Today's Reading

I was used to all that. But I never got used to being touched.

Strangers grabbing my hand, jabbing their fingers at my eye, slapping my shoulder to feel the metal beneath my clothes. I could not get used to that.

My prosthetics—left arm, left leg, left ear and eye, a scattering of partial organs—took signals from my brain, which was still a squishy, whole, purely human brain. Together they functioned as a close approximation to how a human body was supposed to function, most of the time. This was my body now. Nothing more, nothing less, and never what the biohackers and transhumanists and weird fetishists wanted to hear.

That didn't stop people from looking at me and seeing only the metal.

The lift let me out at Operational Security HQ. I skirted around the edge of the central office, smiles and nods and see-you-laters doled out where necessary. When some colleagues invited me down to the canteen for a beer, I made my excuses. A few gave me sideways glances, looks that hinted at questions they weren't asking, and I wondered how word of the biohacked kid could have spread so quickly. I retreated to my cubicle. They weren't bad people, my colleagues. The older officers were mostly ex-military, shuffled into private contracts when it became apparent nobody was starting a fresh war anytime soon; the younger ones were all career corporate types who wore the uniform as though it actually meant something. They all knew I was on Hygiea for exactly as long as it took to pay down my medical bills and get out of there. Mostly they didn't hold it against me. Normally I would have accepted the invitations, eager for any reason to get out of HQ, desperate to talk about anything except shitty days and petty crimes.

I only realized the questioning glances had nothing to do with the biohacked kid when I saw the evening news scrolls.




The headlines blurred together as I read. Every news feed was covering it, naturally, not as the top story but five or six items down the list. A rhythmic tapping set my teeth on edge—I was doing it myself, drumming my fingers on my desk. I stilled both hands and pressed them flat. Left hand, metal hand. Right hand, flesh hand.

Two years ago, the spaceship Symposium had been on its way to Titan with two hundred people aboard. One hundred seventy-five of those people, the passengers, made up the full complement of the Titan Research Project. I was one of them. We were some of the finest scientists and engineers in existence, experts in every field, people who had devoted their entire lives to advancing the frontiers of human knowledge. We were going to establish the first permanent human settlement near Saturn and the outermost in the solar system. It was to be a research colony, dedicated to scientific exploration and discovery.

We never made it. The antiexpansion terrorist group called Black Halo infiltrated the passengers and crew of Symposium before we left Earth's orbit. They waited until we were several months into our journey before enacting their plan: to disrupt the mission with a catastrophic series of explosions in the ship's fuel systems. Symposium was destroyed and most of the people on board died instantly. My friends, my colleagues, the people with whom I had planned to build a home and a community for the next several years, all reduced to atoms in a flash of fire and noise. Among the dead was my longtime mentor and idol, Sunita Radieh, whose loss I still felt like a physical pain whenever I thought of her. Sometimes I wondered if it might not hurt so much if Vanguard, the AI we had created together, had survived, if some part of her genius, her heart, her courage had survived in the machine we had built. But Vanguard had been destroyed as well. Every piece of it, from its breathtakingly complex mind to its uncountable lifetimes' worth of learned experience to its favorite physical expression, the praying mantis shape we affectionately called Bug, it was all gone. Everything was destroyed.

Parthenope Enterprises cargo ships were the nearest vessels to the Symposium at the time, so it was Parthenope rescue crews who picked us up and Parthenope doctors who patched us back together. There were thirty-one survivors: seventeen crew and fourteen members of the Titan project. Some were relatively unscathed. Six died over the next few months. Me, I got some shiny new limbs to show off. All of us earned a crushing mountain of rescue, transport, and medical bills.

With no way to pay our way back to the inner system, no help from the Outer Systems Administration, no employment, and no convenient riches to our names, we were economic refugees, in Parthenope's debt until we worked our way out of it.



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