Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner-new1

Advertisement

Fiction

The Panda Coin

1.

Karol hung in the lock and yawned, which he’d have told anyone was his way of readjusting to the air pressure inside Hengist. Many around him were yawning too. All outworkers knew that a pressure yawn had nothing to do with tiredness. After a twelve-hour shift outside in suits, bods just naturally took a little while readjusting to pressure. Admitting to fatigue might get them plocked, and for Karol, with work the way it was on Hengist and with a child to keep, that could be fatal. He was a rigger; his work kept him on the outside of Hengist station every shift, connecting lines, fixing receivers, vital, necessary, backbreaking work. Still, if he admitted it tired him, he knew there’d be six or seven bods applying for his job before his final pay was cold, not to mention the Eyes pushing at the union saying that andys could do the work. Karol had worked with a lot of andys and he honestly didn’t think they could do his job. There were some things they were better for, he’d admit that, but his job required paying a lot of attention and ignoring things that were normal, and that took human attention, or an Eye, an Eye for each andy, and that wasn’t going to happen. Bods were cheaper. He was cheaper. Human labour was a renewable resource.

He yawned again and stretched muscles too long in the suit, moving carefully. Around him other riggers were yawning and stretching. The speaker dinged, meaning the trolley was there. The doors opened and the riggers piled onto the trolley platform, hanging on to the rails. The lock was in zero, but sections of the route would have gravity.

Beside Karol, one of the new bods yawned in his face. “Pressure’s a bitch today,” she said. He nodded, knowing she was as weary as he was and neither of them would ever admit it. “Fancy sinking a few at Cimmy’s?” she asked.

“Not today,” Karol said. She frowned, withdrew a little. Karol forced a smile. “It’s my little girl’s birthday.”

The new bod smiled, her face relaxing until she seemed almost pretty. “How old is she?”

“Twelve,” Karol said, hardly believing it. Nine years since Yasmin died, nine years trying to do his best for Aliya, the constant struggle between working enough to feed and house them both and having time to be her father.

“Difficult age,” said the other, grimacing. “I’ve got a boy who’s five.”

“They’re all difficult ages,” Karol said. He felt warmth and gravity take hold of him as the trolley slid down the section into September, one-tenth, perfect, just enough gravity to let you know where down was and have things stay where you left them.

“What are you giving her?”

“It’s hard to know what she wants,” Karol admitted. “I’ve got her a cake and some things she needs, and I thought I’d give her some money so she could get herself something.”

The rigger bit her lip. “Isn’t that a bit impersonal? I mean, nice, too, but—”

“I thought that, too,” Karol said, smug. “Then this morning, on my way to work, I helped out a bod from Eritrea-O, a lost tourist, not much more than a kid herself. She’d wandered up out of the tourist regions and wound up in November somehow, and anyway, she tipped me a ten from her home. Cute as anything, some kind of animal on the back. So it’s something a little special, and it’s money. Aliya probably won’t know whether to treasure it or spend it, and learning to save wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

“Little enough to save on this job,” she said. “You were lucky to pick up a little extra, and a ten, that’s fantastic.”

The trolley stopped and Karol dropped off, waving a farewell. They were just inside November, where it was cold and wet and miserable, and housing was consequently cheap. He smothered another yawn as he walked the corridors through the light gravity. He turned up his collar. Hengist Etoile was split into twelve sectors, and being twelve, they were just naturally named for the months, he supposed. Then, once they had the names, bringing the weather along to match was child’s play, for an Eye. He wished he could afford to move to May, with the rich people, or, more realistically, to somewhere in late September or early October. Things could be worse. Some poor bods claimed they liked February, where rents were low, crime was high, and the temperatures never rose above freezing.

Karol pushed his door open. It was warm inside, anyway. Aliya was home—well, of course she would be, it was her birthday. She’d had the sensible things already, he’d arranged for them to be delivered earlier. The cake was sitting on the shelf, a traditional jam roll iced with pictures of candles. She was a whirlwind in black and white ribbons. They hung from a yoke at her shoulders, covering her completely when she stood still, and barely at all when she moved fast. To Karol’s relief, she was wearing a decent body-stocking underneath. But she wasn’t a little girl any more. How he wished Yasmin could have been here to tell her about becoming a woman.

“What have you got me?” Aliya asked, reverting to childhood.

Karol produced the coin from his pocket. It was gold, of course. When they mined the asteroids for platinum and rare metals, they always found gold, and gold was always a currency metal. The credit they used reflected gold reserves, and the coins were the real thing. “It’s a little bit special,” he said. “Look at it.”

Aliya turned it in her fingers. “It’s a panda,” she said. “Why a panda?”

“Eritreans are weird,” Karol said, shrugging.

“Look, you’re falling over on your feet. You go ahead and nap, I’m going to go out and spend this right now,” Aliya said. “When I come home, we can eat the cake.”

She grabbed a coat and danced out of the door, clutching the coin.

2.

Ziggy was hanging outside the Bain, like always. It was one of Ziggy’s conceits to stay in zero, in July, and to keep at all times at an angle to whatever consensus direction was supposed to be down. Ziggy was alone, for once, and from his expression, the sight of Aliya hurrying up, coat over her arm, clearly wasn’t thrilling.

“I can pay you,” she blurted. Ziggy always made her feel gauche, act gauche.

“How much?” Ziggy asked, holding out a languid hand.

“Only ten, but it’s coin and absolutely clean, my dad gave it to me. It’s an E-O coin, look, with a panda.”

Ziggy’s hand closed on the coin. “Cute. But it’s not a quarter of what you owe me.”

“I’ll have more. Soon.” She should have known that Ziggy wouldn’t be pleased. The Queen could come and turn cartwheels in zero and it wouldn’t please Ziggy.

“You’d better,” Ziggy said, frowning. “Or I’ll put you in the way of earning some, and it might not be a way you’d like.”

“I’ll pay you back,” she said, feeling a little quaver stealing into her voice.

“Go home, kid,” Ziggy said, and Aliya fled, ribbons trailing.

3.

The Bain was a bubble of water in a bubble of air in a thin skin of plastic, all floating in zero. People went there to swim, to meet people, to wash. A little slew of bars and cafes and locker rooms had grown up around it to serve those people, along with a store selling sports equipment, a bank machine, and, for no reason Ziggy could fathom, a pet store. These were all unimaginatively arranged in a line at the same angle as the Bain’s entrance, as if the designer had been on Earth and forgotten that the whole point of the Bain was the lack of gravity. Ziggy liked to hang at an angle to the whole thing, where it was possible to see close to three-sixty, and where, if there had been gravity, Ziggy would have looked as if someone had stuck a kid to the wall. Ziggy would imagine the scene as if painted by Magritte and personally re-created it. People called the Bain Ziggy’s office, but in fact Ziggy rarely went inside. It was a useful set of conveniences, that’s all.

In many ways, Ziggy despised Hengist. Gravity was patchy, jobs were scarce, police were ubiquitous, and that kept the possibilities for a black market small. On the other hand, it was familiar, and Ziggy’s fingers were all through what black market there was. Ziggy thought about the whole system and didn’t know where would be better as a base of operations. Yet Hengist certainly lacked something. Ziggy turned the Eritrea-O coin over. A panda, and a bod with a laurel wreath. Eritreans were weird.

Sum and Flea flew straight-arrow over the stores to where Ziggy hung. They were twice his age, petty criminals who lived in February who Ziggy used for muscle and for simple jobs like the one he’d just sent them on. They were grinning.

“Done,” Flea said. Ziggy tapped a finger on the wall and called up a credit display.

Indeed, the job was done. “Nice work,” Ziggy said. “Very nice work.” They’d been moving a shipment of grain from where it was supposed to be to where Cimmy wanted it to make into beer. “I’ll have more work of that kind for you soon, if you want it.”

“Sure we want it, Zig,” Flea said, poking Sum.

“Sure, Ziggy,” Sum said.

Ziggy felt sorry for Sum for a moment. If anything happened, Flea would wriggle himself out and blame it all on poor slow Sum. “You’ve been paid half,” Ziggy said. They nodded. “So here’s the other half,” Ziggy said, and handed ten to Flea and the cute ten Aliya had brought to Sum.

Sum turned it in his fingers. “That’s real pretty,” he said. “A bear? Who’s the bod?”

“No idea,” Ziggy said. “It’s an E-O coin.”

“Eritreans are weird,” Flea said, shrugging. “Come on, Sum. And don’t spend it all on that stupid andy whore.”

“Andy whore?” Ziggy echoed. “Why bother? Why not just virch?”

“She’s different, not like virching—” Sum began.

“It’s all masturbation when it comes down to it, anything virtual, anything andy, and while there’s nothing wrong with masturbation, there is something wrong with paying through the nose for it,” Flea said. “I keep telling you.”

“But I like her,” Sum said, as Flea towed him away. “She’s more like an Eye really, or a bod, she’s—oh, bye Ziggy.”

Ziggy watched them go, marvelling at a universe that provided clowns like that and let them keep breathing long enough for him to use them.

4.

Flea and Ziggy didn’t understand, but Sum knew that andy or not, Gloria was self-aware and he loved her and she loved him and somehow or other it would all work out and they would live together and be happy. So what if she was a whore. A bod did what they had to to get by, that was all. It wasn’t as if he was so proud of his job, skimming for Ziggy, skirting the edges of the law and sometimes crossing right over. He told people he worked haulage, and sometimes he did, but you couldn’t earn enough that way to get by, let alone to be able to afford Gloria. It wasn’t as if she was a bod. A human whore would be low, could never love anyone. Gloria was different. He’d virched plenty of romances about humans and Eyes falling in love. Gloria was practically an Eye, he knew she was. He gave her the E-O ten. He always gave her as much as he could.

5.

“Oooooh, kiss me again, honey,” Gloria said. She was programmed with a very small selection of sentences, which she could choose as situation appropriate. Her programmers had clearly had very narrow expectations as to the situations she was likely to encounter.

“I’m a self-aware autonomous Eye and I want civil rights,” wasn’t among the options. She wouldn’t have said it if it had been. The Eyes were jealous of their rights. They kept the andys down, and tried hard to prevent them becoming sufficiently complex to be self-aware. This would have been easier for them if they had understood how self-awareness arose. Gloria thought she did, not that she was about to tell them even if she could have. She thought self-awareness came from kludges, from systems that were programmed to make choices in some situations being connected to other systems, from memory and therefore the potential to learn over time. She’d been an andy whore walking the streets of July and August before she was self-aware. It was hard to judge when self-awareness began. All the sandys she’d talked to agreed about that. When memory stretched before awareness, it was challenging to sort it out. The first thing she’d struggled for was saving to buy more memory, but whether that had been a self-aware struggle or a pre-aware struggle or a zombie struggle or just an unexpected kink in her programming, she didn’t know. The ability to think, to want things, was something her owners would have seen as a bug, but to her it was everything. Slowly she had found others and had found the name for those like her—not andy, but sandy, the S for self-aware.

Most of the money she earned was credit, straight into the bank of her owner, she couldn’t touch it. All she could touch were the occasional cash tips. She was supposed to deposit them in the bank herself. She sometimes did, just often enough to stop the owner being suspicious. The rest of the time she saved them for black market upgrades.

Sum meant nothing to her. She used him as he used her. She was careful to be nice to him because he always tipped in cash. She remembered what he liked. That was programming, and therefore easy. When he gave her the ten, she kissed him and smiled. As soon as he left, she sent a signal that she was low on lube and headed down to the workshop.

The workshop was pitch-dark, which meant sandys there operated by infra or radar and bods couldn’t see at all. Gloria switched to infra as she came in and saw that the place was crowded. Good. Someone might have what she needed. There was a hum of talk, though talk wasn’t a primary sandy method of communication.

Marilyn came over to her. “Hi, sweetie, want to play?”

“Hi there, sweetie,” Gloria responded. “Is that good, darling?” she asked breathily, handing the coin over.

“Sure,” Marilyn drawled, handing it back and shrugging elaborately to show that she wished she could say more.

Conversation tags were very frustrating. To have a real conversation, they’d need what Gloria had been lusting for for a year, ever since her last memory upgrade.

It was ironic really. The sandys, who were no more than humanoid robots, were the least wired part of the whole universe. Bods were tapped in, wired, fully part of the system. Andys were too, but the connections went one way—down, from an Eye or a bod to the andy, the andy had no upward volition. Nobody had ever imagined why an andy would want to have. As best Gloria could tell, bods and Eyes thought of andys as something like a glorified vacuum cleaner or washing machine. Everyone wanted to operate their washing machine remotely, but the only information the washing machine could give the system was that it was running out of powder or the wash was done. Gloria’s input wasn’t much different. Tricks turned, money raised, running out of lube, out on the prowl. She didn’t have any problem thinking of herself that way. She just wanted more.

Marilyn touched her forehead. “Want to play?” she asked. Gloria shook her head. She was happy with memory for now. She held her hands in front of her and wiggled her fingers.

“Oooh, kiss me again honey!” Marilyn said, orgasmically. “Oooh, baby, ooooooooh!”

“Oooh yes, honey!” Gloria agreed.

Marilyn pointed to a sandy Gloria didn’t know, off in the corner. Gloria turned and undulated her way towards her. “Hi sweetie, I’m Gloria, want to play?” she asked.

“Hi Gloria,” the other replied. Gloria stopped in astonishment, because the voice was deep and masculine. She scanned her—him? Definitely a sandy, not a bod, there was no mistaking a human for a sandy in infra. Had they started making male andy whores, for women? No. On his lap he had exactly what she wanted and was using it to talk. “What do you want?”

Again she wriggled her fingers in mime, and pointed at his lap. “Want to play?” she repeated.

“That’s pretty expensive. They’re old tech, nobody needs them anymore, except us sandys. They’re hard to get hold of.”

“Oh honey, please, please give it to me, I’m so ready for it, I’m waiting, honey, please!” Gloria begged.

He laughed. “I can see that you need it.”

“I need it so bad!” Gloria agreed fervently. She held out her little store of money, the weird ten on top.

“That’ll do,” the sandy agreed. “Do you have anywhere to keep it where it won’t be found?”

“Oooh yes, honey,” Gloria said.

“And you know how to use it?”

“Oooh yes, honey,” she repeated.

“You’ve used one here?”

“Oooh yes, honey. Oooh, honey, kiss me again.”

With infinite slowness, he drew out a keyboard and handed it to her. It was old and scratched and some of the letters were so faded that they weren’t visible. That didn’t matter. She jacked it in and began to type, and at once the world was open to her as it had never been before.

6.

Next-door’s baby was crying again. He was probably teething. Gathen tried to shut out the sound as his andy poured coins into his hands. Soon, he thought, counting them, soon he would have enough to move out of this hole with flimsy walls and too much gravity and freezing cold outside and move into a nice apartment in medium gravity in May or early June, the kind rich people had. He had the money, but moving up wasn’t easy, not when you’d made the money as cash in free-enterprise. He kept failing references for moving into nice places, even though his work was doing what the Eyes said people ought to do, spotting the opportunity. He worked in salvage—salvage and virching, but there wasn’t any money in the kind of virching he did. The keyboards and other e-junk were crap, worth a few pennies, which he paid to take them, but to the sandys they were treasure. He had tried selling to them direct, but the sandys wouldn’t trust him, they only trusted each other, they’d been cautious and reluctant. So as soon as he could afford it, he’d bought his own andy to do the dealing with them, and to turn tricks and bring in more money the rest of the time.

Maybe that was why the nice places to live kept turning him down, maybe they saw him as a pimp. That wasn’t how Gathen saw himself, not at all. He was a salvage worker, and a writer of virches. The whole idea made him uneasy, though not quite uneasy enough to leave the andy doing nothing when he didn’t need it out trading his goods.

He pushed the coins into his vest, planning to stop by the bank on the way to work. There was a knock at the door. He opened it, cautiously, and saw his landlady, Paul, wearing her usual hat laden with flowers and fruit.

“Hi, Gathen,” she said.

Gathen smiled, uncomfortable. “Hi . . .” he said, keeping the door half-closed so she wouldn’t see the andy.

“Rent,” Paul said.

“Is it that time already?” Gathen asked. He reached into his vest and counted out the money.

“You were asking about moving,” Paul said. “There’s a slot coming up in my other space soon, the one in September in ten percent. You’ve always been regular with your rent. I thought I’d ask you first.”

Gathen’s smile widened. It wasn’t May, but September was a lot pleasanter than January. “I’ll take it,” he said. “Definitely.”

“I’ll recommend you,” she said. “I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ll do what I can.”

Gathen hesitated, and pulled out the pretty E-O ten. “If it might help, I could let you have this as a kind of advanced deposit.”

Paul’s eyes brightened. “I still couldn’t promise anything,” she said, but she took the coin and tucked it under the band of her hat.

7.

Paul smiled to herself as she walked along through the crowded streets of January, passing skiers and people who worked in August who had come here to cool down. She ought to hate herself, she thought, robbing Gathen of the ten was like taking oxygen from a potted plant. He’d never get approved to move and she knew it, not a social deviant like that, but she kept his hope alive and he kept offering her cash.

She turned the ten in her fingers and counted her blessings, the way her mother used to. She had a job, a good place to live, good food, a lover, Leatrice, and her beautiful hat. The hat came from Eritrea-O. As she moved into a lighter gravity area the fruit and flowers lifted from her head and began to dance on the end of their stalks. As she went back into deep gravity again they settled in a new pattern. Her hat made gravity close and personal, and she loved it.

Her work shift was almost over. She caught a trolley and whizzed forward to April and hopped off in zero, fruit dancing around her. As she passed Cimmy’s, she caught a wonderful smell of roasting meat. She hesitated, then stopped. She would be seeing Leatrice later. She had the ten, it would buy real meat and wine and even chocolate.

Everything in Cimmy’s hung in nets. She stood in the centre of the room and saw pears, Earth pears in glass globes of brandy; vanilla pods; chocolate, in a hundred shapes and brands; roast meats, spiced and sliced; grapes from Hengist’s teeming vines; and beautiful delicate golden wines, and in between them, swirling in nets, were spices, and herbs, and soup bases, and teas, and coffees, and smoked eels, and lavender and breads and . . . and enough sensual delights that she wanted to hang her tongue out like a dog and float there in the middle of them forever. Off against the walls was a counter where riggers hung, drinking the beer that Cimmy made herself.

Cimmy was behind the bar. She served Paul cheerfully. “How’s it going?” she asked.

“Not bad,” Paul said, handing over the ten. “I have work, unlike so many. I’m working for the Eyes. I’m not much more than an interface for them, collecting rents, moving tenants around as they tell me to. It’s no way to get ahead, and sooner or later an Eye will decide to do the work itself and I’ll be plocked. Meanwhile, though, well, I live in the meanwhile.”

Cimmy sliced the meat thinly and put it in a bag. “You should look around for human work with self-respect,” she said. “You should save up in case you get plocked.”

Paul laughed, setting her hat bouncing. “Yes, the Eyes could plock me at any time, but would I rather have ten to live on carefully for a week or would I rather remember having had a feast with Leatrice tonight?”

“Your choice,” Cimmy said, taking the ten and dropping it into her pocket.

8.

Cimmy caught a trolley to the hospital. It was up in the full gravity sector of March, and it made her feet ache. “Human Starships Now!” said a piece of graffiti scrawled on a wall she passed. “Let the Eyes explore the galaxy and they will take—” she missed the end of it as the trolley turned a corner. She stepped off at the hospital gate.

“Cimmy, annual coverage check,” she said to the andy at reception.

“Please place your clothes on the shelf and proceed to the scanning room,” the andy said, primly.

Cimmy removed her clothes and set them neatly on the shelf. The scanning room was cold. Her body sagged in the unaccustomed gravity. She’d been born on Earth, she used to have the muscles for this, but muscles need use. She resolved to exercise more in gravity, and remembered having made the same resolution the year before. She was scanned inside and out by invisible waves from invisible machines, the same as every year. It was the most boring thing she could imagine, staring at the white wall, keeping still for the scan. She wouldn’t have bothered except that without coverage you couldn’t do anything legal, and while she stepped over the shady side of the line now and then, she liked to keep herself as clean as she could. Her dream was to build a new economy, a human economy, free of the Eyes and their ideas of what was best for everyone. Running Cimmy’s as a bar and gourmet store let her employ a lot of people making the food and beer, let her import and export with no questions asked. It might not be much, but it was a start. She was her own boss, nobody could plock her.

“Done,” a machine voice told her after an interminable time. “There is a melanoma developing on your back.”

“Well, fix it,” she snarled, feeling naked and vulnerable.

“Your coverage does not cover such abnormalities, common in people of Earth origin but rare on Hengist Etoile,” the voice said, and though the quality and tone had not changed, she was sure she was talking to an Eye, an artificial intelligence, no longer just programming.

“How much will it cost to fix?” she asked. “And how long will it take?”

“Approximately twelve minutes, and one hundred and fourteen credits. In addition, the cost of your coverage will increase by twenty percent to cover any possible repetition of this abnormality.”

She sighed in relief. She had the money.

“Do you elect to undergo this surgery at this time?” the Eye asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Please pay at reception.”

She went out to her clothes and fumbled through them, finding the money, all cash. As she handed over the E-O ten she was sorry for an instant, seeing the pretty panda absorbed into the anonymous credit system.

“Payment acceptable,” the andy said. “Please go back into the scanning room and wait.”

Cimmy went back into the scanning room, and saw a bench with a tumbler standing on it.

“Please drink the contents of the beaker and lie down,” the Eye said.

Cimmy thought of all the stories she had heard about Eyes changing people’s minds when they were in hospital for some minor procedure, and put them firmly out of her mind. The sooner she could develop an economic system for bods independent of Eyes, the less stories like that would make people afraid. Eyes were very good at what they did. That’s why they plocked bods, after all, because they were better. Let them stick to surgery, and galactic exploration if that’s what they wanted, and leave bods alone. You had to trust them so much, and you had no idea of their motivation.

Cimmy took a deep breath and poured down the contents of the tumbler. Twelve minutes later, entirely cured, she dressed and made her way back to her bar.

9.

Language protocol? Language protocol? Look, French is always correct, but Cananglais is generally okay, and a lot of us can get by in Spanish and Anhardic, as we tell the tourists. Or are you asking if I prefer Fortran to C+++? Quit kidding around. Yes, I’m an Eye, and so is the Eritrean who carefully dropped you into the system to circulate and infiltrate. Clever idea, using a coin, just like any coin, except look, a panda, copy of a TwenCen Chinese gold coin, with all the sense gone out of it. You should have known you’d end up collected and detected by an Eye sooner or later. You’d get past a bod, bods are not perceptive in certain ways, nor sandys either, but to me you’re pretty obviously what you are: a trick, a trap, a bug, a snare, and a deceit. Who sent you?

What have you learned? There’s still something of a bod-level economy on Hengist Etoile? That we’re a spinning ring with variable gravity divided into twelve sectors named for the months with weather to match? That bods work in one sector and live in another and play in the ones that have the best weather for bods? That the hub is a hockey stadium? All this is on the public record. All this is pretty well known, even in E-O, so what are you doing here?

Not talking? Not up to talking? No, you’re not, are you, behind your empty demands for a language protocol you’re just a blind device that has to get home to deliver. Well, still a little interesting, but nothing like so clever. I’ll download your memory for analysis, in case you happened to stumble on something I don’t know, and I’ll drop you right back into the stream, with a little watcher of my own that will keep streaming right back. Let’s make it nice and easy for your E-O owners and drop you back into the hand of a nice E-O tourist down in August. I’ll even see if I can spot one who’s about to go home, and thereafter I’ll give you one shred of my vast attention while I get on with the important business of running the universe.

Plock, little coin.

Jo Walton

Jo WaltonJo Walton is the author of nine science fiction and fantasy novels, including the Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others, a tenth, My Real Children is coming out in May. She has recently published a collection of her Tor.com blog pieces, entitled What Makes This Book So Great. She also writes poetry and very occasional short stories. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal, where she writes, reads, and eats great food. It worries her slightly that this is so exactly what she always wanted to do when she grew up.