From the humans on Titan Base to the reptilians of the Sinese system, every Level 3 society took food-replicators for granted. Day in and day out, billions of hungry sentients expected their meals to materialize on command, complete with tableware, in less time than it took to clear their throats.
Naturally, the average user didn’t think twice about what went on behind a food-replicator’s bubbly personality vector. It would never occur to them that the popular Kator9000 model used a narrow bore transmat beam to combine base-molecules pulled from a reservoir and map them onto their corresponding biomorphic templates.
In the last phase of the process, a food-replicator would align its output with local tastes, which was crucial to customer satisfaction. It’s what made a “steak” on Proxima Centauri b, different from a “steak” on an asteroid-mining platform in the Van Allen belt.
One of the largest base-molecule reservoirs was run by Rhys Trent, a human originally from Seren, a cosmopolitan city on Tyson 3. After twenty years, he felt like his job was on auto-pilot. The only challenges were tracking interstellar market prices and knowing which distributors to lean on. At that, he left the statistical analysis to his in-house AI, and handled the distributors with his killer sales instinct.
Rhys pitied most of his dimwit competitors, who never planned ahead for alien celebrations. Every February, during the Daluftrian lunar holiday, demand would spike for cholbrunk, a spicy red-meat stew. And every year at that time, a steady stream of rubes would comlink Rhys, begging him for any spare methemoglobins.
“Like it’s a surprise?” he’d ask himself.
Of course, depending on the swag that a feckless reservoir manager could bargain with, Rhys could usually accommodate an occasional under-the-table transaction. Yet, in the year 3743, with an AI always looking over his shoulder, it took finesse. And that went double for dealing with Theta-4316/S, Trent’s android overseer from the Commission for Ethical Trade. Lucky for him, even androids had special needs.
“Memory chips?” Rhys was astonished to hear, the first time he spoke to Theta-4316/S off the record. “What would a Theta-class want with a memory boost? You guys have chips in places most AIs don’t even have places.”
“Asking for a friend,” the mellow machine voice on the other end of the transmission had said. But by now, Rhys knew better. To Theta-classers, a memory boost was pure catnip. It enabled them to run a wide array of “creative” video simulations. In the most popular of these, two high-functioning factory ‘droids locked their human shop foreman into a titanium cage with a shape-shifting naked mole rat.
“Tell you what,” he said. “Give me advance notice of every upcoming Commission inspection and I’ll see you get all the J-19(k)s you can shove up your slots.”
It was just the kind of interstellar horse-trading that had made Rhys dozens of priceless business contacts and set his feet on a golden path. He’d moved up fast, from assistant buyer, to associate distributor and all the way to Sector Manager, Sirius.
With his square jaw, clear eyes and powerful build, he had the confidence of a high stakes gambler and the charisma of an A-list holovid actor. Success flowed toward him like water downhill and he had every reason to believe the causal chain that drove the formation of the universe led straight to his door.
So when his comlink overheated, on a Wednesday afternoon during his early forties, Rhys couldn’t imagine what the fuss was about. But by evening, the picture was depressingly clear: off-world replicators, loaded with chemical compounds from his vats, were producing a foul-smelling sludge.
“This I can make on my own, Trent!” shouted a restauranteur on the Rutin Interstellar Space Station, parked in the Pinwheel galaxy. “I had to shut down today and I don’t need to tell you how testy people get when they have to switch back to space rations.”
Rhys promised to investigate, routed all incoming calls to his answering service, and told his system AI to give his customers a temporary referral to another replicator reservoir in his same network. But deep down he knew what “temporary” actually meant.
“Have to rebuild from scratch,” he muttered. Why had the entire cosmos turned against him?
Now there was nothing for it but to suit up and take the maglev lift down to the reservoir deck of his vast facility for a hands-on appraisal.
“Boss, it’s not us,” said Sandy Carlson, Trent’s chief vat manager. She was the one who handled day-to-day operations with her assistant, Lewis Small, and a team of twelve Gamma-class servicebots.
“Here, check out the log,” she said. “Something broke in overnight.”
Trent’s jaw tensed as he struggled to keep the rage out of his voice.
“And you didn’t say anything?” he asked.
Sandy’s pale gray eyes narrowed, as she brushed a shock of yellowish hair off her forehead.
“Took a while to find the problem,” she said. “All the readouts were normal. Then Lewis over there noticed a weird smell coming out of G-47/A. Here, on the left. We ran all the diagnostics but still came up blank. Then, just now, I had the system AI scan the security footage for the past 24 hours. Boss, there’s a bunch of aliens in here.”
Rhys folded his gloved hands behind the hood of his aqua-marine clean suit and started pacing.
“OK, that’s something.” he said. “But why in the rings of Saturn didn’t the gate alarms go off?”
The news was only slightly less aggravating than the alien invasion itself.
“The footage,” said Sandy. “Come on, I’ll show you.” A couple of minutes later, Rhys watched a recorded video feed, which showed a bright yellow, ovoid pod materializing on the vat-room floor. Soon after, a hatch opened and a large colony of tiny red insectoids crawled out of the pod. Within seconds, a red blur disappeared into the refrigeration louvers of the very tank with the odor problem.
“Not good,” he said. “How can I tell my angry customers, all twenty-three thousand of them, that I’ve found the problem — and it’s a gang of transmat-capable ants?”
Just then, Lewis hauled his two-meter, 93 kilo frame up a stainless steel ladder from the level below and lumbered over to them.
“If we don’t get those … bugs or whatever … out of here, you won’t have any customers,” he said.
“Can’t we flush them out?” asked Rhys.
“No can do, Boss,” said Sandy. “The system AI says the bugs are sentients and … well, it told me the Sentient-Rights Act of 2357 says that would be murder.”
Rhys leaned up against the nearest steel pylon and tapped out an insistent rhythm with the back of his head.
“So what?” he said. “We have to negotiate to get them out?”
Lewis rubbed his neck with his pulpy right hand.
“Lot less messy then killing ‘em,” he said, “in more ways than one.”
“We don’t even know where they’re from,” said Rhys. “Did the security cams capture the pod before it dematerialized?”
Sandy pointed a boney finger at her workstation display.
“Got it,” she said. “The markings are definitely Eukosian.”
“What?” said Rhys. “I thought Eukosians were … you know … lizardy.”
Lewis smoothed a stubborn wrinkle out of his blue, pseudo-cotton overalls.
“The correct term is ‘reptilian,’ Mr. Trent,” said Lewis. “And yeah, most Eukosians are. But their closest allies are these hive-mind insectoids. They’re the ones in the vats — and the ones who threatened us with lase fire if we walked in on them.”
“How the … Where’d you learn all that?” asked Rhys.
“Easy, I asked them — the ants I mean,” said Lewis. “Look at the security footage real close; they’re wearing tiny transponders. Never seen anything like it. Amplifies their leg-rubbing language and runs it through our own subcu translation grids. Kind of fascinating, really.”
“Fascinating?” Rhys shouted. “Those frickin’ bugs are gonna shove us into the shelter colonies.”
“Why not talk to them?” asked Sandy. “Least then, you’d know what you were up against.”
A deep voice behind them nearly made Rhys and his staff jump out of their clean suits.
“Or you could talk to me,” said the voice. Rhys spun around and saw it belonged to a tall, pale green reptilian male. He looked about 60-ish, though it was hard to be sure with reptilians — and this one was tucked, head to toe, into a shiny, gold encounter suit.
“I’m Axtrol Destrin,” said the newcomer, “and I gather you have a small problem. Or shall we say, several small problems?”
Trent’s face turned scarlet.
“What … do … you … know about this?” he roared.
“Let’s speak calmly, shall we?” said Axtrol. “What I know is how to remove the infestation, in exchange for a reasonable fee. Say, 15% of your profits going forward?”
“And why, Mr. Destrin, would I pay you 15% when I can call the Interstellar Patrol and get rid of you and your bugs for free?” asked Rhys.
“Oh, by all means, do your civic duty, if that works for you,” said the reptilian. “I just wonder how the same Interstellar Patrol would then react to a detailed tally of your less-than-aboveboard procurements for the androids of the Ethical Trade Commission. Did you know, a cache of illegally acquired J-19(k) memory chips from this very planet turned up in a sting operation last month?
Rhys looked down at the clean-suit booties that covered his shoes. His voice trembled.
“That’s … shocking,” he said. With more to lose by resisting blackmail than by giving in to it, he held out his hand. “All right. Deal. Now you get those … sentients … out of my reservoir vats.”
“Agreed,” said Axtrol. “But I shall require a small deposit first, as a show of good faith.”
Rhys lunged for his unwanted visitor and grabbed him by the throat.
“How about I deposit my fist in that flytrap you call a mouth?” he said. “Does that work for you?”
“That won’t be necessary,” said the reptilian in a hoarse voice. Rhys released his grip and, after a brief coughing fit, Axtrol pulled a small handheld from his encounter suit. Seconds later, two transmat pods appeared, bearing Eukosian markings. Almost at once, the tiny red insectoids rushed out of Trent’s vats and scurried inside one of the pods, leaving a trail of foul-smelling slime behind them. After consulting his handheld again, Axtrol entered a second command and their transmat pod dematerialized in a flash of white light.
“There, Mr. Trent,” he said. “You’ll discover that cleaning and sterilizing your vats can be accomplished with standard procedures.”
“Great, you scaly bastard,” said Rhys. “But guess what? As of now, you’re getting 15% of exactly nothing until I’m operational again and can beg my best customers to come back.”
“Understood,” said the reptilian with an annoying little bow. “No, don’t bother, I’ll show myself out.” Before either Rhys, Sandy or Lewis could take their next breath, Axtrol vaulted into the second of the two transmat pods, which whisked him away.
“Well,” said Sandy. “Bet you’re glad that’s over.”
Rhys clenched his meticulously manicured hands.
“It’s not over,” he said.
The next morning, Sandy and Lewis supervised the clean-up and sterilization of vats G-47/A and B by an outside firm, while Rhys leaned back in his office chair. He propped his intricately stitched, neo-leather boots on his desk, raised his contact at the Commission for Ethical Trade — and got a nasty surprise.
Turns out “Axtrol Destrin” was one of several aliases used by an intergalactic con-artist. Over the last forty years, this reptilian crook had racked up trillions of credits by running a complex web of criminal schemes. Chances were, Theta-4316/S assumed, Axtrol had offered to run his latest crippling scam for one of Trent’s competitors, in exchange for a 15% stake in that business, too. According to Theta-4316/S, Axtrol would probably also get a cut from the cleaning service Sandy had just hired.
Rhys pounded his polished desk.
“If you know about Destrin, why isn’t he in custody?” he asked.
“His M.O., as you organics love to say, is blackmail,” said Theta-4316/S. “I gather he used the same tactic on you.”
“Yeah,” said Rhys, “and guess what contraband memory chips he blackmailed me with.”
“Probably a coincidence,” said the android. “But you can see why no one ever wants to press charges. In the first place, Axtrol isn’t greedy. Once your reservoirs are recertified — by me
— you’ll never miss the 15%, especially compared to being brought up on charges.”
“Still, it burns my butt,” said Rhys. “I worked hard to build up my client base. And now I’ll have to tease it back with big discounts, until my referral business kicks in again. Besides, I was planning to get married this summer — at least until my girlfriend dumped me.”
“My sympathies,” said the android. “But I don’t think I can help you, unless you come clean — and neither one of us wants that. You’re lucky: The worst that can happen to you is six or eight months in SocialRehab. It’s different for me. You have no idea what it means to have your cognitive processors reformatted.”
But the horse-trader in Rhys told him that Axtrol must have some weakness he could exploit. He insisted his chip-addicted android friend try harder to give him some leverage.
“Well … off the record, of course … he’s obsessed with Shaldria Kahliador,” said Theta-4316/S.
“The pop-star?” asked Rhys.
As it happened, not only did Axtrol attend all of her concerts, he’d even started Shaldria fan clubs on all fourteen Eukosian colony worlds.
“Can you get me tickets to her next show?” asked Rhys. “I don’t want to think about how much they cost.”
“Nothing you can’t afford,” said Theta-4316/S, “if you happen to know an AI with a thing for memory chips and the ability to hack into any ticketing system in the galaxy.”
“Craters, you’re insatiable,” said Rhys. “OK. I know a guy. But you gotta promise me not to share the chips with your friends this time.”
“Sure thing,” said Theta-4316/S after a suspiciously long pause.
Rhys had his doubts, but what choice did he have? Worse, the “guy” Rhys knew was currently rotting in an interstellar prison for credit fraud. Desperate, he turned to Lewis.
“You wouldn’t happen to know,” he said, “where a friend of mine could get a couple of cases of Theta-class memory chips, would you?”
“Is your friend about to give his favorite employee a 20% raise?” he asked.
Rhys forced himself to smile back.
“Yeah,” he said. “How come you never told me you were telepathic?”
“Guess it never came up,” said Lewis. “But I also get premonitions — like how, coincidentally, Sandy is getting 20% too.”
A short time later, the wheels of Trent’s plan were fully greased and ready to roll. By 1300 hours on Friday, he had Axtrol on his comlink.
“Just so you know there’s no hard feelings for the way you played me,” said Rhys. “I mean, really, it’s my own fault. Should’ve installed magclad shielding years ago. Well, that’s what I get for being cheap.”
“Exactly,” said Axtrol. “Now, what about those tickets?”
The sound of Axtrol’s panting was just too delicious.
Once Rhys transmitted the tickets to the unsuspecting reptilian, his trap was set. A few days later, Axtrol entered the Pulsar Theater in the Lacer system, dressed to his jagged teeth in green velvet. He was immediately confronted by helmeted agents of the Interstellar Patrol. Within minutes, the serial extortionist was hauled off to Sector Court for holding counterfeit tickets.
Early the following morning, Rhys woke up to a barrage of news reports about the “confidence man” who would spend the next decade in SocialRehab. But Trent’s sigh of relief had barely died on the air, before his comlink rang out.
“Boss,” said Sandy’s voice. “I installed those new memory chips you ordered. Any idea why the system AI keeps displaying archival footage of naked mole rats?”
Mark Laporta is the author of the acclaimed Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series. His new novel, Probability Shadow, will be published in October by Chickadee Prince Books. Pre-order now in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.