Sorry for the hiatus between books, but here’s the start of book 2 of Horizon’s story:
A raccoon floated in an endless void, infinite blackness interspersed with tiny points of light. She concentrated, and the blackness was replaced by a park ground of rolling grass-covered fields. Not finding that particularly relaxing she replaced the park with a space station, a dockside market full of storefronts with glowing advertisements.
But no people, the plaza was still and silent, no movement but the flickering of signs and the slow rotation of the night sky through the corundum ceiling. “A bit lonely,” she noted with a sigh. She sat on a bench, and focused.
A ring of light appeared in the air in front of her, and slowly began to descend. A pair of white-ringed brown ears appeared in the ring’s wake, followed by a shock of red hair, brown eyes, and a white face. The eyes turned towards the raccoon’s as the red-brown neck materialized. “So, Tanya, why a red panda?”
Tanya Loter gave a shrug. “I thought it would be similar to a raccoon but different enough that it wouldn’t be like looking in a mirror. Shouldn’t you know that already?”
The panda girl smirked as her bust materialized. “I don’t have full access to your memories yet. I’m just a partially formed avatar, it wouldn’t be too safe to let me rifle through all your deepest and darkest thoughts and experiences just yet now would it?” She held up a newly formed pair of fingers. “So do I have a name?”
Tanya gave it some thought while she materialized the red panda’s waist and thighs. “How does… Samantha sound?” she asked.
The tulpa lifted a foot as the ring of light faded away and examined it. “Samantha, Sam for short, that sounds nice. Digitigrade? Shouldn’t I be plantigrade like you?”
Tanya shrugged. “I’ll have to check.” She blinked, taking notice of something she’d overlooked before. “After getting you some clothes.”
“Well, you didn’t give me any memories of clothes.” Sam grinned, swishing a very thick and heavy-looking tail behind her.
Tanya closed her eyes and tried to think of clothing. Her mind leapt to the youth fashion on the Jord orbitals where she grew up and she thought of sending them to the avatar. When her eyes were open again Sam was attired, though in her opinion it didn’t improve much.
Over a set of fishnets the panda wore a very snug pair of denim shorts with a bright pink belt and a black crop top that barely covered her breasts. On her head sat a billed hat with holes cut for her ears and she wore a variety of multicolored bracelets on her wrists. “What do you think?” she asked.
“I think…” Tanya paused. “I think I can see now why my parents didn’t trust me to dress myself.”
Sam broke out laughing. “Oh come on, don’t be such a prude. No one else is going to see me.”
Tanya grimaced. “Well I have to look at you.”
The panda’s fluffy tail brushed against the raccoon’s muzzle. “Why? Am I a little distracting to you?” Tanya grabbed the tail to try and push it away, only for it to abruptly split down the middle exposing a purplish tongue surrounded by sharp teeth…
Tanya jolted awake, finding herself seated in a stiff metal chair with a crown of biofeedback sensors circling her head. She yanked it off and looked around the room. A white squirrel with her fur dyed in angular spirals and a gravid stomach turned from her computer monitor towards the raccoon. “What happened? Why’d you drop out?” she asked in concern.
“I don’t know Jenny,” Tanya rubbed her forehead where the electrodes had lain. “I created a sim and a tulpa, but something happened to her.”
Jenyfur stared inquisitively at her procyonid friend. “What kind of thing happened?”
Tanya shrugged. “It was weird, Sam was teasing me with her tail and all of a sudden it grew a mouth.”
“A mouth?” Jenny looked confused. “On her tail?”
“Something like it at least,” Tanya tried to explain. “I made an avatar that looked kind of like me as a teenager, except she was a red panda.”
“Instead of a cinnamon raccoon?” Jenny suggested.
Tanya groaned. “Yes, and her tail came out so fluffy that it was wider than her body. Not that that’s saying much, she was skinny.”
Jenny rubbed her stomach thoughtfully, which Tanya recalled was actually a secondary brain that the biohacking squirrel had installed in her uterus. “And you say that this fluffy tail had a mouth, with teeth and all?”
“Sharp fangs the length of my fingers.” The raccoon held up her index for comparison. “And a long purplish-pink tongue.”
Jenny’s gaze became unfocused as she tried to think with both her brains for a few moments. “I suggested you create an avatar for your implant’s AI shadow. You didn’t try to partition off any applications from her, did you?”
“I…” Tanya tried to remember if she’d done anything of that sort. She honestly wasn’t sure if she had done anything of that sort. It didn’t sound like anything she might have done. “Did you find anything on the sensors?”
The squirrel shook her head. “There was a minute increase in heat as you ran the sim, but otherwise these readings don’t look like any parahuman brain I’ve seen. My best guess is that your implants somehow encase your brain entirely. I’d like to run an MRI, but after what happened last time we tried that…”
“Out of the question!” Tanya, alias Horizon, unwitting soldier of the Federation reborn, snapped automatically. Once she was back in control of herself she sighed and muttered a quick apology.
“That was why we were attempting tulpamancy, remember?” Tanya nodded reluctantly at Jenny’s reminder. It seemed that the Federation AI that had installed her implants had included some incredibly paranoid security directives that occasionally hijacked her body. It was annoying, to say the least, and given what she had seen herself do while her combat ware was active she was understandably wary of what the implants might do if sufficiently pushed.
Jenny had suggested giving her AI a voice. Normally it was a silent “shadow” type system that acted unconsciously, providing knowledge of nanotech ghuls when she thought of them, guiding her motions as she piloted a shuttle or fought a pirate. But ever since her shadow had mercilessly slaughtered two pirates who had attempted to kidnap her she had been cautious, scared even, of the sufficiently advanced technology in her head.
So the biohacker had suggested they give the AI a voice, enabling her to negotiate with it.
“What are we going to do now?” Tanya asked. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to face that thing in her head again, even if she’d somehow created it.
“Well,” Jenny started, “we should probably make sure this “Sam” you created was saved to start with.” As she was thinking about what to say next an alarm blared on her console.
Horizon leapt out of her chair and was leaning over the monitor before either one of them could blink. “What is it?” she asked.
Jenny selected the alert and expanded it. “It looks like there’s a tsunami coming towards one of the offshore mining rigs. The Friendly Society is requesting permission to help evacuate the workers.”
“The Company can’t handle it themselves?” Horizon asked.
The squirrel shook her head. “The managers will have their own personal shuttles to save themselves. But they leave the welfare of the hoi polloi up to those of us who actually care.” Jenny sighed loudly. “I should probably get to the clinic and prepare to receive the wounded.”
After half a second Horizon spoke up again. “How many pilots do the Friendlies have? I could help in the evacuation.”
Jenny nodded. “There’s a few dozen shuttle pilots in reserve, basically whoever can report in the fastest flies.” She felt a breeze by her shoulder and turned to find that the raccoon had already disappeared.
Horizon tore up the stairs, freerunning up the walls at breakneck speed. Eager to go help people, sure, but more eager to avoid dealing with her internal issues.
The crowd in the hangar where the Friendly Society stored their rescue aircraft parted as Horizon dashed in. She gave a slight grimace as she noticed the other workers clearing a path for her, she knew why they were so wary of her.
She got in line in front of a caribou doe who was handing out assignments. A couple of aid workers in front of her stepped out and moved to the rear of the line, Horizon rolling her eyes as they passed her. The caribou, Coordinator Taranda, tapped the top of her tablet to each Friendly’s tablet in turn. When Horizon finally got to her she swept her fingers across the tablet instead, prompting a message to appear in her brain implant’s Heads-Up Display.
Assignment: Drone carrier, drone pilot.
Use civilian identity, this is a sanctioned Friendly operation.
The raccoon nodded to the caribou and walked off behind a stack of crates waiting to be loaded. Her white jumpsuit with gold highlights shifted colors to blood-red, the same shade as the other aid workers heading out. Hologram projectors in her collar and cuffs projected a dark blue coloration over her cinnamon fur. A couple seconds later a blue morph arctic vixen stepped out from behind the crates where Horizon had hidden.
A couple of Friendlies waved to the fox as she strode towards the drone carrier. Most of the vehicles in the hangar were Vertical Take Off and Landing transports with rotating jet engines capable of pushing the crafts off the ground or propelling them forward as needed. The drone carrier slung exposed racks between the forward and aft pair of engines, which were now being loaded with a half-dozen quadrotor drones that each spanned a meter in diameter and were equipped with armatures and harnesses for carrying people to safety.
The pilot, an arctic tern, turned to Horizon and nodded. “Good to see you here Zoe, you ready to go?”
“Zoe” nodded her head affirmatively, glad that her suit’s designer had given it the processing power to keep the hologram glued to her face. “I’m always ready to go Bill, just let me get plugged in.” She climbed over the wing of the VTOL craft into the co-pilot’s seat behind Bill’s seat in the cockpit.
Bill flapped his wings and landed neatly in the pilot’s chair as Horizon was fumbling with the cable threaded into the back of her helmet. The end of the cable fitted under the scruff of her neck and connected to the implant port it concealed, prompting several readouts from the aircraft’s status indicators to appear in her HUD. “That port aft turbine is getting a little worn out,” she reported. “We should get the mechanics to look at that once we come back.”
The tern flicked his beak up and down. “It’ll hold for another couple trips,” he assured her. “Honestly, you cyborgs weird me out sometimes.”
Horizon gave him a hard stare through the visor of her helmet, prompting him to backpedal for a moment. “Not like that ghul who’s been showing up occasionally I mean.”
The posthuman raccoon passing as a fox turned away from her carrier’s pilot and muttered under her breath, “she’s not a ghul.”
The canopy of the cockpit descended and they received a radio message to prepare for takeoff. The hangar doors slid open and VTOLS began to taxi out onto the runway. Passenger transports configured as ambulances took off first, with the drone carrier taking off last, taking up the rear.
The relief squadron spotted the plume of smoke long before they could see the refinery itself. Slowly, the horizon rounded and they were able to spot the sprawling complex floating in the frigid sea that was billowing smoke. Horizon observed through the carrier’s electronic eyes and sensors in half a dozen spectrums, while she didn’t have the fidelity to pick up any sort of “life signs” she could detect multiple reinforced chambers throughout the platform. “I’m picking up four installations that look like sealed shelters,” she reported, then quickly scanned the spectroscopic analysis of the air. “It looks like their methane reserves are evaporating, might want to switch off your jets now so we don’t accidentally ignite it.”
A roar that had faded into nothing more than a background hum several kilometers back cut out entirely. The VTOL jolted in the air as forward thrust ceased and the lift rotors took over. Horizon directed her attention at one specialized drone and it detached from the carrier, dropping several meters before its own rotors cut in and propelled it towards the refinery. The raccoon felt her perspective split between the carrier’s sensors and the smaller but slightly faster recon drone’s and struggled to keep them both in mind.
“Damn, I hate having to slow down like this,” she heard Bill’s voice through her implants. “I feel like they’re going to burn before we get there.”
“We’ll burn if we don’t,” Horizon reminded him.
“Just stay focused on the drone.” Bill adjusted course slightly to get a better look at the refinery. Horizon was glad she didn’t have to try and fly the carrier as well as the drones. In previous exercises she’d found that she could pilot two drones at once directly but anything more than that and she had to rely on the drones’ AI.
I could help with that. Horizon jerked slightly in her harness, turning a fragment of her attention towards her meat body in search of the strange voice’s source.
“Hey Zoe!” Horizon’s attention was brought back to the mission. “Have you gotten anything from the drone yet?”
She focused more closely on the recon drone as it neared the refinery. Horizon scanned the primary landing pad first, radar and heat readings indicated that it was structurally compromised and wouldn’t take more than two VTOLs. Zipping past she found a secondary pad that was intact but only large enough to fit another two craft. “I’ve got two landing zones, but they’ll only take half the ambulances. I’m sending a map now.” She mentally flexed and a schematic of the refinery with the areas where it was safe to land indicated in blue and the compromised spots in red. As the drone scanned she filled in footpaths from the shelters to the pads, and realized something.
“Damnit!” She cursed.
The carrier jolted as Bill jumped in his seat. “What?”
“The only secure footpath from shelter 2 to either pad is blocked off,” Horizon explained. “While the paths from shelter 3 are just gone, they must have fallen off during the explosion.” She thought about the remaining drones in their cradles. “I’m going to need all five lifters, hopefully I won’t need to carry wounded in both sites.”
She could hear the bird groan over the intercom. “Okay, I’ll fly closer so we can launch the lifters to check out the shelters.” The carrier dipped down towards the burning refinery, swerving around a smoke cloud. “Alright.” He parked them 20 meters above the rig, roughly halfway between the two landing pads. “That’s as close as I’m getting, launch one lifter to each shelter.”
Horizon reached into three drones with her thoughts. One she only touched lightly, giving its synthetic brain the simple command to go to a shelter on the map, announce itself, and begin drilling in if no response came. But the other two she reached further in, sliding her mental arms into metallic gloves. She reached inside the drone-gloves towards the two blocked off shelters. Horizon followed the automated drone in her peripheral vision as she guided the two puppeted drones. Her field of view took the form of an overhead map from the viewpoint of the carrier, the sensor input of her drones was represented by their surroundings appearing more clear, magnified.
The drone approaching shelter 2 reached its destination, followed seconds later by the drone for shelter 3. Horizon focused on her right hand, representing drone 2, and spoke loudly but calmly. “This is the Friendly Society! Is anyone there?” While she waited for a response she repeated the inquiry to shelter 3.
She waited for almost a minute before she heard the clunk of opening deadbolts through her right ear. “Hello?” she called out.
A small hatch in the shelter door slid open and a wide eye looked through. “Are you here to help us?” a frightened voice asked.
“Yes,” Horizon replied through the drone’s speakers. “How many are in here, and are any wounded?”
“Five,” the survivor answered quickly. “Most everyone has some scrapes and bruises, but one of us has a broken leg.”
Horizon evaluated her options. “This drone can carry one person at a time, but there’s debris blocking the footpath. Will the rest of you be able to clear it if I carry the one with the broken leg?”
The viewer at the porthole thought for a few moments. “Maybe, there’s an equipment locker a couple doors down that we could use. But they always lock it up when we’re not working.”
Horizon mentally scanned the immediate area and quickly spotted the sign for the locker. “Give me a minute and I can open it.”
The survivor looked a little surprised. “The Company gave you a key?”
Horizon flexed her mental fingers and one of the drone’s manipulators opened to reveal a set of tools, including saws and a plasma torch. “Not exactly.”
She dragged the drone over to the locker door and used a powered keyhole saw to start cutting around the lock. Her thoughts were interrupted by a chime that she recognized as one of her automated drones calling for attention. Horizon focused on the drone in question and a screen within a screen appeared in her view.
The miniscreen showed an ornery white tiger in business robes snarling something at the drone. “…I demand that you get me off this platform IMMEDIATELY!”
Horizon cut him off before he could say anything else. “The path from shelter 1 to the landing pad is clear, you may proceed at your leisure.” The tiger snorted and walked off. Horizon quickly scanned the other occupants of the shelter, a couple secretarial types, and directed the drone towards shelter 2.
Idly, Horizon turned her attention towards shelter 3, the door held still, with no signs of movement. She returned her view to drone 2 just as it finished sawing out the lock. She backed the drone up and looked for the survivors waiting for tools. “Do you know if anyone is in shelter 3?” she asked the group.
The five looked to each other for a few moments before one of them spoke up. “Fran said they were heading to shelter 3 after the boss closed shelter 1 in their faces.”
“Damn,” Horizon thought again. She mentally flexed and redirected the drone that had been at shelter 1 to shelter 3, and launched the remaining two drones to join it. “I’m going to try and open it up with the other drones. Which of you needs a lift?” A horse leaning on an arctic hare raised a hand. “I’ll carry you over the debris and come back if I can spare a drone, come on!”
The drone dropped a smartmesh harness from its underbelly and began using its manipulators to guide the straps around the horse. Once it had secured itself the drone took off, lifting the horse into the air.
Horizon started to speak into the intercom. “Bill, we might have an emergency in shelter 3, can you fly us…”
The raccoon was cut off as a new explosion sent up a spout of flame and shrapnel. She felt a pain in her abdomen just before the carrier began to plummet out of the sky.