by Jonathan Olfert
Hanging from thirty-seven cables in his nutrient tank, Chalt missed the churning skies of home. The billion metal shards in low orbit, just barely too small to see individually—even with thick lenses—made the starscape wriggle. The whole sky sloshed around from dusk to late morning. If you saw the moon in daylight, its dusty craterscape itched and twinkled as LEO debris skidded past.
Five hundred years of space travel had cloistered Earth inside a whirling shell of garbage. In theory, the mess was a very bad thing. Few stable satellites, risky transorbital travel, communications unreliable, telescopes and sensors gone blind.
He still missed the churning, sloshing, itching, wriggling sky as much as he missed his blurry old biological eyes.
Chalt was, at this point in his life, a five-kilogram half-cybernetic brain capable of quick and easy transplant into specially printed bodies as per contract. His gray matter was hardwired to a utility shell that interfaced with similar gear in the bodies: plug-and-play. Like most of Earth’s unlucky diaspora, he hadn’t been within a hundred parsecs of home in a very, very long time.
* * *
A Lud!ett corp hosted the fights on a Strigari nomad in a special economic zone so risky it made insurance brokers into merchant princes or corpses.
Chalt’s new body boasted weapons that gave the sunless world’s security people envious hives beneath their scales. Despite a threadbare fifty Lud!ett hours of training time, he could just about pick his nose with the barbaric lepton-stripper claws. His rear limbs were simpler things, a pair of fuelless flamethrowers that could melt the heart out of a battle tank.
The body was a custom job by a big-name Quixnix artist just out of the pupa. Chalt’s skin was a heavily branded biopolymer composite in the artist’s trademark chrome and ultraviolet. Truth be told, Chalt liked the way the body looked in the mirror. Four mobility limbs, four combat limbs, all dual-role within reason. (Scuttling upside-down was doable but risky: those lepton-stripper claws didn’t care whose leptons they stripped.) Redundant biotech power supplies for the weapons. Three hundred sixty degrees of wraparound vision, plus recessed dorsal and ventral eyes to minimize blind spots. Shielded lung intakes on the flanks, easily mated to vac gear.
No faux genitals this time—some designers insisted. No easy targets. Heavily shielded braincase and very, very limited pain receptors. As close to true quadrilateral symmetry as you could strap to an Earther’s modded brain without breaking the Earther in question.
The body weighed a sleek two thousand kilos. Chalt had often been heavier.
When the other lift came up to the stark white plain under lonely stars, the enemy—some kind of stiletto heptapod—looked about the same size. Inputs deep in Chalt’s optical processing centers gave him a direct overlay that skipped his eyes to reduce vision latency. The overlay kept the enemy targeted at all times, starting now. It also told Chalt exactly where the enemy’s braincase was: the only disallowed target. Tear each other apart, boy, just don’t wreck the property that matters.
* * *
After the fight, back underground, Lud!ett drones scuttled around Chalt’s ruined body, chattering about his win and all their wagers. The bosses encouraged all manner of gambling and weren’t so crass as to dominate the process. They took their cut in personal device fees, network fees, and transaction fees at a hundred points along the way. The bosses were the swarm of bugs, come to think of it, and Chalt chuckled as he bled out.
Back in the tank, painless and numb, Chalt gave the heptapod a call. The fighter in question, a modded brain much like himself, picked up after two rings. They saw each other in a tangible virtual space piped straight to everything. They weren’t even speaking the same language. The translation gear sunk that deep.
“You did good, kid,” said Chalt. He’d set his default environment: the pair of them were Earth creatures, African elephants lounging in a watering hole, all plucked from historical footage. He enjoyed the warm sun, the slosh of the muddy water, the shade of a massive tree. When he grabbed a leafy branch with his trunk and ate it, it tasted like beautiful things.
The other elephant, once a molluscoid Tagresp named Loto, took a deep slurp of whiskey-flavoured water. “Two rounds,” he said bitterly, slouching into the watering hole. “I thought I was ready.”
“Not your fault,” said Chalt, being generous with the younger fighter. “Those scalpel legs were worthless against the armor on my internals. Bad meta.” He flinched at the very recent memory of getting impaled twenty, thirty times in a matter of seconds, just before his claws ripped Loto’s heptapodal body down to its constituent parts.
“You’ve got me before—”
Chalt nodded. “And you’ll get me again. I’m slowing down. There’s only so much of me they can decommission—” He tapped his skull with his trunk. “—in here before the living parts stop partly living.”
Loto chewed on that, swatting flies with his tail. Like Chalt, he could adapt instinctively to nearly any body, real or imaginary. And while he had nowhere near as much ‘elephant time’ as Chalt,
they’d hung out here many times in recent years. “Regs say what,
we get retired at twenty-five percent original?"
"Twenty-two," Chalt said, and added bluntly, "I'm down to twenty-seven." Loto's brain, he knew, was closer to fifty percent original mass.
"What kind of retirement clause are the Lud!ett giving you?" Loto asked. "My contract's sort of . . . open-ended."
"That's normal. Not good, but normal. Offramp to re-negotiation. I'd imagine, end of next season, someone from Sapient Relations will drop by with an offer to drive an asteroid miner."
Loto blinked. "Can you drive—can we drive asteroid miners?"
"We may be custom gear, kid, but the actual interfaces—take a look with your utility eyes next time they're putting you in a body—are all off the shelf. We can plug straight into all kinds of things, if they've got space for a five-kilo brain in a jar. Asteroid miners, surface vessels . . ." Chalt looked out across the broad savannah and conjured up an image of an old Earth ship, a huge beautiful strong thing with ranks upon ranks of massive boxes on top. The container ship thunked deep into the ground and slouched over, spilling containers not so far away.
Loto trumpeted, something like a giggle. "That doesn't look like much fun."
"Was today fun?" Chalt asked. "Not trying to embarrass you. Was it fun?"
"No. No, I guess it wasn't. But when we win, it feels . . ."
Chalt squirted a deep drink of whiskey mud into his mouth and closed his eyes. "It's all chemical, kid."
* * *
The rest of the season went by too quickly: thirty-seven fights, twenty-one of them losses. And embarrassing losses, against the teams of near-stock semi-sapients that got used as filler.
Truth be told, those were the worst. Chalt could bring himself to kill something angry, confused, and dumb as a brick, but he hesitated. It felt like getting dogpiled by the kids back home, a very long time ago.
So they ate him alive.
* * *
"Early . . . buyout?"
"Only on paper," said the Lud!ett from Sapient Resources, who'd come inside Chalt's nutrient tank in a tentacular hardsuit like it owned the place. Like it wasn't taking a step inside Chalt's innermost everything in a way that even direct-to-brain VR couldn't replicate. Here in the tank, Chalt's utility shell was nearly blind, nearly helpless. The Lud!ett’s hardsuit-clad tentacles wiggled in a placating way. "But Chalt, it could look like a career-ending injury, very dignified.”
Chalt spoke through the little utility voicebox on his brain’s shell. “Look, I admit it’s been a rough couple of fights. Those Dapolik Wringers . . ."
"Certainly, certainly. You've been with us fourteen seasons, Chalt. It's a wonderful time to get some rest. Your company retirement account has a healthy balance, and I'm sure you won't lack for options when you get back to Earth."
Chalt blinked, metaphorically. The dim little electronic eyes of his shell didn’t flinch. "But you have something for me, right? An asteroid miner or a water ship . . ."
The Lud!ett made a tangling gesture that denoted sympathy. "It's a matter of insurance. But as I said, I'm sure you won't lack for options."
"You think Earth has water anymore?"
"Let's end it here, friend. We can take this up again tomorrow. How's noon?"
"There is no noon on this fucking rock." Chalt's tinny voice reverberated in the nutrient fluid, chasing the Lud!ett out of the tank. "There is nothing for me on Earth. Let me work. Let me work. Let me work. Let me work—"
* * *
The next night they trimmed him down to 22.1% original biomass and called it routine maintenance. Then came a fight so joyous and enraged and uncaring that he thought he was young again.
And later, as he thrashed aimlessly in mud, Sapient Resources told him he'd botched the killshot and clawed open Loto's braincase.
* * *
They shipped him out as cargo on a passing Lud!ett freighter bound for the Mars clearinghouses. The cramped travel tank had limited hookups and a bargain-basement VR sans comms. No savannah, no whiskey and no mud, no flies, no friends. Chalt's options began and ended with Lud!ett comedy much like himself.
He checked the simple travel-progress menu by compulsion. He had no options for crying, but the hookups drained his stress hormones and then billed him helpfully.
* * *
The big freighter paused at the Procyon B power station. When its comms ran an update, a message came in and, eventually, got routed through the entertainment hookup. Chalt switched from generic alien comedy to the new thing, recognizing only that it was new and thus innately good.
"Hey, old-timer," said Loto in very poor translation. "How's retirement? Hope you found your water ship. I had to raise hell to get this number. I miss you. The new guy is a Dreth, no sense of humor even before the mods—"
Chalt—his brain, his shell—turned off the VR entirely and sat there in the dark, in the sloshing fluid, trying to think. Trying to find words for the fury. The Lud!ett had lied before, but this lie—saying he’d killed Loto so he’d, what, break and retire a little easier?—was the worst one yet. Felt like the worst, anyway. He couldn’t remember.
His shell had a small arm, good enough to connect or disconnect a hookup in an emergency. Chalt thought about ripping himself free, clawing open the tank, rolling down the corridors, plugging himself into the ship, hijacking it, making this freighter his new body, unleashing hell on . . .
Well, on who? It wasn't like any particular Lud!ett individual was at fault, nobody he could find (and crush) even if he had a full staff directory and a terabyte of meeting minutes and all the time in the world. If he knew one thing about selling yourself to megacorps, it was that accountability drained away like water between stones.
And anyways, none of these dreams would do what he needed.
* * *
The freighter dropped him off at a human orbital, a stacked torus in the protected bands of high orbit, overlooking Earth and its silver shell of garbage. Unable to see except through basic station cams, Chalt and his nutrient tank sat in storage. His retirement account, after the bills from the return trip, actually translated well into human scrip. Apparently a crashing orbital had tanked local telecoms and dragged the exchange rate down with it. No casualties, except those downstream who needed something only aliens could provide. Impact drained away, again, like water through river-rock.
Earth did, in fact, have water still. He'd remembered otherwise, but somewhere along the way they'd cut out that bit of memory. Earth was nothing but water these days, sparkling under the silver shell.
Chalt chose his fate, all of it, from an ultra-simple VR menu floating in a friendly gray void. At 22.1% original biomass, he got some tips from a very confused AI rights page and classified himself as guidance equipment.
* * *
He bought himself stake in a ship, a very nice one by Earth standards, a container transport about to run from Lagos to Rio. No nutrient tank here, just a dedicated feed plugged into his shell.
The ship's hundred cameras and its radar and sonar gear became his eyes as keenly and intuitively as any of the printed bodies he'd worn all those years. He shouldered the containers on his back. He wallowed in the water joyfully.
He donated much of the rest of his money to a trust in the name of his mother. She was, it turned out, still alive in a wildlife preserve in the South African Union with fifty other Loxodonta africana.
The trust bought the preserve. Chalt had the captain hang a picture in sight of the bridge camera: Chalt's mother, up to her knees in mud, flinging water to the gleaming sky.
Jonathan Olfert is a Canadian science fiction and fantasy writer. His work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, and other publications. He and his partner live in Halifax.