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Fiction

The Parting Glass

I gulp the whiskey and it burns my plastic throat, sets my nutrient sac on fire. I’ve got filters, but they haven’t been changed in six months. Too expensive. It takes a lot of alcohol to saturate them, and I tax my system beyond specifications.

Finnegan’s is my favorite bar on Pontianak Station, a wreck of plastic furniture and faux shamrocks designed to appeal to the hardworking Euros and Northos who do the dirty work that drives Pontianak’s port industry. Django, the proprietor, haunts the deck behind the bar molded to look like beams of wood and dispenses me another Santiago single-malt. He doesn’t say anything but makes a face as I pour it down.

I’ve been gulping Hermán Santiago’s shit all my life. His bad whiskey pales in comparison.

The vid hanging over the bar spatters my retina with frenetic grav-ball action: Titanics versus Icers. Icers don’t stand a chance, but I root for them anyway. I like the underdog.

“Jake, you got company,” Django warns in Tagalog, breaking his considerate silence.

I see their reflections in the amber mirror of my whiskey—a pair of thick goons in classic black jumpsuits, a flare of white at the collar.

Trinity thugs. Both wear the same impassive squarish face. Probably clones, certainly augments.

The meatwall parts like a pair of cathedral doors and she steps through, haloed by cheesy stained glass panels of leprechauns and Stonehenge. She’s wearing clerical black, too, but the crosses on her lapels are red.

Terah Castillo. Red Priest, 1.5 meters, compact. Definitely an augie, like me. I should know. I’ve seen most of her wetware.

“Terah.” I haven’t seen her in twenty years; she looks the same—great. Rejuve treatments. I ignore my thumping mechanical heart. It isn’t supposed to notice things like that anymore.

“You look—different, Jake. Took me awhile to track you down,” she speaks in Spanish. She never much liked English, and saves the Tagalog for cursing.

“I didn’t want to be found. Five points to the Trinity mob.” If she has found me, it means he has, too.

“I thought you stopped keeping score,” she says.

“No, I just stopped paying attention to the clock. Why are you here?” I finish my whiskey and signal to Django for another. Terah shakes her head when I offer her one. She knows the old man’s stuff is crap, too.

She scowls, face scrunching like a kid’s. Fans the flames of my chemical passion. You have to work hard to feel anything when so much of yourself is mechanical. Humanity fades, you know?

“He wants to see you again.”

I’m almost disappointed she isn’t trying to kill me. That, I could handle.

Terah’s glance flicks to the meatshields, and they back away. If she shoots them some telemetry or radio burst, I don’t pick it up. My receivers finally died three months ago when a rowdy Finnegan’s patron blasted me with a concealed EMP pistol. There are oceans of words in her glance.

“I’m out, Terah. You know that.”

“Mr. Santiago doesn’t know that.”

“Of all the people in the República, he should.”

Once upon a time I busted skulls for pay. Boxing, Muay Thai, later played enforcer for Trinity, even though I never converted like Terah. Job paid for a lot of augments, but only as long as I kept fighting, and I got tired of that. Now, Django pays me in whiskey for throwing bums from his bar. Not a bad living, but I can’t trade it for new parts.

“So he’s on Pontianak?” That thought is accompanied by an unwelcome twinge of fear. My adrenal pumps have been sticking lately.

“No. But he wants to fly you out to Santiago.”

Santiago Station is the old man’s private Bernal sphere orbiting Rhea. He went hermit fifteen years ago. Hasn’t left it since. Rarely has visitors. Rumor has it he’s really indulged himself—the interior of the habitation sphere is a jungle, modeled after some idyllic spot on Old Earth.

Terah sees the questions flicker across my eyes. She could always read my thoughts, even without a datalink.

“My promise, on whatever we once had, Jake. This is not a hit. If it was you would have never seen me coming.”

She makes the old sign of the cross and raises her palms to show me there are no hidden particle emitters under the skin.

“What did we have?” I snarl, slapping down a pair of golden cronás for Django’s long-suffering hospitality. The plastic coins disappear before the flimsy bar top quits vibrating. Terah doesn’t answer.

“So what does he want?”

“He’s got some old associates to track down. They’re tough bastards, and he needs people he can trust on the job.”

“What’s in it for me?” I ask.

“A new body.”

There’s something. I stagger from my squeaky stool, the frayed myomers in my back groaning with the weight of my armored skeleton. I’ve never wanted to see Santiago again unless it was to kill him. In what passes for dreams during my sleep cycles, I’ve already done that a thousand times. Bastard has it coming for the things he did to Mama and me. But there’s no way around it: I’m falling apart. I can get a new body or kill Santiago with the particle beam emitter concealed in my right arm.

Either way works for me.

“I’ll give him another chance,” I grind the words out, pressing my fury into a tiny knot.

“What about me? Do I get another chance, too?” I see hunger in her eyes, and it surprises me that my broken body responds.

After all, I’m not all machine.

***

The Trinity Mob doesn’t require vows of celibacy for all of its enforcers. Usually, most of the Red Priests do it to prove their dedication to the organization. Terah’s one of Santiago’s favorites, so she doesn’t need to take the vow to prove anything.

She takes me back to one of the topside resorts along the eastern strand of the Sunflower Sea. Looks like a cathedral. Santiago owns it, no doubt. She leaves the goons in the plush, glittering lobby, and we ascend to the crystal night of the penthouse. Pontianak’s mirrors have long since been set to night-cycle, and the distant lights of the slums crowded along the far shore twinkle like diseased stars on the artificial sea. We are pointed away from Saturn, but its rings section the sky in silver arcs. I don’t spend much time looking. Terah and I sweat out old grudges amid tangled sheets and raveled limbs.

I pretend the things we do aren’t just business, and for a while, so does she. Once upon a time, it wasn’t like this. Under all our meat, we’re mostly machine now, and something snaps in my hip socket. Our history comes crashing between us with blind, groping fingers, and whatever romance we thought we might rekindle is clinically dead long before we finish.

A half-hour later, I’m back out on the patio, feeling the wind in my hair, letting Pontianak’s night-cycle winds cool my skin. My adrenal pump is malfunctioning again, and I fight the resulting urge to hurl myself off the balcony into the sea below. More of Santiago’s rocket-fuel whiskey helps. Terah joins me outside, wrapped in the iridescent bedsheet. She trails her fingers along the wall, watching the lights of the night ferries.

“I wouldn’t say this to anyone but you, Jake, but Si Santiago, may katok sa ulo.” She sits between the water and me.

I laugh and gulp the whiskey. Nothing new. Santiago lost it a long time ago.

“He’s built himself a replica of an ancient Spanish Empire mission on his station.”

“And this is supposed to make me feel better about going to see him?” Santiago has always taken his religion seriously, even if most people stopped believing in the Church as anything more than a racket. He has always been pushy about it, too, despite his own many sins.

“Sorry. You could have said ‘no.'”

“I still might.” I choke my words with another drink.

I remember the last time I saw Santiago, with tears in his eyes and his pruny old-fashioned grandfather face cratered like Enceladus after a meteorite strike. He had refused cosmetic enhancements since before I was born in the underside of the Mindanao ghettos. He had the best life extension enhancements under the hood, of course, but he came from a time where age was respected, a requirement for leadership.

“That’s not all,” Terah continues, hugging herself in the chill. “He finally reskinned himself.”

My eyes must be bulging from my skull because Terah laughs.

“Young body. Maybe twenty years or thereabouts, male. He spends most of his time performing mass for the androids who tend the garden.”

I wonder what else he performs on them.

“Is this about trying to convert me again?” Now I’m gulping from the whiskey like it’s an oxygen bottle in vacuum. I’m half joking, but I think I’ll jump from the roof if she says yes.

“I doubt it.”

I think about the last time I saw Santiago, right after Mama died. How he begged of me with teary eyes for forgiveness, absolution I would not give. In the end, he had to let me go. Or so I’d thought.

“He will,” I say.

***

The República de Saturno is a whole solar system in and of itself. Sixty-two moons, twelve distinct rings, a hundred and twenty-two planetoids and fifty-five artificial stations ranging from the huge habitats of Mindanao and Pontianak over Titan to the smaller corporate factories or private stations like Santiago. That’s the whole R.S., give or take. We left Old Earth behind almost a century and a half ago; men like Hermán Santiago ensured we remained independent and economically strong. Small matter that they carved out empires for themselves along the way.

We burn five days in a private shuttle from Pontianak station out to the moon of Rhea. She glistens like a shattered snowball, twirling the skirts of her own faint ring suggestively at our approach.

One of Terah’s goon twins is flying the shuttle while she points out the viewport at the distant ball of Santiago. It looks like a cocktail onion five-hundred meters in diameter, speared by a long toothpick. The ends of the toothpick are tufted with enormous heat radiator panels, and comm dishes sprout like immense, inverted mushrooms from each end. I catch a glint of emerald from one of the mirrors ringing the station—a reflected peek into the polar windows of the spinning habitat sphere to the rainforest inside. So many trees and no people—an obscene luxury in a population starved for space.

The station’s curtain of mirrors catches the distant sunlight and also Saturn’s glare, becoming hard bright rings of light that blot out any further examination. Our shuttle aligns with the central axis and drifts toward an outstretched docking arm.

“Ready?” Terah asks.

I shrug and feel a metallic crunch in my left shoulder actuator. An amber warning flakes across my retinas, and neurostim redirects the pain. Another part to replace. I need this new body. I’m still limping from my failed night with Terah.

“I’ve never been ready for Santiago,” I say, mostly telling the truth.

We dock and are met inside by another pair of Trinity Goons, with the same pale, squared-off face. More clones. We fly into a vast corridor of the central shaft in a gyrocopter. The gyro’s powered by thrusters in micro-g, but one of the goons sets the tilt-rotors to standby. The portholes of Santiago’s labs flash past—golden disks of light that reveal nothing of the contents of the room beyond. We pass a few bots in exo-packs, servicing the transfer ducts. I see no other humans, augies or otherwise.

I’m on edge, wondering why the hell I agreed to come. My adrenal pumps are still failing, but I’m beginning to think that the sweet panic coursing through my veins might be actual fear. I can’t tell anymore.

We exit the gaping mouth of the central corridor into the blue sky over a sweltering jungle. Light streams in from the south polar mirrors, and I can almost believe it’s all real, that I’m planetside. Then I see the upward curve of the horizon, the forested sky hanging above. The flyer swoops over a half-klick of jungle, a lush carpet and a disgusting tribute to Santiago’s money and power. The azure diamonds of a river belts the equator—a pumping station disguised as a waterfall at one end—the butter-colored stones of a 17th century Spanish mission at the other.

“You weren’t kidding. He’s really bought into this,” I say.

Terah nods as the flyer descends into the nearly 1 g pull close to the jungle floor. We put down in a clearing outside the mission. I see what look like robed monks tending vegetable gardens. The glint of chrome beneath their hoods betrays their artificial nature. Androids, bots, or reskinned consciousnesses—they give me the creeps.

A track of red dirt leads from the clearing into the jungle. Flanking the path are two TK-A-5047 sentry drones. Tikbalangs. Squat killbots with oversized crescent heads, a chicken’s frantic bipedal gait, and twin miniguns mounted dorsally. Reliable, deadly—they eye us with compound sensors that glimmer with programmed suspicion. Their antennae twitch toward us like a horse swatting flies.

As soon as I step out, the flyer lifts off.

“Good luck,” Terah calls. I’d prefer it if she would hang around, but Santiago is the only one who is going to be doing any begging.

***

It’s musty inside the mission’s chapel, and I wear the humidity like a second skin. High, narrow windows to my left let in light stained in patterns of judgment and redemption. Ranks of rustic wooden pews march past side-chapels to the altar at the far end. Paneled with gold and the sad-eyed visages of haunted saints, it also features an out-sized crucifix and Trinity’s scrawny, dying god.

My eyes are on the figure standing behind the altar. Like the bots outside, he wears the simple brown habit of a monk. As I approach, the young man looks up and smiles.

“Welcome, Jacob. It’s good to see you again.” The voice is young, but I recognize my one-time employer and personal devil. His Spanish is crisp, formal, like he watches too many period vids. Judging from the fantasy he’s constructed inside Santiago Station, I guess he does. He has the same quick brown eyes I remember from long ago. Anger electrifies my neural wiring as I realize his new body is not too different from the one I once had.

He sweeps the altar with a linen cloth. I see the host wafers stacked on a golden plate. A burnished goblet of gold sits nearby. He moves, languid in the heat, like a snake hunting prey. Even while he’s playing altar boy, he’s dangerous.

I decide to kill him before he has a chance to strike.

“You’re not the Hermán Santiago I remember,” I say, giving the silent signal for the particle beam in my arm to start cycling. My arm grows warm, buzzes with energy. His security scans will probably pick that up, but I don’t care.

“Oh, but I assure you I am Hermán Santiago, Jacob.”

I felt less vulnerable when he used to call me Mr. Batao.

“Welcome home. Have you come to kill me after all?”

I nod. But then I remember he’s promised me a new body.

Santiago’s placid gaze betrays no fear at my admission. He gathers the wafers of the host and wraps them carefully in the square of linen. He unlocks a box—real wood—behind the altar and places them inside.

“I find the androids poor officiants in the Sacrament of Communion. I prefer to serve myself.” He’s ignoring my threats. He counts on me being powerless again. But I wasn’t a full cyborg last time we met.

I shuffle on my feet, widen my stance. I wonder how many of his Tikbalangs are scurrying through to the jungle towards the mission, miniguns chattering. My hips ache; my shoulder’s locking up. I could have fought my way out, once. But not today. I wonder how long I’ve got to live.

Santiago locks the host away as if we are just standing in the middle of the jungle with all the time in the world. He leaves the goblet of wine where it is. Standing with his hands folded behind the limestone altar, he’s a cherub beneath his tortured god. Is he about to pronounce a benediction over my death? Offer some prayer to usher me to oblivion?

The chapel isn’t climate controlled, and the humidity of the jungle flutters my heat sinks; other parts of me sweat.

“Despite my appearance, Jacob, I’m an old man. And as a man grows old, he wants to gather all the things that he loves around him.”

I almost puke nutrient paste. I gauge the distance between us and wonder whether I can tackle him and break his neck before his security systems fry me. But the body he wears is too much like mine when I was mostly meat. After all this time and all he has done to me, I want to look like that again.

“What’s the job, Santiago?” This is business. I have to keep it together.

He laughs, almost girlish, and flashes a beatific smile of perfect white teeth.

“You’ll like my price.”

“Not sure I will,” I lie. He knows I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t already accepted.

I hate him for that.

“You know I have always considered you family, Jacob,” he begins, walking out to the front pew, where I stand stiff-shouldered and ready to fire.

“Sure had a funny way of showing it,” I spit, remembering his nocturnal visits to me and Mama in the Mindanao ghettos. I never found a lock for my door strong enough to keep him out of my room.

“I know that I was not always kind,” he answers, “but I always took care of you.”

“I didn’t need your pity. I don’t need your guilt.”

“Jacob. You’re my son. Let me help you.”

I can’t kick his revelation or crush the trachea of his lies. My particle blaster won’t vaporize his words.

“You have nothing I want,” I snarl.

The youth waves my denials away with a soft, graceful hand.

“Then at least let me offer explanations. You’re a clone, of course. One of many.”

“How does that change anything?” I raise a trembling hand, seconds away from opening the hidden firing port.

“I’ve seeded the República with thousands of genetic copies of me. You may refuse my offer, others won’t.”

“I’ll find them. Kill them all.” If Santiago abused them like he did me, it would be a mercy to end their lives.

“Before the killing starts,” he sniffs, “at least hear me out.” He reaches for his goblet of wine.

I nod as he drifts in and out of the kaleidoscope light cast by the chapel windows, steps away from the altar with his cup.

“I feel a man should have purpose with every action. You contemplate pointless suicide now. Let me offer an alternative. For fifty years, we have had the technology to reskin ourselves into new bodies when our old ones give out. We’ve even had the ability to clone ourselves and transfer consciousness. But until now, we could never recombine what was separated.”

He raises the glass to me. Dark liquid the color of blood swirls within.

“Now we can.”

He tells me other things, too. About nano-assemblers and distributed consciousness clouds. Tiny robots swimming in a cup. I hear part of it.

“You want me to join you in your sick head?” I choke out the words.

“Yes. We will be the first to experience Unity. A whole from two broken halves.” His eyes are shining with tears.

“Eventually, we’ll combine every other part of us scattered across the República.”

Santiago is definitely loko. Why he would want the misery and suffering of every clone and offspring in his head I can’t figure. Then I see his tortured god, rough-hewn from the very wood of his cross, gazing down on us. His eyes are painted the same brown as Santiago’s. I wonder if Santiago plans to nail himself to a couple of pieces of wood, too.

I stare at the goblet, a sudden clarity to my thoughts. Just killing Santiago is not enough. But inside his head I could do some real damage. My mind is still strong, even if my metal body is falling apart.

Unity my ass.

“There’s new life in this glass, Jacob. Drink.”

His brown eyes are wide and credulous. He thinks he has me, and I pretend he does.

I snatch the glass from his hand, and see for an instant, my reflection, an inhuman face glaring back with shining red eyes. A sweet musk rises from the cup, rotting grapes and machine oil. The liquid is sluggish and grainy. The first sip sets my mouth on fire.

I choke the rest down.

To his health.

***

I run through the jungle and the thorns in my head tear at me worse than the thorns under my feet. Dammed behind my rage, Santiago wails. I wear his boy’s body now, in control for once. Inside his mind is a searing white fire, and my soul burns in the flames. But I am still Jake, and the long, graceful limbs of the altar boy propel me across tangles of root and vine. Santiago has top-of-the-line wetware installed; I can see through the jungle almost as if it isn’t there. The overlaid maps show me the best path through the labyrinth of trees to the axis of the station’s spin. I can escape back through the central corridor.

I shut down most of the tikbalangs that pursue with a nudge of thought. The system recognizes my passcodes. I know everything Santiago knows: but a pair of the killerbots lope through the bush at twenty-five meters back, their loyalty uncertain. The old man clutches at my consciousness, tearing off fistfuls of memory. I hold on to what it means to be Jake Batao a second at a time. I’m used to that.

And every second, Jake grows stronger. When I escape the station, I’ll hunt all of Santiago’s victims down. Put them out of their misery. I’ll let Santiago’s consciousness ride along and enjoy the show. Let him watch as I destroy his dream one soul at a time. Then maybe I’ll end it with a gun to the temple. We’ll go meet his god together.

I sift through Santiago’s memories for the best way off the station. He tries to block me with filthy memories of my Mama. They cut like razorwire, but I push past them. There’s a personal shuttlecraft docked in the command module. I can fly it. There are at least a dozen safe houses two day’s burn from here. I can chew threw his false identities for months before the Trinity thugs find me.

I burst through the trees and onto a sward of green grass rising gently ahead of me. The gravity is light here, almost nonexistent at the pole. I bounce towards a ladder that leads to a service hatch beneath the central corridor. But from that gaping tunnel, another flyer roars. Behind the windscreen of the open cockpit is Terah, long black hair fluttering behind her like a ribbon of smoke.

Damn. I had forgotten about her.

The flyer’s engine subsides to a whine, and she drifts down a dozen meters above me. Fortunately, she’s alone.

“Mr. Santiago, what’s wrong?”

One of Santiago’s memories thrusts into my thoughts like a plasma torch.

Hundreds of clones. Perhaps thousands of offspring.

Then I know that Terah’s either my daughter or my sister or my clone, and I’m pissed at Santiago all over again. He laughs, and it echoes deep within the vaults of my mind.

She’s wearing combat shades, but I know how that place on her brow crinkles as she studies me, tries to figure out what’s wrong. Why Santiago might be behaving so strangely. She looks back into the jungle—probably scanning for the old Jake. Just then, the pair of rogue tikbalangs burst out of the jungle, their miniguns whirring.

The ladder shines like a savior beneath the mouth of the central corridor.

Spikes of white fire chew through pressurized atmosphere at 7,000 rounds per minute. I hope those bullets don’t tear through the hull. Good thing the altar boy is also equipped with the latest neurostim reflexes. But in their confusion over my identity, the tikbalang drones target Terah’s flyer. She jerks the controls and slides sideways, but moves in slow motion.

I abandon the hope of the ladder, and do something stupid instead. I’m practically flying, and I interpose myself between Terah and the tikbalangs, forgetting I no longer have a cyborg body.

***

I am unraveling. My consciousness drifts on the artificial winds of Santiago Station. The air is swarming with nano-bots I didn’t see before. My mind, freed of flesh, swarms with them. My thoughts and emotions whirl in tangled vortices.

I think I’m still Jake. Jake but maybe Santiago or some new mind born of both. Santiago’s not laughing now. He’s screaming, terrified of the darkness of my mind and the weight of our souls crashing together. There’s vertigo and utter darkness and no redemption in our lives, no Unity in our consciousness. Just the howl of lost souls. I remember being born in Manila—on Old Earth when it was still green, and I also remember hunting for food in the trash-ducts of Mindanao Station in the gray, gray light of the lower decks.

I try to push the bastard’s memories away, to remain free of their taint, but they cling to me like droplets of black tar. No flames of understanding light my path, no forgiveness or peace. I scream, too. When the others are absorbed, how will I survive?

The tikbalangs stand sentry over my bleeding bodies. Yeah, Terah, too. My attempt at self-sacrifice is a failure, like everything else I’ve ever tried to do. I send one of Santiago’s acolytes to fetch more wine, but she’ll die before she can drink it. Too late, Jake. Too late.

I drift toward the hulks of the sentry drones, mentally thumbing the pressurization overrides. I could expose the fragile jungle to vacuum, burst this Saturnian pearl like the tikbalangs shredded Terah and Santiago. Add a new sparkle to Rhea’s rings.

The old man pushes back with the force of his accumulated years of treachery. Cajoling, bribing, even begging. I hesitate, and funnel my mind-swarm into the primitive brain of the tikbalang. A new body, but not the one I wanted.

I stalk back toward the mission, where the android priests gather vegetables that no one will eat.

The pools of our minds run together, but my thoughts tug like a riptide, still stronger than Santiago’s. One last effort and I order depressurization of Santiago Station.

I dig into the soft earth of the jungle with my steel claws, immune to the howling vacuum. Eventually the winds cease and the jungle freezes. The shred of Santiago’s consciousness shrieks at me, calling me a coward. I ignore him.

I remain still inside the tikbalang, waiting to be reborn.

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Andrew Penn Romine

Andrew Penn RomineAndrew Penn Romine lives in Los Angeles where he works as a visual effects animator.

A graduate of the 2010 Clarion West workshop, his stories have appeared in the anthologies Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring 20s and Rigor Amortis, as well as online at Crossed Genres

You can find him co-blogging at Inkpunks.com, mixing cocktails as the Booze Nerd at FunctionalNerds.com, and musing on his own blog at andrewpennromine.com. Follow his day-to-day adventures on Twitter: @inkgorilla.

 

3 Responses »

  1. Great story, Andy!!

  2. Oh my! And this was your first science fiction tale – man, you’re a natural. Loved it.

  3. This story is OK the way it reads now, but I’ll make the unsolicited suggestion that it needs one more revision (or two) to tighten it up, fix the awkward grammar in some spots, and transform a so-so narrative into a professionally written one.

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