“Hi, beautiful,” Aedan greeted Xannissa. The quality of the lumigraph had deteriorated considerably since they passed Vandos. Despite this, seeing her nearly took his breath away.
“I hope you don’t mind if Atara stays here,” Xannissa told him. She and Atara were sitting cross-legged on the bed next to Aedan’s lumigraph which was doing the same. His image was less resolved than it had ever been, and parts of it flickered periodically.
“Not at all,” Aedan said, smiling. “Not at all. Atara’s practically going to be my sister-in-law. How are you both?”
“I got roped into a little side project with the omnimologists we have on board,” Xannissa explained. “They wanted my team to help them build a drone.”
“A drone with a mini jump drive.”
“Ahh, I see. That sounds more like you. How is that going?”
“We finished the prototype.”
“What? Already?” Aedan was shocked.
“It works, but in sim. We haven’t built the real deal yet.”
“Still, I’m impressed. I wish I had you around to help with my projects.”
“Don’t be too impressed. In our first series of sims, the drive burned out after one use, which is fine for our purposes.”
“What might that be?”
“Getting a certain something out of the hands of a certain someone.”
“So much mystery,” Aedan stated playfully. “I find that attractive.” Xannissa and Aedan shared a brief laugh.
“How are you?” Xannissa asked Aedan.
“I’m fine,” he told them through the distorted lumigraph. “I have a bit of a long story, so you can go next, Atara.”
Atara was staring into space when Aedan made his suggestion. She hadn’t felt herself since she had seen the lumigraph of her mother earlier that day. Xannissa placed her hand on her friend’s leg, easing the captain out of her thoughts. She now had to decide whether to tell them about Cassandra’s recording.
“I had a good day,” Atara told them. “Fiori gave me a lumigraph of my mother.”
“How very kind of her,” Aedan said. “I wish Klade’s archonoid was that thoughtful.”
“Is it all right if I see it sometime?” Xannissa asked her.
“Oh, sure,” Atara told her.
“I almost forgot to warn you,” Xannissa said, “but this might be the last time we can do sub-comms together for a while.”
“I see that,” Aedan said, noting the poor lumigraphic quality.
“We’re heading deep into Thalassia Orionis, so sub-comm relays are getting sparser.”
“I’m going to miss seeing you two,” Aedan told them. There was a brief pause before he said, “You know my Jackknife project?”
“I do,” Xannissa told him. “You mentioned it when we were on Earth.”
“Well, it’s getting really close now,” he said. “We’ll be transferring the project to licensing in two weeks. After that, I’ll have two months to move out to Lanan.”
“That’s great news!” Xannissa said. Her face lit up just like Aedan was hoping it would.
“I’ll live in an apartment until you get here,” Aedan told her. “Then, when you get back, we can try to find a place together, after we get married of course. Klade will be putting me on a new project at their office there, and I’ll be able to work closer with the Military.”
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Xannissa said. “Say, didn’t you have a long story to tell us?”
“You’re right,” he said. “It all started several days ago when I came home from work….”
The aerocar Aedan rode home—it was always a different one since he, like most workers on Earth, used a ride-sharing service—settled down within one of his apartment building’s shielded transit hubs. Once he had exited the aerocar and stepped away, the onboard integrated assistant thanked him for his continued patronage. The vehicle rose from its landing zone, drifted toward the airscreen, and flew out of sight.
Aedan walked through an archway to enter the building proper, down a central corridor to the lifts, and rode up to his floor. At his door, all he needed to do was present his face and have his remote identification somewhere on his person which, for most people who wore civilian REMASS like him, was embedded within the REMASS device itself.
“Hi, Aedan,” a Zelnaran woman greeted him as he walked in. She was curled-up on the couch watching lumivision on a wall-spanning lumigraph. Aedan made enough money from Klade to live alone, but with rent being as high as it was on Earth, it would have been nearly all he could afford to do. For years, he had been sharing a one-hundred-square-meter, two-bedroom apartment with a Zelnaran couple. It took the pressure off of them all, and he was less lonely than he would have been because of it.
“Good evening, Deya,” he told her. The door closed behind him.
“You look happy today,” she said after turning down the volume on the lumigraph. Aedan walked across the room and sat down next to her.
“My project manager called me today,” he said in a cheerful tone. “My project is wrapping up ahead of schedule.”
“The Jackknife, right?” she asked.
“Congratulations!” she told him with honest enthusiasm. “Are they giving you some time off?”
“Two months,” he explained, “but to move to Lanan.”
“To be close to Xannissa?”
“Right. So, I’ll be working at the Klade office there.”
“That’s great that they’re giving you that opportunity,” Deya said. “We’re going to miss you, you know?”
“I’ll miss you guys, too. Living with you has been a blessing and a pleasure. How was work today?”
“Oh… the usual,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Nothing exciting, but nothing to complain about. At least I’m earning a salary. Oh, I wanted to tell you this since you brought it up: Rom’s brother has been looking for a place to live. I think he could move in once you leave, so you won’t have to look for a replacement. Some things just work themselves out, it seems.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Aedan said. “Speaking of Rom, where is he?” Rom was Deya’s husband and a friend from a past job.
“He’s working over; deadlines and such.”
“I see,” he said, slowly nodding his head. “Pouring his brain out like the rest of us.”
“I’ll be right back,” Deya told him while she rose from the couch. “I want some coffee.” He watched the lumivision as Deya walked into the conjoined dining room. She was only wearing a top, and her blue skin shined in the light of the setting Sol beaming between two skyrises some distance away.
As she was sitting back down next to him, Aedan, appearing shocked, asked, “What happened to your skin?” The Zelaran’s skin and hair had turned an unnatural metallic silver.
“What do you mean?” she asked as she looked down at herself. Frantic, she dropped her coffee, breaking the mug and splashing it all over the floor which prompted Aedan to jump to his feet. She opened a lumigraphic mirror to inspect herself. Every square inch of her body was silver except for her eyes which were pure white sclera containing black pupils and no irises. Suddenly, Deya was holding her head in extreme pain and sliding down the wall next to her. Her normal deep blue pigmentation expressed itself for several seconds, but her body returned to silver again. Both hands were on her head now as the pain grew.
“What’s happening to you?” Aedan was frightened. He knelt down next to her, put an arm around her back, secured her legs in his other arm, and carried her to her bed. He laid her down with pillows to rest her head upon. “Are you a gynoid?” he asked her. She did not answer. Tears streamed down her face as her pain continued to worsen. Her skin flashed blue again, and quickly returned to silver. “I’m calling a doctor,” Aedan told her. He did not know what else to do.
“No!” she shouted, lifting her torso up and grabbing his arm. “You’re right. I am a gynoid. A doctor can’t help me!” Deya’s pain vanished in an instant. Her breathing was gone. Her skin started to lose its heat. She had no discernable pulse. Despite all this, she stared at him.
“Does Rom…?” asked Aedan.
“Yeah,” she said in a small voice, echoing shame.
“Are you okay?”
“My camouflage is gone,” she said. “My pain disappeared when I stopped trying to get it back.”
“I’m going to call Rom; tell him to come home,” said Aedan. Deya didn’t respond. She just collapsed her head back onto her pillow.
“Hey, Aedan,” Rom said. He was a jolly character even after spending hours behind a desk. His face was on a lumigraph. “What’s wrong, man? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he continued, half laughing.
“You need to get back here,” Aedan told him. He could see the concern on Rom’s face developing.
“What’s wrong?” Rom asked again.
Rom sat quietly for a moment. “Tell her I’m coming,” and Rom closed the call. Several minutes later, he barreled through the apartment door and sat beside his wife who had moved from the bed to sitting on the edge of the couch. He pried away her hands which were covering her face and embraced her in his arms until their heads were touching.
“I love you,” Rom whispered. “You’re going to be okay.”
To Aedan, she had seemed as human as anyone he had ever met in his life. Seeing her as a gynoid altered his perception of her as a person in a way he wished he could immediately forget. Ultimately, both Aedan and Deya were victims of her silver android skin that she had been forced to conceal in exchange for some semblance of normality in a not-indifferent Civilized Space. The Federation was progressive in its approach to synthetics relative to the other superpowers, but it was still not in a place to accept them with open arms. Despite his personal relationship with her, her silver flesh evoked negative feelings within him. How would strangers react to her?
“She needs to stay inside,” Aedan stated, “at least until she gets better.”
“But I have work tomorrow,” Deya told them.
“Sh-h-h. Aedan’s right,” Rom told her softly.
“What am I supposed to do?” If she were able to shed tears—another aspect of her camouflage lost and products of real emotion—she would have.
“I know a scientist from a local university,” said Aedan. “He’s one of the consultants with my work. He’s a walking encyclopedia, but he specializes in nanoids. He might be able to help you. I can take you to see him tomorrow.” Deya nodded her head.
“Deya, please,” Rom pleaded, kneeling next to the bed where Deya was resting. He was holding her hand and head. Aedan was pacing slowly between the wall of the room and the foot of the bed. “It’s been four days.”
“I can’t go out like this,” said Deya. Aedan had enough.
“I’m going to call Doctor Mikarr,” Aedan told them. He left the room and quickly returned. The doorbell rang nearly an hour later.
“Hello,” said the professor when Aedan opened the door.
“I’m glad you could make it, Doctor Mikarr,” said Aedan, shaking the Exan man’s hand. He was over four centuries old, and by this time in his life his body had just begun to betray those abundant, accumulated years.
“Oh, yes,” said the doctor.
“Please come in.”
“So, Klade getting you working on nanoids now?” the doctor said as he entered the apartment. “How can I be of help?”
“Not quite,” Aedan replied. “Follow me. I have something I need to show you.” The doctor followed Aedan through the living room and through the door to Rom’s and Deya’s bedroom. Rom was still at Deya’s bedside, and he moved away upon hearing the professor step in.
“Hold on,” Mikarr said. “I’m no physician…” Aedan rolled back the bedsheets, uncovering Deya’s featureless silver body reminiscent of a female mannequin stripped of its display merchandise. “…but I know a gynoid when I see one.” He knelt next to her and asked “How are you feeling?”
“I’ve been better,” Deya admitted. Her voice sounded more distorted as the days passed.
“Four days ago, she lost her human camouflage,” Rom explained. “She’s been getting worse every day.”
“Has she tried getting her camouflage back?” the professor asked.
“She has,” Rom explained. “It stays for one or two seconds before reverting back to her base state, and attempting to keep it up gives her massive head and body aches.”
“How peculiar,” said the professor. “How rude of me. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Doctor Mikarr, professor of nanoid cybernetics.”
“I’m sorry to say this, but there’s little I can do for you here,” Mikarr told them. “I need my lab equipment.”
“Take me” Deya said.
“To your lab.”
“I certainly can,” said the professor. “Can you walk?” Deya raised her back off of the mattress, turned her body to the side of the bed, and placed her feet on the ground. Grabbing Mikarr’s hand, she hoisted herself up, only to be caught by Aedan before she stumbled.
“Easy,” Aedan said, letting her collapse back on the bed.
“Help her put these on,” Rom said, handing Aedan a pair of civilian REMASS boots. Aedan sat the boots at Deya’s feet, opened them up, and guided her feet into each boot. The gynoid selected and fabricated an outfit with a hood to conceal her face. Rom called for an aerocar which they caught at their building’s transit hub. Taking off through the airscreen and at least half-a-kilometer high, the car’s OPEL screen was bombarded by torrents of rain from the thunderstorms lumbering above. Every few seconds, lumionic fields parted the water on the OPEL’s exterior photoreceptor plates. The OPEL screen quickly dimmed with every flash of lightning to protect the eyesight of the passengers. The autonomous aerocar held steady against the storm’s turbulence. Wind from a storm like this was no threat to a gravidyne.
The Central Federation Institute of Technology’s campus was composed of twenty levels each in three adjacent towers. Shuttles flew back and forth between them ferrying students and faculty. Without virtual signs appearing on the aerocar’s OPEL screen, it would have been impossible to know which levels of the buildings belonged to CFIT. The car guided itself through a rectangular airscreen in the side of the massive towers which led to a bustling, spherical transit hub. Vehicle traffic was restricted to the middle two layers of this concourse. People looked down from the balconies above and moved fluidly in the areas below. The car stopped over a designated landing zone and descended four meters until it was mere centimeters from the floor. The professor paid the fee and jumped out first. Aedan and Rom eased Deya out of the car’s back seat and stabilized her as the three of them made for the main entrance several meters away. Seeing them lagging behind, Mikarr slowed his pace and walked in front of Deya, obscuring her from the eyes of the curious students who were turning their heads to stare.
“Professor?” one of the students said. “I got your call.” He was walking alongside Mikarr now. The Exan professor grabbed him by the arm and said “Follow me, son. We need to get to the lab. See if you can grab Nariel, Thea, and Doctor Koru.”
“Yes, sir,” the student said. Lumionics were visible on the student’s corneas. He sent brief textual messages to the three people Mikarr mentioned.
Halfway to the doors of the university, two police officers who had watched them since they left the aerocar turned to follow them. They were dressed as on-duty police usually were: helmetless Accellus 3 with light armor and eyes hidden behind lumionic visors. Shoulders, chest, arms, and feet were covered in black SIRAC that obscured the dark gray polyalloy bodysuit beneath. Three diagonal white stripes across the left side of the chest piece and across the upper arm pieces, and the white and black checker pattern across the bottom of the shoulder pieces, bracelets, and boots differentiated them from the solid black armor of the Defense Force.
The group passed the sliding double doors and entered into a wide hallway which was vacant compared to the crowded concourse. After taking a lift up eight levels, Mikarr led them through the doors to his lab: a room of decent size located at one of the far corners of the building.
“Welcome to my lab-office!” he told them. OPEL panels served as the outer wall of the room. The storm raged on beyond. It was impossible to see the ground or the closest building; the latter being less than a hundred meters away. The opacity of the windows remained unadjusted due to the darkness outside. Doctor Mikarr cleared away the instruments, equipment, and junk covering part of a lab bench. “Place her up here,” the professor ordered, slapping his hands on the bench. Mikarr walked across the lab to the fabricator in the adjacent office space and returned with a pillow which he placed under her head. He then snatched his lab coat from a chair’s backrest, slid his arms through its long sleeves, and dragged his fingers down its front to fasten it closed. Turning around, he nearly ran into two police officers who had sneaked into the lab just after them.
“Whoa!” Mikarr gasped. “Hi there.”
“We followed you from the concourse,” one of the officers explained. “Do you need any help?”
“I appreciate the offer,” said Mikarr, grabbing a tool from a locker, “but we’re fine. She’s fine,” he said dismissively while looking back at Deya.
“What’s going on here?” said an Exan female in a white coat who appeared from beyond the lab. She was referring to the police officers standing in their Accellus armor, one with her arms crossed.
“Doctor Koru, I am so glad you could make it,” said Mikarr.
“We’re sorry for disturbing you,” said one of the cops, and they promptly disappeared.
Mikarr grabbed one of Deya’s REMASS boots and said “Mind if I take these off for you? You can keep your clothes on for now.” The gynoid shook her head. After that, Mikarr removed the boots to make her slightly more comfortable—she was on a lab bench after all—, Doctor Koru drew several samples of cytoids—nanoids resembling cells—from her. The professors and their students worked nonstop for the rest of the morning and afternoon analyzing their specimens. They worked through lunch which was provided by the fabricator in the adjacent office.
“Oh, the wonders of technology,” said Mikarr when he synthesized his evening meal, and something that he said often according to his students. The office was large enough for him and his assembled team to sit close but comfortably.
“It’s clearly a disease,” Koru said as they ate dinner, “but based on what we’ve seen today, it’s infectious.”
“She had to have caught it from somewhere,” said Mikarr. “She’s not, for lack of better words, breaking down.”
“But there is something strange,” Koru stated. “We tested program transmission between infected and uninfected cytoids, and it only spreads to cytoids identifying themselves as belonging to an android.”
“These nanoid viruses are not unheard of,” Mikarr explained, “but the android’s analog to the human immune system is quite robust. The amount of intimate knowledge required to create something like what we’re seeing here…. Well, let’s just say that whoever programmed this virus would have had to design her. A plague from the machine god of sorts.”
“Deya was born from another gynoid,” said Rom. He and Aedan had been invited to have dinner with the scientists. “No one created her.”
“I meant her kind,” Mikarr said, placing emphasis on certain words. “Engineer her race, if any one person could have done that. Then again, it could be the unforeseen consequences of biomimetic synthetics, much like the viruses that infect biologics.”
After working late into the night, Mikarr and Koru returned the following day to run more tests and challenge the hypotheses that had stolen some of their sleep. The students and professors came and went as classes were held, but there was at least one person working with Deya’s cytoids at any one time. Deya herself remained motionless atop the lab bench.
“Aedan, how do you know the professor?” Rom asked. He was sitting in a raised chair next to the now-unclothed Deya, and Aedan was sitting on the end of a couch positioned perpendicularly to the floor-to-ceiling OPEL panels. The storms retreated overnight giving them a beautiful, cloudless day. From the couch, Aedan could see Deya and the team working to save her life.
“I first met him when I took his class for an elective right here during my undergrad,” Aedan told him. “I’ve seen him at several conferences and attended several of his lectures. He got me fascinated with nanoids, though I’ve never gotten a chance to work with them at Klade. The professor is actually a technology consultant at our Klade office. He knows a lot more than just nanoids.”
“Sounds like you two are good friends,” said Rom, smiling.
“Yeah,” said Aedan. “I’ve always seen him as a mentor.”
“Have anything?” Mikarr asked Nariel, his graduate student. They were on the other side of the room.
“Look at this,” Nariel said. “I’ve been working on this all morning.” The student repositioned a lumigraph toward Mikarr showing the data from her tests. “I took infected cytoids from Deya and placed them next to constructoids. The hardware for both is the same, but the software is slightly different. The infection did not spread. I repeated it: this time copying Deya’s aspect to the constructoids, and they received the infection. Just now, I changed one of Deya’s infected cytoids to a constructoid, and it cured the infection.”
“This malware has a high specificity for our friend there?” Mikarr asked. “How fascinating. Have you tried subjecting other cytoids to Deya’s?”
“Not yet, but I will,” Nariel told him. Several tests later, the team of scientists learned, with a high degree of certainty, that the infection was transmissible from android to android. The problem was how to treat Deya. Every cytoid in her body was infected.
“Doctor Koru and I have decided to try something radical,” Mikarr announced to the lab the following day. Rom was holding his wife’s arm. “We found that changing a nanoid’s job kills the infection in that nanoid. Changing that nanoid back again leaves it cured. What we are proposing is changing all of Deya’s cytoids to constructoids at once, and then back. As their name implies, constructoids are nanoids programed to interlock to create solid structures.”
“Do you know if this will work?” Rom asked him.
“To tell you the truth,” said Mikarr, “we have absolutely no idea. It will kill the infection, I guarantee it, but when we bring her back, she could return to life, or….”
“I can’t let you do it until you guarantee she’ll survive,” Rom interrupted him. His voice was shaking.
“The android body,” Koru explained, “is a complex network of cytoids reacting and responding to….”
“Do it,” Deya said in a voice that was barely audible.
“This could kill you,” Rom said, gripping her arm tightly.
“I’m dead anyway,” said Deya. “Can’t you see that?” She did not open her eyes, and she had been still for fifty hours. Rom stared at her. Deya’s body was consumed. “I won’t survive the night.”
“All right, you heard her,” Rom relented. “Do it.” All five team members were present in the lab, and those who had not already donned white coats were doing so now. Mikarr mentioned that the operation would move swiftly, but Rom was not listening. His senses were focused on Deya, the one person that gave his life any meaning.
“Perform the overwrite,” Mikarr ordered, and Deya’s metallic flesh hardened like duralithics. Rom was gripping a solid statue possessing her form, clinging to his belief that somewhere in that mass of constructoids she was alive. “And roll it back.” Deya’s arm was soft again, but she remained motionless. Everyone in the room stared at her. Whether she was alive or deceased, she looked at peace. Her chest rose and fell, followed by a long pause. It rose and fell again. Her skin was returning to its former Zelnaran blue along with its accurate mimesis of biological anatomy and physiology. The gynoid opened her eyes, tilted her head toward Rom, and smiled.