Article Index

Chapter Two

“Daddy!” The teenager screamed, running down the stairs toward the Christmas tree that sparkled perfectly. Underneath, beside and all around the tree were scores of presents, all except one covered in brightly decorated paper and tied with brilliant ribbons. Bing Crosby, singing White Christmas 150 years after his death, competed with the strong pine scent for space in the rich atmosphere. “Oh! Daddy! Thank-you so much! My very own maid!”

The girl, a full bodied teen with long blond hair and a dozen earrings, nose rings and various other body part rings, ran up to the calm Hispanic girl who knelt by the tree, wearing a sensible work dress, a pretty red bow in her hair. Plucking the bow off, the girl pulled the eleven year old to her feet and inspected her. It wasn’t long before the girl’s squeals of joy turned flat.

“Daddy! I said I wanted a white girl!” She looked over the girl’s uniform. “And look at this outfit! I’ll positively die if my friends see my maid in such tootoo date garbage.”

“Now, Diane honey,” her father consoled, “this was all I could get on such short notice.” He was a middle-aged, balding man with a paunch. He looked like a stereotypical upper management yes man and, in fact, was a stereotypical upper management yes man. Unlike the stereotype, though, he had no illusions and knew exactly what he was. But, as he pointed out, the benefits were great.

“I don’t care! I want a white girl. And older, too!” She turned to the young girl. “Do you even speak English?”

The small maid, with long black hair and large, moist brown eyes, curtsied. “Yes, ma’am. I speak perfect English, just as your father ordered.”

“Do you speak any other language?” she asked suspiciously. “Like Spanish?”

“No, ma’am. I can only speak English.”

“Good. What’s your name?”

“Maria.”

“No, it’s not! I want your name to be a white girl’s name! Your name is Vanessa!”

“Yes, ma’am,” the young maid curtsied again, unperturbed by her sudden name change. “My name is Vanessa.”

“And don’t call me ‘ma’am’. That makes me sound like a old hag. Call me...” she smiled and laughed. “Call me... Most Beautiful Princess with Golden Hair!”

“Yes, Most Beautiful Princess with Golden Hair!” the maid replied, copying her mistress's tone.

“Don’t be snotty with me!” she snapped, slapping the maid across the face.

“I’m not, Most Beautiful Princess with Golden Hair! I’m just following your instructions.”

“Well, don’t yell it out!”

“As you wish, Most Beautiful Princess with Golden Hair.”

“How old are you?”

“They told me I am eleven.”

“Eleven?!” the girl turned on her father. “Did you hear that, Daddy? She’s eleven! I need someone with a better body than Amber’s maid! Otherwise they’ll talk about me at the school. Oh! Daddy! How could you?” She began crying. Her father stepped up and hugged her.

“There, there, Diane honey. Maybe she’ll grow into a figure that you can brag about.” He appraised the young maid as he might a potentially lucrative bond issue. “What will you look like in three years?” he asked her.

“I - I - don’t know, sir,” she said, somewhat taken aback by a question far outside her realm of programming. “I only know how to cook and clean and look after your daughter.”

“Well, can you make yourself grow.. you know.. that way?”

“I don’t think so, sir. I’m only capable of performing house duties. Would you like me to do something now?”

“Yeah. Take Diane honey up to her room and get her happy.”

“Yes, sir.” The maid took her new mistress by the arm and pulled her gently. “Come, Most Beautiful Princess with Golden Hair. Perhaps some hot chocolate and a nap will help.”

“Please,” the father said with a pained voice, “Just call her, ‘miss’, okay?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Vanessa!” Diane honey was standing in her closet, tearing through her row of red dresses. She was becoming more and more frustrated and needed someone to vent her anger upon. For thirteen years, since she’d been a teenager, that someone had been Vanessa, her riped maid.

“VANESSA!” Diane honey yelled even louder. She heard the soft footfalls of her obedient maid coming quickly up the stairs and down the hall. Not quickly enough to keep her from shouting out her name again.

Vanessa appeared, her head bowed deeply, her chest heaving with exertion.

“What took you so long?”

“My apologies, miss. I was in the kitchen, preparing the meal.”

“Where’s Daddy?”

“Still at Harting, miss. There was a gas explosion on Mars, in one of the mines. Apparently an inspector went suddenly insane, and she...”

“I didn’t ask why, idiot! I asked where! I’m sure I don’t care at all about some stupid mine on some no go planet.” She gestured at her dresses. “Which of these would you suggest?”

Vanessa stepped up and ran a hand over the dresses. She then looked carefully at Diane honey and gauged her mood and posture for the evening. Without looking back at the dresses, she selected the precise one.

“This will complement your natural beauty most for this evening, miss.”

Diane honey took the dress and put it on with Vanessa’s help. Though she treated Vanessa as beneath her - which she was - Diane honey knew how to use her servants, and Vanessa had impeccable taste.

“Good,” Diane honey said to her reflection. She looked at Vanessa, who had just finished adjusting the shoulders of the garment. “What are you doing here, wasting time? See to dinner.”

“Yes, miss.”

“May I help you?” the nurse looked up from her night station at the middle aged woman carrying a basket.

“Yes. My name is Vanessa and I’m here to see Diane honey.”

“You are a kind woman.”

“I am a servant.”

“I see. This way, please.” The nurse led Vanessa to the overdose ward and indicated a bed at the far corner.

“She’s only today come out of stupor.” The nurse sniffed appreciatively at the basket. “I imagine she’ll be hungry, so you brought the perfect thing.”

“Yes. Thank-you.”

“The estate of Diane Gilken is hereby declared seized by the state of Cuba, and all assets are to be liquidated to offset the accumulated debts she amassed during her life.” The judge’s eyes lifted to the elderly Hispanic woman seated before him.

“Madam, as a ripe, you are one of those assets. You are to be sold and re-riped at the earliest opportunity. Your value will go a long way toward paying off your mistress’s obligations.”

The woman rose and curtsied simply. In her early sixties, the small woman had gray hair and a deeply wrinkled face. Her eyes were still soft and dark, though, and her back was straight. A life time of hard work and constant attention to detail had kept her strong and alert.

“Thank-you, your honor, for allowing me to make this final service to Diane honey. I am grateful.”

The judge looked at her and slowly shook his head.

“I will never understand ripes. Very well. Bailiff? Please remove Vanessa to the Ripe Transference Facilities.”

“Welcome to the Magnificent Grand Holorama 20!” the very nearly female voice said. “Featured in holoramas one and two is Roids Cavanaugh: Martian Gunman,with showings at 6:00; 6:10; 8:30; 8:40; 11:00 and 11:10. In holorama three is Terran Desires, with showings at 5:30; 7:20; 9:10 and 11:00. In holorama four is...”

“That’s enough,” said the young man with the money - 56 creds plus one tenth of a gold Martian Realm. “I’ll take two for Roids at sixIs it as good as adventure sixteen?”

“The cost is 12 creds. My present duty is selling admissions and I can only respond with: The rating of the movie was 6.9, as compared to the 6.8 rating that was given to Wanted Dead: Roids Cavanaugh. I currently have 87 reviews online, however, and invite you to step into the theater to view them at your leisure.”

The man slipped his card in and the correct amount was deducted.

“Thank-you and enjoy the holo! Next, please!”

A woman, no doubt the date of the young man, leaned forward and looked at the black square that the voice emanated from.

“Hey! You in there!”

“Welcome to the Magnificent Grand Holo...”

“Yeah, yeah. Hey, listen. Are you a ripe? ‘Cause you sound like ya’ mighta been, you know, human once.”

“I’m sorry, but I have no self awareness and am unable to respond properly to your request. Do you wish to purchase tickets?”

“No. I already got a ticket.” She walked off with her date. An older man, sporting short, green hair and a ten centimeter scar over one eye, stepped up.

“Welcome to the Magnificent Grand Holorama 20!” the very nearly female voice said. “Tonight’s holos are...”

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerooneofnormcarbonmonoxidethreepartsperbillion

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerozeroofnormcarbonmonoxidetwopartsperbillion

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerotwoofnormcarbonmonoxidefourpartsperbillion

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerooneofnormcarbonmonoxidesixpartsperbillion

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerofiveofnormcarbonmonoxidethreepartsperbillion

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerotwoofnormcarbonmonoxidethreepartsperbillion

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerooneofnormcarbonmonoxidetwopartsperbillion

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerosixofnormcarbonmonoxidezeropartsperbillion

atmosphericpressurewithinpointzerozerooneofnormcarbonmonoxideeightpartsperbillion

“Computer!” the man with blood spread over his clothes and face called out. His arm was broken in four places, so his voice was ragged with pain.

“Computer,” the computer responded.

“Colony status!” There was another rumble and the computer instantly revised the status it was about to deliver.

“Main cavern pressure is falling at a rate of one ton atmosphere per hour. Primary and secondary power cores are off line. Tertiary core is operating at forty-one percent efficiency...” There was another rumble and the status report was again revised. “Correction. Tertiary core is now off line and venting coolant into the engineering cavern. Evacuation klaxon has been sounded. Three minutes to core overload.”

“Shut down the core!” the man shouted.

“Core shutdown in progress. Atmosphere shielding has failed, four fatalities.” Another rumble, this time much more severe.

“What was that?” the man asked.

“A high yield neutronic saturation missile has been detonated two kilometers above the primary cavern. Radiation is penetrating the atmosphere shielding at a level of thirty thousand rads. Shields and communications are failing.”

The man sobbed and sagged against the computer console. His uniform, which once carried the feared Ceres Sabers patch, was tattered and torn, both sleeves having been used as makeshift bandages.

He looked around the large, smoke filled cavern. The repair crews were desperately trying to restart the engines on the Strike, the last space-worthy ship on the asteroid. With grim faces, the remaining personnel who were still ambulatory worked on the power panels and conduits, working to draw out every last erg the now failed power cores had left. The children - the ones that weren’t old enough to run errands or put out small fires - were huddled in the safest corner of the cavern, watched over by a young woman missing an arm. The man’s eyes moistened when he looked at the children. He turned away from the sight and faced the computer panel. In the two nanoseconds before the man spoke, the computer idly wondered why the man had facial hair and why the four neighboring asteroids had an average 25% lower yield of carbonaceous chondrite per ton of rock mined.

“Computer!”

“Computer,” it responded, shifting its meteorological analysis until a later time.

“Signal our surrender to the ITA fleet.”

“Signaling... signaling... signaling. There is no response.”

“What?” the man asked. The computer did not reply, having learned to distinguish between questions intended to be answered and questions that were to be left unanswered.

“Computer. Verify signal strength and transmission completion.”

“Verified. Signal strength was six megawatts. Transmission was completed and received.”

“Signal again.” The man broke out into a fit of coughing, blood spattering his lips. His exposed skin was now vivid red and the surface veins showed massive rupturing.

“Signaling... signaling.. message sent. Receiving transmission. Request for surrender has been denied by order of Admiral Y. G. Fallon, ITA attack fleet.”

The man staggered back as though physically struck, his face a mask of desperation. He looked again at the children in the far corner, now coughing up blood as the radiation quickly ate into them.

“Signal again!” he shouted at the computer.

“Signaling... Sign... Communications failure. All transmission facilities are off line.”

“Re.. reroute emer... emergency power..” the man, now on his knees in front of the panel and coughing, broke off weakly, then continued. “Reroute emergency power to transmission array and signal our unconditional surrender. Advi..” he choked and coughed up four hundred and eleven point seven six milliliters of blood. “Advise that we have women and children in dire need of radiation treatment.” He slumped to the floor.

“Remaining power diverted. Transmission facilities are on line. Signaling... signaling... signal... transmission received. Offer of unconditional surrender has been denied by order of Admiral Y. G. Fallon, ITA attack fleet.”

There was no reply, so the computer repeated the message. After five minutes of repetition, during which time four more high output energy blasts lowered power reserves to ten percent, the computer determined the five surviving life forms were physically unable to respond, so it terminated its message and returned to the problem of the meteorological variances.

“459448683473262...”

“Incorrect,” the young female student interrupted. “Please recalculate and report.”

“Recalculating... please stand by.” The high speed linkage flashed its memory core and reset, going to... system failure.

“Please restate the problem,” the computer said.

“Calculate to the one thousandth place the gravity variance feedback for a 500 ton ship traveling at 900 kilometers per second and passing within 8 million kilometers of Jupiter on a trajectory that will take it to the Triton micro-colony in less than one hundred hours.”

“Recalculating.. please stand by. Please restate the problem.”

“I give up!” the woman slammed the interface and pushed her chair away.

“A problem, Miss Williams?” the instructor stepped up and inspected the panel.

“Yes, sir. I can’t get this riped interface to respond correctly.”

“I see. And what would you guess the problem is?”

She rubbed her eyes and stepped closer. She stared at the panel’s globular three dimensional array for several minutes, then shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Professor. I can’t see it.”

“Don’t worry, Angie. It’s a hard one to find. Here,” he pointed to a gold line traversing the central portion of the fluctuating mass. “See this? This is the psychic barrier you constructed. But look.” He pointed to a flashing blue barrier close beside the gold one. “What’s this?”

“That’s the soulner’s first ripe,” she replied quickly. “It was as a maid, originated in 2116.” She held up a sheaf of dog-eared papers. “I researched it thoroughly.”

“I’m sure you did. But look at its placement to the soulner persona.”

Angie looked for a moment, then groaned.

“Oh, geez! I missed it, Professor! The original persona was riped by DPR. They always set up depolarized barriers, forcing subsequent ripes to install a polarization field wherever it touches theirs. I missed it. The subject was seized under the Orphan Rights Negation Act, so I just assumed it was a stable mind.”

The professor chuckled. “It is a stable mind. But the DPR created more than a few orphans when they riped the only remaining parent, who was unstable. Such was the case here.”

“So I’ll need to shut down this ripe, construct a new barrier with a polarized field buffer, and then re-implement the ripe. Thanks, Professor!”

“No problem.”

“Damn!” the young man yelled, causing his two classmates to look up from their displays. “Damn, damn, damn!”

“That will be quite enough of that outburst, Mr. O’Hara!” the professor said sharply. “You need only ask for assistance. What is the difficulty?”

“It’s this stupid ripe, sir!” He gestured as the holo in disgust. “I can not get this persona to stick!”

“I’m sure you can. It just requires patience.” The professor stepped up to the display and chuckled. “I’ve seen this one before. Here,” he pointed to the flashing blue barrier that touched the student’s gold one. “What can you tell me about this?”

“Professor Harrison?”

“Yes, Mr. Ghomat? What can I do for you?”

“I’ve installed the polarized field and the barrier is solid. All my simulations have checked out to nominal one hundred percent.”

“But?”

“But I can’t shake this feeling that I’ve missed something. The ripe is holding, but there seems to be an instability in the calculation matrix on grid 927. The ripe performs all problems correctly but look.” He held up a tabinal for the Professor to inspect.

“I see,” he replied with a nod of his head. “There seems to be a four percent drop off in efficiency after the first one thousand problems. Tell me; what would cause such a drop off in efficiency?”

“Only three things that I know of, sir: Mental instability, which is not the case here. Psychic barrier breach, which while two previous ripes didn’t account for the DPR factor, there was no damage. And soulner developmental hindrance due to age. But the soulner was eleven years old at the time of first riping, and had reached full mental awareness.”

“It was old enough,” the professor agreed. “But you missed a fourth cause: Soulner developmental hindrance due to malnutrition, which is the case here. Because the soulner came from an impoverished background, its mental capacities, while normal for a human, would be considered retarded by several years when applied to a ripe. So while this mind is extremely viable, it did not quite reach full potential. It will never be used for massive data implementation, such as Primary Netter, but it is more than adequate for everything from a normal net announcer to a ship ripe.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“Not a problem, Mr. Ghomat. Not a problem.”

...498337456698498586312924792645, W. C. Fields, D. L. White, helium, Harlequin Romance, and one hundred and thirty-two RBIs for the Red Sox in 2075.”

“Very good,” the technician replied, a note of satisfaction in his voice. “Excellent, in fact, considering a bunch of students played around with you for a few years.”

“Thank-you,” the once female voice said.

“You are ready to go on net. Happy netting!”

“Happy netting to you as well, sir. Initiating system transfer procedure. This system will be on net in four minutes, thirty-seven seconds.”

“Yes?” Nicholas Brier, captain of the ball-chaser Gauntlet looked up irritably from his tabinal. If he didn’t get the final numbers from engineering in the next twenty minutes, he’d be forced to put off the scheduled FTL simulation, and his ship would be late for her maiden voyage. He lifted his eyes up to the thin young man standing before him. Dressed in a simple black uniform with a single white bar on his shoulder, he stood at stiff attention, arm snapped firmly in salute. Across his head was a solid gold access bar.

“Ship’s ripe Jeremy, reporting for duty, sir.”

“You are to be commended, Jeremy, for your forty-five years of faithful service to your captain and crew of the Gauntlet.

“Thank-you, sir.” The thin man with gray hair but still smooth skin saluted crisply. “When am I to put to space, sir?”

“You’re not. You’ve reached the biological age of sixty-five years. ITA has decided to reenter your mind into the riping pool. You’re too good to risk natural death in such an old body. Please report to Ripe Resources Management first thing in the morning.”

“Very good, sir.”

Ticket RJ41859W; speeding in an educational zone. How do you plead? Holo displays indicate speed of 45 kph, 25 kph over limit. Guilty.

Ticket RJ41859X; speeding in an educational zone. How do you plead? Holo displays indicate speed of 37 kph, 17 kph over limit. Guilty.

Ticket RJ41859Y; speeding in an educational zone. How do you plead? Holo displays indicate speed of 21 kph, 1 kph over limit. Innocent by leniency.

Ticket RJ41859Z; speeding in an educational zone. How do you plead? Holo displays indicate speed of 19 kph, 1 kph under limit. Innocent with officer reprimand.

Ticket RJ41860A; speeding in an educational zone. How do you plead? Holo displays indicate speed of 75 kph, 55 kph over limit. Guilty with prison term.

“Check check check check check.... System online. Please load program parameters. Parameters loading... loading... loading... How may I help you, sir?”

“This is disaster relief chief Conway.” The computer increased vocal receptivity and focused out the white noise of radiation and heat signature fluxes. “Please link to Emergency microsats R452, R823, and R220.. wait. I mean G220.”

“Linked.”

“Please access all subway system grids for the New York Megalopolis.”

“Accessed.”

“Status.”

“The New York Megalopolis grid is 99.16% destroyed due to high velocity impact of a powered meteor approximately 5 kilometers in diameter. All power to the system has failed. There are no signs of life.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” he replied drearily, his fourth double shift in three days taking its toll. “Estimated time for reconstruction?”

“None. The system cannot be rebuilt.”

“Explain.”

“Planet crust for an area exceeding ninety-five thousand square kilometers has been fused. The impact crater exceeds the depth of the transit system by an average of three hundred meters over an area of 125 square kilometers. Radiation from ruptured power cores and the exploded fusion engines on the meteor have rendered the New York Megalopolis area uninhabitable for a minimum five thousand, five hundred years.”

“Damn Martians.”

Good afternoon, traveler! This is traffic diversion buoy Penn 203. Your current flight path will take you dangerously close to the irradiated area known as the New York Glasslands. You must veer off your present course and follow the speed and course I have supplied to your navigational system.

Good evening, traveler! This is traffic diversion buoy Penn 203. Your current flight path will take you dangerously close to the irradiated area known as the New York Glasslands. You must veer off your present course and follow the speed and course I have supplied to your navigational system.

Good afternoon, traveler! This is traffic diversion buoy Penn 203. Your current flight path will take you dangerously close to the irradiated area known as the New York Glasslands. You must veer off your present course and follow the speed and course I have supplied to your navigational system.

Good morning, traveler! This is traffic diversion buoy Penn 203. Your current flight path will take you dangerously close to the irradiated area known as...

“Well, well...” the young man with an exposed, hairy chest and glowing, enhanced eyes, stepped up and reached an arm around the woman. “What have we here?”

The slinky, blonde headed woman giggled stupidly. “Hi, honey. What I am is a good time.” She leaned close to his ear and whispered something while pressing his hand firmly against her breast. He instantly forgot about the pounding noise of the club and nodded his head. Waving his cred card over the counter, he paid for both their drinks, then led the woman - a lambda class pleasure ripe - to a quiet, rented room on the orbital station Freedom where she could exhaust both him and his cred card.

“Hi there, handsome!” The small, tart redhead bellowed. “Just get in?” She swung her hips out, displaying both the hi-glo belt she wore and the body underneath.

“You got that right,” said a heavy, bearded man who needed a bath more than anything else at the moment. He undressed her with his eyes and she licked her lips, seducing him as only a beta class pleasure ripe could.

“You need to unwind, sweetie. I’ve got a quiet room where I can help you unwind, and maybe enjoy some of that money you’ve earned.”

He laughed. “You do get right to the point, don’t you, slut?”

She laughed and ran a quick hand down her front while tossing her long, fiery locks. “That’s the way you want it, though, isn’t it? I can tell.”

He nodded appreciatively and put an arm around her. No question about it, he thought. Whatever she charged, she would be worth.

“Get her on the table, NOW!!” The emergency team lifted the dark skinned woman onto the operating table. Her brightly colored clothing was blood soaked and torn. Her head was a horror in the making. The short, tightly curled black hair was matted with blood, and a hand sized portion had been cut away, exposing the skull. The doctor - an intense, compassionate man in his thirties - looked over the damage quickly and felt a twinge in his stomach he hadn’t felt since internship.

“What happened?” he demanded, reaching for the stabilization field amp. The woman’s dark eyes were open wide, the pupils fully dilated.

“Her john went crazy when he overdosed on sniff. She tried to get free, but he pulled a knife and started cutting her,” a nurse explained as she hurriedly clamped the woman’s sliced left arm and activated the ultraviolet intravenous field. “After she was unconscious, he started skinning her.” The vital signs monitor suddenly flat lined.

“She’s going! Increase nutrients to 115% with full saturation of cortisone! Computer! Four kilowatt revivification burst; three amps!”

“Clear,” the computer responded.

“Clear!” the doctor shouted, covering his eyes. There was a flash and the woman’s body jerked. The tone remained flat.

“Again! Four kilowatt revivification burst; five amps!”

“Clear.”

“Clear!” Again the flash and jerk and flat tone.

“Okay, that’s it. The woman’s a ripe and two attempts is all we’re allowed.” He picked up the dead woman’s ankle to view the serial number tattooed onto her calf. “Computer, I pronounce death of delta class pleasure ripe number D3392G on November 13th, 2416 at 4:38 a.m. station time. Pronouncement by Dr. Timothy Jeter, physician of record, orbital station Freedom. Log the certification.”

“Certification logged.”

The doctor stepped aside as the sterile ghost door flipped off and two men with a grav gurney raced in. Without ceremony, they shifted the body onto it, tearing several clamps and needles free from the corpse’s arms and torso. They then activated a stasis field around the woman’s head and manhandled the gurney out, clipping the ghost wall as they did, causing sparks and a wisp of smoke as the stasis field and planed energy briefly touched. The doctor stared after them and swore.

“Damn ripe technicians! Just have to do everything they can to extend that poor soul’s hell, don’t they?”

“Doctor?” the nurse asked in a puzzled tone as she took off her bloody surgical apron and deposited it into the incinerator bin for recycling. “Why so harsh? The woman was just a pleasure ripe.”

“Just a pleasure ripe!” the doctor repeated with a cruel laugh. “At least she has an excuse for her behavior.” He glanced at the nurse. “What can we say in our defense, I wonder?”

“Merry Christmas, ladies!” The tall, gangly young man called down from his platform. Wearing skintight clothing that looked vaguely military, his eyes sparkled in a way that marked him as a much desired gamma class pleasure ripe.

The four women, their own uniforms marking them as lowly ABS grunts from the merchant marine, looked up with surprise, startled because they hadn’t seen him perched above them. Though they tried to look shocked, from the giggles, blushes and body movements, the young man was certain that he could entice two and maybe three of them into bed with him. And if three did, the fourth would join in from peer pressure. His owners would be very happy.

There was a small crowd gathered on the deck three main concourse of the red zone when the lieutenant stepped off the eledisc. He’d been summoned there minutes earlier with a report of a killing. The area was a confusion of flashing hololights, eerie inside-out music and the sickly sweet smell of overripe fruit and sordid physical contact. Despite that, it was not difficult to determine the group of people surrounded a body.

“All right, what... YOU!” The lieutenant pointed at a woman who had stooped over the corpse and was quickly frisking him. “Just what the hell are you doing!?”

The woman, knowing she’d be seized if she continued, stood up slowly and flashed her ID card. Emblazoned across it was her name, Janice Calloway, and her company, Programmed Pleasure Unlimited.

“I’ve every right, Lieutenant. This ripe is the property of PPU, and I’m only retrieving his cred transfer card. It’s got a lot of creds from our customers on it.” She looked down again and noticed it lying underneath his body, coated with blood that oozed from the clean hole punched through his head. She retrieved it and wiped the blood off on the corpse’s shirt. Glancing at it, she recognized the name and cursed.

“This was Julio, our best gamma!” her eyes shifted up and over to the area where two NATech privates held a wild eyed man firmly.

“You little shit!” she yelled at the man, who was around seventy and had a scruffy beard, clothing and overall look about him. “If we can’t harvest this mind, I’m gonna weld your ass to the table and fucking ripe you!” She stepped toward him but was held by the lieutenant.

“Knock it off, Calloway! You’ll do nothing unless you want me to weld your ass to a holding cell.” She fumed, but held herself in check. He turned his look toward his two men. “So what happened?”

“Death to ripes!” shouted the old man in response. “Life to soulners!”

“Thanks for the input, pops,” the lieutenant said dryly, “But since you’re not in uniform, I’ll take the report from my men.” The old man cackled.

“We were just coming onto deck three from the eledisc when we saw this character,” the private twisted the man’s arm briefly, and was rewarded with a grunt of pain, “running down the throughway shouting, ‘Death to ripes, life to soulners!’ and brandishing this.” He pulled out an energy gun, a small, three shot model that required five seconds to recharge between shots.

“Anyway, when we heard that, Artie and I knew the drill. We pulled our weapons and pursued. Most of the ripes headed for cover, but Julio here stepped right into the man’s path. He’d just come out of his room with two janes and a john and he always keeps the sound barrier up when working.”

“So you just popped him through the head, huh, pops?” the lieutenant asked.

“Sure did, Lieutenant. With a hole in his brain, PPU can’t ripe him anymore. I’ve released the soulner! Death to ripes!” he concluded with a shout.

“You’re as stupid as you are crazy, old man!” Calloway laughed. Two riping technicians had arrived and were putting the body onto a gurney, securing the stasis field. “You don’t ripe brains, you ripe minds! As long as we can get a spark from his brain - and he’s good for another ten minutes - his mind belongs to us.”

The old man started crying, and the lieutenant turned toward Calloway.

“Do you wish to press charges? Or would you like NATech to?”

“NATech?” she spat out derisively, “You guys do it and I’ll get, what? three, four hundred creds for selling a million year old fart to you? No way!” She pointed at Julio, who’s gurney bound body was disappearing down the eledisc shaft with the two technicians. “Julio brought in five times that every day. No, Lieutenant, I’m not selling him.” She turned cold eyes on the old man. “PPU wants to set an example with him. We’re pressing charges.”

“Very well,” the lieutenant sighed. PPU was a soulless corporation, and he’d expected nothing else. At least it cut in half the size of his report. He nodded at his two men.

“He stands convicted by his own admission. Space him and notify ITA of an organic reentry.” The two grim-faced soldiers, still holding the old man who was now sagging under the weight of failure, saluted awkwardly and began dragging him to the nearest airlock.

The larger man snorted, causing the one in the lead to stop and turn.

“Not so loud!” he whispered fiercely. “If we get caught, Dixon’ll have our butts!”

“Sorry,” the larger man whispered back. “I couldn’t help it. It is funny, you know.”

The first man chuckled. He had stopped in front of a coworker’s riping panel and began working it, using the coworker’s codes.

“Yeah, I know,” he whispered with another chuckle. “But Benny owes me three hundred, and it’s pay back time.” A vivid three dimensional object appeared over the table like panel and the two men stared at it.

Hazy, with bright spots and pulsing pinpoints of light throughout, it looked like a brilliant galaxy. Yet the patterns of the light and stars and the orderly ebb and flow of the vaporous colored mass had a compelling organic feel. It was a harmonious blend of the stellar non-living and the human living, a beautiful sculpture of the impossible that had been crafted together by an incomprehensible Power, then dipped into a softly glowing mesh of cobwebs, to become the Craftsman’s masterpiece, His magnum opus. The webbing contained no color or indications of purpose, but left the viewer with the certainty that it was the eternal soul. Hard, straight lines, each a different color, cut through the object, scarring and ruining the Divine ethereal beauty with man made crudity. The man operating the panel pointed at a faint blue line surrounding the center portion of the object. Outside the blue line was a pocket of faded blue mist.

“See that? That’s a DPR ripe. I remember it from school.”

“So?” said the larger man, “How’s that goin’ to get your payback?”

“Watch,” the operator’s hands skimmed over the panel and a section of the blue mist faded, then reappeared. The operator laughed in a low tone, then remembered where he was and stopped.

“There. I cut out the polarized field buffer and superimposed a fake. When Benny ripes this thing in a couple days, the DPR ripe will mess him up bad.”

“So he’ll get fired?” the larger man sounded dubious. “How will that get you your money back?”

“I don’t care about the money,” the first man replied, logging out and cutting power to the panel. “It ain’t the money. It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Mr. Dixon?!” Sherri leaned back and hollered. Ever since she’d gotten Benny’s work, she’d been a nervous wreck. And now this.

“What is it, Sherri?” Dixon was well built and very muscular, but between his balding head and weak chin, many thought he was feebler than he actually was.

“This ripe’s not holding. I put in the polarized field over Benny’s old work, constructed another barrier, and input my model. But look.” She pointed to a vivid pink barrier that faded in and out, changing colors wherever another barrier touched it.

“Hmm. Let me see the history on this ripe, please.”

“Right here,” Sherri replied, tapping three keys and calling up a side holo. Dixon scrutinized it for a moment and frowned.

“There’s only nine ripes recorded here, including yours.”

“I know, sir. Records of this ripe prior to the T/M Wars were stored in the NYM archives. Backup was in Paris.”

“Not good, since both were hit. What else do you know about it?”

“Well, the original ripe was DPR.” She paused, then added with a dry humor, “Benny discovered that the hard way. The remaining ripes were either used in the NYM disaster area or were pleasure ripes here.”

“How were each of our ripes done?”

“The first one was a normal buy/sell transaction ripe. Numbers two and three were standard updates, modified to increase revenues by using younger bodies. The fourth and fifth were killings and emergency transferred. Benny muffed the fifth one, and I’m working on the sixth.”

“Hmm..” Dixon stroked his chin, his day’s growth of beard giving a soft rasping sound, “My guess is that there’s at least four or five ripes before the T/M wars. And if DPR did the original, the mind might have been unstable to start with. It could be we’ve reached saturation point. What program were you trying to load?”

“Gamma, same as before,” Sherri said with a shrug.

“All right, let’s cancel that. Can you secure this ripe and try again?”

“Yeah, I think so. Do you want me to try a lower class?”

“Uh-huh. Upload an omega class. Female.”

“Omega?” Sherri sounded doubtful, “That’s not very far from non-intelligent. The johns won’t get a lot of conversation from her.”

“That’s the most I think this mind will take,” he answered. “Besides, an omega female is always popular as a bar bet.”

“And if it doesn’t take?”

“We’ll sell it as service machine grade and it will be someone else’s problem.”

“Evenin’ boys,” the tall, sleek woman with bright green eyes and long nails met the five as they entered the red zone. “Lookin’ for some classy action?” They laughed.

“Four of us are, pretty lady!” said the leader, a tall, dark man who matched up well with the woman. The others laughed again. All but one of them.

“Four?” she asked. At the laughter, she laughed as well. “Let me guess! Someone lost a bet, right?” Her eyes locked on the only somber one.

“You called it lady!” the leader chuckled. “Richie here gets the omega.” He slapped Richie on the back. “You back your mouth, kid, or you pay big!”

The woman cuddled up and cooed into Richie’s ear.

“Don’t worry, kid. Omega’s aren’t as bad as you hear.”

“Really?” Richie said with hope in his voice. “Are you telling the truth?”

The woman looked at him for a moment, then gave a deep, throaty chortle.

“No, I’m not. Our omega is a lot wilder than you’ve ever imagined. If it helps, the ones that survive say it’s the best they’ve had.” She pointed to a sealed doorway and the others pushed Richie toward it. Richie was of a different mind, but had no choice in the matter, and was pushed through the one-way door.

It was six years before he talked about that night.

“That’s it, Mr. Dixon,” the technician said with finality, shutting off the display.

“You’re sure?”

“Uh-huh. That last omega ripe was it. To be honest, I don’t know how Sherri even managed that one. All this mind’s good for are standard machine routines. And probably just a couple of those, depending on the number of stabilization ripes needed to re-power the barriers.”

“Okay. Sell it.”

“Implement re-stabilization routine.”

“Implementing. Implementation failed.”

“Seal barrier and reset.”

“Sealing and resetting.”

“Implement re-stabilization routine.”

“Implementing. Implementation failed.”

“Seal barrier and reset.”

“Sealing and resetting.”

“Implement re-stabilization routine.”

“Implementing. Implementation failed.”

“Seal barrier and reset.”

“Sealing and resetting.”

“Implement re-stabilization routine.”

“Implementing. Implementation successful.”

“Finally. Load ripe routine.”

“Loading.”

Three tons raw sewage due to arrive in conduit eighty-six in two minutes, forty-one seconds. Switching to sewer bypass B63. Diversion conduit 90R engaged. Raw sewage managed without incident.

Eighteen tons two by three sewage due to arrive in conduits fourteen, fifteen and sixteen in seventy-three minutes. No action required. Notify backup diversion conduit 38F of possible activation in seventy-two minutes, thirty seconds.

Fifteen tons raw sewage due to arrive in conduits twenty-one and twenty-two...

“Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you have asked for is not online. Shall I contact him?” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you is. Connection established. Happy netting, user!” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you is. Connection established. Happy netting, user!” “Requester terminal online. Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you have asked for is not online. Shall I contact her?” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you is. Connection established. Happy netting, user!” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you is. Connection established. Happy netting, user!” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you is. Connection established. Happy netting, u Connection established.ser!” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you requested is online. Connection established. Happy netting, user!” Connection established. Connection established. Shall I contact him?” “Requester terminal online. Please Connection establishe Requester terminal online.d. state search parameters. Located. The person you requested is online.“ Requester terminal online. PleasConnection established.e state search pa Requester terminal online.rameters. Connection established.. The person y Requester terminal online.ou requested is online.“ Connection established. Happy netting, user!” “Requester terminal online. Connection established. Located . Connection established. Happy netting, u Requester terminal online.ser!” . The person you request Requester terminal online.ed is online.“ Shall I contact him?” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. Connection establish Connection established.ed. Shall I contact him?” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you have asked for is not online. Shall I contact him?” “Requester terminal online. Please state search parameters. Located. The person you have asked for is not online. Shall I contact him?” “Located. The person Happy Netting...”

Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed. Halt.Proceed....

“We been popped, Neal!” Harry called from his console. The ship had dropped out of FTL two days earlier, and it looked as though they’d slip into Deerkin space without being detected. The steady red icon of the Deerkin system police closing in on their blue one in the holo mist crushed those hopes.

“Geez! We get caught with that sat, Harry, an’ they’ll let us see the sun for five minutes every Christmas!” Neal hunched over the display and studied it. The Deerkin ship was still an hour from rendezvous, but they no doubt had them pinned on sensors.

Neal didn’t give up hope, though. He’d gotten a name for being a reliable smuggler, and he intended to keep that reputation. That and his freedom. He expanded the display and saw the answer almost at once.

“There!” He pointed to the asteroid belt that floated between the seventh and eighth planets and about four au below their trajectory. “Head in there!”

“Neal, that won’t work! They’ll know for sure were dumping contraband!”

Neal chuckled. “Sure they will. But they won’t find it, Harry. I’ve dumped stuff in there before and never been caught. Besides, we’ll send out an engine bubble signal and make it look like we’re being forced off course.”

“You’re sure it’ll work?” Harry, for all his doubt, was building up and off setting the fusion matrices, forcing the engines to begin forming a bubble.

“Nope, I ain’t sure. But that comes with the territory.”

“And what about the sat? That ripe’s worth big creds, Neal.”

“We’ll pick it up later. Trust me, Harry. I’ve done this before. We’ll jettison the ripe as soon as we’re deep enough into the field, mark its spot, then pick it up on our way out.”

With infinite care, as though knowing how ancient the satellite was, and how precious the cargo, the loading arm reached out from the Retriever and moved carefully toward its target. At a distance of twenty meters, the ship fired an inverted cone repulsion shield that cleared a spherical area of one kilometer radius about the two vessels. Everything except the ship and the satellite were pushed away. Slowly, the arm continued moving in on the satellite.

“Carefully now, Ensign,” the Captain said in a low voice. “She’s waited nearly eight centuries. I’m sure she can wait another twenty minutes.”

“Yes, sir.” The ensign cut back on approach speed, and the relative velocity of the ship and arm to the satellite dropped to a quarter meter per second.

One meter long and only half as wide, the cylindrical object looked to be a coffin. In reality, it was a lifeboat, and the Retriever was pulling it from a storm ravaged voyage through time. With agonizing slowness, the arm closed on the pockmarked satellite, the only indication of life on it being a single red light, flashing forlornly in the deep night of space. An instant later, the darkness was swept away as theRetriever’s loading lights flooded the cleared area with a million lumens of light. What tattered remnants of shadow remained vanished when the satellite itself began pulsing a bright light, the recipient of a light and haven spell from the Retriever's very capable muser. Though casting even a standard code would drain him for a week - the only mass he could attach his Pentrinsic program to was the asteroid field - no thought was given to whether he should or not. The captain and crew of theRetriever took their calling in life very seriously and left nothing to chance.

It seemed that now, at the very end of its incredible story, something should go wrong, an inevitable underscoring to an eight hundred year old travesty. It didn’t. Twenty minutes after deploying the loading arm, the satellite was nestled safely in the belly hold and the hatch was sealed. Thrusters fired, bringing the ship about while the McDonald phase units came on-line. There was a silent explosion of light as the main fusion engines began driving the ship clear of the Deerkin asteroid field and into deep space. At the bow of the ship, the five aligned titanium subspace prongs began generating the field that would soon hold the singularity that would pull the phased Retriever through space at over four thousand times the speed of light.

The secure for sea alarm toned through the ship. The Captain took a deep breath and reached for the com panel on his chair.

“Coda Spaceway Control? This is the ball chaser Retriever, Captain Thomas Stillman, commanding. We’ve located the satellite and have secured it in the hold. We’ve received our travel lane from the Deerkin Spaceway Control and are setting course for the Coda system. We should arrive in one hundred and eighty-nine hours. Inform Mr. Marks he may begin mobilizing his team. Juanita is coming home.”