Strange Workings

In Which Several Motivations Begin to Surface.
by Electric Keet

Travel between terraformed areas on the light side of Mercury involved sitting in an automated capsule, shooting through covered surface tubes, and staring out at a landscape too grey and boring to be believed. Travel on the dark side of the planet meant the same, but with a landscape too dark to be seen at all. Thus, I was staring more at the inner reflections of the lights within the capsule. “Too late to change my mind?”

Bell reached for the locked handle of the door. “No problem, eh? I can just let you out here—”

“Thanks, but I prefer my atmosphere to be, you know, atmospheric.” I slumped against the window and absently fingered my left antler. “Kiddin’, anyhow. Would much rather do whatever we’re doing than watch Eekay scramble to find some fan to catch a nog, y’know?”

“Jealous, Lady?”

I snorted. “Of what, zir lack of standards?”

He laughed at that. “Think zie an’ Yaz will start orbiting each other again? They’ve got the friction, maybe there’ll be sparks.”

“When Neptune dries up, maybe. Yaz ain’t excitin’ enough for zir tastes, anymore.”

“How so?”

“Glitchin’ gossip,” I chided with a smirk. “So, right before we take off, the snowkitty gets all cheerful and asks Yaz if he could stop being dour long enough join zim and Ira at the beach.”

His ears swivelled. “Wait, zie’s willingly going somewhere with Ira? I guess rule number one stands.”

“Yeah. Never expect to understand Eekay. So Yaz says no ’cause he doesn’t have a swimsuit.”

“Swimsuit? Waste of good sunlight. He really has changed. That, or he only said it as an out to go do something else with Falda.”

I blinked. “Like what?”

The lynx smiled slightly. “No clue.”

As if on cue, a voice with a generic Mercurian accent sounded from the capsule’s control panel to let us know that we’d be at Antimony Ward in two minutes.

The door opened to a somewhat matronly-looking raccoon in a sienna house-dress which redefined quaint. The lynx to my left smiled. “Evening, ma’am. I’m Rubin Gloeckner, and this is Lady Aesc. Your wife is expecting us….”

She nodded. “She mentioned. Come in, please.” Bell and I stepped into a rich, earth-toned home which conspired to utterly culture-shock me before I even got past the foyer. “If you wish, I could try to coax her upstairs, but if she didn’t peek her silly head up for breakfast…. Ah, well, she’s in her laboratory. The basement.”

Bell hesitated. “You’re sure she won’t mind?”

“Not so long as you stay quiet until she’s in between tests. Go ahead.” She motioned toward a stairwell. “Shall I put on some tea?”

At the same time, we both said, “Thanks, no.” He continued. “We’ll only be here for a few minutes, I think. Thank you, though.”

The basement was larger than I expected given the outer dimensions of the house, but it still seemed cramped for all the equipment and the myriad shelves of labelled tins and bottles, some of them ancient-looking. Squarely in the centre of the mess was a large area of wooden floor which was clear save for a few bits of glassware holding unknown substances. A circle of light inscribed with notes and complex geometry was cast from a projector above. At its edge knelt a determined-looking raccoon who was even scrawnier than Yaz.

As we watched, she reached forward to grasp and pull two of the dishes. They scraped along the circumference of the circle and came to rest on two targets lit in soft blue. A wall of projected numbers hovered to one side; she stared at it, exhaled, then darted one hand next to it and traced some additional numbers then waved the whole mass away. She finally spoke with a rough voice. “It’s progress of a sort.”

Bell nodded. “Estie, this is Lady Aesc – yes, Lady is her first name. She’s one of the others in my team….” He looked to me and nodded. “And she’s a good friend.”

The raccoon pierced me with unsettling, analytical eyes. “I see.”

I smiled slightly, mostly to put myself at ease. “M’ mate here explained that you’re working on… a cure for Charon-shift.”

She chuffed, “A cure? No, more like a wedge to pull open a trap.” She gingerly lifted the sealed, liquid-filled glass sphere from the centre of the circle and stood. “Harmless electrolytic fluid feeds infinitesimal machines, tiny little self-propagating packets of one man’s will to impose his perfection on others. Full-body conversion without a tank… or a choice. The nanites are the trap he set, and the trap which I will wedge open. The cure will come when his kind renounce their ways.”

I cringed a bit and looked to Bell. He was nodding slowly. “We can hope, eh? Steady progress?”

“Rather, but I still don’t know just when it will be enough.” The researcher’s intensity disappeared. “You see what it involves. I’ll explain for the benefit of Miss Aesc. Any given colony has a directly digital code to disable it, but it was a tradition of Mercurian nanotechnicians to add a simple physical trigger as a failsafe. Charon-shift no longer responds to the digital… and the physical trigger is unknown, and apparently more complex than tradition and sanity would dictate.”

I stepped nearer the strange, illuminated mandala to try to read the text around it. “And it works by moving certain things around?”

She pulled a bottle from the shelf behind her. “Any given subset of the colony will respond to the position of what I hope is a maximum of five distinct detectable external stimuli. Radioactive isotopes, magnets, gravitic pulses, and the like, all at specific relative start positions and sometimes with motion.

I shook my head. “Trial and error?”

“Far from it. Careful measurement will show a level of feedback as each condition is met, but it’s subtle and fickle.” She gave an apologetic nod to Bell. “I’ve been able to solve several steps, but I don’t know how many there are… only how close I am to the next one.”

My mind buzzed with questions, but only one came out. “Are you the only one working on this?”

She narrowed her eyes. “As far as anybody knows, I’m not working on this at all. Nobody is. The research is as illegal as the technology itself.”

“But Pluto—”

“—will remain as it is indefinitely, until such time as some obscure researcher imposes her own will against that self-exiled mass of unfortunates.” Estie looked directly at Bell. “Of course, not even Luna’s best people will be able to deduce who was financially backing that researcher.”

“Of course,” the lynx agreed with a shrug of false nonchalance. “Crazy how that happens.”

“In the meantime, an entirely different obscure researcher is at the precipice of starvation. Would you two care to join my wife and I for a meal? I think I missed one already, today….”

  1. Lady Aesc’s avatar

    Just so we’re not all piling on Eekay all the time… I think everyone can see that Yaz and Bell don’t always make the most sense either.


    1. Viqsi’s avatar

      Enh. This is the sort of thing where I assume that the reason why it doesn’t make immediate sense to me is because I don’t have all the necessary information to get it.


    2. Hailbop’s avatar

      A residential district probably isn’t the best place for research into infectious nanotech. Although, what am I kidding, I live less than a mile away from the state biolabs.


      1. Lady Aesc’s avatar

        Y’know, there was a little voice that said to me, “This person is crazy enough to experiment with highly infectious nanotech in her basement. Don’t anger her by saying as much.”

        And that’s the difference between me and your average Eekay.