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Author: Mark Budz
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2004

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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It's a post-everything world, so how could everything possibly go wrong?

When the ecotecture starts to degrade on the asteroid of Mymercia-killing a workgroup on the surface-Fola Hanani miraculously survives. A former missionary, she's hacked a living out of a gengineered ecology built after the Armageddon of overheating, overpopulation, over-everything. Now she has to find out what's causing a catastrophic biosystem failure before everyone else on Mymercia is killed.

Meanwhile, onworld, in a trailer park of migrant workers, a washed-out one-hit wonder named L. Mariachi plays the guitar for a community suffering from a contagious form of soul loss. It's a song that Fola's implanted IA--information agent--thinks she needs to hear. Because what is happening to these lost souls is spreading at quantum speed to everyone else. Something or someone is trying to reprogram the system with the ultimate virus.

And as virtuality becomes reality in this post-ecocaust world of plug-in sex components, old-world medicine women, and the cheesiest pop culture, humanity itself is about to crash....



The cross weighs on Fola. Even in the micro-g of the asteroid it seems to exert a downward pull. The sensation is more mental than physical. She knows that. The slave-pherions that bound her to the Jesuettes have been cut out with chemical scalpels. But her mind still registers the weight of the cross the way it would the phantom pain of a severed limb.

Scar tissue.

A good thing. That's why she wears the cross, to remember. What she was back on earth. Who she is now.

The cross is a mystery in other ways. Lately, the stone it was cut from has grown heavier, the need to remember more insistent. She finds herself fingering the glass--smooth surface and cracked fragments of embedded bone, absently polishing them in response to some vague, nameless anxiety.

Ephraim. It has to be. Her tuplet buddy's dour moods are seeping into her, a slow capillary trickle through the biodigital wires that connect them. It isn't just concern for his sister. That worry was there from the beginning. This is different. Something else is going on. Another wound has opened up, spilling fresh blood.

Fola never feels comfortable visiting Ephraim, even though they're biochemical siblings and she should be able to empathize with him. His hexcell makes her uneasy. Her mouth goes dry, her palms clammy. A kind of reverse Pavlovian response, according to Pheidoh. Her IA is always offering unwanted and unhelpful psychoanalysis, datamined from the mediasphere.

What bothers her is the decor. Ephraim has graffixed the hexcell's wall panels with Moorish architectural designs and motifs. It reminds her too much of the house she grew up in, before her father sold her to the Church. Circular arches. Tessellated tile patterns that hint at some highly complex but underlying order to the structure of day-to-day life. She was twelve at the time and never saw it coming. That innocence still haunts her. It steals over her like a catchy tune. She finds herself singing along without conscious thought. When that happens she has to take a step back, force the song from her head and replace it with another before she gets too carried away.

Fola's not sure why Ephraim chose the motif--what he finds comforting or appealing about it. She's afraid to ask. Part of her doesn't want to know, doesn't want to get any closer than she has to. Because of that, and his sullen temperament, she really doesn't know all that much about him. Where he came from, what his background is. All Fola knows is that he has a little sister, Lisi, who is indentured to do some kind of uterine piecework and is at risk for becoming mutilated. The details are fuzzy. But Fola gathers that she's gestating nanimatronic seed stock inside her and then giving birth to the full-grown product. If she isn't already sterile, she will be soon. And that's just the start of her medical problems.

Not all that much different from her friend Xophia, who had been saved from permanent physical injury by the Ignatarians. Fola counted herself lucky. Her father had indentured her directly to the Church. Four years as a Jesuette, shaking her booty for God, until Xophia arranged to cut her free.

Now, three years later, with the help of Ephraim and a promise to the ICLU to act as a point of contact for other refugees in the future, Fola was returning the favor.

"You seem nervous," Pheidoh says over her cochlear implants.

"Yes." No sense denying it. The IA knows when she's lying, can unerringly read her neural tea leaves.

"You'll do fine. The Mymercia KBO is not that much different from Tiresias and other large Kuiper belt objects."

She realizes that the IA is referring to her and Ephraim's upcoming work assignment on the surface of the asteroid, not her anxiety about Xophia or Fola's aversion to Ephraim's choice of interior decor. This is her first trip to the Mymercia. Until now, she hasn't actually had to go to the asteroid. All of her work on the latest Kuiper belt colony has been done from the orbiting construction station.

"I hope so," she says.

The timing couldn't be worse. The shuttle carrying Xophia is due any day, and she wants to be on-station when it arrives.


Ephraim is still getting dressed when she enters his hexcell.

"You're early," he says, his voice muffled by the acoustic lichen he's got growing on the walls.

Their shuttle pod to the arcology doesn't depart for another thirty minutes. But, as much as she hates his living quarters, they need to talk. In private, out of earshot of any bitcams or acoustic spores that could pick up their conversation.

She hovers just inside the arched doorway. He's partitioned the cell with tapestree screens, so much of her view of the interior living quarters is blocked. She can't actually see the cuenca tiles with their quiltlike patterns of interlocking mosaics. But she can feel them subliminally, like the screech of high-frequency sound, and there's this mental itch building that she can't scratch.

Instead her fingers go to the cross. The stone polished and smooth, comforting.

Ephraim appears from behind one screen. His biosuit hasn't finished taking shape and still looks a little foamy in places. He must have just slathered it on.

"Any word on the shuttle?" she asks.

Ephraim's gaze brushes the cross and her fingers. He shakes his head. "Not yet."

She lowers her hand. "When?"

He waves off the question. It drives her nuts when he puts her off like this, gets sullen and dismissive.

"Shouldn't you have heard something by now?"

Ephraim runs one palm over the bald top of his head. "Not unless there's a change of plan or an emergency. Usually, I get notified twelve to twenty-four hours before they arrive."

She notices that the graffitic on the inside of his right forearm is still blank. The small bronze disk, approximately a centimeter in diameter, could pass for a birthmark or a mole. Otto, the ICLU sympathizer who had given her sanctuary when she first arrived, had a similar mark. The graffitic is the equivalent of a digital watermark. It contains embedded steganographics that, when decrypted by a secure datasquirt, reveals a hidden image. This image contains a second stream of ciphertext that gets run through a onetime key to provide the comcode for an incoming shuttle of refugees or immigrants.

"What if something went wrong?" she says. "You'd know, right? Someone would tell you."

He frowns. "I haven't heard anything."

"So everything's okay." She forces a smile, hoping to lift his spirits by raising her own. No doubt her anxiety is contributing to his bad mood, amping up his usually morose disposition.

"Right." A nod. "No news is good news."

Hardly the reassurance she was looking for. It's impossible not to fret when she knows what it's like to make the trip. Alone. In the dark.

She's been there.

Cold. Three days in a cramped storage locker, waiting to apply for asylum. Nothing to eat but old ryce cakes washed down with recycled water. The warm-blooded plants all around, dead to her without a softwire connection.

To pass the time and take her mind off her empty stomach, Otto gave her a pair of cellophane wraparounds, direct eyescreen access to the infosphere that streamed outward from earth. She soaked up the light, lived off it nonstop. Afraid to go to sleep... afraid of succumbing to the hard vacuum outside her cubby that hungered for each breath she took almost as much as she did.

Without the eyescreens, she would never have made it. The lenses focused not just her eyes but her mind. They helped her to be born anew, restoring depth and breadth to the world. She had done it alone. But it would have been better, easier, if someone had been there for her. With her.

"Promise me that you'll let me know as soon as you hear anything," Fola says.

She can't help it, this insecurity that verges on desperation. She hates it, hates that she can't seem to unlearn this part of the indoctrination that ghosts her myelin.

"Does it work?" Ephraim says.


"Prayer." He nods at her hand, which has risen to the cross like a fish surfacing to feed. "Does it do any good?"

"It makes me feel better."

"But does it actually change anything? Make a difference?"

"It can."

"How do you know? If something good happens, how do you know it was due to a prayer and not coincidence or luck?"

"Cause and effect, you mean."


"Prayer isn't about getting what you want," she says. "Or affecting the outcome of an event. It's about finding strength in yourself, or God, or whatever, and giving that strength to others."

"Don't you have to believe in God? I mean, you said you don't anymore. Right? So how come you still have the cross?"

"I don't know," she admits. Some things can't be explained.

"I wouldn't worry," Ephraim says, leading her from the hexcell into the magtube that ascends like an elevator shaft to the docking bay at the top. "I'm sure the shuttle's fine."

Faith, she thinks. Like different varieties of flowers, it bloomed in many different shapes and colors.


White Rain. Adipose Rexx can feel the need for a quick dose rising like brackish water in the back of his throat.

A modified black-market biodigital, the drug is designed for direct softwire delivery to the neocortex. It's cleaner that way--no messy pills, liquids, or combustible materials--the equivalent of chemical acupuncture. The delivery system is a type of wireless RNA activated by a molectronic switch. Under normal conditions the riboswitch is inactive. Under the influence of the right narrow-band signal, the protein changes shape for the duration of the squirt. This new shape tells ribosomes to start producing the drug, which is synapse-specific and gengineered to nuke certain neurotransmitters. The resulting fallout induces a pleasant state of zazen. His mind fills with a mushroom cloud of well-being that obliterates all guilt, self-loathing, and the desire to give the antiquated Winchester twelve-gauge semiautomatic mounted on the wall a blow job.

The best way to do White Rain is in front of the window that looks out over Tiresias. From his second-level arcology room, he has a view of the comet's icy horizon and the stars beyond. What he likes about the window is that he doesn't have to close his eyes to imagine what pre-ecocaust Texas used to look like following a snowstorm. The sky crystal clear, the ground as white and pure as a freshly washed bedsheet.

Rexx preps the dose online, via his wraparounds. The virtual interface he's set up resembles the artfully restored Philco Predicta he saw in a tech history museum. The twenty-one-inch screen is large and chubby faced, the pedestal-mounted dials sleek. Switching channels in a predefined combination, 2-7-4, accesses the digital sequence for the drug and transmits it. Turning up the volume increases the dose. Some days the volume needs to be louder than others, to drown out the voices prowling the perimeter of his consciousness. Otherwise the clamor is unbearable.

Jelena is there, and Mathieu, as well as his father and his mother. All of the people who have followed him, dead or alive, to the edge of the solar system. Sometimes, if he's not fast enough, faces appear on the screen, flickering rodeo images of Jelena sitting on a horse and Mathieu perched on a fence rail, waving.

To be sure that doesn't happen, Rexx cranks the volume, ropes himself to a magnetic flux line in front of the window, and waits for the molectronic circuits wired in his brain to convert the digitally stored data into neural spooge.

Gradually his thoughts dull to a cathode ray flicker. The White Rain descends, big flakes that turn into water as soon as they hit the memories, washing them away.

The old Boeing 9x9 shudders as it descends, buffeted by turbulence over the Rocky Mountains. Joints groan, rivets creak. L. Mariachi can feel the palsied vibration deep in his bones, the metal fatigue that mirrors his own weariness. The plane, a pre-ecocaust relic that's been resurrected for nonessential cargo duty, is fast approaching the end of its usefulness. Like him, the years have worn it down. If it crashes and burns, no big loss. The three hundred migrant workers onboard can be easily replaced. There are plenty of other braceros in the world, ready to take their place.

He presses his face to the scratched, pitted window. One thousand meters below, Front Range City sprawls next to a barren hogback of shale-toothed foothills. FRC stretches for several hundred kilometers to the north and south, a thin ribbon of buildings shaded by UV-reflective umbrella palms and powered by circuitrees or rooftop arrays of solar panels where the concrete buildings poke above the leaves.

To the west, canyons dotted with drought-resistant aquaferns pipe condensation into underground storage tanks. To the east, a dust storm roils along the far edge of Colorado's eastern plains, kicked up by a low-pressure system over the Kansas dust flats.

The plane trembles as it banks into its final approach to the airport, still known as DIA, Denver International. At the southern tip of the terminal a single monorail track gleams in the harsh morning sunlight. The silver thread cuts through barren scab land to the vat pharm sixty kilometers away.
The pharm's rash of bubble domes remind him of heat blisters, raise goose bumps on his arms.

Looking at his reflection, he can't tell where the scratches in the thick plastic end and the crease lines on his face begin.

The plane drops suddenly. His ears pop and the abrupt increase in pressure gives him a headache. His crippled left hand throbs. Around him, the rest of the guest workers on the flight stir, roused from naps or whatever in-flight media they're streaming on their wraparounds.

The man next to him grins. "Time to rock and roll."

L. Mariachi blinks. He hasn't heard the phrase in years. He searches the chavo's face. But the man doesn't seem to mean anything by it. He's just a nostalgia phreak, lost in the past.

Cultural fundamentalism. It's happening more and more these days. Most people without a viable future find it easier to look back instead of ahead. The past is readily accessible, ripe for the picking. Except, of course, for those who have nothing to go back to.

Two hours later, after deplaning and clearing a Bureau of Ecotectural Assimilation and Naturalization reclade clinic, L. Mariachi and the other braceros crowd into a ten-pod train on the monorail. Standing room only. A few of the younger braceros joke with one another, talk animatedly about women or music. But most are sullen, withdrawn.

Compared to the flight from Atlanta, this trip is mercifully quick; less than half an hour. Through the bubble window closest to him, he watches the vat pharm emerge from the brown, desultory haze.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Budz


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