Thursday, December 27, 2012

Science Fiction Story: Amalgam: Mind-Reader

Another science fiction story featuring genetically modified humans:

The Mind-Reader, despite her telepathic-sounding name, was no spy ship; she was a personnel carrier. And she was huge: Captain Guden had crammed five thousand troops into her once. She was rated for four thousand, though, and right now she held only two.

Madaram Guden was born on Mars, the second child of a twice-elected provincial governor, and he was named for Kara Madaram, the great Twenty-Second Century Mars Colony pioneer.

Madaram didn’t have a father. He’d been created in a Martian lab from his mother’s egg and the stock genetic material called the Amalgam. The Amalgam was made up of material from more than ten thousand individuals, male and female, over ninety-nine percent human and all born on Mars. In school, the ‘accidental’ kids, the kids who’d been born out of passion, used to pretend they forgot his name was Madaram and call him Amalgam. Amalgam Guden. He liked that name well enough, too. As it was, he bore the name of the single most essential figure in Martian history. If the accidentals had had their way, he’d be named after the single most important application in the history of genetic science, not only on Mars but in the entire Human Empire.

Guden had always thought of the ability to read minds as a sleek thing, a nimble skill with a svelte shape that could turn on a dime. The Mind-Reader was nothing like that. In tight spaces she had all the agility of a walrus on the rocks, all the grace of a pelican landing on a post. Guden had technically never seen either of these animals, but like all the other kids, he’d met their simulations, along with those of hundreds of other animals, in Natural Science class in elementary school. He’d seen them, heard them, smelled them, touched them. They’d seemed real.

The Mind-Reader was a hunk of asterite half a reglek long and as black as the emptiness of space itself. She was beautiful, huge, intimidating: not just a personnel carrier, but if necessary, a virtually invincible fighting machine. And, Guden mused, it was precisely because she was virtually invincible that fighting was hardly ever necessary.

It was the year, to use our terms, 2729, but according to the calendar adopted by the Universal Summit of Sovereign Planets and Federal Alliances of 2446, it was the year 10,342. The Mind-Reader was on its way to a point halfway between Mars and Jupiter to rendezvous with the Rocket Science, which was having engine trouble, to pick up its cargo of fifteen-hundred Europan miners and transfer them to the Venus-bound Brain Surgery somewhere near Earth’s vernal region. Earth itself would not be attending, though, as by the time they got there, the planet would be on the opposite side of its orbit path, very solidly in the autumnal region.

Guden stood, satisfied that the appropriate directives had been sent instructing the various ship departments to inquire about, investigate and prepare for any medical alerts, special diets and so forth that the Europans might have. He adjusted his uniform in front of the mirror beside his office door and stepped into the hallway. He turned left and strode down the corridor with his shoulders back and his head held high, as they always were when someone might see him. It was important, when you were the Captain of an Imperial ship, to portray the right impression, to demand and deserve respect. It was important, probably, no matter who you were.

He settled into a confident but slightly hurried stride. He had a dinner meeting with the senior staff, they had a lot to discuss, and there would be plenty of work for all of them after that. Just as it did a thousand times a day, just as it had done with every step since he’d learned to walk without toddling, his center of balance shifted without his notice, subtly, gradually leaving the security of his left side, where his left foot in its perfectly-polished black boot made solid contact with the deck. His balance moved forward almost surreptitiously until the weight of his entire frame was committed to his right foot, and his right foot to the deck underneath it.

And then, in an instant, the deck disappeared. The whole ship disappeared. It didn’t go anywhere, or fade away or disintegrate; it just wasn’t there anymore.

A cloudless cobalt dome rested on a horizon of reds and yellows, of oranges and russets, that encircled a geometric landscape of perfectly-trimmed lawns and immaculate pathways lined with perky, multi-colored flowerbeds.

His polished left boot still rested on a flat and solid surface, his weight was still committed in good faith to the competence of his right foot and the strength of the metal underneath it.

His new location was a stairway, a set of wooden steps leading from the front door of a quaint red-brick building. And he had the misfortune to be facing down them. Underneath his right foot there was only air. It was crisp, clean, oxygen-rich air, healthful to the lungs and refreshing to the mind, but totally incapable of holding the weight of a man.

As his body pitched forward, almost in slow motion, he watched as one particular step seemed to rise up at him, coming closer and closer to his face. He had time to read the pattern of its grain through its nearly flawless transparent finish, and fix it in his mind, time to reach his arms out and land on the heel of his hand in a slow, rolling fall. But the momentum was too great and he didn’t stop there. His body did a sort of sideways somersault and he landed again, on his head this time, softly on the ground, rich loam mixing with his hair and a tangle of leaves and stems and petals obscuring his vision.

He put his arm down again, shifted his weight to it and picked up his head, and observed that he had an audience. Five human faces peered down at him, all of them laughing, none of them older than about fourteen.

“We should take him home,” said the youngest, as though it didn’t occur to him that Guden could hear him. “He could sleep in the guest room.”

“We really can’t do that,” one of the others answered while Guden stood up. “Sorry.”

“Why not?” asked the little boy. He must have been about five.

Great, thought Guden. Now I’m like a box turtle. They found me in a flowerbed and now it’s “Can we keep him? Please, Mom!” At least he hadn’t left his cap behind. He ran his hands over his hair, trying to get the worst of the dirt and plant parts out of it, and donned the cap.

The older one looked at him awkwardly, almost like he was apologizing for not greeting him, looked at the younger boy and back at Guden with a sheepish look. Guden nodded that he understood; the little kid was getting the respect and Guden, for his crime of falling face-first in a patch of chrysanthemums, was going to need to wait.

“Because, first of all,” the older boy explained, “we don’t even know if he wants to live with us. He’s probably already got a home.”

The little kid lost his smile and looked at Guden sullenly, like it was his fault.

One of the other kids touched the young one’s shoulder, to cheer him up. “You’re a fast runner,” he said. “Look, this is very important. Can you go real fast and get Mr. Berg? He needs to get here right away.”

The five-year-old nodded solemnly and darted off.

On the Mind-Reader, the Captain was late for dinner. He and the senior staff had a lot to discuss. What species were these miners? Would they all be able to stay in quarters designed for air-breathers or would some of them need to be housed in the aquarium? How much luggage and equipment would they be bringing on board? Had anybody made sure the Brain Surgery had enough space for everyone, and everything? Was Captain Hesterus of the Brain Surgery even aware of the plan at all?

The First Mate rested her elbows on the table, laced her fingers together in front of her face and pinched her top lip between her thumbs. This detour to participate in a relay race with the Rocket Science and the Brain Surgery was going to significantly delay every single one of the two thousand passengers already on board. That couldn’t be helped, of course, and for the most part people were very understanding, but complications had a way of arising. Even when the passengers were accommodating, circumstances weren’t always so flexible.

First Mate Alyssa Soren sighed, let go of her lip and put her hands under the table. She fingered her napkin and looked over the shiny pots of lobster and rice and Europan shoefish at Talia Mburu, the Navigator. Talia nodded solemnly and Alyssa announced to the whole table, “I think it’s time we make it official. I’m taking command. Shtuntu, you’re in charge of organizing the search parties.”

Barindubu Shtuntu, a purple Jasperian, rose and hurried out the door, her hoof beats ringing on the titanium deck plating.

“I hate cold lobster,” Mburu groused, and stood up. Soren knew that cold lobster had nothing to do with it; nobody felt like eating.

“He’s a tough old space tortoise,” she said. “You’ll see: we’ll find him, and he’ll be fine. Then I’m going to kill him, and he won’t be fine.”

Fifty-four years earlier, on a frigid day a week after New Year’s, Jochabed Amory had given birth to an accidental. Actually, the baby wasn’t accidental at all; she was planned. Jochabed and Emerson had decided it would be a lot more fun to play the lottery, to not choose their baby’s sex or eye color or earlobe shape or anything, and just see what they got. What they got was Phoebe, female with blue eyes and detached earlobes, and she was perfect.

In the year 10,342, Phoebe Amory was in her seventeenth year as the headmistress of Faraday Academy, a progressive private school, both junior high and high school, located only a few miles from the Atlantic on North America’s beautiful Champlain Plateau.

On the face of it, it was no different from a thousand other schools, but when people talked about the Faraday kids, they tended to use words such as phenom, prodigy, genius, wunderkind, super-child. The technologies these students developed were consistently ahead of the best work of the best students in the Empire’s top universities.

But it wasn’t just a school. In a way, it was also a town - a small, privately-owned town with a rather eccentric population. Because whenever a family wasn’t entirely comfortable with the thought of sending their child off to boarding school, Faraday gave them the option of moving on campus. So while a few of the students lived off campus with their families, a lot of the families lived on campus with their students.

Phoebe set down her teacup and looked out the window, contemplated the perfectly-groomed lawns, the immaculate walks, the manicured flowerbeds, and sighed. Was she doing the right thing? The technology classes were a smashing success: even she was almost surprised by what the kids were able to produce. Almost, not quite. But was she pushing them too hard? It was her seventeenth year now, and every year she felt compelled to do even better than last year. Kids applied to Faraday because of its record, because it gave them the opportunity to get the best technology education in the Empire. Donors supported the school, made it possible to run it tuition-free and admit students solely on merit, because every year, the kids produced technology even more amazing than the year before.

But how far was too far? They were just kids, after all, and her first responsibility had to be to them and to their families, not to the mega-corporations and their bankrolls.

She was startled by a sharp rap on the door.

“Come in,” she replied.

It was George, from Public Safety, wearing her ‘I’m here in an official capacity’ bearing. That was never a good sign. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but you need to come. I’ll explain on the way.”

Standing over the crushed mums, Guden observed with a certain satisfaction that it didn’t take long for the cops to notice his arrival, and once they noticed, they got there fast. “Faraday Academy Public Safety” the patches on their triceps read. There were four of them that he could see, and they were armed, and Guden himself was not.

“Welcome to Faraday Academy,” one of them greeted him as they approached. They took up their positions carefully, surrounding him in case he tried to run, putting themselves between him and the kids.
“Thank you,” replied Guden, touching his cap. “I’m Madaram Guden of Mars, and I apologize for the inconvenience, but I seem to be without my ID.”

“And what brings you to the Faraday campus today, Captain Guden?” asked a second cop, with a professional mix of courteous respect and wary alertness that would have met with his approval in one his own security officers.

“I wish I understood that myself,” he answered, realizing how evasive he must sound. “I was aboard my ship, heading outward from Mars orbit, and then I was on these steps here.”

“We found him in the flowers,” one of the kids volunteered. It was a boy who hadn’t spoken yet. “He was laying down.”

“You found him lying down in the flowers?” said the cop to the kid. He shot a glance at a third cop, and the third cop nodded. She was going to find the kid’s parents, then, and ask for permission to interview him, and probably the rest of the kids, too. Then the second cop said to Guden, “I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, Captain, but this is a private school and some of the children here are quite young. Their parents place a lot of trust in us, and it’s our job to guarantee them that this campus is safe. That’s why we have the walls and the gates and the little guard houses at the gates. We have to take it very seriously when small children come and tell us about unregistered visitors they find just wandering around.”

“As you should,” Guden replied.

“I’m afraid the regulations are quite clear in this case,” said the cop. “We have no choice but to take you into custody.” He and his team were on high alert now, prepared for any desperate move Guden might try to make. The first cop, the one who had said, “Welcome to Faraday Academy,” pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt.

Guden turned his palms out, moved his arms away from his sides, and bowed slightly. “Of course,” he said. “You have my full cooperation.”

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Mind-Reader is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Mind-Reader, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

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