Difference between revisions of "User:JonBuck/Cammy"

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"You can use the wireless lab on the sixth floor.  That's room 625.  I'll change out of this Princess Leia getup and join you in a few minutes."  Dr. Rogers nodded at the three of them and headed for her first floor office.
 
"You can use the wireless lab on the sixth floor.  That's room 625.  I'll change out of this Princess Leia getup and join you in a few minutes."  Dr. Rogers nodded at the three of them and headed for her first floor office.
  
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After everything else Cammy had seen she expected the lab to be full of masses of wires and bits and pieces of junk, like the Salvage Labs back home.  This room looked more like Engineering on the ''Ceres.''  She thought of the comments she'd heard during the day.  The veneer was stripped away in this room. 
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"Oh, I see.  Technology ''Adoption.''  This is where they take tech from around the galaxy and decide how they're going to fit it into their Promised Future?"
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"That's fairly accurate," Frost said.  "Frankly I think it's more of an art department.  If they can't fit something into their sense of aesthetics, they don't bother trying.  I should warn you that they have very ''strong'' opinions about simspace.  You'll find Debra is more flexible than most, but... otherwise, don't."
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"Doctor Frost, outside of a little experimenting en route to Laplace, I really can't say much about it."  Cammy's display was smart enough to bring up background material and word definitions for her, but it was hard to keep up.  "Um, you at least need a neural interface to get a passable simulation, don't you?"
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Her pearl computers informed her there were three levels of integration.  The first was a neural interface, which basically plugged someone into a computer without offering any real enhancements.  The next step up was the neo-cortex, a layer of computronium on the surface of the brain.  Then came the neural lace, which was integrated with the whole nervous system from head to foot and deep into the brain.  Either of those could use more computational enhancements outside the body, like Tael's exo-cortex.
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Hera had had all these things before the Abandonment.  The few survivors were those who hadn't been hooked up to the planetary network at the time the AI did whatever it did.
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Cammy had started to sympathize with these people, to a point.  On Hera, before any new type of Salvage was brought back online they had to thoroughly understand how it worked, how to repair it, and most importantly, how to destroy it if necessary.  They didn't put a fancy shell on something they only partly understood.
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"Just ''don't,"'' Frost repeated.  "They want real experiences, not simulated ones.  Speaking of experiences, Captain.  I'm sure you can feel we have full bandwidth in here.  If you're ready, Captain?"
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"Ping," Cairn said.
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"Ack," Frost replied.
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They were still standing there, staring at each other when Dr. Rogers entered.  She was in a blue denim dress with gold stitching.  "How long have they been like that?"
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"Maybe five minutes," Cammy replied.  "From the look on Dr. Frost's face, I think we might just get her to go home.  No offense, but I have a galaxy to see before I settle down."
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The woman smiled.  "I understand completely.  I'm a lot older than I look.  I just hope we're around in a form you'll find appealing when you do settle."
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Frost and Cairn broke their gazes.  "Mother of God," Frost gasped.  "Those poor people!"
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"That's only a tenth of the data we recorded," Cairn said.  "To paraphrase someone connected with this uniform, would it be worth something to ya?"
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Frost looked at Cammy.  "Is there anything I can offer that would make you stay with me, Camile? The holos are interesting enough, but to have someone from that ruined world..."
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Cammy suddenly felt defensive.  "Dr. Frost, it might be a hellhole, but it's ''my'' hellhole.  As I just told Dr. Rogers, I want to see the whole Arm before I settle somewhere.  Call it shopping for a world, to put it in stereotypically feminine terms."
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"Spoken like a true gatherer," Rogers said with a smile.
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"I'll allow you free access to another tenth if you come with us back to Laplace, Dr. Frost," Reg Cairn said.
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Frost raised her eyebrows.  "You could sell this data to any researcher in the field and make a load of credits.  My bosses must be offering you a ''lot'' more than that."
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"I'm not at liberty to discuss the details of my contract, Marcela.  So, what do you say?"
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"I'm not your last passenger, am I?"
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"We still have three more to find," Cairn admitted reluctantly.
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"Give me until you've found your last elusive passenger to pick me up, Rebecca Cairn.  And you have a deal."  Frost extended her hand.
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"''Rebecca,''" the Captain snorted.  She took the other woman's hand and shook it.  "If you insist on calling me that as part of the deal, then I have no real complaints.  We'll let you know when we're finished."
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"I'll be ready to leave.  And forgive me, Captain Rebecca Cairn, if I hope it takes you a few weeks."  Marcela Frost looked over at Cammy.  "And I hope we have a nice, long voyage.  I'd love to pick your brain during the journey."
  
 
{{Separator|k}|WIP}
 
{{Separator|k}|WIP}

Revision as of 19:39, 7 September 2009

Icon
This story is a work in progress.
Author's Comments

  • 1 hour - ~4 kiloseconds
  • 1 day ~ 90 ksec
  • 2 weeks ~ 1 megasecond
  • 1 year ~ 30 msec
  • 30 years ~ 1 gigasecond

Cammy

Author: Jon Buck

Fusion was a centuries-old technology, and even on Cammy Reiser's homeworld it had survived the Abandonment, after a fashion. The FCS Ceres had a total of six reactors of varying sizes. On the aft end, two wiffleballs sixteen meters in diameter, composed of twelve doughnut-shaped magnetic coils arranged in a dodecahedron. Even cars still ran on half-meter fusion power cells back home. The Ceres had two four-meter reactors in the bow, then two eight-meter units aft sharing space with the mains. The smaller plants ran ship systems and the larger ones the Newton Drive pods that moved the ship through normal space.

On her unlamented ruined homeworld she'd been little more than a salvage auto mechanic. Now she was working on starships. And, for reasons Captain Cairn had yet to fully explain, had just made a woman. Since the Abandonment a century before, Cammy's world had given up on the idea that one's body could be so easily changed. And so had Cammy, until Jia Kun had walked into her modest garage on Hera.

The medbay's chrysalis tank had done the impossible. From head to toe, there were no signs of surgery, she was several centimeters shorter and many kilograms lighter. The ship's Medical Officer, Gros Kronen, had said she'd been rebuilt from the skeleton outwards. They had allowed her a few hours of intimate exploration to confirm everything was in place. She had done the expected jumping jacks in front of the bunkroom mirror, taken a long shower, and managed to hit a sweet spot. All those new hormones flipping switches that hadn't been there before. Dr. Kronen called it "hormone shock" and said she should enjoy it.

Taking the Doctor's advice to heart, Cammy savored every minute of it. The fact that Engineers typically wore suitspray leotards--normally called shipsuits--made it even better. She had a valid excuse for letting everything hang out. She actually felt less vulnerable with the dangly bits on her chest instead of between her legs.

More, by the time she was out of the tank the remaining men among the crew had somehow changed themselves using something called a Proteus virus. It was an all-female crew now. Men had been the majority before, though the way these people could apparently change their gender on a whim, maybe it wasn't as big a deal as she thought.

After a hundred megaseconds the starboard bow reactor was due for a service cycle. Boron and hydrogen fuel injectors needed cleaning, plasma conduits realigned, the magnetic constriction coils checked for wear and tear, replaced as necessary. Aside from having three times as many coils, the principles were almost the same as the ones she'd worked on under the hood in thousands of cars.

The auburn-haired Cadet Spacer floated in the zero-g compartment where the reactor lived, arms comfortably folded under her breasts, enjoying the temporary weightlessness and the air against her skin. The controlled environment onboard the cargo ship made clothes optional, and Cammy didn't want to wear anything restrictive. The fact her center of gravity had shifted made the work more difficult. She had even added what she could only call a boob window, exposing most of her cleavage for easy viewing.

She went through the disassembly sequence in her head and verified it via the manual displayed on her HUD contact lenses. The access panel behind her was large enough to accommodate removing one coil at a time. In addition to the coils themselves the containment chamber needed to be scanned for neutron spallation and repaired with nanofoam. All in all, the equipment was surprisingly low tech. Comfortably so, really. Everything was done by human hands, which suited her just fine. AIs couldn't be trusted. Cammy smiled and flexed her newly delicate fingers, then a gentle push with her shapely butt on the wall behind, floated towards the center of one of the coils.

It was a narrow hole. As a man she'd been able to get into the center of the reactor by folding her arms in tight. With her smaller frame she hoped it would be easier, though with the size of her breasts she had a brief image of getting stuck in the hole. Cammy felt the chromium surface of the coil covers brush against her nipples under the shipsuit, only slowing her down a little. She floated in the center, her single braid coiled up tightly with a few strands floating free. Zero-G movements were more difficult with the changes in her center of gravity. She took a moment to brace herself between two coils and let her leotard stop her breasts from jiggling.

"Are you ready yet?" Amelia said from the access door.

"Just about," Cammy replied to her brown-haired bunkmate, putting the multi-tool on her right arm. The blue holographic displays started up and she chose the first forcefield tool head. "All this high technology and you can take this thing apart with a screwdriver and a spanner."

"Cap likes simplicity. Easier to fix on low tech worlds. You should see the other two cargo haulers in the fleet. A half-uplifted monkey and a copy of Eliza could run them," the other Cadet Engineer said. "What were you doing? Contemplating your breasts again? I know it's all new to you Cammy, so take your time. We're not in a rush."

Cammy tried not to blush. There had been some of that. It was difficult to concentrate sometimes. The novelty would fade eventually, but until then she intended to fully explore her new body. The change had cleared up some medical conditions to boot. The Abandonment had left Hera a very polluted planet. "Oh, not deeply. I'm just wondering when we're going to get cleared through the Gate. It's been almost a day. I mean, maybe a hundred kiloseconds."

The other young woman looked distant for a moment as she checked on the latest. "Something about making sure our chrysalis tank's scrubbers can get rid of the Amazon Virus on our passengers. They wanted to run through some samples first. They're only letting critical cargo through right now on automated haulers." The short-haired brunette entered the zero-g area and floated up on the other side of the first coil. The two of them looked almost identical. They could be sisters. "And they want to make sure Doc Kronen's inoculation passes muster. Personally, I think they just want to get a close look at the Ceres. I doubt these dirtlubbers have seen anything like her before on this side of the Arm. And she's just a Fast Cargo hauler everyplace else."

"I got lucky when you had to land on Hera, didn't I?" Cammy asked, removing the fasteners for the first coil. It came away from the rest of the assembly with a gentle push after she braced herself against another coil. Amelia grabbed it with a magnetic grapple and slowly moved it down towards the access hatch, where an agrav cart awaited two more. "How does a ship like this run out of boron?"

"Honestly I think it was more curiosity than anything, Camile," Amelia said. "Cap likes to do a little exploration on the side, and Hera had that whole 'lost colony' thing going for it. Tell the truth, we were shocked nobody else bothered to check on y'all. Wasn't there supposed to have been a rescue mission after that planetary AI of yours scrammed?"

"Why do you think we call it 'The Abandonment'? There wasn't enough room for everyone, and not everyone wanted to leave. You don't think she plans on going back anytime soon, do you?"

"Not without more firepower," Amelia said nervously. For all the technology they now lacked, a number of wars over Salvage had created a space arms race and all five major powers had ganged up on the Ceres to keep her from leaving. Aside from some tiny scout ships that couldn't carry any significant cargo, the Ceres was the only ship her size that could reach the nearest working Gate in a reasonable amount of time, a mere two months from Hera at 625c.

"Good! I never want to see that hellhole again," Cammy said firmly. She put her hands on her hips and looked at the view. The shipsuit was literally a second skin. It was in company colors of blue and white, slightly thicker over her groin and breasts to add a some protection for those tender areas. "Besides, I don't think my old boss would recognize me these days. I'd have to get a job as a stripper." She started doing a bump-and-grind inside the reactor.

Amelia chuckled, catching the second coil and putting it on the cart for the trip to Engineering. "I got to choose if I wanted to stay a girl when I hit puberty, myself. I didn't see any point to changing then. Still don't, really. So I've never spent much time as a man. Have to admit I get a kick of having an all-female crew right now. Frankly, I don't know the birth gender of most of the crew.

"It doesn't really matter out here in the void, but there's some worlds where being a man's an advantage, others the complete opposite. It's a big damned galaxy. So it helps to be flexible when you're doing business with people who won't even talk to you unless you look like a goddess. Tits today balls tomorrow."

The Captain's blond bombshell avatar interrupted their conversation. "Okay, everyone. I have good news! We're finally cleared to move out. Drop what you're doing and get up to the Bridge. I need everyone here in person."

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"Is all this really necessary, Gros? I feel like a femme in a cheap porn sensie," Captain Cairn quipped to her medical officer. They all had perfect figures with full, slightly overripe breasts and long hair. The Captain's protest seemed rather weak, considering she was dressed in the same type of leotard as Cammy. This wasn't a military ship, so there were no uniforms. And spacers were notorious for wearing as little as possible, male or female. Suitspray was cheap, motile and could be programmed with any number of outlandish fashions from skintight bodysuits, tee shirts and pants, to flowing dresses and formalwear. That is, when they weren't going completely nude.

"Fraid so, Cap," Gros Kronen replied. "The Gate Authority finally cleared us for the next Gate opening. They couldn't find anything to complain about in my inoculation. I know these bodies aren't really to our personal tastes, but it won't be for long."

"No woman should have this much cleavage working in zero-g," Amelia complained. "And we all look so similar! You couldn't give us more leeway with our faces?"

"You're fortunate we don't all look exactly the same, Cadet. This was a rush job. I only had time to modify the base Artemis form," Kronen said. Except for faces and hair color, seven of them were pretty much body doubles. Same height, same build, same physical age. They could all be sisters.

The last one, the Chief Engineer and Camile's boss, had more options despite the inoculation. Polyskin, bioplastic implants, and a suite of other nanotech allowed her to change sex as well as general appearance at will. Just to buck the trend she was in an almost flat-chested barely-female form she normally used around Engineering. Jia Kun had demonstrated the sexmorph ability in Cammy's garage. From then on Cammy had been obsessed with the idea of being a woman herself. Until yesterday, two months of constant future shock since her rescue had put it on low priority.

Now it was reality. Boob-jiggling, hip-swaying, hair-tickling, unreal reality.

"How are you holding up, Reiser?" the Captain asked their newest crew member.

"I'm just a little... distracted," Cammy replied, blushing. "I honestly don't know where to start. The plumbing's in the wrong places and I can't look down without... you know."

"Honestly, you didn't have to choose a female name," the Chief Mate said. "It's not healthy to start thinking of yourself as two people just because you sometimes have ovaries." Volkan Esker had cut her black hair very short, and her features were a little more angular compared to the rest of the crew.

"It... just didn't feel right not to, Chief," Cammy explained. "Camile was my grandmother's name. She's the reason I'm alive in the first place."

"I can understand that. Go easy on her, Volkan. It's her first time. If she wants to wallow in it, there's no real harm," Captain Cairn said. She looked at the other six people on the Bridge. "Normally I don't digress like this during a briefing, but what Camile's going through is happening on a planetary scale on Levett. Somebody decided they didn't like the little utopia their government was trying to build. Maybe they thought it was too sexist. We don't know because they don't even have any suspects. What we do know is that the Amazon virus is making the male half of the population unnecessary as well as 'extinct'."

"There's more than one way to exchange DNA, so they'll keep having babies," Dr. Kronen said. "Those details aren't important. What is important is why the hell we're going there."

"This is one of those Utopian McWorlds that have been so popular the past century," Cairn continued. "I've done sensies of this place. It's all zeerust taken from twentieth century visions of the 'Promised Future' as they call it. Society frozen in a pseudo-1950s, full of Googie architecture and recreating the earliest space programs. Some fairly strict gender roles to boot. So you can imagine what's happening there right now.

"We're going to evac a half dozen offworlders who were caught in the middle. Our scrubbers will get the virus out of them, and if they close the Gate on us we can reach another one in a megasecond or two with the slipdrive. What the Doc's done will hopefully keep it from infecting us. Hell of a lot cheaper than using the scrubbers on everyone. So you can go back to your C-cups once we get away from Levett, Amelia."

"I hope so. This is farking ridiculous!" the other Cadet Engineer fumed.

The rest of the crew got that distant expression that told Cammy their neo-cortexes were telling them something. There was a lag before that kind of information came up on her primitive HUD through the pack of processors on her belt. The Laplace Gate Authority had finally opened the Levett Gate. Aside from the hundred kiloseconds being rebuilt in the chrysalis tank, Cammy herself was unaugmented base human.

"Stations, everyone.  Reiser, Burke, I want that reactor reassembled and tested in forty kiloseconds--that's about ten hours.  Can you two handle it?" 
 

"No problem, Cap. But I can't promise I won't get distracted sometimes." Cammy gave her breasts a squeeze, prompting some chuckles from Esker and Kun.

"Have fun with it, because it'll feel normal all to soon," Dr. Kronen said. "We all go a little cunt crazy after a change."

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When the Captain said they should be in "native dress", Cammy was surprised to learn that was a literal description. Women didn't wear them on Hera. Too many dangerous and horrible Things could easily get up skirts. The last thing the Captain wanted to do at this point was give the Levett Gate Authority a reason to send them packing back through the Gate. So before they arrived everyone had their suitspray create something properly feminine by their standards.

The results were mixed, to say the least.

Surprisingly, Jia Kun had dressed more conservatively than everyone else. A utilitarian white dress with blue piping and the company logo over her left breast. She had also made her physique match the rest of the crew more closely. Over her shoulders were pads that came to a point four inches to either side. This fit with the colony's idea of a "Promised Future". Cammy thought it looked patently ridiculous.

Everyone else were much more inclined to rock the boat, and got an unhappy look from their Captain. While nobody wore pants, deep-delving necklines and body-hugging fabric was the norm. Amelia had acquiesced to her situation and hadn't bothered to hide her breasts. Not that any of them could.

Cammy's own knowledge of pre-Colonial history was negligible, but doubted the outfit Volkan wore belonged in the same decade. Poofy hair, purple legwarmers, off-the-shoulder shirtsleeves, leather miniskirt. The Captain fumed. "This is like a TwenCen fashion review! At least Reiser knows how to follow orders, even if she is a decade off. Nice going, Cadet."

All Cammy knew at this point was that she didn't like skirts. The suitspray template hadn't been from the 1950s, but a decade ahead. It was supposed to be business attire, but the way the tight knee-length skirt restricted her movements was irritating. She'd left her hair in the single braid she'd grown to like. Around her neck was a dual row "pearl" necklace that contained the processors, personal area network, and batteries that ran her HUD. The effect was passably professional, which she hoped her Captain wanted.

The docking gangway door opened. The eight crew of the Ceres waited politely while a very flustered older woman marched in. She was accompanied by two assistants in more comfortable uniforms. "Which one of you is the Ship's Master?" she asked in a husky voice. She wore black slacks and a white dress shirt that didn't properly account for a woman's physique. Especially hers, the way her breasts strained against the buttons.

"Captain Reg Cairn at your service. We'd like to get this inspection over quickly, if you don't mind," the Captain said.

The official surveyed the crew with thinly-veiled contempt after checking a textpad. "You're here to pick up passengers? Is that why you've all made cunts of yourselves?" she scoffed. She gestured dismissively. "I know what I look like, but frankly I'm still a man where it counts!"

The Captain wisely said nothing at the non-sequitur. "Laplace certified our equipment. We won't be spreading the virus about. And me and my crew are immune."

"Central's already approved your request, but if you're smart you should turn yourselves around right now. The Laplacers are probably going to shut us down for a year. One of their years, which is almost one and a half of ours. We're scrambling to get the supplies and equipment we need to fix this. We don't know when it's going to shut down.

"If you decide to stay, against all common sense and pick up your passengers, you'll have to find them yourselves. We don't have the resources to spare for you. So you're on your own, ladies."

"We can handle ourselves," Volkan said. "With all due respect, you people have some funny ideas about gender."

"Bunch of office sluts is what you are! Enjoy your stay on Levett, ladies," the older woman sneered, turning the word into an insult. "I won't take up any more of your precious time."

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Levett was only the third world Camile had ever seen from orbit. After two hundred years Hera was still a mess, though human ingenuity had gone a long way to repairing the ecosystem, despite the national rivalries that had developed since the Abandonment. Laplace had been settled for two centuries and had well over a billion people, a number Cammy had trouble visualizing. Now, Levett...

Someone had paid very highly to have the whole planet made just so. Even the continents superficially resembled Old Earth. From the history she could call up, the terraformers (who were unnamed) had even supplanted the planet's own ecosystem with one from Earth. There were deer, bears, big cats, raccoons, robins, blue jays, trout, everything the Founders felt belonged.

Just less than a million people populated Levett, but the Founders had planned for a hundred times as many. There were vast, vacant cities with thousands of square kilometers of empty houses and skyscrapers. In spectra the human eye could not see but the Ceres could, analog radio and television signals dominated the bandwidth. The only real internet down there was wired and was only suitable for plain text. The Founders Council was very picky about what technology they adopted from the rest of the Arm.

As the Ceres approached from the L5 Gate, Cammy watched holos from the surface. The government claimed there were still a few uninfected men left, but in a way that rang all too hollow. She had no doubt there wasn't a human Y-chromosome left down there. The growing anger at the government's ineffectiveness at finding a cure was the top story.

"Believe it or not I've seen worse. On the same scale," Jia Kun said, back in her petite feminine form. "Oh, I'm sure they'll make a countervirus at some point. But these people are technophobes and by the time they're finished I doubt there will be many takers. They'll be so well adjusted they won't want to change back. Besides, my neo-cortex can grab a dozen single-sex colonies just off the top of my head. They succeed or fail just like everyone else."

"These people aren't even posthuman, Chief," Amelia said. "Not even basic neural interfaces. Just monochrome HUD displays and basic smartcloth. They don't even know how to fix the technology that runs their flying cars! It's just a black box to them."

"So, who do you think the Captain's going to send planetside? She's not going herself, is she?" Cammy asked, going over the readouts for the ship's FTL mysterious power source. Black boxes, huh? I guess you're the one who slapped the 'No User Servicable Parts' on the reactor sphere? she thought. Captain Cairn was very close-mouthed about where she'd bought the Ceres. Cammy had picked up bits and pieces from Amelia. All she could tell was that its builders were at least ten thousand light years spinward along the Arm.

"We won't leave the ship without a crew, especially here," Kun said. "It's a sure bet you'll be going along, newb. You need experience. Damned good job on that reactor servicing, both of you."

"Thank you, ma'am. Will Amelia be along also?" Cammy said.

"I've already broken my away team cherry, so to speak," the other Cadet said. "We know you can handle a gun. You don't have a neo-cortex yet, though. That's a liability."

"We can't get you one of those until we're done here. Varrus is the best planet for that sort of procedure. I'm sure you'll do fine with those pearls of yours," the Chief Engineer said.

The sound projectors in Cammy's earrings beeped softly, then the Captain's avatar appeared in the corner of her HUD. "Get dressed and meet us at the dropship, Camile. Time for your first planetside jaunt," the Captain said. "The outfit you were in earlier was perfect, so stay with that. Tael is coming with us. I think you need to get to know each other better. Reg out."

Amelia smiled, then walked over and gave Cammy a hug. "Be careful, okay? Half that planet has the worst case of PMS ever. Just because it's a planet of women doesn't mean it's all ponies and perfume. There's a reason why they call this the Amazon virus."

"I'll keep that in mind," Cammy promised. She hugged her friend back, then gave her a girlish kiss on the cheek. "See you in a few hours."

While the Ceres was perfectly capable of landing on planetary surfaces, there were circumstances where doing that wasn't a very good idea. From the exterior the organic nature of the ship was more obvious. It was a modular design, and the Captain had purchased several of the makers' cargo modules to go along with it. There were currently four attached to the upper surface of the ship, the forward units were actually passenger quarters and extra crew spaces for long journeys. The dropship's docking port was on the aft dorsal surface between two of the modules. Cammy used her HUD to look through the cameras on its surface.

"I can't believe there's so much junk in orbit!" Tael Ross complained at the control console. She had a green-blue tint to her shoulder-length hair and she'd done something to her eyes to make them look noticeably larger than the rest of the crew. She didn't have to touch the controls, handling everything with her neo-cortex. Tael had what looked like metal earmuffs instead of human ears. "How do they put up so much crap in thirty years? Half this stuff isn't even emitting anything."

"They launch satellites for hobbies," Cairn informed. "It's a huge pastime for young boys. Or rather, it was. I wonder if they're making them play with dolls now instead?"

Cammy listened to the voice chatter between Space Traffic Control and the irritated dropship pilot. "Can't you give me a steeper trajectory than that? I have agrav lifters and I can dump inertia..."

A bad masculine hologram covered the person sitting in the chair opposite. They could have simply used an avatar, but for some reason refused to. The hologram was a kludge at best. "It's only me here today, ma'am. I'm doing the best I can," she pleaded. They hadn't bothered to try altering her voice. "It'll be easier on both of us if you just use our standard patterns. You're on Pad Twenty at Coast City Spaceport."

"I understand, Control. Will do." Tael made a show of pressing some buttons. "I don't mean to pry, but how are you folks holding up down there?" she asked, big eyes closed.

"We'll live, no matter what happens. Frankly, my boss made me use this stupid hologram. I'm more worried about my wife and sons than myself," she replied. "You ladies from Varrus? I have a cousin there."

"That's our home port," Captain Cairn said. "We'll be out of your hair in a few days, we hope. Good luck to you and your family."

"Thank you kindly, Captain. Have a good drop," the STC Controller said more cheerfully before signing off.

"I wonder if her boss is related to that sourpuss at the Gate Authority," Tael wondered as she angled the dropship for reentry.

"Were you able to get into their systems?" Cairn asked.

"Not with this trickle of bandwidth. They might appear low tech, Cap, but I've run into some heavy encryption already," Tael said. The pilot was a psionic with a technological bent--a cyberpsi. She looked sideways at Cammy. "Bored, Cadet?"

"Enjoying the view," Cammy stammered. She hadn't spent much time with Tael. She was the ship's Negotiator and generally communicated via avatars or pseudo-telepathy their technology allowed. She also rarely left the ship, and looked very uncomfortable as it shrank in the distance. Cammy could see a realtime tachyon link between the ship, the dropship, and Tael, connecting her with what was accurately called an exo-cortex. She did most of her actual thinking outside her head. "This isn't going to be too bumpy a drop, is it?"

"Just a little," Tael said, smiling dryly, glancing at the Cadet's chest for a moment. "Having fun bouncing along, Cammy?"

"Enh," Cammy replied, wiggling her hand.

"Woman or not, you're still human. Wait until we get you a neo-cortex. You can join me in simspace, then I'll show you some really weird sensations," Tael said. "Invertebrates, birds, fish, cetaceans, alien species... you can be anything in simspace."

"I'll take your word for it, Tael," Cammy said cautiously. "I think I need to get used to these realspace changes first."

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The Spaceport sprawled over hundreds of acres and had dozens of landing pads and launch gantries for the orbital rockets the Levetters preferred using, simply because it fit their idea of the Promised Future. The dropship, named the Persephone, came to a gentle rest on a pad intended for a ship ten times her size. It was early summer outside. Heat shimmered off the concrete surface. To Cammy's surprise there were a pair of vehicles waiting for them. "I thought they didn't have the resources to spare for us," she said.

"The cars came with the rest of the planet when they settled here. There's millions of 'em just gathering dust. Tourists take them home as souvenirs," Captain Cairn said. "Tael, are you going to change out of that shipsuit?"

Tael wore a leotard similar to what Cammy had worn during the reactor servicing. "They're already going to be staring at my ears, Cap. I figure if I can draw their gaze downwards they won't notice anything else," the cyberpsi said.

"At least take a clothing belt if you don't want to reconfigure." Reg got out of the acceleration chair and opened a compartment in the short corridor between the crew area and cargo bay. "I hate to say it, but this is an order."

"Okay Cap, okay. I get it." Tael took the belt. The image of a black skirt and a pink shirt immediately appeared, as well as high-heeled shoes. She pulled her hair over her metallic ears. "I took this off one of their magazine covers. Can we get a move on? I'm leery about my ship-link being jammed. I hate to sound so cliche, but I have a bad feeling about this."

"We'll find you a hardline to tap into when we can. You won't have to make the next drop," the Captain said.

The trio exited the dropship into a furnace. The vehicles were a hundred meters away, but the trek felt like a few kilometers. Cammy made sure her sunhat was doing its job. The vehicles were very different, one had wheels with whitewall tires, and the other looked like a stubby rocketship turned on its side, complete with fins in back and canards up front. They called them grounders and flyers here. Cammy looked inside and saw the controls--neatly labeled via her HUD--were almost identical to the flyers back home. The doors on the flyer slid open. "I can drive this, Cap. Either of them."

"It's all yours, Cadet," she replied, gesturing for her to take the flyer's driver seat. The Captain actually wore a pantsuit instead of a dress. Pants conveyed authority here. "I'm passing you the addresses we know. We're pretty certain about two of them, but the others will be harder."

"Especially that last minute client," Tael said. "Wonder why the Inter-Colony Police can't extract their own people?"

"Check the file, Negotiator. Her spouse only just found out she was even alive. And she's going to be the hardest one to find. They shut down her neo-cortex for seven years, somehow. Frankly, I don't care about the details. But she's in hiding."

"And that's why you need me down here," Tael said. "Let's get the easy ones first." She took a seat behind the driver. The doors slid closed and they were treated to a blast of cold air from the vents. "Let's get off the ground."

The "rocket" was actually propelled by a couple of ducted fans in the rear and agrav lifters beneath. There was a delay before they could take off as Cammy felt a familiar startup sequence shudder through the flyer's frame. It was another wiffleball fusion engine. Capacitors whined as they primed the coils, plasma fuel injectors hissed. The agrav hummed to life and lifted the family rocket a meter off the ground. Cammy pulled back on the steering yoke to gain altitude as the Captain inputted the first address into the GPS. Surprisingly, the navigation display was projected in full color onto the windscreen, making in effect a highway in the sky. "Fly on, Camile. We have clear skies."

"Sure thing, Cap." After ascending several hundred meters, Cammy turned the flyer towards the south and pushed the throttle forward.

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The Founders had gone so far to convert the metric units used by the rest of the Arm into the ancient Imperial units the old United States used. Their first passenger was located several hundred miles from the spaceport, up the coast of New America. They had a name, address, and telephone number. "Phineas Kraal. Phineas?" Cammy said as she descended towards their destination.

"Laplacer," Reg said. "They know we're coming. Frankly, it's going to be hard to get this one to leave. Her extended family is here. But if she doesn't come with us we don't get paid."

The home was a large isolated beachside mansion in New Malibu. There were so many grounders and flyers parked everywhere it was difficult to find a place to land. Cammy had to settle for a spot half a kilometer away. "Looks like a real party going on here," Tael observed.

The mansion and the land around it was full of women mostly gathered into several small groups. They were all gorgeous by planetary standards, but they varied more in body shape than Dr. Kronen had given the Ceres crew. Some trended towards the husky, but there wasn't a single obese woman in the bunch. There were very young children also. One woman comforting a little girl who was maybe five or six, wailing that she didn't want to be a girl any more and wanted Daddy back. The only way to tell who had once been a man depended on who wore pants. Even then, there were probably borrowed dresses in the crowd.

Tael scanned the crowd and pointed towards an Amazon in the middle. "She's over there, Cap. I've already made contact. We might as well introduce ourselves."

Phineas Kraal sat surrounded by a large group Cammy assumed was extended family and their friends. A girl about fifteen or sixteen was talking to her. The girl's hands and face were covered in dark grease and her hair had been shortened to a crew cut. She wore a pair of very dirty overalls over a formerly-white tee shirt. "You can't leave now! I don't care if I'm a chick, I'm still launching my Sputnik on my birthday next week. I just got the first stage guidance system installed!"

"Derek, this wasn't my idea. I have to go now. My husband decided he wanted me back home. I'll return once everything blows over. By then maybe you'll be yourself again," Phineas said. "Regardless if you're a boy or a girl."

"I'll be sixteen next week. I'm not going to scrub the launch unless my parents chop the rocket up into bits. Mom wants to teach me how to make dresses and take Home Ec! Pah! She's gone all weird on us. Frankly, I think she's laughing at me. Laughing!" the frustrated teenager said, wiping her hands on her denim overalls. "She just doesn't understand! Everything's gone all... weird. I don't even know myself anymore." The statement started with anger and ended with a near-sob. "I can't even keep myself from crying in public."

"'Weird', she says," said another woman in pants. "You know what this is, right? Right? The Founders couldn't get enough women to put out all the babies they need to populate the planet, so they released this virus to make us all women! We're nothing more than baby factories!"

"Shut up, you moron! Enough of your damned conspiracy theories!" someone else shouted back.

Phineas finally acknowledged the Ceres crew and stood up to meet them. She fearlessly wore shorts and a tank top. "You must be the Captain Dean sent to bring me home."

"Captain Cairn and crew of the FCS Ceres at your service," the Captain said. "Are you ready to go? Or should we wait...?"

The woman gestured at herself. "I'll just wear the clothes on my back. It's suitspray anyway. I just wanted to show my former brothers over there that it's okay to show off a little cleavage. Frankly, this it the best I've felt in years. Whoever made that virus made it a blessing in disguise. This world could use a little shaking up."

"If I wanted to live somewhere like that, Phinny, I would've moved to Varrus," the Conspiracy Nut said. "I was hoping for a few decades on a quiet backwater."

"Interesting times, Paula. Interesting times. I'll be back once things have settled down. Dean must've spent a lot of money to get me home, so I'd better go." She walked over and gave the angry woman a hug. "Look, we're still family, sis. Back home I always said you needed some femme time. You'll make a nice woman."

"That's bullshit and you know it, Phinnie!" Paula retorted, pushing away from her sister. From there, the argument only got worse.

As the Captain waited patiently for the sisters to stop shouting at the top of their lungs, Cammy drifted around the park-like setting where so many had gathered. There was a large number of children being watched over by a dozen adults. They were all girls now, of course. Some looked upset that they'd been put in a dress, others wearing pants were experimentally playing with dolls, and yet others were playing a game of tag.

Otherwise there were small knots of people talking amongst themselves under the pines and oaks. The air was much cooler here than at the spaceport, and it smelled more fresh and clean than anything on Hera, even inside the domed city parks with filtered air and oxygen generators. Cammy listened to scraps of conversation as she wandered towards where the mansion's grounds overlooked the ocean.

"What are we going to do without men? We might as well abandon the colony! I'm incomplete without my husband," one complained.

"What are you talking about? I'm standing right here!" the woman next to her sputtered. "You let me borrow this outfit out of your side of the closet this morning!"

"Carl's dead. I don't know who you are," the woman sneered. But the look in her eyes said something different.

The other three in the knot looked helpless and confused. Cammy moved on.

Another knot looked like a couple of families. Four women and eight children from five to fifteen. It was the teenagers who were the most interesting. "Tommy, when are you going to get your own clothes and stop borrowing mine?"

"Isn't that what sisters do?" the other replied to her sibling. She leaned forwards. "How many times did I let you wear my jeans? Your fat ass stretched them out! Girls don't wear pants! And guess what? I'm a girl now!"

"Fat? Fat! I'll show you a fat ass! Look at your own in a mirror, you cow!"

It was impossible to find a place where there wasn't an uncomfortable conversation to overhear this close to the mansion. But they felt very petty, and it irritated her like a gnat buzzing in her ear. These people didn't know what they had. This planet was a paradise. What Hera had mythically been before the Abandonment. Even standing at the top of the cliff, trying to enjoy the blue seas and crashing waves, failed to make the irritation go away. As Paula and Phinny's argument grew louder, the irritation turned to anger.

Finally she couldn't take it any more. She turned to face the crowd. "What the FUCK is wrong with you people! You've had this planet handed to you on a silver platter and you're worried about everyone wearing dresses! I'll take the place and the society as it is right now over the hellhole I spent thirty years! There's more important things in this galaxy to worry about than..."

Captain Cairn pulled her away before she could finish the sentence. "I thought you'd have more empathy for these people," she said angrily, dragging her over towards an empty wooden bench. "This isn't the time or the place for a speech! Sit down and shut up! Tael, you keep watch on her."

"Are you okay?" Tael asked, putting her hand on her crewmate's shoulder.

"I'll be fine, Tael. Just... I don't know what came over me. Can I blame the hormones?"

"Maybe a little. Or, or maybe not at all. I'm not really who you should ask. Shape makes even less difference in simspace. I shut off all those glands anyway."

Phineas was saying her goodbyes, with lots of hugs going around. Even Paula accepted an apology. "I'll be back once they figure everything out, okay?" She looked at her niece. "I'm just sorry I won't be here for the launch, Derek--"

"Diane," the teenage girl corrected. She started blushing. "Mom says my name's Diane now. I decided to humor her at first. But actually, um, I kind of like it."

Paula sighed. "I thought we'd agreed..." The older woman rolled her eyes and glared at her wife thirty feet away. "Fine, then. You win. Just keep Derek as a middle name or something. If they can't neutralize this thing we have some naming issues to figure out."

"Okay, Diane. Good luck with the launch, rocketgirl." Phineas said, hugging her new niece tightly. Her outfit stayed perfectly clean. She turned to the crowd. "Good luck, everyone!"

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Their borrowed Ford Windstar Flyer could seat ten, so it was easy enough for the three of them to keep their new passenger from overhearing them. As soon as they were away she asked for a can of suitspray and started reworking her outfit behind a privacy curtain in the cargo area. With Tael doing the flying, Cammy sat behind the Captain. She felt like crawling under a rock.

"What happened back there, Reiser? You're not sixteen!" Cairn fumed unhappily. Whenever she started using last names, she meant business. "Do you really think you convinced anyone they're not in a bad way? I think the whole idea of this colony is total bullshit, too. But we can't antagonize these people. They're rather fragile as a society right now. You don't know what could set them off."

"I don't have any excuse, Cap. I should know better, but frankly... I just can't see why they're so upset. Seems like a lot of them have done gender changes like this already. I mean, it's no big deal to you guys out here in the Arm, right?"

"Humanity's been joyriding around the galaxy for seven hundred years, Reiser. We've settled hundreds of worlds, terraformed and otherwise. We can adapt our bodies to all kinds of environments. We can even give males wombs without changing anything else. On Varrus what gender you wear is personal preference. For me it's more like a business suit. Look at me now.

"But it's a big galaxy, and for these people, it is a big deal. It's just the way they think. The masculine and feminine have clear lines. Some people like that. The Founders of this colony thought it an ideal. Now it's gone all to hell. If they can't find a cure the place will either explode or shrug and move on."

"I won't let it happen again, Captain. I promise. I'm just really, really green," Cammy said apologetically. She looked out the window at the green, lush landscape moving three thousand meters below. "It's just so beautiful!"

"Cultivated is what I'd call it," their passenger said from the rear. "Laplace is a hundred percent natural. We didn't have to do a thing to it." When Phineas opened the curtain, she had traded the tank top and shorts for a more conventional yellow fitted blouse and purple full skirt. "Frankly, Captain, your crewwoman's dead right. These people need a wake-up call and if they have to be a planet of lesbians to make that point, then I approve completely. Utopian movements never last." She slid into the rearmost bench seat. "Been years since I took a female form. Maybe even decades. When I find whoever did this I'll thank 'em. This feels very nice."

"We're not here to investigate who did this, Phineas," Cairn said.

The woman shrugged. "Well, no matter. And... I feel like a hypocrite keeping a masculine name after telling my niece I liked 'Diane'. So, call me 'Pearl' on the passenger list. Pearl Phineas Kraal has a nice ring to it. I think my sister had a good idea."

"Done and done, Pearl. We're not going back to our dropship right away. We have another two passengers to pick up on this run," the Captain said.

"When are we leaving orbit?" Pearl asked, smoothing the front of her yellow shirt. "I heard they're going to shut the Gate."

"FSC stands for Fast Cargo Ship, Pearl. We can make it back to Laplace in two weeks if they do shut it," Cairn said.

"Really? Well, that's better than a few months, but fourteen days on a small ship with Spartan amenities doesn't appeal," Pearl said.

"We're a kilosecond from our next stop, Cap," Tael informed.

This time I'm keeping my yap shut. Cammy silently watched the landscape go by.

Pearl Kraal leaned over the seat. "If we're not going back to your ship immediately, can we stop by a malt shop before we pick up the next girl? One thing this planet has in its favor. Real cows! Real milk! Fauxflesh just doesn't cut it. I'd like a real burger and chocolate milkshake one last time, if you don't mind?"

The Captain and Tael shared a nod. "Sounds good to us, Pearl. I'm feeling a little peckish, myself.."

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Their second passenger lived in a more modest suburban home. No more than one in ten houses were actually occupied, so in the twilight it was easy enough to find with the lights on. There were a couple ground cars in the driveway, and what looked like a hoverbike resting on its side in the overgrown lawn. It was a strange sight. The thousands of other vacant homes were maintained by robots, awaiting their eventual occupation.

Tael landed by the curb. Captain Cairn gestured for the Cadet Engineer to follow. Not wanting to appear like a sulking teenager again, she did.

Cairn politely knocked on the front door, then waited. And waited, and waited. She rang the doorbell and knocked again, and waited. "Cadet, go peek in through a window, will you? The lights are on but I don't think anybody's home."

The door opened just as she stepped away. The pale woman greeting them looked like she was in her early twenties and had wavy blond hair that looked mussed up. She wore a long gray nightshirt and glared at them. The odor of stale alcohol wafted out of the door. "Who the hell are you? This better be good."

Cairn introduced the two of them. "We're here on behalf of Sa'dia Rasima's father. Her kin have requested she return home immediately."

Annoyance turned to surprise, then back to annoyance. She turned around and shouted into the house. "Sadie! Your ride's here early!"

"Already?" came the reply from down the hall. "They're not supposed to be here until tomorrow! Gimme a couple minutes, I'm not decent!"

Reg Cairn's avatar appeared in Cammy's display. ~This is our only passenger who actually started female. Whether this person in front of us did, your guess is as good as mine. I doubt it really matters anyway.~

Sa'dia stormed out of her bedroom, anger in every step. She wore a bra and panties, but nothing more. "My father sent you, didn't he?" she snarled. She glared at her and Cammy. "Did he give you those bodies as a perk or did you catch the virus like everyone else?"

"I'm just the bus driver, ma'am. I'm a totally independent contractor, and I generally don't ask questions," Cairn said diplomatically. ~I don't think we're going to get paid on this one, Cadet.~

"Well, then if you're going to try and take me by force, Antonia here would beg to differ," Sa'dia said.

Antonia grinned evilly and clenched her fist. There were muscles there. "Please, go ahead and try it. I've been aching to give something besides practice dummies an ass kicking since I got this new ass." She slapped herself on the behind.

Captain Cairn pursed her lips. "I'm not here to get my pretty ass kicked, frankly. I'd never, ever take anyone who wasn't willing to come with us. But I can't promise he won't come on his own once things shake out here."

"Let him come," Sa'dia said. "Then he'll get his own tits and I'll let Antonia here kick her ass. Sorry to disappoint you, Captain Cairn. Have a nice trip home, wherever that is."

Once they were back in the air, Tael spoke. "Reg, I think we should lift back to the ship. This is really more Volkan's job than yours or mine. She's Steward."

"Just one more, Tael. This one's going to be a doozy. I'm feeding both of you some background now," Cairn replied. "Read the file closely. I think this one is going to be more reluctant to leave than he appears."

Cammy read over the file, then wondered why whoever had paid to bring this person home thought she'd agree to it in the first place. Dr. Marcela Frost of the prestigious Laplace Planetary Collegium, apparently well known for studying the success and failure of these Utopian movements. "You're kidding me, right? If I'm reading this correctly, this is exactly the sort of event she'd want to study."

"Precisely, Camile. I've pretty much given up on her already, but if I don't make the effort--" Pearl had started laughing. Cairn looked back at her. "Something to add, Miss Kraal?"

"Frost is a hack! A complete, morally bankrupt hack. If I'd known she was here I would've left the planet months ago. Shit! Now I'm going to be on the same ship with her for two weeks if we miss the Gate!" Pearl said. "Why bother even trying to pry her out of here?"

"It's a contractual obligation, this time. We've been paid half in advance. I don't have to repay that if I show I've made a good faith effort," Cairn said.

"Rock and a hard place, I see. If you manage the feat I'll just sit way in the back."

"Are you in the field?" Tael asked.

Pearl folded her arms. "Me? No! I'm just an irritated taxpayer. So just ignore me. Everyone else does."

Next stop, LPU. Levett Planetary University.

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Cammy stood holding both arms out as Tael took the can of programmed suitspray and applied it from head to toe. Except for the pearls it reabsorbed what she was already wearing. It briefly turned transparent before it began to reshape itself into something more appropriate for the formal gathering Dr. Frost had invited them to. She insisted the Captain make her pitch surrounded by the University faculty. Suitspray always tickled. Her outfit reshaped itself into something the rest of the planet would considered far too skimpy.

It was a smooth red fabric, had a wide neck and long sleeves, with a mid-thigh skirt. The collar was black, and there were gold bands around the lower sleeves. Nylon stockings and black boots filled out the ensemble. Then there was what the suitspray did to Cammy's hair. Tael sent her an image of herself from the cyberpsi's point of view.

"And that's a really short skirt for these people," Tael said. "Cap's sending me with Pearl for the next few hours. Frankly, I envy you. She's not the easiest person to get along with. And I'm getting some weird pings from the local network. They're hiding something going on in that auditorium."

"What is this, some kind of uniform? And what's with this hair?"

"It's called a beehive hairdo. You're tighter around the bosom than I would have thought, too. Oh, I programmed a shipsuit for underwear. So at least you'll be comfortable in that getup. It's drafty in here."

They had handed the Captain a belt similar to what Tael wore and sent her into the men's restroom. Presumably allowing her to change her clothes more easily. Considering how crowded the women's restroom was, it made sense to open both. Though why they were only letting a select few into that one was mysterious.

Captain Cairn awaited them outside the women's restroom in a variation of the "uniform". Gold shirt and black slacks. Everything fit correctly around her female body, however. But around her waist was a belt much like Tael wore instead of real clothing. They had tried to disguise it as a leather belt, but it was simply too thick and had bulges at regular intervals. She wore a torc around her neck where her voicebox was. "I figured they'd do something like this," she said. "I guess Dr. Frost is trying to make a point by including me."

"Oh, let me guess," Tael said. "Stopgap solution? Holograms rarely fool anybody. And the only places I've heard about hardlight projectors are waaaay up the Arm where you got the Ceres."

Reg clicked a physical rocker switch on the front of the belt. Her feminized features were replaced with someone else's entirely. Handsome and chiseled in a generic sort of way, and if it wasn't for the strange chest coverage, he might have been muscular too. The holobelt couldn't quite account for the Captain's bosom. It was simply too bouncy. "So, what do you think?" "he" asked, still with a woman's voice. "Whoops, forgot the other..." the Captain reached up and pushed another button. "There! How's that?"

"A little too much baritone, Cap," Cammy opined.

"He" shrugged. "Call it overcompensation on their part. Do I look as silly as I think? I haven't seen a face like this one outside of those Spartan parahuman custom jobs." He pulled on the hem of his shirt, making the holobelt briefly fail to compensate for the real woman beneath. "Well, Camile, I'm supposed to escort a lady with me. And you're elected." He offered his arm. "Don't worry. It's just etiquette to these people. Hopefully it won't take long."

"I'll be in the Student Union. Maybe I can scare up something like chocolate on this dirtball," Tael said. "Ping me when you're done, Cap."

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Dr. Frost wasn't wearing a faux-man holobelt, but at least half the people inside the auditorium were faux men. A coterie of University faculty surrounded her. Her outfit was a completely over the top Vision of the Future that never was. An awkward bubble skirt surrounded by a foot-wide ring as if her behind was a planet. Bubble shoulders with more rings, and a transparent bubble hat with a tilted ring. Cammy kept having to revise what she thought was strange here. There was always something new to top it a few minutes after the last one.

"Captain Cairn! There you are!" Dr. Frost shouted over the din of female and faux male voices. "Come, come! Pick up something from the buffet and join me!"

Since they had just eaten, Cammy took a paper cup and filled it with sharp-smelling fruit punch. Reg did likewise. The other people in the auditorium were dressed like characters from twentieth century science fiction programs and futurists. Dr. Frost's outfit wasn't even the most outlandish.

As they approached Frost a man went up on stage and stood in front of a microphone. When "he" opened his mouth to speak a horrible squealing came from the speakers. "Awwww crap! Damn feedback! Just a..." the fauxman pushed a button on his neck. The feedback stopped, but hearing a female voice coming out of such a handsome face was rather jarring. "Okay, then. Once again, welcome once again to the Asimov Room. Normally I'd begin these things with a special greeting to all the lovely ladies in attendance, but considering the confusion involved I don't think that's a good idea."

The weak joke was met with polite laughter. The speaker's male hologram started to flicker. "Oh, oh dear. I think the batteries are going. Oh well." She turned the hologram off. She was perhaps in her late fifties. The virus had made her quite well preserved, and on other worlds she'd have a physical age of half that. But her hair was graying and there were some strain lines around her eyes.

"Welcome to this year's Faculty Assembly, one and all. We almost canceled it, given the current crisis. But I received enough protests that we decided to follow through. More, as you can see, we even have our men back, after a fashion."

"Interesting you're not including yourself in that statement, Edgar," someone from the audience said dryly.

"Of course I am!" she retorted indignantly to the speaker. She paused to calm down a little. "Er... I'm sorry Patty. I'm on edge these days. More than usual, I mean. Aren't we all?" More polite laughter. "Anyway, the government has graciously allowed us to test the holobelts they've obtained from Laplace and a few other worlds. There's still a few bugs to work out, which Doug and his team over in the Technology Adoption Department will handle. I'm confident that they'll fix the... er... chest masking issue, won't you Doug?"

The woman who replied wore long white robes. Her hair was done up into two tight braided spirals over her ears. "I dunno, Ed. We weren't given a lot of units to experiment with and they're from half a dozen different makers. It's going to be hard enough getting everyone's belt customized with their old faces by the deadline the Founders Council gave us!" the frustrated woman replied. "Then there's that stupid lottery..." she muttered.

"What's the bad news?" the previous speaker with the dry voice asked.

"Ah, yes. That's the thing, isn't it? Given our time and budgetary constraints, they were only able to obtain about twenty thousand units. And as Doug said, not all from the same manufacturers. Well, maybe a shade over that--"

"Wait a second! We can't make these ourselves? Can't we just chuck one into a fabber and duplicate it?" Someone else said.

"Um..." Edgar stammered nervously. "The short answer is no, we can't. We simply don't--"

As interesting as the unfolding drama was, it reminded Cammy a little too much of town hall arguments over high-grade Salvage on Hera. She sighed and put the palm of her hand against her forehead. "Do we really have to listen to this, Captain? This won't end well."

"Indeed it won't," Dr. Frost said. "Let's find someplace more private so I can get out of this ridiculous outfit."

"Lead on, Doctor. You know this place better than I," Cairn said.

She took them into an unlocked conference room in a hallway just off the auditorium proper, shedding her "futuristic" dress once the door was closed. What she wore underneath was akin to a primitive shipsuit. "Before we spoke I wanted you to see what's happening on this planet, Captain Cairn. This is an opportunity I can't--and won't--miss. Did you feel the sheer desperation in the air? Even if they were to neutralize or cure the virus tomorrow the damage to their society is irrevocable."

"And you want to watch it all unravel?" Cairn said, switching off the voice and the holobelt.

"We have to understand why colony worlds fail! I want to study how a world founded on strict division of labor by gender deals with the male half becoming women. It's essentially a gendercide variant," Frost said, emphasizing by rapping her fist on the table. "The last time I had this opportunity was interviewing evacuees from Hera about four gigaseconds ago.

"And LPC administration wants to drag me away from here? They must be mad! But I'll let you make your case, Captain. It's going to be a hard sell for you."

She's studied the Abandonment? Cammy thought. Even interviewed the Escaped? Cammy knew that people out here could live for centuries, but it was still a long time ago. Now she wished she had a neo-cortex so she could more easily communicate with the Captain in private. All she could do with her eye displays was send her a brief text message without tipping Dr. Frost off. ~Captain, I think I can get her attention.~

~Go to it, Camile. Give it a shot,~ Cairn replied.

"Dr. Frost, can I say something?" the young woman said. "I'm Camile Reiser, and I'm from Hera."

Dr. Frost's eyes widened. "You're from where? That's impossible! The survivors I interviewed said there was nothing left on that polluted world but gray goo! The result of a failed Singularity!"

"That's not really correct, Doctor. I'm living proof. We actually stopped the runaway conversion somehow and have fought it back ever since. Captain Cairn stopped by my homeworld a few weeks ago. I showed her and the crew around for a couple weeks, then asked if I could go with them."

"She was so helpful and her technical skills are exemplary for a non-augmented human," Cairn informed. "She has a lot to learn, but I'm confident she'll be a valuable member of the crew. In fact, she already is."

"That's a convenient lie," Frost said. "Do you have proof to back up your claim? Proof that I can verify?"

"I can get you holos and logs of our visit to Hera secured with verified provenence keys. In fact, I have everything stored in my neo-cortex. Is there somewhere we can go that allows better wireless bandwidth? I'm not equipped with neural interface ports."

The older woman chewed on her lower lip. "I need to find Doug. She can let us into the TAD Building. That's about the only place on the planet where they have unrestricted wireless speeds." Frost smiled crookedly. "I have to admit, Captain, Miss Reiser, you've gotten my attention. And if you're telling the truth, it'll benefit all of us."

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It was full dark by the time they reached the TAD Building. Dr. Douglas Rogers jingled the keys as they approached the "ultramodern" edifice. Ten stories tall, the glass exterior walls reflected the stars and moon above. "I can't think you enough for giving me an excuse to get out of there, Marcela. I think old Edgar has PMS something fierce."

"I noticed you didn't claim one of those belts for yourself, Doug," Frost said.

"I'm with you, Marcela. It's futile, so I've decided to hell with it. I'm changing my name to Debra. It's not like they're going to remove me in these circumstances. Now, where's that damned key?" More clinking. She opened a little panel and leaned to speak into a microphone. There were four red lights. "Dr. Debra Rogers with two guests. Rebecca Cairn and Camile Reiser." Three lights turned green.

"It's not Reb--" the Captain stopped herself, then threw up her hands. "What is it with you people and changing names?"

Rogers shrugged. "Honestly, I misheard your first name when Marcela introduced you. You looked like a 'Rebecca' to me. Personally, when I look in the mirror I don't see a 'Douglas' anymore. I suppose I'm just doing what's expected. A woman should have a woman's name. Novelty, maybe?"

"Dr. Marcela Frost here," she added into the mic. The last light changed and the door opened, spilling fluorescent light out into the quadrangle. "If more people on this planet are like you, Deb, then you'll do fine."

"You can use the wireless lab on the sixth floor. That's room 625. I'll change out of this Princess Leia getup and join you in a few minutes." Dr. Rogers nodded at the three of them and headed for her first floor office.

After everything else Cammy had seen she expected the lab to be full of masses of wires and bits and pieces of junk, like the Salvage Labs back home. This room looked more like Engineering on the Ceres. She thought of the comments she'd heard during the day. The veneer was stripped away in this room.

"Oh, I see.  Technology Adoption.  This is where they take tech from around the galaxy and decide how they're going to fit it into their Promised Future?"

"That's fairly accurate," Frost said. "Frankly I think it's more of an art department. If they can't fit something into their sense of aesthetics, they don't bother trying. I should warn you that they have very strong opinions about simspace. You'll find Debra is more flexible than most, but... otherwise, don't."

"Doctor Frost, outside of a little experimenting en route to Laplace, I really can't say much about it." Cammy's display was smart enough to bring up background material and word definitions for her, but it was hard to keep up. "Um, you at least need a neural interface to get a passable simulation, don't you?"

Her pearl computers informed her there were three levels of integration. The first was a neural interface, which basically plugged someone into a computer without offering any real enhancements. The next step up was the neo-cortex, a layer of computronium on the surface of the brain. Then came the neural lace, which was integrated with the whole nervous system from head to foot and deep into the brain. Either of those could use more computational enhancements outside the body, like Tael's exo-cortex.

Hera had had all these things before the Abandonment. The few survivors were those who hadn't been hooked up to the planetary network at the time the AI did whatever it did.

Cammy had started to sympathize with these people, to a point. On Hera, before any new type of Salvage was brought back online they had to thoroughly understand how it worked, how to repair it, and most importantly, how to destroy it if necessary. They didn't put a fancy shell on something they only partly understood.

"Just don't," Frost repeated. "They want real experiences, not simulated ones. Speaking of experiences, Captain. I'm sure you can feel we have full bandwidth in here. If you're ready, Captain?"

"Ping," Cairn said.

"Ack," Frost replied.

They were still standing there, staring at each other when Dr. Rogers entered. She was in a blue denim dress with gold stitching. "How long have they been like that?"

"Maybe five minutes," Cammy replied. "From the look on Dr. Frost's face, I think we might just get her to go home. No offense, but I have a galaxy to see before I settle down."

The woman smiled. "I understand completely. I'm a lot older than I look. I just hope we're around in a form you'll find appealing when you do settle."

Frost and Cairn broke their gazes. "Mother of God," Frost gasped. "Those poor people!"

"That's only a tenth of the data we recorded," Cairn said. "To paraphrase someone connected with this uniform, would it be worth something to ya?"

Frost looked at Cammy. "Is there anything I can offer that would make you stay with me, Camile? The holos are interesting enough, but to have someone from that ruined world..."

Cammy suddenly felt defensive. "Dr. Frost, it might be a hellhole, but it's my hellhole. As I just told Dr. Rogers, I want to see the whole Arm before I settle somewhere. Call it shopping for a world, to put it in stereotypically feminine terms."

"Spoken like a true gatherer," Rogers said with a smile.

"I'll allow you free access to another tenth if you come with us back to Laplace, Dr. Frost," Reg Cairn said.

Frost raised her eyebrows. "You could sell this data to any researcher in the field and make a load of credits. My bosses must be offering you a lot more than that."

"I'm not at liberty to discuss the details of my contract, Marcela. So, what do you say?"

"I'm not your last passenger, am I?"

"We still have three more to find," Cairn admitted reluctantly.

"Give me until you've found your last elusive passenger to pick me up, Rebecca Cairn. And you have a deal." Frost extended her hand.

"Rebecca," the Captain snorted. She took the other woman's hand and shook it. "If you insist on calling me that as part of the deal, then I have no real complaints. We'll let you know when we're finished."

"I'll be ready to leave. And forgive me, Captain Rebecca Cairn, if I hope it takes you a few weeks." Marcela Frost looked over at Cammy. "And I hope we have a nice, long voyage. I'd love to pick your brain during the journey."

{{Separator|k}|WIP}