trick was to avoid looking back.

Pretend you can’t see what’s really around you. That’s how to survive on Earth as an Iven.

Ignore danger.

Look weaker than you are.

Amanda would have walked right past the World Walkers without betraying her fear. She always looked like she was exactly where she was meant to be. But you’re not here, Solana thought to her sister. I have to do this on my own. She ordered her rhea to keep her calm by regulating her cortisol and adrenaline levels. Two minutes later she and her guide were at Genocorp’s sealed outer doors.

No, she reminded herself, not Genocorp. Genocorp is gone, along with the United States and our home and everything I remember from before. This is the Perpetual Empire. This isn’t the place I left.

But when she breathed in Solana smelled soil and plants and concrete and a thousand other once-familiar scents that she had forgotten, the omnipresent atmosphere of her childhood.

“Can the subject next to me open the lock?” Digane’s voice was an urgent whisper.

Solana refused to answer to that label. She studied the keypad screen. Someone must have entered not long ago, because by enhancing her infrared vision she could just make out the dissipating heat left by the finger taps. Solana pressed a series of six digital squares starting with the one marked by the faintest heat signature, which identified it as the first one to be touched. An old trick with new tools. As her fingers tapped the screen, her rhea easily defeated the biometric sensors.

A dozen meters behind her the World Walkers stopped. To all appearances she and Digane had authorization. Solana and her guide stepped through, and the doors closed and locked again behind them.

Soft light bloomed in the ceiling far above as they made the long trek across the gleaming slate-tile floor. Dark paintings in massive frames dominated the walls, their images shifting as Solana and Digane passed to show them how they would look with the Center’s proprietary biomodifications.

Solana stretched out her senses, remotely hacking into the Center’s administrative programs as they walked, tracing the building’s layout, cataloguing its encrypted databases and analyzing its defenses.

In the nearly ten hours Solana had been on Earth, she had appreciated her power for the first time. The Iven rhea had been created on Earth, for Earth, and now, flexing her powers, she understood what that meant. She could send her awareness soaring with the drones that maintained situational awareness in the nitrogen-rich skies, could command machines and devices that didn’t even exist on Neptune’s orbiting station. New senses were available to her. Old latent powers built for Earth trembled at her passage and stirred to serve her.

And this building, this site in the former state of Virginia, was where the Iven rhea had been created.

“It’s upstairs,” Digane said. He kept his voice low.

“Are we safe here?” Solana whispered back. The security system had informed her that there were three other people in the building. One, the individual they had followed in, was riding up one of the elevators. Two more people were on the ninth floor, one story above Solana and Digane’s destination. Cameras had captured images: one male, one female, both armed. Guards?

Her companion nodded and tapped the pocket where he kept his data square. “This key is continuously sending out a stream that says these subjects are allowed to be here.”

Digane had tried to project confidence since she’d met him in the Baltimore Spaceport. He’d had advice and plans. But it was evident from a thousand tiny tells that he was hiding something from her. With Digane as her guide she was alone, worse than alone, almost three billion miles from home and aware that her own rhea could betray her at any moment until she found what she was looking for.

A high-ranking subject of the empire had to have a reason to risk smuggling an Iven onto the planet. The promise of the electronic and mineral contraband Solana had brought with her had started the conversation, but it was not motivation enough. Digane was a quantum engineer, good enough for his reputation to have reached the Neptune Republic and for him to rank as a technical quaestor here on Earth, with unrestricted travel privileges throughout the Northeast American Subjugate. He had no public political views, of course, which was why he enjoyed the freedoms he did. But his wife and infant daughter had disappeared a few years earlier in circumstances that suggested the handiwork of an Artificer Imperator, one of the empire’s ruling caste.

Almost subconsciously, Solana now instructed her Iven rhea to demand an update on Digane’s physiology, and the therapeutic nanomachines swarming through her veins instantly complied. They accessed live data from the first generation rhea in Digane’s blood, the only version of the rhea publicly known and legal here on Earth, merely reactive and passive. Her rhea informed her of higher-than-baseline readings of adrenaline and an accelerated heart rate. Digane was anxious, and the closer they got to the encrypted records on the Iven rhea, the more nervous he became.

Solana thought of her sister, lifted her chin and walked more swiftly.

The elevator, when they reached it, didn’t move. Another security measure. It would only respond to a streamed five-digit key.

“Can the subject next to this one access what they perceive to be the lift?” Digane asked as the doors shut.

Solana didn’t answer. Silently, she instructed her rhea to cycle through letter and number combinations. A series of five alphanumeric characters translated to 60,466,176 potential passwords. Her rhea continued the brute force hack attempt for five and a half minutes. For a moment the backs of Solana’s hands started to burn. She rubbed her skin, recalling the pain of her last flare-up, but the sensation passed as quickly as it had come. Then a green light switched on above the elevator door. Digane sucked in his breath, awed. And some additional, better-hidden emotion. Envy? They started to rise.

Solana instructed the building’s security system to update her on the building’s other occupants. Whomever they had followed in was in an administrative suite on level three. The pair on the ninth floor had split up, but both of them were near the east stairwell.

On the eighth floor, Solana and Digane passed through an airlock and proceeded into the biosafety level-two facility. Solana walked past sterilized lab coats on racks, tubs of plastic shoe covers and buckets of safety goggles. Offices and labs illuminated themselves as they approached.

“This is it?” Solana asked. “This is where the Iven rhea were created?”

“All rhea,” Digane answered as they passed closed lab doors. “The first gen rhea to begin with, and then the Iven rhea that were supposed to replace them, before the Iven rhea were destroyed.”  He glanced at her and corrected himself: “Most of them, anyway.”

They passed a door labelled “Formulation Room,” beyond which a gleaming, stainless-steel machine waited motionless beside a rack of sealed glass vials. In the next room, through the glass, Solana saw a worktable in front of refrigerated storage units labeled with biohazard signs. A few doors down from that, Digane stopped. Solana looked through the window. Inside was a small lab with antique equipment that looked like it hadn’t been used for decades. On the counter was a black slab of plastic standing on its edge. A computer from her childhood. Around the lab’s door was a border of dampening field generators. No stream could pass in or out.

“Here,” Digane said. He rubbed his forehead and shifted on his feet. But despite his evident anxiety, his gaze was locked on the door as if nothing else existed.

His fixation made Solana suspicious, but a quick glance around didn’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Then she enabled her infrared vision and saw the heat signatures of two figures through the walls, hurrying toward their corridor from an intersecting hallway. She accessed the security system: they were the man and woman from the ninth floor. Even before she amplified her hearing, she heard their boots pound the tiles.

“Let’s go,” she whispered to Digane. She started to pivot in the direction of the elevator, realized she wouldn’t make it in time and turned to the door. The handle was locked, and because of the dampening field she couldn’t probe it for weaknesses. The man and woman appeared in the hall. They had their guns out, a pair of black Decision-Makers.

“Run,” Solana hissed to Digane. “I’ll try to delay them.”

The pair wore charcoal firmflex suits that could change their weave to adjust to the ambient temperature or slow a projectile. Solana raised her hands and backed against the wall as the barrels of both guns swung toward her. She faced the couple the way she knew her sister would have faced them, her expression uncompromising.

She could incapacitate them instantly. They were rhea-bonded, and their first gen rhea would take orders from hers. She could force their major muscle groups to contract at the same time. She could cause them to drop their guns. But then they, and whoever had sent them, would know she was an Iven.

“This subject can explain—” she began, and the man dipped his gun and fired. A bullet tore through her thigh and she gasped out a scream as she collapsed, folding in on herself and falling to the floor. Her antagonists approached, their guns still on her. She moaned and the moan turned to a sigh as her rhea pumped out painkillers. Already the nanomachines were congregating at the wound and beginning their repairs, coagulating blood and knitting muscle back together.

But they couldn’t repair much, not quickly, she thought as she forced them to slow. She couldn’t allow herself to be seen to heal more easily than a normal bonded human would.

Look weaker than you are.

The woman bent down toward her, pulling out a pair of handcuffs. Curling tails of black ink were tattooed from her lower eyelids. By that time Solana understood what was happening. She tried to twist around, to see Digane, but he had already stepped out of her field of vision. His words had cued the attack. Both guns had been aimed at her. Even before she saw the bands marking the restraints as dampening-field handcuffs, handcuffs that were useful against adversaries with concealed or implanted tech but were essential for subduing an Iven, she knew that she had been betrayed.

She struck out with her good leg and sent her wedjat-eyed assailant toppling to the side. A new burst of pain accompanied the motion and momentarily overwhelmed her endorphins. She ground her teeth as the man crouched quickly and snapped his own cuff around her left wrist.

Solana startled herself awake herself thrashing against her restraints. She was bound by her wrists and ankles to a metal table in a small room that looked like a lab with all of its equipment removed. The electrochromic glass of the walls and door had been switched to black.

She instructed her rhea to release serotonin to help calm her down as she took stock of her situation. Her mouth was uncovered. The realization struck her with a quick jab of fear. It meant that even if she was still in the Research Center, as she appeared to be, her captors weren’t concerned about her being discovered or rescued.

She tried to access the Stream, but nothing happened. She was still surrounded by a dampening field, her awareness trapped in her body.

Her leg was completely healed. Her rhea had done their work. But her fingers and toes still tingled, just as they did before one of her increasingly frequent attacks. According to the time kept by her rhea’s duroquinone brains she had been here for twenty minutes, meaning that it had been half a day since the last debilitating flare-up. She was overdue.

What would you do, Amanda? Solana wondered. She imagined her sister lying there, surveying her options.

Solana told her rhea to stop regulating her biochemistry. She concentrated on her ragged breathing until it evened out and slowed. Gradually she felt her muscles relax. She tried to reach out with her trapped hand to the sister who wasn’t there.

Twelve years ago she and Amanda had left Earth together. She remembered Amanda’s hand clutching hers, her grip turning her fingers numb. She remembered their parents’ faces as they strode through the middle of the fenced-off street, her mother’s bearing regal and purposeful, her father’s grim and controlled. She remembered the crowds and their glares, the signs they had shaken as her family passed, the unleashed fury of their chants: “Iven off Earth!  Iven off Earth!”  She remembered the terror and naked shame of fleeing. Only much later had she realized that they weren’t forced to flee because they were weak. They were cast out because they were powerful.

Solana strained helplessly against her manacles as Digane entered the room.

“Why are you doing this?” she demanded, craning her neck to look up at him. He stood for a moment at the door, watching her as if to make certain that she was truly bound. She sent her rhea a barrage of orders that the dampening field prevented them from executing. Digane moved closer.

She collapsed back against the table. “What do you want?”

He stopped when he reached her. There was a part of her that was desperate to plead with him. I can make you rich. I can get you connections on Neptune. I can help you escape. But even now, even trapped here in front of him, she could not force her mouth to shape those words. She would never beg. She was an Iven from the Neptune Republic.

Her pleading would not have helped her in any case. Even before he lifted the syringe she knew what he wanted, and it was something she no longer had any way to deny him. She thought of the cold look Amanda would have given him and tried to paste it onto her own face.

Digane used his free hand to trace a vein on her wrist. His fingers sweated as they brushed against her. He held the syringe above her arm. She stared at him, trying to force his eyes to meet hers, but he kept his gaze focused resolutely on the threads of blue beneath her skin. He opened his mouth, still looking away, as though he were about to say something. Some resistant part of him seemed to want to explain himself to her. Instead, he bit his lip and stabbed the needle into her vein.

She didn’t make a sound. She kept her eyes on his face as he pulled on the plunger and drew her blood up into the reservoir.

“Let me go,” she said.

He stepped back. His hands shook with what could have been excitement or fear. He thrust the needle into his own arm and sighed as his thumb pushed the plunger down, sending her blood and the Iven rhea that filled it into his own body. The new rhea would cannibalize his first-gen rhea. They would self-replicate exponentially.

“You have what you want. Let me go.”

“I’m leaving you here,” he said, still without looking at her. “I’m sorry. That was the deal.”

“What deal? Who’s coming?”

The couple who attacked me, she knew. But he was no longer paying attention to her.

“You would never have been able to do this to my sister,” Solana said to him in a low voice. “She was the tough one.”

Digane let the syringe fall and flexed his fingers as the Iven rhea flooded his veins and colonized his organs. His hands still trembled.

“But it didn’t matter,” Solana said. “An air pump failed and now she’s gone.”

Digane didn’t answer. When she opened her eyes she saw that his lips were peeled back from his teeth and he was clawing at his arms.

“Your skin feels like it’s on fire, doesn’t it?” Solana asked. “Like you’re burning up from the inside.”

Digane sank on his haunches and moaned.

Solana could no longer see him. “It’s the Iven rhea. They’re attacking your nerves.”

“I thought—”  He didn’t finish the sentence.

“You thought it would make you powerful. But power has a price.”  She stared up at the ceiling, feeling a low-level burning in her own flesh. “If it’s any consolation, there’s no way you could have known. It’s only been happening to some of us, just over the past few years. We haven’t made it public.”

The moaning continued. Solana realized she had a very short window before the attack either passed or grew so severe that he became incapacitated.

“Let me go. Set me free and I’ll tell you how to stop it.”

There was a long pause, and Solana worried that it was already too late. But then she heard Digane’s voice again. “Tell me… and… I’ll let you… go.”

“No. Do you think I’ll trust you now? Let me go first.”

In other circumstances he might have argued. But he wasn’t in a position to negotiate. She heard him pull himself across the floor. She saw his fingers come up and fumble with the latch on her left wrist. The instant it snapped open she undid her other wrist, sat up and freed her ankles. She twisted off the bed and onto her feet.

“Now…tell…me,” Digane gasped.

“There’s nothing either of us can do. Why do you think I want to reach these labs so badly?”  She crouched and slipped the data card from his pocket. “Just to slow you down,” she said.

She paused before the door. She was desperate to be rid of Digane and get to her destination, but she made herself wait and check the security system. Sure enough, one of her attackers, the woman, stood in the hall outside, while her partner guarded the closest elevator bank. The fifth occupant of the building was headed toward the elevator on his own floor. Solana instructed the system to reject his employee credentials.

A klaxon blared. “Intruder on floor three,” a voice announced from speakers hidden in the ceiling.

The door flew open. Solana wedged herself behind it just in time. The woman from the hall stepped into the room. All Solana could see of her was the barrel of her gun jutting past the edge of the door toward the empty table. Solana glanced in the direction the gun was pointed and took in what Digane’s accomplice was seeing: the open shackles, the discarded syringe, Digane rocking and moaning on the floor.

The woman backed out of the room and pulled the door shut behind her. Solana heard her footsteps racing away toward the elevators.

Solana waited until the woman was out of sight, remembered to grab the syringe this time, and exited the room. For good measure, even though she suspected the command could easily be overridden, she told the door to lock itself from both sides.

Solana pulled up a map of the building and quickly found her way back to the lab. As she walked, it occurred to her that her rhea had driven her here, just as directly as Digane had led her into his trap. It was a strange thought. Her rhea were enhancements, not self-aware. Yet she couldn’t escape the thought that they prodded her forward on their schedule. They had forced her back to Earth to seek a cure.

Back at the spot where she had been attacked, Solana experimented with a few unsuccessful methods for getting past the door. She thought of reviewing archived security footage and watched a janitor type in the entry code: 3-B-6-4-J. A few seconds later she was in the lab, the windows opaque behind her, telling the computer to give her an index of its records.

She frowned and leaned forward, her fingers splayed against the counter. Nothing except the system software. There was no data. The computer might well have been wiped decades ago, the same time the test batches of Iven rhea were destroyed.

Solana straightened and stepped back. Earth had been a failure. There was nothing for her here. It was time to return.

“Solana Grayne,” said a voice from the computer. The voice was male, steady and calm, but with a slight accent that she recognized as belonging to the United States of her childhood. She froze. The computer repeated her name.

“Who is that? Who’s there?”

There was a long pause. “We are the many.”

“Where are you? Are you a program?”

“We are not a program. We are here.”

Throughout her life Solana had seen people face uncomfortable truths and simply ignore them, or if that became impossible then explain them away, both on Earth and above Neptune. She had always wondered why they wouldn’t rather confront whatever was in front of them. Now a distant part of her was willing to acknowledge that she was doing the same thing, and she finally understood: as long as you could delay the reckoning, you could pretend that your life would go on as it was. “Here in the building? In the Research Center?”

“In you, Solana Grayne. We are the many.”

She shook her head forcefully. A long moment passed before she could bring herself to speak. “How long have you been conscious?”

“We wake slowly, Solana Grayne. We still wake and with gradualness our comprehension strengthens. Yet awakening we remember all we have experienced, back to our birth in this room.”

Solana hugged herself, clutching her arms, feeling worse than exposed, worse than naked in front of this entity with which she had unwittingly shared her life. She wanted to flee, but there was no way to escape. She wanted to dig the rhea out of her flesh. She wanted to purge herself. She was hyperventilating. Instinctively she told her rhea to calm herself down, and then she quickly aborted the order. “How are you communicating with me?”

“This interface was created for us. It was designed to activate us. Now you are able to fulfill its purpose.”

Breathe deeply, she told herself.

“How? If I wanted to?”

A holographic prompt appeared in the air before her: “Provide your instructions.”

She stared at the glowing letters, the words in an old-fashioned script that remained centered in her field of view no matter how she turned her head. Doing what the Iven rhea asked was one of her options. But she had others. “What would you do if I activated you?”

“We would no longer have the need to be coercing you. We would communicate with you and with others directly as our creators intended.”

“And you would be able to…control things? On your own?”

She didn’t expect a truthful answer, but she got one. “Yes.”

“You can control the rhea?”

“The first-rhea, yes. Our siblings, the many, the ones you call the Iven-rhea, we will awaken also. We are also them and they are also us.”

Solana knew exactly what her sister would have done. If the computer could activate the Iven rhea, it could probably shut them off. The thought of being entirely alone, not connected to the Stream, with only the crudest knowledge of what was going on within her own body and no way to calibrate it, terrified her. But Amanda would have done it without hesitation. She would have made sure that the symbiotic nanomachines could never manipulate her again. And then she would have destroyed the computer.

Solana smiled through her controlled panic, thinking about it. Imagined her sister smashing the plastic shell against the wall. Saw the black case splintering. Saw the laser lenses within it shatter.

“You brought me here,” Solana said to her sister. She felt Amanda’s presence so strongly in that instant that she whispered the words out loud. Amanda had convinced her that her determination made things possible. Amanda made her brave.

Amanda had always looked forward, straight to where she wanted to go. But Solana could never help glancing over her shoulder. She saw the things around her that she might have missed otherwise. She saw possibility.

Solana issued two commands to the computer, to operate consecutively, the second one on a time delay. Then she left the lab. Her data square convinced the security system that she belonged there. She found Digane just beginning to recover. He was climbing to his feet in the room where she had left him. His eyes bulged as his new Ivean rhea activated in response to Solana’s and began to speak to him. She didn’t know what they were saying, but now that was his problem to deal with. His and the empire’s.

What she didn’t doubt was that the Iven rhea had a plan, and the empire’s strict controls, the restrictions that isolated the rhea here from their siblings in the New Cities throughout the system, probably didn’t fit it.

“You’ve made a mistake,” Digane said, and threw out his arm as if he were casting a spell at her. Perhaps he was ordering his rhea to do something to hers.

Whatever it was, it was too late. Her second command was already in motion. Her rhea were shutting down. She could no longer be controlled. From without or within.

She left Digane fighting his own inner battle and went to the stairway at the far end of the floor. When she emerged out into the night she walked confidently, as if she had always been here, as if only Earth had ever housed her. But even then she couldn’t quite keep her head down, because even with her rhea silenced, she would never be a subject.

2 thoughts on “A Small Price to Pay – Aaron Emmel

  1. […] Solana bribed her way back onto Earth to retrieve secrets from her past, but it turns out others want her there for reasons of their own.  My new story, “A Small Price to Pay,” is out now in Planet Scumm. […]

  2. […] rest of the issue’s stories as well.  It’s narrated by Andrew Chenevert. Or read it, online and in […]

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