Originally published in the Further Confusion 2020 Neo San Jose convention book
Neon rain blurred Aphelion from view. The city-beneath-a-city was growing rapidly to support the super-structure overhead, some sort of sphere for the elite to live and play, though now it only resembled an upturned bowl seeking alms for salvation. Verdant plains to romp in and crystal blue lakes to swim, a return to the simple ways of life, when they all didn’t walk on two legs. No one remembers what that was like, of course, but decades of reconstructive holography and speculative diets implanted ideas into the public conscious of what it once was.
“New from Avilay, Gallo-Nuggets! With a new and improved recipe approved by The Ornithian Cultural Society. Feed the feliform in you.”
“Grow new nails during your lunch break! A simple, painless surgery in our downtown clinic will have you tearing into your prey in no time. Become the beast of the boardroom!”
“Reserve your new home today! Aphelion has cozy caves and delightful dens for…carnies like you! Unfortunately, you do not qualify at this time, but we’re always opening new financing options!”
“Sure you are,” Ny muttered. It gave xem some comfort that the new face-scanning tech could only determine xyr order, nothing more exact than that. Maybe it was the black fur in the low-light conditions, maybe it was the glowing mark that interfered with the biometrics, maybe it was the rain warping the cameras’ vision. Or maybe the marketers at Aphelion figured they didn’t need to invest in the good stuff here on the ground, it’s not like billionaires were walking to the train station. Ny made a mental note to come back later, there could be some useful components to harvest. Just depended on what xyr next project demanded.
The first thing xe learned to hack was a transit card. It still used an antiquated NFC standard and greyhat hackers released the encryption keys regularly onto the net, but the different agencies were slow to patch holes. Allegedly, some of the sources worked in IT or engineering for the lines but management was too busy hounding them to keep the ancient system running to question why new vulnerabilities were discovered as soon as old ones were plugged up. Anyone with money wasn’t riding public transit, anyway, so law enforcement didn’t care.
Several chips were under xyr paw pads, one per digit, though the small cavities were a pain to clean. But xe could try them in quick succession until one worked. The gate agents and Community-Trained Descalation Specialists (they were very serious in stating they weren’t law enforcement, this is different) had to know what was going on—Ny was in no way the only one who did this—but it was easy to ignore. Plenty of creatures had various legitimate chips embedded into their paws. They were too busy dealing with gate jumpers, anyways. Beneath Aphelion was like any other city in that way: there was a silent solidarity with everyone else who did what they had to to get by. Just don’t eat on the train platform, that’s where they’ve drawn the line.
Ny tucked in xyr tail as xe wedged into a spot in the train car. The adtech here was always broken, giving a respite from the overstimulating world outside. Instead they resorted to print ads, like it was the year 2000 or something, which no one could see in the packed car. Xe shifted xyr bag to be closer to xyr chest, you could never be too careful of thieving paws. There were no claws or fangs to defend xyrself with. And even if xe could afford it, no doctor would work on xem. The mark on xyr face made sure of that.
There was a time when things weren’t like this, of course, before habs became commonplace and Ny wasn’t aware of the comical differences between the upper and the lower class. You could afford the pastoral idyllic havens if you owned the companies that designed the things in the GroVats, not the folx who had to eat what came out of them. Xe, like anyone of xyr status, had no formal education, as xe never had the proper documentation stating that xe existed. Being stateless wasn’t the death knell that it was now, there was still enough orgs that didn’t check your ID when you tried to buy groceries.
Ny didn’t remember what the trigger of the series of events was that forcibly began a new chapter of xyr life. A crime of some sort, they said, spelled out in jargon xe didn’t understand. They had a new program, they said, for juveniles. The prisons were already overpopulated and anything sounded better than that.
What happened next xe refused to think about, as it triggered even earlier memories: cut of fang and claw, gelded in every way to denote xyr status: not worthy. Not worthy to reproduce or own property or wealth. No, this time xe got the mark on xyr face, sharp yellow lines from eye to chin. At first no one knew what it meant, but as the Alpha/Beta program spread so did the knowledge that the glow was a permanent brand, reserved for the worst of the worst crimes. What did Ny do? Xe can’t recall, juvenile’s records are sealed, after all, in paper in some warehouse. Cellulose is unhackable. But asking who shot the poison arrow and why doesn’t keep you from dying of it.
In a moral formal education, xe would have learned that alpha radiation was made of a particle of helium, atomic mass 4, and could easily be stopped by paper or skin, while beta radiation was an electron that could be deflected with magnetic fields or a few centimeters of flesh. Instead xe knew just how bright out it needed to be for the radioluminescence to be unnoticeable. How sometimes xe would be struck with blinding headaches or couldn’t keep down food. How some would treat xem as if xe were a walking reactor post-meltdown. It was only a matter of time before it would kill xem, but plenty of other things were vying to do it first.
Feliforms are born with 9 lives, they say, but xe knew xe was only born with 1.
Ny took the train to one of the far corners of Beneath Aphelion in the industrial district. It was surprisingly quiet here due to the absence of adtech. There were plenty of billboards (both the holo and old-fashioned kind) along the freeway but that was several stories above. And besides, there wasn’t much time for a programmatic ad to croon at you as the car wove around all the other traffic.
Walking on foot didn’t make xem stand out, as plenty of others walked to and from the station to the various factories and warehouses in the area. There were the bio reactors that made euungata-free proteins and food processors that turned highly engineered plants into meat that tasted just like the real thing. But how would anyone know? It’s been at least two centuries since the Chordate Accord, no one has eaten anyone else in a very long time. But between the cruelty xe experienced firsthand and the information on the darkest corners of the net xe knew that not everyone held the same respect for their fellow creature. Even mainstream conspiracy theorists noticed the lack of carnie-free protein options.
Checking over xyr shoulder before scanning above, Ny saw the coast was clear. Xe dug into xyr bag for the small pot of thick black grease. Xe wasn’t a chemist by any stretch of the imagination but xe didn’t know anyone else with black fur, a mark and a habit of getting into places where isotope sniffers were installed. A mix of lubricant from the autoshop and lead paint (with some stabilizers for good measure) masked the radiation, both the visible glow and microscopic particles. The only way it would fail would be if it was emitting gamma radiation from all directions, coming out of the back of xyr head, but if that were the case xe had more immediate problems to worry about.
Xe took some other things out of the bag and arranged them in the proper pockets of xyr coveralls before finally clipping a badge to xyr chest. Xe strode confidently to the next warehouse complex. The guard was preoccupied with their tablet and paid no attention to Ny, who badged xemself in, gate door unlocking. There were enough other creatures coming in at the start of their shift that nothing was amiss. Animalia, Inc. burned through employees as fast as it could hire them, filling in gaps with hoppers and other “freelancers” so no one questioned a new face. Especially not one with nicked ears, no whiskers and eyes that have seen too much. Everyone was too busy worrying about hitting their own quotas to think about others.
This worked in Ny’s favor. It took a few weeks for the multiple companies that hired for Animalia to notice someone was missing. In their haste to get to the floor on time creatures would forget to punch in, and it’s not like a quadrillion-dollar company is going to shed tears over a few shifts going unpaid. So that a croc had badged in for the first time in a few days didn’t set off any alarms, nor was the authenticity of the image of the ID. The fact that he had been one of the IT grunts was too perfect of an opportunity to pass up. Ny had put xemself in debt with some creatures he otherwise wouldn’t consider but xe had to act.
A dump of stolen emails contained a map of the building so xe knew where xe needed to go. After leaving the open floor of the warehouse and into the air-conditioned halls that lead to the server banks Ny then started to get nervous. There was always the chance xe could run into an engineer, a tamer of algorithms even they struggled to understand. But xe was just someone who knew how to plug some cables in, execute a few simple lines of code, not understand what the blinking machines were doing, silent save for their fans and pumps. Would xe be able to play dumb?
Another set of doors, this time with biometrics. Again xe checked for onlookers or cameras, but the coast seemed to be clear. Xe reached into one of the deep pockets for the perfect tool for the job, one which put xem into such debt: the preserved paw of the croc. It was the right one, customary for biometrics, and was capped at the wrist with a piece of metal and several knobs. Ny fiddled with them to tighten or relax the tendons to get the digits into a natural position for the scan. After what felt like an eternity xe was ready to try. Xe stepped up to the locking mechanisms. Xe scanned the badge, punched in a short code (based on an easy to find cipher and the croc’s date of birth) and placed the paw on the scanner.
There wasn’t an immediate response. On the screen an image of a sphere rotated as if in thought. Ny felt nauseous.
Finally, the light turned green and the doors slid open. Xe breathed a sigh of relief and stepped in. The room was dark and cold. The racks of Iron Horse super computers ruminated on the petabytes of data flowing in from across the world. Shopping, delivery drones, the most efficient way to move goods and bodies at the warehouse, programmatic adtech, data for billions of sites it hosted. There probably wasn’t military work going on in this location, no, the security would be much tighter, but that wasn’t of interest to Ny. Xe wanted something much simpler.
Along the wall there was a gap in the server racks. There was a pile of older computers, the make and models running through xyr mind. Xe recalled the conversation xe had with the “contact” at Animalia before it self-destructed not long after.
I know you’re looking for more info on the Alpha/Beta program. You’ll have to act fast before the hardware is decommissioned.
Who were they? Xe had no idea. But it didn’t matter, the info was good. The cost was future Ny’s problem.
By the looks of it the devices hadn’t been used themselves in ages. And like all large corporations, they had put off wiping the drives until a later date, which looked like it could be any day now. There was a few that had been opened up already with drives and batteries tossed into another box to be dealt with. Ny pulled out a pair of gloves and got to work.
It was all Apodi tech: Hummingbird phones, both new and old; Nightjar tablets; Swift wearables (no wetware, thankfully); and almost a decade’s worth of Nighthawk laptops. Big, chunky black ones that didn’t match the sleek white aesthetics of the rest. They were used mostly for government work where it didn’t matter as much.
Ny’s heart stopped cold when xe saw it. A special edition Nighthawk with the bird’s silhouette in yellow. It would glow when it was turned on, of course. This was no time for flashbacks, xe had to laser focus on the task at hand: opening the laptop and taking up all the memory chips before closing it back up. There were already some screwdrivers and other tools left out by the previous tech but Ny didn’t trust them. Xe had xyr own set of tools that felt more like an extension of xyr own digits than something creature made.
Ny had practiced this, timing xyrself in opening/closing the machine in less than a minute but time felt so much slower now. Someone could come in, someone could pay attention to the security footage, someone could have already gutted the machine. There were too many things left up to chance and xe wasn’t going to get a chance like this again.
Xyr paws remained steadied and true and xe removed the chips and drives, dropping each into a static shield bag before being returned to a pocket of the coveralls. Xe reassembled the machine and placed it back in the pile. Don’t rest yet, xe still needed to leave the warehouse. Xe got to the door and was about to open it before xe panicked. A memory card! Ny dove back to the pile and looked at the edges of the machine. Barely noticeable was an adaptor in a USB port. Xe had to use the edge of the security badge to press the card back in before it popped out enough to be grabbed. It was tiny and would easily be lost or damaged. Needed a solution, now.
Xe pulled off the gloves and shoved them into a pocket. There wasn’t time to be careful so xe shoved the card into the opening in a paw pad. Xe hissed in pain as the NFC chip bent, making a noticeable bump. Deal with it later, get out now.
Ny was able to retrace xyr steps and made it out of the warehouse and back onto the street. The guard looked up when xe left the compound but didn’t act out of the ordinary. Xe walked calmly to the train station before trying to open the gates. Each chip kept failing, the gate agent was looking at xem. Panic rising, memories trying to make their way to the forefront of xyr mind. Xe bit the bullet and tried the digit with the bent chip, sharp edges jabbing at the slightest contact. The gates chimed and swung open, letting xem inside. It was late enough that the station was mostly empty. Ny collapsed onto a bench and finally let out the breath xe was holding.
Xe did it. Now xe just had to get home and get around the encryption before finally getting to the truth within: why was xe chosen to have radiation embedded into xyr flesh? What crime did a child commit to do this? Xe needed the answer but emotionally didn’t think xe could handle it right now, regardless of the lack of mental bandwidth to work on the task. Xe was going to go home and pass out.
It took awhile to do so, taking several train lines and doubling back to make sure no one was tailing xem. After emptying xyr pockets xe flopped onto xyr bed. Then remembered the grease which was now getting all over the sheets. Ny grumbled and got back up to wash. Absentmindedly xe grabbed xyr phone and flipped through the messages as the water warmed up. A new one pinged onto the screen.
You work even quicker than I’d thought. Shame you left before we could meet. Have more work for you, if you’re interested. Let’s keep in touch.
What did it mean? Ny knew that xe was closer to the truth than xe could have ever hoped. But that was a mystery to be solved in the future.
Maybe xe had an extra life after all.