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Excerpt for Level 28 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

LEVEL 28


BY JACK CROSS





Copyright 2018 Jack Cross

The author asserts his moral rights in the work.


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Published as an eBook by Buzzword Books Australia 2018

This edition published by Buzzword Books at Smashwords 2018


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'The institution of slavery is not unique to human societies. No fewer than 35 species of ants... depend on slave labour for their existence. The techniques by which they raid other ant colonies to strengthen their labour force rank among the most sophisticated behaviour patterns found anywhere in the insect world. Most of the slave-making ant species are so specialized as raiders that they starve to death if they are deprived of their slaves (and end with) a degeneration so advanced that (they) can no longer even conduct raids.'

Edward O. Wilson, 'Slavery in Ants', Life at the Edge,

Scientific American.



'Contemporary culture requires automatons. People are undoubtedly losing their acquired habits of independence and turning into automatons, into parts of machines. Man is becoming a willing slave. He no longer needs chains. He begins to grow fond of his slavery, to be proud of it. And this is the most terrible thing that can happen to a man.'

G.I. Gurdjieff, quoted from In Search of the Miraculous,

Routledge & Kegan Paul





31ST CENTURY — YEAR-SLOT 3010.



CHAPTER 1.


The Sex Corps training hall contained twelve dedicated rows. In each was a naked teenager, physically perfect, with programmed genetics.

The infowall showed the date: 2usday Aug 3010 and the Corps motto: De gustibus non est disputandum (there is no accounting for taste).

Mark5 finished his reps and the Mech cleared him to move to the next station. He ambled, sweating and pumped, to the hologram booth.

It showed a fem elder on a bed, wearing a tank top and cling pants. She looked evocatively at him then began to strip.

He'd seen her before. They must have loaded an old file.

To his right, in row Fellatio G, Vita2 practised her deep swallowing. Like all girl recruits, her ovaries had been fried.

To his left, Tom3, in Catamite E, straddled the bolster with the adjustable dildo. As he lowered himself he winced and Mark5 suppressed a smile. A smile meant a month-slot off one's span. To laugh was a capital offence.

His own stream, Geronto F, trained him to crave fem elders over eighty.

His session Mech turned on its metal ball castors and extended its shock prod. 'Eyes front.'

He looked dutifully back to the hologram. No point in getting zapped.

The now-naked fem knelt facing him—a thin crone with flaccid dugs. She lifted them forward as if wanting them autographed then licked two fingers and touched herself between her legs. Then with lugubrious coquetry, she flopped on her side to show her arse.

He liked her as much this second time and wondered if she were a Hubot. The latest versions were deceptive—designed with lifelike physical flaws.

One of the Mech's six camera-eyes lowered to check his reaction.

He said, 'I've seen her before.'

The machine clicked. 'Duplication confirm.'

'Dup? Why?'

'Not estab.'

Mechs were info-regulated—never told you much.


After the session, they deployed to abluts. He shared a turntable with Vita2 and eyed her body as they revolved in the jets. She was tall, stunning, conceited and eager to inform on anyone.

She simpered at the grey concrete walls, the mist glistening on her flesh. 'They're watching us. I feel it. The elders admiring... selecting us.'

It wasn't Safespeak. She reeked of obedience, her compliance enhanced by Zycopredconpankrozolan. Zonk, as they called it, was supposed to increase sex response but seemed to induce a daze that made the whole Corps dutiful. The stuff did not affect him but, for safety, he acted the part.

They walked past the drying vents to the kit room and stood spread-eagled while their uniforms reformed around them. The younger recruits rode the easy-slider back to barracks. The seniors—now eighteen and day-slots from graduation—remained. Their pre-alerts told them they had four mins to get to the lecture hall.

The infowall was screening a familiar vid on mind chips. It showed a schematic head cut away to display the chip lodged near the centre of the brain. They'd seen it often but meekly watched it again.

'…and your chip,' the audio said, 'has multiple uses. As well as pre-alerts, data storage, cataloguing, cross-refs, mem, and interpers comms, it has a punitive function—can deliver agonizing brain pain...' The schematic face grimaced as shock lines radiated from the chip.

'…and even has a small charge,' V2 mouthed reverently with the audio, 'available for capital offences.'

The schematic chip exploded in the schematic brain. The schematic eyes blew out and hung down the schematic cheeks.

It switched to a real life view of a cadet dashing along a corridor. The time code at bottom left showed 1503.

'Cadet unit John23,' the audio said, 'is three mins late for his lecture. It's the third time this day-slot he's failed to report on time.'

It cut to a close-up of him.

A muffled detonation.

The force of it blew out his left eye and his mashed brain spattered the wall.

It looked bad the first time he saw it, but now seemed vaguely comical. He checked his blank safe-face expression. Humour did not Conform.

The pre-alert repeated in their mind chips. They had precisely two mins to be seated in the Social Conditioning Campus lecture hall.


Pitho, their tutor in Ethics and Conduct, stood behind the lectern. She contained no organic matter so had no need to sit. She resembled a fifty-year-old academic. Faded uniform and frizzed hair—thin in patches because Maint hadn't bothered to renew it. Despite her ramshackle exterior, her software upgrades were impressive. Nothing got past her. She could reduce a dissident to meatpaste.

As they settled on the tiered benches, two girl units whispered together. Pitho opened her mouth and mimicked an alarm bell. They covered their ears for protection until she stopped the din.

Silence again, except for the ceaseless drone of the aircon.

She said, 'Now I have your attention, you may recite the creed.'

The troop abruptly stood and chanted the familiar words:


Whosoever shall survive, it is needful that he comprehend these facts:

Historical democracy, that promised individual freedom and rights

Led to the consumerist myth of progress on a finite planet.

Greed, nepotism, opiates, corruption.

Corporate and military cartels.

Technology replacing employment.

Slogans replacing thought.

Deterioration of language. The post-literate shift.

Failure to tackle long-term threats and economic decline.

Resulting in doctrinal fanaticism, ideologies becoming religions.

Vandalized universities, poverty, crime, pandemics.

Exponential births, migration waves, disease.

End of biodiversity. Energy embargos.

Peak pop. The sterilization backlash.

Destruction of infrastructure, famine, water wars, pandemics.

The sickness tax. Exhaustion of resources.

The Hundred Year's Conflict.

Abandonment of solar system colonies.

Consump of last vertebrates, cannibalism, global war.

Culminating in Nuke 4, the seismic shift and the Northern Hem dead zone.

Thus, we units, wishing to be delivered from these errors, now affirm:

That human failings are intractable and destructive. And that the profanities of Religion, Art, Philosophy and Hope end objectivity and destroy civilizations.

And that these factors must be cauterized by adhering to the tripartite Unity. CONFORMITY — UTILITY—RIGOUR. Each precept an aspect of the next.

All praise be, then, to CONFORMITY, UTILITY, RIGOUR.

Not three Precepts but one that redresses all human flaws.

In the name of gerontocracy and Free Alliance Civilization.

Amen


After the creed came the invocations. The Hubot droned on a deep reverberating note, 'Cursed is he that perverts the judgment of these Precepts.'

'The students responded: 'Cursed.'

'Cursed is he who trusts human reason.'

'Cursed.'

'Let organic reason be accused and let us return to the guiding restraint of the consecrated Precepts with all attrition.'

'Amen.'


The troop stood, heads bent, until their tutor told them to sit.

'So today-slot's subject,' she said, 'is Practical Six: Compliance, Inquisitorial. But, first, some revision. And no chip screening. Organic mems only.' She was alluding to memory files loaded in their mind chips.

She gesture-controlled the infowall and it flashed up the first image.


CONFORMITY—UTILITY—RIGOUR


The hallowed words appeared on the familiar background of a waving Free Alliance flag shot from low angle against a pristine sky. The symbolism was lost on them. They had yet to feel a wind or see a sky. The Palladium was far below ground to shield them from rads. But the colourful flag invoked awe, as did the blue of the sky. Because, from their parthenogenesis till that moment, everything around them had been coloured an unremitting battlewagon grey.

Grey were the rough-rendered walls.

Grey were the endless, featureless tunnels with their sighing reticulated air—with their light fittings so far apart that they barely relieved the gloom.

Grey were their plates, benches, bed covers, uniforms.

Grey were their thoughts and dreams.

Pitho brushed a stray hair from one eye and began the tutorial:

'As flaws in human psychology destroy all idealistic constructs, we now have the Three Guiding Precepts of Entitlement Utilitarianism which...' She surveyed her dutiful audience. 'Continue... Vita2?'

The Nordic goddess rose and parroted what she had been taught, '...avoid organic irregs and confirm the evolution of the species.'

'Does any unit here disagree with V2's statement?'

No hands showed.

'Good. We move on. Today-slot, you'll see an example of judgment, which as you know, is no longer... what?'

'Adversarial,' V2 obediently said.

'Correct! And you will participate in a verdict, which relies on... Think! What do 31st Century judgements rely on?'

Gundi2 from Dominatrix B said, 'Plus-minus scores refined by definitions.'

'Yes. And definitions are a concern. Consider concepts such as freedom, justice, or the common good. What is good? Sex? Status? Security? Someone's loss that brings me gain? Respond.'

The effeminate Tom3 said shyly, 'Self-interest?'

'Exactly, T3. Perceptive.'

The lad flushed with delight.

'And self-interest is based on... what? Think!'

No one spoke.

'Yes. Tricky one that. It's mostly based on fear. Good is an individual construct sustained by whatever reinforces the self-defence mechanism called ego. Consequently, no unit does anything bad. We do what we perceive as good—for ourselves at least. Anything else is termed bad. Bad is something that goes against individual good. Understood?'

The girl from Femme J raised her hand. 'Bu... but, dear Conditioner,' her voice shook with nerves, 'what if one unit's good is b... bad for others?'

'So, if your elder whips or cuts you or penetrates you with her fist or other painfully oversized object, will you condemn her or passively submit?'

'Submit.'

'As you've been trained to.’

'But I've heard of an elder who... vi... violates five-year-old girls until they rupture, bleed and die. Proving that what is good for one unit is not always good for another. So w... wouldn't it be a greater good to stop him raping children in the first place?'

'No. Group support or altruism negates Palladium class distinctions and scores triple minus.'

'But isn't that... unjust?'

The Hubot stared at her impassively. 'Life is unjust from start to finish. For instance, it's based on reciprocal feeding.'

'I don't understand.' A familiar fall-back statement. You were allowed not to understand.

'Every life form eats another. Unjust! Parasites dissolve and drink the guts of living insects. Unjust! Organics die. Unjust! You can bleat about justice from an individual perspective but on a larger scale it has no meaning.'

'That's... b... bad,' the girl blurted.

'Emotional reactions waste energy, are Unutilitarian. Indignation doesn't Conform. Penalty: brain pain. I'd watch that. Remem your mission statement, which is...'

The students chanted in unison, 'To fulfil the tastes of the elders.'

'Which tells you what?'

They looked uncertain.

'Think, you gerontophilic dim-wits! What?'

No one spoke.

'It implies that sub-class organic units are eugenned as amenities for elders. And if that involves brutalizing scores of five-year-old girls, it Conforms. Pleasure Conforms. But whose pleasure? Conformity stipulates that classes are unequal before the law. So the pleasure of elder units Conforms, despite the pain of sub-classes that serve them.'

Mark5 wanted to pick his nose but fingers in nostrils did not Conform because nasal mucosa was permeable and transferred disease to the system.

'So there's nothing... bad?' The girl looked unconvinced.

'Objectively, no. The definition of bad is the consequence of good. But definitions are the bane of Ethics because broad concepts can't be defined. Consider Rigour. Generally this means severity, which implies indiff to pity. Obviously, savagery in war is essential and we condone brutality for pleasure...'

'Why?' Gundi2 again.

'Because of its Utility. When you lash your slaves, don't they enjoy it?'

'Yes, because it's a perversion of their sex drive. But to sadistically torture and kill...'

'...is a further perversion of the sex drive. The pleasure of elders Conforms. And, in this case, has Utility and Rigour. See your course notes on Survival of the Cruellest. Rigour implies severity. You look unsatisfied, girl.'

'I am.'

'Am am am am am am am am am am...' the Hubot repeated staccato.

Had her circuits fused? They gawked at her, dismayed.

She appeared not to notice and went on. 'However, today-slot, we're confining ourselves to score assessment. So...'

She lifted a finger. The infowall switched to a list of violations with their scores.


TRESPASS.... C- U- R+

THEFT.... C- U+ R-

TARDINESS... C- U- R-

ART... C- U- R+

RELIGIOUS BELIEF... C- U- R-

SEDITION... C- U- R-

HOMICIDE... C+ U+ R+

INFORMING... C+ U+ R+
LITTERING… C- U- R-

'You'll notice curious things here. For example, Tardiness or unpunctuality scores minus for all three Precepts. I'll relay this list to your mind chips. Does anyone not understand?'

No one spoke.

'So Tardiness and Littering are as appalling as Religion and even worse than committing Art—which, at least, gets a plus for determined application. Note that Murderers and Informers have the most positive score. They Conform, have Utility and Rigour. So the three rules give us what? Come on, you dozy lot! Someone? Speak!'

No one dared.

She pointed to a girl. 'Una1? You've said nothing for four lectures. Curious, for one so clever with her tongue. And your systolic has just jumped from 135 to 170. 'You're anxious—which doesn't Conform. The three Precepts give us wha... wha... what?'

The girl from Cunnilingus H stammered, 'Instant judgement, dear Conditioner.'

'Correct. Instant deterrence, prevention, retribution and reform—making it the most efficient punitive system devised. We'll now see how it works in practice.'

She gestured to the floor in front of her. Part of it dissolved and a transparent cylinder rose through it. Imprisoned inside was a creature they knew. W30, a W-class worker from the wrecking bay—a sluggish, base-level drudge who shifted obsolete machine parts to the hoppers.

He looked around, dazed.

Pitho said, 'Welcome, W30, to mind-grind central. I think you know those here.'

He did. But not in their smart uniforms. He knew them as wreckers in soiled fatigues—because each Corps had ancillary tasks and theirs was Disassembly. They spent 4hursday and 5riday wrecking obsolete drones and robots, helped by him and the other sterile, tongueless, brain-dead shifters in his team.

'W30,' Pitho told them, 'has found something he liked and has kept it. Show them!'

The squat figure reached into a pocket of his filthy boiler suit. He held the coveted object forward—the gold-plated core of a logic-override adapter from a Mech.

Pitho asked, 'Why on earth do you want that? You can't use it for anything.'

The base-classer's crude features crumpled and he snivelled.

'Is it because it's shiny?'

He nodded, shamefaced, and wiped his nose with a three-fingered hand.

'So unit W30 stole something shiny,' she told them, 'simply because it shines. It's not worth much but it's still classified as theft. In other words, C minus, U plus. R minus. It's C minus because the act doesn't Conform. It's U plus, because, to him at least, it has Utility. Why? It makes him happy. And it's R minus because no Rigour was required. At least, not in this case. He simply found it on the floor and picked it up. Verdict?' She looked up at the tiered rows. 'Anyone? Come on. Think! Think!'

Gundi2 raised her hand. 'Not a capital offense, because of U plus. The two minuses reduce his span by two thirds.'

'Correct. The specified lifespan of W-class is twenty-two years. As W30 is now fifteen, his residual span will be reduced by four years.' She turned to the creature. 'Don't snivel. It's all right. You can keep it. It's yours for the next three years.'

The relieved trog clutched the adapter to his chest. The full implication had eluded him.

Mark5 was impressed at the clever way she had dealt with him.

The cylinder sank back through the floor, which solidified again, and she moved back behind her lectern. 'Questions? And as you're just day-slots from graduation, these may be general if you wish.'

Gundi2 spoke again. 'Who monitors W30s span?'

'W-class spans are monitored by Euth Division, Supply Sector.'

'Not Conditioning Sector?' She looked perplexed. 'Why Supply?'

'Irrelevant.'

'And how will he die?'

'Not conducive to edification.'

Mark5 wondered why the girl with the sleek muscles was talking so much. Because not to participate was noticed? Because it was prudent to ask a question? Eugenics had provided her with a fine Germanic brain so perhaps she'd seen something he'd missed.

U1 opened her wide, attractive mouth and spoke again. 'Excuse me, dear Teacher...'

'I'm not your teacher. That word's a degraded construct. I'm your Conditioner. What am I?'

'My Conditioner.'

'And what, in your opinion, is the purpose of conditioning? Or, to address its communicative aspect, propaganda?'

'To deceive?' the girl ventured.

'Correct. Because, without deception, ideology perverts practicality—a maxim not immediately apparent. I'll load it to your mind chips for you to ponder during downtime. So! U1. Your question was...? Continue.'

'Why do we have to learn so much when we're just commissioned to pleasure elders?'

'There's a reason.'

'May we know it?'

'Not now. But some units will find out later.'

The pretty girl frowned. 'May I ask a further question, dear Conditioner?'

'Don't ask if you can ask a question. It contravenes Rigour. Just ask.'

The girl flushed. 'Why are we only taught History, Conduct, Language and Sexuality? Why not Coding, Resources...?'

'One: Your span's too short to include those disciplines. Two: We covered this matter in History of Communication. To recap: Universal knowledge and communication destroys central control. And effective streaming implies knowledge specialization. Example: an organic in Supply has no need to study Deviance and Sexual Anaesthesia.'

Gundi2 spoke again. 'So why do we have to learn so much stuff that doesn't concern the sexual act? And, if we have to, for some reason, why not tell us things we want to know?'

'Such as?'

'Why elders avoid cosmetic enhancement? And how we die?'

Pitho inclined her head at the girl, as if examining a new species. 'You're smart, G2. And verging on dissidence—which has a double minus score and leads to sedition with triple minus. So I'd watch that, if you don't want to compromise your span.' There was no emotion in her caution. Hubots did not feel. She looked around. 'Any more separatist comments?'

No one dared raise an issue.

Then Sam7, the bull dyke from Les L, said, 'I've got one.'

'Speak.'

'How come M5, U1 and G2 have dents in the centre of their bellies when the rest of us don't?'

Pitho took a moment to answer. 'Parthenogenesis glitch. Anyone else?'

No hand went up.

'So! That's all we have time for this period. Tomorrow-slot, we have a core topic. The Sagacity of Inequality—the greatest good for the fewest number. Check your case notes.' She surveyed their eager, compliant faces, then intoned, 'De Gustibus!' on her thrilling base note.

The cadets repeated it in unison then filed out to the rhythmic monotone that served as the Corps anthem.

Mossads—mosquito-sized surveillance drones—hovered around the Seniors Mess. They made hardly any sound and were difficult to spot. The cadets, now in loose-sleeved matching gowns with automatic waist clasps, ate their dinner of processed worms, mushrooms and insect sal.

The harsh day-slot lighting had switched to night-slot glow, making the grey walls even gloomier. Walls that shape-shifted to form large relief letters that extolled the edicts of Conformity:


The elders are supreme. All that exists is their property.

All that elders decree, even if iniquitous, is law.

Sub-class organics will do all for the welfare of elders.


Mark5 took his food tube to a vacant table and wondered which unit would join him. He hoped it wouldn't be V2 because she'd see sedition in any remark and oblige him to Safespeak everything he said.

Instead, Gundi2 sat beside him. Another prob. She was too forthright.

She said, 'Hi, and banged her tube down. 'Curried worms. I like worms.'

He said, 'Worms are yum.' A text-book Safespeak remark.

'What did you think of the lecture?'

'Some lecture!' Another non-committal gem. His eyes were drawn back to the distracting the wall:


Only elders may have possessions and opinions.

Only elders have the right to privacy.

Shirk work and be minced.

Harm an elder and be minced alive.


She squinted around for Mossads. They seemed free of them for the moment. She dropped her voice to a whisper. 'Did you hear what Pitho said to U1? About deception? Remem? She told us she's programmed to lie! So we should question everything she teaches us. Everything in the creed. Because, the whole thing could be lies, don't you see?'

Despite his face-safe blank expression, the separatist comment shocked him. Perhaps he wasn't the only cadet impervious to Zonk.

The Mossads registered her whisper and three flew into eavesdropping range. She glanced at him directly, still determined to non-conform. She pressed her food-tube plunger button with her left hand—although all recruits were right-handed. He knew what that meant and reluctantly moved his left arm under the table.

She slipped a finger up his sleeve and gave his wrist two hard taps.

The code was simp once you memorised the number of each letter. P, for instance, was one hard, six soft. E was five soft. It was a slow, crude way to send a message but hidden from inquisitive drones.

Her message was: PIPE. 5RI.

She wanted him to meet her on 5riday inside the service pipe she was wrecking.

He didn't nod. They would have picked it up.



CHAPTER 2


The wrecking bay was cavernous and dark. Obsolete and damaged machinery clattered from chutes at the sides, piling junk so high it was impossible to walk to a wall. The overhead lights were too dim for detailed work so each boiler-suited wrecker wore a helmet torch.

Mark5 fitted the shears attachment to the handset. Cutting up obsolete Hubots was complex. You first had to strip the self-healing polymer skin, which resisted and tried to reform unless you held it back with clamps.

This collapsed figure in front of him was a battered H4—ex Combat Sector, Armaments—a brutal looking male with broken nose and powerful hands. The unit had no back to its head because its classified components were pre-junked but still had a talking reflex. '...Wongs ready to... fifteen frozen...'

He began the cut from the crutch, exposing the constrictor muscles of the stomach—another adaptive polymer that shrank when current was applied. He'd learned a lot about these bots simply by cutting them up.

'...Wongs ready to... fifteen frozen...'

'Wongs ready to what?'

'...fifteen frozen...'

'Frozen where?'

'Ivan bunker...'

'Ivan what?'

'Bu... un-unker bbbbbbb.'

He clamped the skin back to the diaphragm. 'What's a bunker?'

'...unker bbbbbbb.'

He didn't understand or need to. He knew that some Ivans and Wongs had survived the war and seismic shift but such knowledge lacked Utility because it was not his concern. Where and what it meant was a problem for Combat Sector alone.

He looked across at the construction pile—a stack for old wiring, props and pipes. The large access pipes lined with small tubes and cables had to be stripped for sorting. Raw materials were precious so everything was reused.

G2 crouched inside a pipe section, melting tubes off the inner wall. A front-end lifter Mech working near her made enough noise to drown out voices. He couldn't spot Mossads. There were few here because helmet lights made them shine.

He put the handset down, strolled over and crawled into her pipe—an act, he suspected, that lacked Utility, Rigour and Conformity. If the supervisor Mech spotted him, he'd need a plausible excuse—would have to say she'd called him over to help her with a snafu of some kind.

He yelled, 'What's up?'

The separatist raised her goggles. 'I'm going mad with questions. And I can't trust Pitho any more—now she's admitted she's programmed to lie.'

'What questions?'

'Like why can't we live past thirty?'

'Because limited span's the second part of pop control. And I guess we're not cute past thirty. Guess elders like fresh meat.'

'But they're allowed to live hundreds of years. If they can live for ages, why not us? Not fair.'

'Fair's a degraded concept. If the Precepts were fair, they wouldn't be effective. And how long do you want to hang around this cruddy place anyway?'

'The point is, they tell us lies—tell us everything except what's going on. And we can't even talk about it. That's why our head chip comms don't work.'

'They say they switch them on when we graduate.'

'Why not now? Because they don't want us scheming together?'

'Because universal info destroys centralized control.'

'Listen to yourself—repeating the crappy party line.'

'Why not? Makes sense.'

'It's lies, don't you see? She's confirmed it. They're leaving something out. They call it perfect society because everyone Conforms. But we live in this dugout like ants, eat like ants. Have streamed genes like ants. In fact we're worse off. Ants leave the nest. But we never see the surface or the sky.'

'Because of rads. We can't live up there. We'd fry.'

'Or that's what they want us to believe.'

'You want to see a Nuke4 winter? All grey clouds and ice?'

'They say that's what there is. But it could be sunshine and fresh air. We're slaves. Don't you get it? Amenities, she called us! Amenities! And when they're through with us, they turn us off.'

'Beats being W-class.' You couldn't argue with a mind that didn't Conform.

'Another thing. How many of us are left in this hole? I mean, how many actual organics?'

He shrugged, not caring.

'I mean, we hardly see any living beings. Just Hubots and Mechs.'

'And W-class.'

'Can't count the stupid Ws. They're sub-human.'

'Because they're eugenned that way. It's their grade. So what?'

'We're outnumbered is what. I don't think there are many of us left.'

'Because pop growth is Unutil—destroys biodiversity, exhausts resources, causes pollution, conflicts, poverty...'

'You're a walking training manual. I mean, have you ever seen an elder?'

'On vids and holos.'

'But never in the wrinkly flesh, right? Since the scoops dragged us out of the hystergel we've never seen an ungenned human!'

'Who cares? It works. We don't have to make things. Got a dial-up factory for that. Automation feeds us, sorts things out.'

'Great! And you're happy to die when someone tells you?'

'Utility. We're streamed. And without streaming, we're back... blowing up the world and stuff.'

She glared at him. 'I thought you were smart. Thought you were the one unit in this intake who could think. Instead, you just get with the program like a drone.'

'That's being smart, dumb-dumb! Way you're going, you'll shave years off your span. And why knock Conditioning Sector? They've tried everything else and ended up getting nuked. Anything's better than that. We need to give this a shot. It's the best way forward.'

'Best way? You've got to be kidding.'

For a dreadful moment, he thought she'd laugh.

Her eyes flicked to the side. 'Rusty's coming.'

He glanced behind him. The shift-supervisor Mech was trundling toward them, its six eyes out on stalks.

She pulled her goggles down.

He backed out of the pipe.



CHAPTER 3


His pass-out ceremony was not as he expected. There was no grand assembly with others. It was momentary—a model of Utility.

Lieutenant Mutia, the Hubot8 Corps supervisor of Sexuality and Deviance, confronted him in the main tunnel. 'Attention, Mark5!'

He stiffened, saluted, eyeing the nipples outlined by her cling top uniform. Her small uptilted breasts were the latest style. Not to look would have been impertinent.

'At ease.' She'd noticed his glance—Hubots noticed everything—and confirmed it with a whiff of musk. 'You are to graduate now. Fall in.' With the jigging walk that emphasized her neatly moulded arse, she led him past the distorting walls:


Individual freedom is forbidden.

All sub-class organics will be sterilized.

Sub-class pop limit is 2000.


They reached the portal of the Sanctum—an area used only for pass-outs. They entered a domed, lozenge shaped space lined with blindingly brilliant gold leaf.

Recessed shrines at each end enclosed backlit naked statues of elders. A man in one. A fem in the other.

She led him to the twice-life-sized sculpture of the imposing naked fem. Deep-lined but still beautiful face, long thin legs, spare flanks and sunken breasts.

They knelt on the plush cushion in front of it.

'Begin,' Mutia ordered.

He called up the Invocation from Integritas Femina on his mind screen and recited it:


Enchantress of the Third Age.

Repository of carnal joy,

I dedicate my lust to your practiced flesh.

Kiss your knowing eyes,

Fill the sepulchre of your thighs.


It went on for twenty mawkish lines. As the words began, the bronze sculpture softened and started to move. It sensually gyrated and finally squatted to display the slack flesh of its vulva. As the liturgy ended, it resumed its first pose and re-solidified—became as imposing and resplendent as it had been before the invocation.

'Well done, M5.' Mutia favoured him with a second whiff of musk and replaced his cadet flashes with twinkling trooper insignias. 'You are now a Trooper Class One. Congratulations. Your mission begins.'

He didn't know whether to thank her. Should one thank a machine? Since his parthenogenesis—his extraction from ectogen fluids fertilized from sperm taken from the Sex Corps Masturborium—there had been no role model except her. Just pedi-Mechs that his infant mind had forgotten, the Kindie-Bots who'd herded them in batches and the Mech Cub minders with their painful prods. Unlike the sophisticated Hubots, Mechs had only basic responses. So, since he'd joined the Corps at ten, she was the nearest thing he'd had to a mentor.

'Dear Tutor, do graduates come back here for reunions?'

'Negative.'

'So I'll... never see you again?'

'Unlikely.'

He felt he was losing a mentor and friend. Wanted to prolong the moment. Felt more should be said. 'Is there any advice you can give me?'

'You have twenty-two years left. Do not waste them.' She held out her hand and he shook it, feeling the same poly-smooth skin he'd cut up in the wrecking bay. Her shake was too precise to be organic and, in this silent, hallowed space, he heard the faint seductive whine of her servo-powered hydraulics.

He said, 'Perhaps I'll recyc you one day-slot?'

'Sentimentality! Remem, all emotions lie—lack Rigour, Utility and Conformity. You will not recyc me as your time at Disassembly is over. You are being assigned to Promass—a more responsible position. You leave tomorrow-slot at 0900.'

'Well... Well... thanks for your help over the year-slots.'

Her imperturbable expression matched his. 'You are smart, unit M5. You comply—which demonstrates Utility and Conformity. Continue to conform. You will go far.'

He had the urge to hug her. But that would have lacked Utility.



CHAPTER 4


He stepped into his dress blacks and said goodbye to the others. To V2, who was too obsessed with herself to notice. To U1, who gave him a shy look and a friendly punch. To G2, who said, 'Keep your eyes open.' And to the small, feminized T3, who jacked his shoes to stilt-max so he was tall enough to kiss him.

On 1onday, at precisely 0900 hour-slots, he met Mutia in the empty training hall. She pointed to the end bulkhead where an oval line signified a portal. 'Through there. You will be met.'

'Thank you, dear Tutor. Do you activate my head chip comms now?'

'Negative.'

'The manual says you do.'

'A Utilitarian lie. Remem, universal information destroys centralized control, as history proved with the net.'

'Net?'

'Check your 23rd Century notes, folio 976, The Comms Collapse. As for your chip, you have the possibility of limited access to specific persons. That is all Functionals are cleared for.'

'Functionals?' Another unknown term.

'No more questions. You will learn as you go. So go... before I log you on a tardiness charge!'

He put on his best safe-face, saluted her and walked toward the painted line. The bulkhead dissolved as he neared it, venting an industrial roar.

He stepped onto a caged-in metal catwalk that stretched ahead as far as he could see. Except for dim strip-lights at the top of the enclosure, the vast space was unlit.

Around and below him complex robotic systems worked on projects too encumbered by machinery to discern. He'd seen a vid on the Palladium's fully programmable, adaptable assembly but had never entered the factory. The noise was painful to the ear.

He walked ahead, cooled by fan-driven air that smelt of grease and warm circuits, occasionally passing huge columns that supported a roof he could not see. The long walkway, his fastidious mind told him, could have been fitted with some kind of conveyor. But, of course and if it were rarely used and that would be Unutil. He und it difficult to gauge the ethics of such an unfamiliar place.

Something scuttled toward him.

He stopped. He had no weapon. No way to avoid it.

It looked like a shiny black bin lid with waving wands in front. It mounted the side of the cage and clung motionless.

Then he saw what it was running from. Two rats with bodies as long as his forearm. He'd glimpsed one once in the Corps mess—the only non-human vertebrate he'd seen. They pounced—had it on its back in a sec. As they ate it alive, it waved its legs and hissed.

A Pestpurge beam, slanting from the ceiling, zapped the tableau in three staccato flashes—left a charred and desiccated pile. He edged around it and walked on.

Do not litter. The edict echoed in his head but saw no way to dispose of the mess.

Mins later he reached an intersecting walkway that stretched into gloom on both sides like the crossroads of a mechanistic hell. He checked his mind screen. No location guide. Just an arrow pointing ahead.

The walkway ended in a top-lit bulkhead painted like the Free Alliance flag. As he neared the portal mark, the bottom section dissolved.

He stepped into a wide arched tunnel and stared around, amazed.

It wasn't grey!

He'd entered an alternate world of pleasantly contrasting pastels—a boulevard of vibrant colours with concealed lighting and flagged floor. He'd never seen anything so grand. It was all he could do not to smile.

As the wall behind reformed the machinery roar cut off. Now the only the sound was his breathing and his steps on rich orange ceramic.

The centre of the tunnel was a garden strip with grass, bushes, flowerbeds, winding paths, bright red benches.

The plants looked faded. He felt a leaf. It seemed organic. He'd never touched a non-synthetic plant but had seen them in his mind chip history files. Green spaces like this, it said, had survived to the time of the trans-humanists.

He walked on, eyes peeled for Mossads, but the area seemed free of them. He came to a line of blank arches that appeared to indicate portals. The wall within one dissolved to reveal a trooper in Sex Corps dress blacks.

The man saluted him. 'De Gustibus.'

Mark5 returned the salute, thankful to find another graduate in this overwhelming, incomparable world.

'You're M5,' the trooper said. 'You're relieving me. I'm Pete6. This is Billet15. Fall in.'

He entered a short foyer-like space with a blank arch portal on each side.

'Males units right. Fems left.' P6 gestured at a right hand portal. It dissolved.

Mark5 followed him into a tastefully coloured berth. It had a bunk alcove, two chairs, a table and a desk with built-in comms and readouts.

'Food chutes that end,' P6 said. 'Ablutes the other. Automated. Nothing to do. You're living in a built-in Mech.' He strolled into the food alcove. 'Know how this works?'

'No.'

His host told the panel, 'Hot Zonk. Two mugs.'

A trap slid up and a tray holding steaming mugs projected.

He said, 'No more mess hall. That simp. All instructions on comms.'

They took their drinks to the chairs. As P6 stood in front of a chair, it rose to the level of his bottom. As he sat, it lowered and lengthened to accomm his feet. He said, 'Try it.'

Mark5 sat on the other chair. It cradled him and subsided to the right level and position.

'They're set on auto but you can adjust them. Better than mess room benches, huh?'

He nodded.

'The bunk's the same. Makes and changes itself. Place is self-cleaning. Crapper all but shits for you. Makes the Corps seem like boot camp, right?'

'Right.' Mark5 sipped his drink, assessing his guide. The man's mouth dragged unpleasantly to the left as he spoke and on his left third finger wore a ring inscribed with a "V". He seemed a loose talker, which was bad, and looked green around the gills as if too long away from the sun strips.

'So how come I'm replacing you? You posted somewhere else or what?'

'Affirmative, thank turd! Been rotting here since grad. Four cruddy years. Now she's transferring me. About bloody time!'

Rotting? He sensed danger. The word did not Conform. Was P6 another separatist? 'And she is...?'

'Your new shag. Ronnie. Short for Veronica.'

Shag? The word was not, as far as he knew, a permitted term for an elder. The discussion was verging on sedition. 'Her number?'

'Elders don't have numbers. Aren't enough of 'em for that.'

He kept his safe-face blank though the comment amazed him. 'Steep learning curve here.'

'No probs. You'll get up to speed.'

'So this… Ronnie… is transferring you to..?'

'Combat Sector. Always wanted a job zapping ferals.'

He sipped his Zonk, blank-faced but unsettled, trying to take it in. 'Do you know a Hubot called Pitho?'

'Every trooper knows that bag of cogs. She's a gutted H8 with a state of the art 10A upgrade!'

'That good?'

'As smick as they get on upgrades. But her hardware's ratshit. 'Not that it matters 'cause all she has to do is teach.'

'Mutia told me I'll be working in Promass.'

'Mutia's a doll. Loved her shimmy. Shame she's not a sim. ...Told you what?'

That I'll be working in Promass.'

'Right! Taking over my gig. Been stuck in Promass Control since I got here. Boring as talking to a Mech. Which is what you do there most of the time. You're now cleared to watch Func Central by the way.'

He gestured at the wall. A deep image news-cast appeared with a fem Hubot presenter talking to camera. '…and to guard against fallout from future conflicts, excabots are extending tunnels on levels 58 to 70.'

The shot switched to mining equipment melting a rockface.

'That's Channel One,' Pete6 said. 'It's a yawn. I stick on Ent Two.'

'Ent...?'

'Entertainment, dumb-dumb.'

He lifted a finger and the channel switched to a split screen program called WATCH YOUR BACK. On the left a naked, prepubescent girl was lost in a black-walled maze. Two naked male units in masks appeared behind her. One pinned her to the ground. The second raped her.

In the right-hand split, two more male units whipped an androgynous boy with metal flails. Both victims screamed.

At the base of the screen was an inset with scores—survival mins versus shock effect.

It was a betting game.

It was bad.

'Same old same old.' P6 flicked the thing off. 'The hard core stuff comes on after 2100.'

He said, 'Where do they get these units?'

'Ent section. Other part of Satisfaction Sector.'

'Never heard of it.'

'Be glad.


Ent work never recommend,

Short life with a nasty end.


'They also take Sex Corps troopers who don't shape up.'

'Nice! So back to this Ronnie? You'll just... leave her?'

'I've done my bit in the trenches. We're jack of each other anyway.'

He was alarmed at the man's indiff to Safespeak and the way he ridiculed the Precepts. 'Jack of her? I don't understand.' The standard fall-back response.

'At least she's better than the slots.' It was the slang term for the Male Masturborium. 'But we're totally over each other.'

He tried to process the remark but couldn't, so dropped the subject. 'I suppose you've met lots of elders?'

'Doesn't happen. I've met turd-face Sarg, next door. Seen a couple in the Rec bay. But they don't hang out with Funcs.'

'Funcs?'

'Functionals. F-class. That's us. One step up from W-class. We're sub-class, right. So don't think you're special. You're a grunt.'

'They didn't tell us that in the Corps.'

'Util. Need to know. The Utilitarian lie. Tell 'em nothing, take 'em nowhere, feed 'em turds.'

He realized the guy was way ahead of him in savvy and assumed that Conformity here might be less stringent. Still, it was safest to stick to what he knew. 'So Ronnie. What's she like?'

'You'll find out.' The other drained his Zonk and threw the mug at the wall, which absorbed it. 'I'll show you her pad.' He got up, walked through the dissolving portal and Mark5 trailed after him into her apartment.

The large space was too strange and colourful to take in at a glance. It was crammed with ancient artefacts like a museum. He'd never seen such antiquated furniture, odd articles and wall hangings. There was a glass-fronted display cabinet full of crude ceramic images. And a circular table covered with more. He stepped around a waist-high urn that held fronds of vegetation and tripped on matting. He'd never encountered a rug. 'What's all this?'

'She's into stuff she grew up with.'

He didn't have time to check his history notes, but recalled that centuries ago, before Hubots were perfected, units kept animals as pets. Dogs and what was it? It rhymed with mats. Rats? Bats? Cats? 'What are those?'

'Staffordshire dogs. They're ornaments.'

'What's an orn-ament?'

'A useless piece of crap that's takes up space and gathers dust. Her mum collected them around the end of the 21st century. They're the last ones left, so break one and you'll be minced.'

'Ever broken one?'

'No way! I like breathing.'

'So she's tough?'

He nodded. 'Right! Elders are damaged goods.'

Damaged goods? The words were unequivocal. P6 had criticized an elder! Where were the Mossads and Euth Mechs? What was going on? He searched for a Conformist reply. The best he could do was, 'Why?'

'Because they hate everything. They might have been normal once, but they've lived so long they're over of it.'

'How old's Ronnie, then?'

'Two-fifty-eight.'

'Two hundred and fifty-eight?'

'But, physically, she's stuck at eighty, like the rest. They were eighty when TR came on line. And it's kept them pickled at that age, more or less.'

'Pickled? What's TR?'

'Telomerase Regen. There's more to it than that. But that's the short handle for it.'

'And it stops them getting older how long?'

'Well, it's kept them around the same age for two or three centuries and counting. But they gradually get worse, although the brain survives more or less. And they can't do much about accidents. Last week-slot the boss of Excavation fell down a shaft. Baaboom! No cure for that. So no one's immortal, though they're doing their best. I reckon they're all mad—if you can tell from a sample of four.'

Elders mad? How could he say these things and not instantly be recyced?

In the corner of the big room, a compact Mech simultaneously dusted a vase, shelf and display-cabinet with wands fitted to extendable arms.

'She has her own Mech to dust things?'

'Elders can have anything they want. Beside you can't have vacs here. Too much crud. And a W-class can't do it. Too clum.'

The Mech waved an eye at him. 'Who is new person, kindly?'

P6 said, 'M5. Replacing me. Got it?'

'Logged.'

'That's 632,' P6 said. 'It lives in a bay next to the study.'

Mark5 waved to it, 'Hi there, 632.'

The Mech said, 'Unit M5 logged, kindly,' and flashed its pilot light green before its roving checking eye twisted back to the job.

He was still wondering why the man in front of him was unscathed—why the system hadn't zapped him. 'Don't see any Mossads here.'

'They're around. But not in here. I'll show you.'

He followed the trooper into an alcove. It had a strange padded chair and a desk made of ancient vegetation. He touched the grained surface, amazed.

'Wood,' P6 said. 'From a tree.'

Built into the desk surface was something familiar—a control terminal equipped with toggle circles, touch display menus, virtual faders...

'That's her snoop set,' P6 said. He pointed to a small ceramic dish holding a collection of Mossads. 'Cop that. Her personal air-force.'

'Who does she snoop on?'

'Dunno. Can't hack her system. Wanna look at the field of ops?' He led the way to the bedroom.

Again, the furnishings looked like throwbacks to some medieval manor. The bed did not float but stood on posts. The cupboards were made of wood like the desk and their doors were manual with knobs. He pulled one open to look at the construction. It had rusted metal plates top and bottom secured into the wood that swung on central circular metal pegs. And there were box like sliders with no tops that had to be pulled out. Bizarre. 'She likes these things?'

'Yup. Unlike the turd next door. He wants the latest.'

'Who's he?'

'Anton Sarg. Satisfaction Sector. He's the CO of Sex Corps and Ent.'

'How come they didn't tell us that?'

'Didn't tell us anything, the turds.'

Turds? This guy was something else. 'And where does Ronnie work?'

'Big secret. Far as I know, she's a researcher in Bio. She doesn't talk about it.'

'She's a doctor?'

'Doctor? That's a hoot.' He strolled back to the main room, avoiding the hideous china dogs. 'Well, that's about it for here. Now I'll show you the job.'

They went through the dissolving wall to the elegant boulevard with the garden and strolled to a transit bay. He'd seen the lozenge-shaped capsules but never ridden one. They were off limits to cadets. It arrived and they stepped inside it.

P6 told it, 'Promass Control,' and gripped a rail as the thing jerked. 'It's a fair way across and down so hold tight.'

The capsule accelerated sideward then descended at speed and stopped dead.

He held fast to the rail. 'How do these work?'

'On a grid. But they're a worry. Gridlock's part of the deal.'

They dropped again at an angle and stopped. Part of the curved side slid opened and the floor, projecting like an extended tongue, ejected them into a vestibule.

At one end were a scanning portal and a scrolling sign: ENTRY PROMASS CONTROL, SUPPLY SECTOR. AUTHED UNITS ONLY.

'You're cleared,' P6 said. 'Go through.'

They went through the check-point into the red lit control room. It had a wide observation deck with a long desk full of readouts and touch pads surmounted by rows of monitors. Two Mechs staffed the desk, rolling sideward occasionally to attend to blinking displays. There was also a girl unit seated on a responsive chair that crabbed sideward on a sunken rail. She had a green uniform with a flash reading Refurb.

'We've got a newbie. Mark5,' P6 told her. 'This is Miko1. She's taking the shift.'

The girl said, 'Hi, M5!' She had a stunning figure and, except for flawless coffee-coloured skin, looked Nipponese.

P6 bent and kissed her and she fondled his crotch, which, in a work environment, contravened Rigour. Then the chair whisked her to a flashing repeater at the end of the desk.

Beyond the sloping observation window was another great grey space supported by the same huge columns he'd passed in the factory. The area was filled with belts conveying Promass through flickering detector beams. Stolid three-fingered Workers waited impassively on grids.

'Right,' P6 said. 'I'll give you the overview.' He pointed at the panorama. 'Promass comes from the meat works and intensive farming bays to this central clearing area.'

'What are W-class doing down there?'

'They drag things off, clear up spills, take contams to waste bins. General crud.'

'Bots could do that.'

'Bots are lousy at general ops. You can't really automate—what do they call it—menial labour? But even dumb-dumb class organics can handle kick-shit stuff. For this part of the line, apart from quality checks, tech-intensive would be Unutil.' He pointed up at the screens. 'Those are the areas we monitor. Mushroom tunnels, snail, insect and worm farms, grain-crop aquaculture, fertilizer plant, abattoir...'

He stared at the displays. One scene stood out. Squat humanoid carcasses—minus heads, offal, forearms and lower legs—moved up a ratcheted chute. He pointed at it. 'What's that? The abattoir?'

'Affirmative.'

'We Promass W-class?'

'Yup. W-class is streamed for protein as well as hard graft. Compact. Good muscle tone. And they don't give a stuff 'cause they don't know.'

'What about us?'

'I told you. Nothing's wasted in this shithole because there's no way to get anything more. After our span, its off to the grinder.'

'So everyone eats everyone?'

'Why not? Communal act. We breathe the same air, don't we? Our shit ends up in the same fertilizer. Crops absorb the shit. We eat the crops. Crud out. Crud in.'

It meant that the food cycle conformed to both Utility and Rigour. He was comfortable with that. 'So what do I do here?'

'Okay! I'll upload the job description manual to your chip. But listen up now and you won't have a brain-fart later.'


They spent the next four hour-slots on the briefing. At the end, his mind was in overload.

'One more thing,' P6 said. 'The control room has Funcs on three shifts. And we're getting a new girl on Shift 2. You'll meet her when she relieves you. Okay, enough for one session. Back to base.'

As they rode the capsule back, the lighting switched mode to night-slot. They entered the billet and ordered food from the mess-chutes. P6 ordered a crispy-crunch fly-pie but he settled for vegetarian curry.

P6 leered at him. 'Don't tell me I've put you off Promass?'

'No. Just felt like something diff.' He munched the stuff which tasted good. They made sure everything tasted good. 'So do I meet Veronica... Ronnie now?'

'Not around. She's on a seminar.'

'When's she back?'

'On 3ednesday. And it'll take you that long to get used to the job. So I'll bunk down on her bed and you can doss in here. Get some shut-eye. Early start tomorrow-slot. Catch you at 0750.' He walked through the wall into her apartment.

Mark5 waited for the wall to solidify then decided to have a steam. He stripped, entered the ablute and revolved a long time under the jets. As the spray soothed his body, he wondered about it all. There was so much to absorb. He thought about the separatist, G2, and wondered what she'd make of this.

Fed and clean, he fell onto the bunk and was asleep almost before the temp-regulated cover enclosed him.



Next day-slot's session was hands-on. He had to sit on the sliding throne and attend to each crisis as it came. P6 jogged behind him, peering over his shoulder. The work mostly involved obvious decisions and the Mechs handled routine tasks. Still, the newness of it was exhausting.

Toward the end of the six-hour-slot shift, Miko1 entered the control room.

P6 said to him, 'You're holding the fort. Just want to check things with M1.'

The two of them vanished behind a battery of switching cabinets.

Mins later, he struck a glitch that stumped him. A Promass batch had registered contam and had to be junked from the line. But the W-class on that station was too busy peeing into a funnel to grab it. It meant either shutting down the conveyor or rerouting the batch. He paused the conveyor, left the moving chair and ducked behind the clicking cabinets to ask what he should do.

There was even less light there. He could barely make out what they were doing. M1 was on all fours and P6 was shagging her trim rump. Above the sound of switchgear he heard her whimpers and his grunts.

He wanted to admire her body but felt too unsettled to watch. He recalled that Article Three in the Sex Corps Manual stated: SEX WITH CADETS IS UNUTIL. Once, two girls from Cunnilingus F had been found in the fem's Masturborium. They had ignored the appliances and had connected mouth to vulva. They were carried out, eyes dangling, by Euth Mechs. Cock up, and you were recyced. Yet here were two troopers bonking?

P6 came with a grunt, disengaged and activated his pants-readjust. Unsatisfied, she beckoned Mark5, put her hands on her bare arse and spread her pubes.

He shook his head and cocked a thumb behind him. 'Got a prob.'

P6 followed him back to the desk, and peered at readouts. 'Simp. You don't stop the run, just use a scraper.' He started the conveyer again and pressed a winking control. Ahead of the moving batch, an angled scoop descended to the line and slid the pile onto the floor. The flustered W-class, urination finished, lumbered to clean the mess up. A scurrying creature reached it first.

'Rat,' he said. 'On the food line?'

'We get lots.' P6 pointed to the Pestpurge screen which showed the rodent's heat signature. 'Located.' A laser beam slanted from the roof and fried it. They heard the sizzle through the glass.

'Thanks for that.'

'No prob. Want to go back and finish her off?'

'What about Article Three? Or doesn't it apply to graduates?'

'This isn't the Corps, old mate. 'You can bend the rules a bit, if you're sharp. And Miko's from Refurb, not Sex Corps. But, if she doesn't turn you on…'

'I'll pass.'

'Your call.' A pitying look. 'We don't always have to go with 350-year-olds, you know. Young ones are tighter.'

Miko1 reappeared, her uniform reforming on her foxy frame, and gave him a sulky look as she took over the shift.


In the capsule on the way back to the billet, P6 coughed and leant on the rail. When they reached the boulevard tunnel with the garden, he gagged, and staggered to a bench.

'You okay?' Mark asked him.

'Not crash hot.' He was sweating and looked bad.

Mark5 had never seen anyone sick—assumed illness had been abolished.

He said, 'You need meds.'

'That's a hoot. No meds for Funcs.'

'Got to be something?'

'No way. We're expendable. Got it? Weaken, you're Promass. I'm fucked.'

A rumbling of machinery from further up the tunnel. Two Mechs approaching—one with crab-like claws, the other shaped like a garbage skip.

He tried to haul the trooper to his feet. 'Euths. You've got to get up.'

'Can't.' He flopped back on the bench. 'End of the line. Fuck! Fuck!' As the machines drew level, he jerked with pain and groaned.

The first Mech extended its pincer arms, picked the ailing trooper up like a parcel, swivelled and dumped him in the skip. The skip Mech closed its lid over him with a hydraulic hiss. They retreated the way they had come.

He watched them until they turned into an intersecting tunnel and were gone.

He was relieved that the system had junked the dissident shit but it concerned him to learn there were no meds.

As if on cue, the deforming wall read:


Sub-class illness is not treated. The ill are recyed.

Do not have sex with unauth partners.

Do not aid raped or brutalized sub-class organics.

Sub-class lifespans have limits. Accept death with composure.


He returned to his berth and fretted about his health. What if he got sick? Sick was bad.

He ate something and, still worrying, turned in.


Next morning, he got to Promass Control precisely at 0800, and found Miko1 on the same shift. That was good. At least there was a sub-class he could talk to.

'They've doubled us up?' she said. 'Why? And where's P6?'

'Got sick.'

'Sick is bad.'

He drew a finger under his chin. Safer to sign than say.

She raised pencil-thin eyebrows. 'What happened?'

'Euth detat recyced him.'

She shrugged and was feeling for his crotch when a buzzer shrilled at the end of the console. Her chair whisked her to the prob. He jogged after her to see what it was.

A contam alert. Another batch of Promass had registered unfit for consump.

'Weird!' She frowned. 'Not bacterial, parasite or fungal. Central source. Metallic. Reading as heavy metal. Dimethyl-mercury. Huh?'

She X-rayed the affected batch and adjusted the scan. A small circular object came in focus. She ordered a W-class to find it. They watched from on high as he gripped the ground flesh with a chain-metal gloved hand and use a hooked knife to probe. He found the object and dropped it into a scanner so that they could examine it clearly.

A ring.

She switched to progressive depth analysis. The sweeps showed a small hole in one section and a nanoscale electronic device. She said, 'Identifies as metal diffuser. Must have been Dm in the hole and, look, the thing's melted a tiny tube on the inside surface.'

'Remote control?'

'Can't tell. Timer maybe?' She readjusted the scan to low power. The ring was stamped with the letter "V".

'Oh shit!' She clapped her hands to her face. 'Ronnie must have seen us screwing! Shit! '


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