Release Date: Mar 11, 2009
ISBN (10): 1-60370-653-4
Publisher: Torquere Press
Publisher Link: http://www.torquerebooks.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&manufacturers_id=96&products_id=1839
"This is Science Fiction. Torquere Press is introducing a new line of hardboiled genre fiction, Hard Liquor. I'm beyond thrilled to be included in the lineup with my latest novel PHOBERIA. Set in the same universe as Guide to Survival, but taking place in a different sector with radically different social structures, PHOBERIA explores the secretive world of nano tech operators.
Please meet Dixon Sinonyx, operator at large, and his latest assistant, Athen Dendrophile as they face up to a technological problem that, if left unrepaired, will constitute a natural disaster for the planet/colony of Cadose." H.B. Kurtzwilde
Blurb: Dixon Sinonyx is a man without connections. Banished from his home sector, he lives a life of self-imposed isolation, working a job that marries technology and imagination. Athen Dendrophile is a man who connects with anyone and everyone he pleases. He's a young hotshot in the world of Cadose colony data systems, and Dixon is not sure the man can be trusted. Though they have species in common, Dix and Athen are literally from different worlds, and their origins may keep the men from ever becoming more. Despite their differences, neither operator from Sinonyx Services can leave the planet of Cadose until the colony corporation sets them free. Their lives are at risk, as are the lives of every citizen of the planet, but is it too late for Dixon to do anything about the danger? And is Athen working with him, or working to hide Cadose's secrets?
Athen padded slowly across the room, still yawning and stretching out of his heavywear. He straddled Dix's knee without so much as a hesitation or warning. Two warm, strong hands corrected the fold of his collar, then cupped his face firmly.
Athen pressed a warm, dry kiss to his mouth and smiled into it. “I know you, Dixon Sinonyx. You are my friend.”
Dix grabbed, much harder than he meant to. Athen writhed hard in his grasp, grinding down on his thigh. They groaned at the same time, and thrust deep kisses together. They started peeling out of the heavywear, growling and snarling at the seals and leaders.
Athen leaned down to free himself from his boots. A sound of raw need curled out of Dix, and Athen glanced up, smiling wide. He went to his knees and popped the seals on Dix's boots, body shifting confidently as he jerked the gear off and pushed it aside.
“This is no time for foreplay,” Athen said. He leaned in quick, lapping at Dix's balls.
Dix leaned into that hot, wet embrace, thighs spreading wide and easy. He growled, urging him on with pleading and a low patter of needy nonsense. Athen licked wet swaths from base to tip, then pushed him into his chair and reclaimed his spot, straddling Dix's lap.
Dix reached up, tracing the patterns of nano aurora with his fingertips until they led to pale, pink nipples. He pinched and twisted, grinning at the urgent writhing under his hands. Athen reached down and grasped Dix's shaft. One long, slow flex and undulation of that lean body, and Dix was gasping, plunged deep into Athen's ass with no resistance whatsoever.
Athen sighed, a long, low sound of complete satisfaction. Dix pulled him down, pressing himself up to all that bare, proud skin. There were all kinds of alarms and warnings going off in his mind, but none of it could get past the rare scent and feel of Athen Dendrophile.
“Please,” Athen gasped, and leaned in to suck another kiss out of Dix's mouth. “Even if you don't need it, I do. Please, man, don't make me beg you for it. I thought we were friends.”
“Yes,” Dix rumbled low in his chest. He grasped Athen's cock, its slick skin and hard length pumping in his palm, echoing the eager grinding at his shaft.
Athen's hands came down hard on his chest, forcing him back into the chair, holding him down for the last, rough, loud moments. Athen's ass flexed tight, then tighter, and hot seed spilled over his hand. His back bowed him up, even with Athen's weight bearing down on him. Buried tight in that clenching flesh, he screamed Athen's name again and again, laughing and satisfied.
They lay together, gasping and pleased. Dix's eyes jumped to the door again and again, until Athen started kissing him.
“Again?” Dix mumbled.
“Soon,” Athen purred like a promise. “You're not ready for what I want to give you. I don't think you're too old to learn, though. Next time, I want you to do something for me.”
Athen cleared his throat and stood up, wandered out to the bathroom, dragging his heavywear in his hand. He returned fully jacked in. Nothing was sealed and his hood and visor were turned down. He shoved gloved hands in his pockets and stood looking impatiently at Dix.
“I want you to trust me.”
Athen stood there frowning at the core case, accessing so deeply there wasn't much bandwidth left over for chatter. Dix waited impatiently for the victory cheer, but the silence drew long between them. Finally, Athen said "There are abnormal growths in at least a dozen jack cells in the pump house pillar. I don't know how you could have missed this. You were in that lounge for... hours, at least."
"In the jack cells?" Dix turned towards the lounge to jack in again, but Athen's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "I have to check this out. I don't know how I could have missed it either."
"You're not checking it out through that lounge," Athen snarled. "There was a massive dopamine overload running last time. It might have masked the biofeedback, but that's gone now. I don't want to see you in that kind of pain!"
"That's very kind of you," Dix said, startled at the warm glow that bloomed in his breast. "Jack cells are reliable, but even hardware breaks down if it is neglected for long enough. We need a picture of the pillars that we can understand. A full emulation would be best, and then you can easily plan the needed repairs based on your experience with operator's systems."
"This was your plan all along," Athen said, still near to snarling. "Cure the core, jack in on that lounge and let your system imitate what's wrong with the core pillars. That's why you needed a hotshot on diagnostics and software repair. You could die!"
"You won't let that happen to me," Dix calmly reminded. "You're right. This is why you're here. It's just an emulation. If you work fast, it won't have to hurt for long."
He swung his leg over the edge of the lounge and wedged into the setup that was intended for a stranger's body. He hardly shivered at the snap of connection this time, and braced himself for the emulation of biofeedback off the entire pillar system. He felt sick almost instantly, as if his lungs were filled with mud and his heart clogged with tar.
Athen started swearing as the reports ran off. Slowly, Dix became aware of deeper pain, as if seated within his organs. Once he noticed it, he couldn't divert his attention towards something less distressing. The neglect that could produce such results was disgusting on levels he usually reserved for gluttony and suicide. Distantly, he was aware that he was screaming.
Something jolted, then jolted again. After a moment he realized it was his own body. Another jolt and heave, and he lay on the floor of the core facility, gasping in deep breaths of perfectly pure air. Athen's white boots were pressed against his visor.
"What the hell was that?" Dix managed to croak.
"I was worried you had a back-feed connected," Athen said. He stooped down and peered into Dix's visor. "I couldn't leave you jacked in. I can't believe we actually put our leaders in that core case. There's no way you can emulate this problem on your own system. We ought to be on the next ship out of this burg."
"They've got nano sludge," Dix whimpered, arms curling protectively around his belly. "That's what hurt so bad. We have to get those people out of the pillar facilities. I need to see it with my own eyes before I'll believe they let things get this far, though."
"I need a sample off the faulty sectors," Athen said, but it came out like a curse. "We can't trust the system reports off the pump house pillar."
"Do you have any idea what you're saying?" Dix asked in as neutral a tone as possible as he managed to get sitting up again.
"No," Athen admitted. "You said yourself you didn't believe me. Maybe I'm wrong, but I need a sample to match against the databases anyway."
They put all their pending operations on hold, issued an evacuation order and walked out of the core facility. He was aware that they were walking in unison, both going directly to a place they had never seen. He couldn't tell the difference between his own instincts and his data stream, and wondered how long he had been awake.
The walkways between the teacup pillar stacks were brightly lit, but he went to the side and looked down. He couldn't make out much detail in the haze, but the pulse of nano aurora still looked strong to him. Athen hurried him on to the pillar facility they wanted, hustled them past all personnel and headed down the spiral walkway that girded the pillar of rectangular jack cells. Each cell held one sector of nano, and presumably stored it in perpetual protection.
The bank of twelve cells they faced were anything but safe. Athen hesitated, then reached out his gloved hand to touch a pale brown crust that had formed outside the seal.
Dix caught his wrist. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Collecting..." Athen's hand went stiff under Dix's. "Little Gods."
"If only. I'll summon a biohazard trolley," Dix said. "Be careful, collect your sample, then back off. I'll take care of this mess. You just figure out what caused it."
Athen dug through his bag for a scope tube, butted the flat end to the crust and pressed hard. A fragment cracked off into the vacuum where it would be marginally safe to handle. Athen held it up to the light. After a moment he wandered down the ramp, bouncing the tube in his palm.
Athen just wasn't careful enough of the material to understand what he was examining. One fleck of faulty nano could, in theory, become the techno equivalent of a virulent disease. Even rumor of this pillar going sludgy might be enough to cause a general panic.
Dix got down on his knees and took a chisel and strike from his bag. The seal was hopelessly corroded, and partially affixed to the bulkhead. He worked the edge of the chisel under the seal and rapped gently. Brownish ooze welled up and hardened as it was exposed to air.
A processing trolley rolled itself up and parked, helpfully sliding back all panels. For a moment the trolley and Dix looked each other over, making sure both systems were as protected from infiltration as possible. The trolley insisted on another pair of gloves to go over the heavywear before it would continue with the operation.
Dix chose a biohazard container and tagged it with his own ping, ready for the worst. This time he popped the seal completely and pulled its whole sticky, sharded length away from the cell. He dropped the scraps into the container, gagging at the sight of decaying plasma. He tried to manage the goo as it dripped down, making sure he collected every tiny speck.
Dix waited until the swelling of nano sludge stopped before he seized the jack cell handle and pulled. There was a sickly squelch where a smooth release was wanted. The cell stuck again as the crust dried. He took another shot with the chisel. The cell swung free and he just let it fall into the container.
More than half the nano was depleted. The remaining matter couldn't really be called plasma any more. It was now probably one of the most dangerously toxic substances ever produced in the PCU. The trolley clicked and whirred, opening up the process bin. Dix dumped the load and watched the analysis, hoping it wasn't quite bad enough to require an official report.
"Shit, this stuff's all inside the contact heads," Dix swore into his comm link. "There's going to be a massive biohazard bonus in this for us. I haven't seen anything this terrifying since the last time I deployed with the Guardian Wing's forward assault unit."
"Nice to know you can be scared," Athen mumbled. "These designs don't make any sense. It's like they used to be something normal, but got warped somehow. Is it really so dangerous as all that?"
"Yes," Dix said, but hesitated to be more plain with the boy. "You might want to look at the replication patterns, there might be something interesting recorded there. Now let me clean these contact heads."
They were gummed up, of course. He reached into the very back of the cell slot and scrabbled with his gloves until the crust tore under his fingers. From there he had to magnify his vision down to the finest degree and go to work with the trolley's vacuum hose. He nearly jumped out of his skin when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned fast, but only found a person in a biohazard suit.
"Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha!" Mim offered. "Results!"
"This volume of nano sludge constitutes a natural disaster," Dix told him over the comm link. "Whole solar systems have been quarantined over less."
"But we have the personnel and facilities here to tidy up after ourselves," Mim assured Dix. "We have your fine services. We have the will to do it! Oh yes!"
"This process must happen with absolute secrecy," Dix insisted. "I have to certify these pillars myself."
"Just send me the bill, ho! ho!"
"I will and gladly," Dix agreed. "Just don't ask questions when I tell you I'm billing for systems recovery."
Mim went chuckling away. Athen came back up the walkway and sidled over to Dix. "We're just going to cover this up?"
"The covering up will do itself if we let it," Dix calmed him. "We're going to see this mess cleaned up to certifiable standard. When it is done, our contract will be paid, but only if our employers aren't in prison for what they've done. The PCU doesn't have operators to send out to inspect these burgs, you know. How would they ever find out what we did?"
"They probably have your comm code," Athen said.
"The People's Commonwealth Union Conference has my address, but not my comm code," Dix assured him. "They just aren't the only folks I work for. You never asked for more than one contract, but I could get you any kind of work you know how to want."
"I need to see this done first," Athen said. "I'm still deciding about you. I know you're a criminal, I keep seeing you break every regulation that gets in your way but... somehow, I keep wanting to do this your way."
They went on with their tasks, hurrying to be done before some other fool came along to check on them. Some of the cells were coming out as crusted, warped lumps that the trolley would only reject and package for incineration at a facility several systems away. Athen kept picking up shards and looking at them in his vacuum tube before tossing them into the trolley.
Dix kept up a check on the contact heads, applying solvent where cells had physically burst. Once the sludged cells were taken down and replaced with new, empty hardware, they went over the entire cell block with solvent, and even got down and cleaned the floor. The process itself wasn't very complex, but the end result was averting a biological disaster that had only been waiting for an opportunity to happen.
"There's too many cells for this to be isolated," Athen whispered over the comm link "I know the other systems tested normal, but... surely you felt something? Maybe in the pumps and filtration units?"
"You mean like in my heart and lungs?"
"Maybe in the kidneys too?" Athen suggested. "It might have been anywhere. I don't know where to look for it in the real world, but I saw it in your emulation, clear as day."
"Pump housing," Dix grunted. "Up top, let's go."
They walked the spiral up the pillar together, eyeballing the aurora for any discoloration. Athen kept pointing out odd shades, but nothing so pervasive as what they had found in those corroded jack cells. When they arrived at the pump housing, Athen recoiled from the door.
"It smells bad," Athen complained.
"Turn your nose off then," Dix said. "You've got the control. Use it."
When he finally worked up the nerve to code into the airlock, he took special care in switching off his taste and smell. Even though he was locked up tight in heavywear, with all receptors turned off, it did not help. He still remembered the smell of a pump from a time his seals had failed.
The airlock irised open to a heavy sulfur environment. The room was dominated by tall tubes of nano in varying shades from silver clear to tarry black. The noise of the facility was overpowering. Machines whirred and churned, imitating hearts, lungs, kidneys, stomach... perfect simulations of the vital organs needed to run Cadose's many pillars as if they were one single organism. Athen went to check the black pump first and started swearing.
"Something backed up into the ventricles, I guess," Athen said, and cut the power. He slid a filter out of its slot and held it up. "Total, utter saturation. That's how it got spread out so. Over time, this one pump could have killed the whole pillar."
"Revenge can be sweet," Dix said, petting the pump on its side. "This system did well to even hold together. I only yet wonder why it was allowed to decay so badly. Sabotage, or ignorance?"
"What day is it?" Athen tiredly wondered.
"It's tomorrow," Dix said, startled at how exhausted Athen sounded. "You asked that yesterday. That's just how these jobs are."
"Please, Dix," Athen said, a little whiny. "I need to sleep. I can't help it. This stimulant pack is about to run out. I'm not sure my liver can actually handle another one right now."
"Find a spot and crash," Dix allowed. "I've handle more than one pump purge by myself. You could go back to the core facility and sleep in style."
Athen only curled up in a corner and dropped off to sleep. Athen's ping was like the smell in the room, just a trick of his mind trying to make patterns stand out and seem familiar. He cracked locks on storage cabinets, propped the biohazard chute bin open and started pulling out filters. When that was done he could drain off the contaminated nano and start off the first round of solvent.
There were at least ten pumps running, and every working part must be cleaned and approved or replaced. Yanking the filters and running a maze of drain and feeder lines was merely tedious. With that done and the pumps set to cycle until they were within hailing distance of clean, he settled down next to Athen to steal what rest they could get together.
Though Athen was deeply asleep, and Dix was careful not to disturb him, he turned over and molded himself around Dix's back. The pressure of the embrace translated cleanly through the heavywear, and he moaned softly inside his hood.
His system neatly replicated the memory of bare skin, rich scent and body heat, right down to the gentle pulse of heartbeat. When Athen's hands slid down to nest between Dix's thighs, he found himself relaxing into a kind of comfort he'd forgotten even existed. He closed his eyes, wallowing in these rare sensations, letting himself fall into sleep on pure instinct for the first time in years.