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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


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 fully and easily changed. And so had Cammy, until Jia Kun had walked into her modest garage on Hera.

In one week the medbay's chrysalis tank had done the once-possible. 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. She was accustomed to the women outnumbering the men three to one, so having five men and three women onboard was a new thing. 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 sensitive 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. It was impossible to get enough of her new self.

In the truest sense of the word it was a rebirth. The man she had been was gone, leaving a young woman in his place, with all his memories and experiences but with Hera lightyears away no longer beholden to his past. Maybe the crew of the Ceres could be so casual about their gender-swapping, but for Cammy it was in part the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. She no longer felt surplus, useless. She had a womb.

The Cadet Engineer 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. Even simple 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 healthy new body. The Abandonment had left Hera a very polluted planet, and she was the healthiest she--or anyone from modern Hera-had ever been. "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. Frankly, after what we needed to do to you I'm sure it can handle anything.

"Anyway, 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. "When times are good 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 orbiting 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, and there were no company uniforms. 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.

"Fraid so, Cap," Gros Kronen replied. "The Gate Authority finally cleared us for the next 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. Cammy had been obsessed with the idea of being a woman herself since she was young. 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 crewmember.

"I'm just a little... distracted," Cammy replied, blushing. "I honestly don't know where to start. The plumbing's in different 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 prepping for this job. 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 easily 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 feeding them information. There was a lag before that kind of data came up on her primitive contact lens displays through the pack of processors on her belt. The Laplace Gate Authority had finally opened the Levett Gate. Aside from the time being rebuilt in the chrysalis tank and some basic medical nanobots, Cammy herself was just your average gorgeous woman.

"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, 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. Even with filtersuits 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 extensions 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 reasonably 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 dresses very much. 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 eye displays. 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 a hundred years since the Hera was still a mess. 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.

Fewer 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 and vast acreages of fallow farms and ranches. 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 2D programs from the surface in the Rec Room. 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. Are you coming, Amy?" 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 dropshuttle, 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 sisterly 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. It wasn't as if working around lots of women was new. On Hera they outnumbered men three to one. They dominated every aspect of life because of that, and because they were so important to humanity's survival on Hera. She hugged her friend back, then gave her a girlish kiss on the cheek in return. "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 dropshuttle's docking port was on the aft dorsal surface between two of the modules. Cammy used her displays 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-and-plastic 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 dropshuttle 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 dropshuttle 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 technopath. She looked sideways at Cammy. "Bored, Cadet?"

"Enjoying the view," Cammy stammered. She hadn't spent much time with Tael. She was Ship's Tech 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 dropshuttle, 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 simply because it fit their idea of the Promised Future. The dropshuttle, 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. Some kind of package deal. 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 technopath 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/passenger 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. It was good enough from afar, but when examined too closely the texture of the fabric became pixilated. Good enough for government work, at any rate. 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 dropshuttle 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 display--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, Ross. 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 neural lace 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 input 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. They like their Victorian pastiche," 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. Long-needled pines cast shadows over the crowded roadway. "Looks like a real party going on here," Tael observed.

The mansion and the land around it was full of women 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 smeared with 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, good for the hot weather but not so good in a society where seeing a woman's knees was considered too provocative. "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."

"For the love of God, Phinnie! I never wanted anything like this! It's too freaky!" 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.

There were so many children. More than Heran households by a long shot. And they were all healthy, lived on a paradise of a planet with no need of filtersuits or fear of being hunted by technorganic predators. No fear that a breached filtersuit would end up with a runaway nanobot infection. Just because they'd restored a quarter of the planet from the gray goo that almost consumed it didn't mean the dangers were past.

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... he's dead. I don't know who you are," the woman stammered. But the look in her eyes said something different. She wanted Carl--Carla?--desperately. Carl herself didn't seem too flustered about it. "God, why didn't the surgery take? I can't stand seeing you like this!"

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 skirts 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 gnats buzzing in her ears. 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 Phinnie'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 with room enough for hundreds of very different human societies, 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."

Gender roles were rather more blurred on Hera. There was little that could be called feminine beyond pregnancy and raising children, despite androwombs. Nevertheless it's what Camile had dreamed of. The former men on this world simply didn't look at things correctly. "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. "More like a huge garden. 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. It's nothing more than a fad." She slid into the rearmost bench seat, legs crossed primly. "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. Refreshing."

"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 dropshuttle 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 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. Black 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 technopath'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. I'm going to find that hardline while I'm at it. 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 wearable 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 real 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 faux-man 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 Auditorium. 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. The pickings were rather slim by the time I got to the costume shop."

"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. They're just realizing that they're technologically too short to deal with a crisis of this nature."

"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 researcher 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. She's acting just like my wife does--or myself now--at that time of the month."

"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 than serious research and development. If they can't fit something into their sense of aesthetics, they don't bother trying. So they've ended up with some very schizo-tech approaches. A bit from here, a bit from there. HUDs and smartclothes, but no personal computers. I'm sure you've already discovered how limited their networking is. They'd rather people talk face-to-face.

"I should warn you that they have very strong opinions about simspace and anyone who has more than low-level psionics. You'll find Dr. Debra is more flexible than most on those topics, 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's nervous system 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. The culture that catastrophe had produced was even more averse to artificial intelligence than this one.

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. And they don't like people skimming even their surface thoughts. 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 and had let her wavy dark brown hair down. "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. She was torn between an old mystery and the study of current events, and still indecisive. "And I hope we have a nice, long voyage. I'd love to pick your brain during the journey."

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The only sounds in the darkened bunkroom was the ever-present hum of the life support vents and Amelia's rhythmic breathing from the lower bunk. She wasn't asleep, though Cammy knew she was trying too hard. Even with the gravity turned down a little they were both uncomfortablt saggy. Cammy wrapped her arms around her breasts to give them a little more support. "Should we turn it down another point, Amy?"

"Sure, why not?" her sleepy crewmate replied.

"I'll do it this time," Cammy volunteered. "I'm just too wired to sleep. It's been a hell of a day. I just want to do something--"

"Girly? Feminine?"

Cammy rolled over and then hooked her feet on the far side of the bunk bed, then hung upside down to smile at her crewmate. Gravity did its thing, and she enjoyed the sensation. Neither young woman wore clothes. The bunkroom was always a comfortable temperature. "I suppose anything I do is 'girly' by definition," Cammy said. "Being female and all. I could take apart that reactor again, if the Captain wanted me to, and I'd still feel like a girl."

"Surrounded in a pink cloud of estrogen, surrounded by flowers, puppies, and rainbows," Amy drolled. "Your enthusiasm is getting a little old, Cammy," she replied irritably. "Really old. I hate to say it, but it's true. Lights."

"I can't help it. I haven't felt this way since I was... was..." Cammy dropped off the top bunk and landed gently on the deck, standing up again. The lights came up, low at first. "Never, really. I've never felt this way. You see this body I'm wearing? Do you see it, Amy?" She ran her hands down over her curves, cupping her breasts as if they were some newly-discovered treasure. "I'm gorgeous! I'm wonderful! I'm perfection! I want to explore every joyful square inch of myself, over and over again! Call me cunt crazy, but I don't care. I can't take any of this rebirth for granted. Can you give a girl a break?"

"Maybe after I've had a good night's sleep. Maybe," Amy said, blinking tiredly. She gave her overripe breasts a frustrated nudge. "Maybe after I get rid of these damned things! Lower the grav plating to point-six, will you?"

Cammy reached for the control panel on the other side of the small bunkroom. There was another unoccupied bunkbed. The ship only really needed five crew, having enough automation to do the rest. But in most places this side of the Arm that would look suspicious. So Captain Cairn took on more than she needed, turning it into a training ship for the rest of her small company's much slower cargo haulers. And giving young people (by her standards, thirty years was young) a break.

"Well, there's no way I'm sleeping tonight, even with the lower gravity," Cammy said, stepping into the shower/suitspray alcove. She hovered over the standard selection and selected her normal blue-white leotard. The spray-on only took a hundred seconds before it was in place. "I'm going to take a walk, Amy. Back in an hour or so."

Sleep had been elusive ever since that day when Jia Kun had walked into her garage. Dr. Kronen had given her some sleep aids, but she preferred insomnia. Two months since she'd last set foot on Hera, less than three days since she'd last seen a masculine face in the mirror. Everything turned wonderfully upside down. Legendary technology, all true. It was like being a child again. Except now she didn't need an over-suit to go outdoors--planetside, at least.

There weren't enough crew for a proper third shift, but Tael didn't really need sleep. Her avatar's image appeared on the wall next to her. Big eyes, small mouth, ancient 2D anime girl. "Walking the corridors again?"

"I'm still getting to know the ship, Tael. Besides, I can sleep once the novelty of simply walking wears off."

"What? Does this mean you'll go have sex with the first guy you meet?" Tael said dryly. The image on-screen smoothly shifted from anime girl to handsome hunk with no clothes on. "Hey honey, you want some of this?"

Cammy blushed and looked at the floor. "Well, okay. Maybe I'm not that curious."

The technopath's image changed back. "Heh. Sorry. Went overboard there."

"Any idea where our other passengers are down there?" Cammy asked, changing the subject. She had just made a turn into Module A, where the extra crew spaces were when the ship was in exploration mode. She had a seat on one of the chairs in the Rec Room, which immediately conformed to her body shape.

A holoprojector turned on so Tael's avatar stood next to her. "I've narrowed down the location of two of them to within a radius of ten kilometers or so. The first doesn't know we're coming. I think she's too embarrassed about the whole thing. This is what she looked like before."

The Cadet expected a hulking brute, what appeared was actually a quite reasonable example of manhood. Cammy tried to allow her new hormones to evaluate it. "He's... handsome, I guess."

"That is a custom Spartan parahuman jobbie. The specs we were given--life expectancy of a thousand years, ability to breathe multiple atmospheres, high-speed regenerative medical nannies. Must have cost a bundle." Tael smiled as the image that replaced it was a disheveled, upset woman with curly hair apparently taken by a security camera. "And this is what she is now. The virus is smart enough to overwrite genetic templates that are very advanced. Dr. Kronen's already put our passenger into the scrubber tank. She'll be in there half a megasecond, at least."

The former Spartan was understandably upset. Like she wanted to rip someone's throat out. Whatever the virus did to her, it probably couldn't completely overwrite the custom parahuman DNA. "So why don't we know where Miss Spartan is now?"

"If I put that much money into looking that masculine, I'd be gunning for whoever did it, myself." Tael shrugged. "The last two trouble me, though. Reg--sorry, per contract, make that Rebecca--got that last request about ten minutes before we left the Laplace docks. I verified the source as legit, but I don't know..." A huge teardrop appeared over her her forehead. "We get ourselves into enough trouble with the ICP as it is."

Cammy had the chair recline more, feeling a little sleepy. "So, what's going on down below?"

"Heh. They've announced the holobelt lottery. What's really bothering folks is they've decided to restrict them to voting adults twenty-one and over without criminal records. No kids! That reduces the pool somewhat, but... well, it's chaos down there," Tael said. "Or about as much chaos as this kind of society permits. Their primitive email systems are abuzz with organizing protests."

"Couldn't they just try surgery? I looked it up earlier. They can force-grow tissues and basically do a decent job at making a woman into a man, even if they can't do anything about genetics," Cammy said.

"They tried that at the start of the outbreak weeks ago. They couldn't even 'install' the male parts before their patients started healing right on the operating table." Tael's image flickered. "S'cuse me for a second..." her voice faded as her image did.

Cammy yawned, stretching sensually, suddenly more tired than she thought she was. The Rec Room's conformal chairs weren't any less comfortable than her own bed. She ordered the lights to shut off and tried to doze.

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Lucid dreaming wasn't new to Camile, although this was the first time she'd been able to put it into practice since coming out of the chrysalis tank. It was the first time she had actually managed to fall asleep in her curvy new body, despite the Rec Room being at full gravity. As if her body finally decided there were more interesting ways of exploring female-ness.

This time the dream steadfastly resisted doing what she wanted it to do. She was back on the surface of Levett, near the mansion in New Malibu again. From her distorted viewpoint, everything was grayed out. She tried to direct where she wanted to go, but could only lurch in one direction or another. The pine odor overwhelmed her senses. She heard someone talking in the early dawn.

"Come on, Christa. I need your help," a familiar teenaged voice said. It sounded like Pearl's niece/nephew, Diane. "This part needs two pairs of hands, and I've been working all night. You did say you wanted to help, remember?"

"Like, yeah Derek, but you didn't have to yank me out of bed at five in the morning," a second young voice protested. "Er, wait. You wanted to be Diane now, right?"

"Believe it or not, I think the name sounds nice. So if the shoe fits, as yours do now, I'll wear it. Thanks for letting me into your closet, sis."

"Anytime, Diane. Having you as my sister is weird, but in a good way." She looked embarrassed. "Look, I hate to agree with mom on anything, but I think you could stand to try being a little more feminine," Christa said. "I have some hair cream that'll grow out that crew cut in a few hours. And you haven't touched my skirts yet. You'd look great in--"

"Look, I don't care if I'm stuck this way forever! I'm not¬ wearing a dress, I'm not giving up rocketry, and I'm not taking Home Ec! I like my hair short so I don't have to fuss over it like you do yours. I'm not going to turn into some exact copy of you just because we're suddenly identical twins! I'm a girl, but I'm still me!"

"Well, blame Mom and Dad for making us opposite sex clone-twins in the first place." It was hard to see their faces. Cammy couldn't make them out somehow. But aside from their hair they really did look alike from what she did see. Christa went on pointedly. "But you do like having those soft, female hands for getting into the small spaces in that Sputnik of yours," Christa pointed out. "You haven't needed me nearly as much since you changed."

Diane looked a little embarrassed. "Okay, okay. You got me there. I admit these hands make the finer work easier. Lots of wiring."

Cammy followed the friendly sisterly bickering all the way towards a barn on the north side of the property. It was hard to move the way she wanted. There was some kind of stubborn resistance from her viewpoint. Everything looked and felt weird, but she couldn't pin it down.

LED light came on suddenly from inside the workshop, startling her. She dashed away a few steps before pausing and peering back at the duo. Christa gasped in delight. "Oh, look Diane! A deer! She's so pretty!"

Deer? What? Cammy finally got a hold of herself and looked down at her legs. Forelegs, rather. Tipped with cloven hooves.

The mind of the animal she had partly taken over panicked and shoved her out.

By the time she got her wits back Cammy was far above the planet's surface. The globe beneath shimmered with thousands of points of light in greens, blues, yellows, and reds. There were more above, including a cluster of seven contained in the translucent shape of the Ceres not far away. The ship's retracted slipdrive vanes glowed a sullen red.

"What the hell am I looking at?" she wondered aloud, folding her arms under spectral breasts. Well, she was female in her dreams now as well. If this was a dream. Normally that would be significant, but with what was still happening... "What is this?"

"Well, what'll you know. You're a Psi, too," came Tael's voice from next to her. Her anime girl avatar floated around her. "Wonder how Doc Kronen's going to explain this one? She didn't say a thing when we decanted you."

"Psi? I'm a psionic?" More legends from home. There hadn't been a psionic on Hera since before the Abandonment. Cammy sputtered at her orbiting crewmate. "What..."

A blinding purple flash made her cover her eyes, if they were actually eyes. The flash resolved itself into a bright blue streak that quickly faded. Once it had dimmed enough Cammy squinted. "What was that?"

"What was what?" Tael asked.

Cammy pointed. She could make it out now, barely. It was about fifteen meters long. About the smallest FTL manned craft available, it was mostly fuel, a huge reactor compared to its size, and slipdrive vanes fore and aft. The advantage was sheer speed. It could traverse the sixteen lightyears between Levett and Laplace in a couple days. "That! Looks like a tiny ship!"

"What? I don't see... wait." Tael's specter faded for a moment. "How did you do that? It's an incoming scout ship. Just came out of slipdrive. I'm alerting the rest of the crew... Levett defense system alarms are starting to go off. Can you wake up?"

"How?" Cammy spread her hands in supplication. "How am I outside my body? How are you outside yours? Astral projection is just fairy tale shit!"

"I'll help. But it's going to be a little disorienting..."

By the time the vertigo faded enough for Cammy to even open her eyes the ship had begun moving. She hadn't put on her audio earrings, so Tael was thoughtfully providing updates over the Rec Room's speakers. "We've been asked by the Levett government to intercept a scout ship that didn't come through their Gate. It won't respond to communication and they have nothing fast enough. We're going to try--for a fee, of course--but they still have the delta-v on us. Someone must have paid the pilot of that ship a hell of a lot of cash to drop in unannounced like this! We are not to shoot it down. Just try and get their attention."

The Cadet Spacer dashed back to the bunkroom to find Amy had already left. She clipped on her earrings then made a second dash for Engineering. By the time she got there she was gasping and out of breath.

"Where were you, Reiser?" Jia Kun said.

Cammy hooked her displays into the Engineering console and started monitoring systems. The Ceres had hummed to life. "I wish I could tell you, Chief. Maybe once we're done..."

"Count on it! Prepare for a short jump... we're going to try and match vectors with the slipdrive. Don't do anything, Reiser, just monitor as best you can!" Jia Kun ordered.

After seeing the scout ship arrive before any sensors did, it was hard to be passive. Cammy had learned a great deal about the Ceres and her various systems, but knew she was at a great disadvantage compared to her crewmates. The Bridge, for instance, wasn't a critical location. The entire crew could manage the ship via their neo-cortexes, easily multitasking. She shut her eyes and let the HUD display contact lenses do their job.

The four Newton Drive pods pulsed as it re-oriented the Ceres for intercept, and the slipdrive entry blade at the hammerhead-shaped bow energized. The four vanes in the rear made the Ceres resemble one of Levett's orbit jets. The Drive Core over Cammy's head thrummed and sang.

Time slowed. The ship became translucent again, surrounded by a halo of blue-green energy. About thirty million kilometers away the decelerating scout also started turning blue. "Captain, I think they've seen what we're doing," Cammy found herself saying. "They're going to back-jump."

Slipdrives always created a lingering weakness in normal space when they exited, something like an open wound. Gates worked by creating points that could be easily opened and closed, and were instantaneous travel in any case. But slipdrives still had a distance to cross, and smaller ships could go faster than larger ones for a given power source. The needle-shaped scout pulled a hard 180-degree turn then flashed back through the hole it'd made. ~Someone doesn't want a confrontation with a ship like mine,~ Captain Cairn said dryly. ~How did you see that, Reiser? Even I missed that at first, and everyone but you is hooked directly into the ship's sensors! Tael?~

~I think this calls for an all-crew meeting, Cap. Looks like our lucky girl got more than new gonads after Doc Kronen put her into the tank,~ Tael said.

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"It's because I'm a woman now, is it?" Cammy asked, sitting on the bio-scanner bed. She swung her legs back and forth. "I mean, there were never even any hints of this back home. Not a one."

"We didn't change all that much of your genetic makeup. Just a simple X-copy and a backup of your Y chromosome. The rest is just cosmetics," Kronen explained. She pushed a few buttons on the touchscreen. "I think it's more related to removing all those 'toxins'. And when I use that word, I'm not talking mere chemicals. Your cells were so clogged with junk nanobots I'm amazed there's any life at all back on your planet. The scrubbers got every last 'bot, even the ones in your brain."

"Wait, I thought you just rebuilt me from the skeleton out?"

Kronen shook her head. "What we actually did was back-up your consciousness then built you an entirely new body from the ground up. So, I suppose you could say it's because you're female that you now have these wildcat abilities. But I strongly doubt it's gender-linked."

"But you can't be completely certain of that?" Cammy said.

Kronen rolled her pretty green eyes. "Well, no. There are a few X-linked triggers that need two copies, but you don't have any. It's not a likely cause, but I can't completely rule it out. Reiser, if you want to keep that body when we're done with this job you're welcome to it. You don't really need a reason to stay a woman if you're enjoying yourself. You can always switch back in a year or two. Or never, if you like."

Captain Cairn chuckled. "What's the prognosis? Any idea how powerful she is?"

"She's at the wildcat stage, so her powers haven't settled on a specific type yet. This 'animal possession' thing from orbit gives us a sense of where she might go after the initial manifestation. There's a lot of kinds of psionics. Technopaths, telepaths, various types of kinesis. Many paths to take."

Tael was in the Medbay in person. "Being a techno is damned useful in this galaxy." She shuddered. "I can't imagine what it was like riding in an animal's body like that. I mean, a real one."

"Tael, she's your responsibility now. Take her under your wing for a while and teach her what you know," Rebecca Cairn said. "In addition to her Engineering duties."

"Sure thing, Cap," Tael Ross said, putting her arm around the new psionic's shoulders. "The basics are pretty much the same the Arm over."

Cairn leaned forward on the scanning bed. "I especially want to know how she sensed that scout ship before it even came out of slipspace. Work on that, Reiser. That's going to be a very useful talent. A very marketable talent. And a hefty pay raise."

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Dr. Kronen and Tael said it was a psionic puzzle box. A nondescript gray cube with ten marked points for Cammy to put her fingers. The ship's small nano-fabber had disgorged it not five hundred seconds ago. Along with this simple test, there had been others since the morning meeting. "Your powers could go anywhere at this point," Kronen said. "This little box is actually a computer run partly by psionic energy. There's a file in here somewhere. If you can find it, copy it, then transfer it to Tael's test display, then we'll see how strong your initial technopath bias is."

"Every psionic develops some degree of technopathy," Tael said. "It's nigh impossible to avoid unless you're on one of the really backwater worlds. Even if it's nothing else than being able to use computers just by touching them, some psi-based interfaces. Once you get a neo-cortex--or maybe a lace!--the integration will be much, much better."

So far Cammy had struggled to lift a one-gram cube a few centimeters off a tabletop, and attempted to read Dr. Kronen's surface thoughts and met mostly static, only understanding a little bit. After this test she planned on asking for a break. Maybe she was trying too hard, but sheer exhaustion had started to make her irritable. But sleep would bring another test. Tael would watch and see if she went astral again.

"Okay. Begin test."

Dutifully Cammy placed her fingers on the indicated locations, then concentrated--then burning pain coursed through her fingertips. The cube sparked and smoked. "Ow! Shit!"

Dr. Gros Kronen immediately took Camile's hands and sprayed some medi-gel on them, healing the burns almost instantly. A forcefield had contained the ruin of the puzzle box, funneling the smoke into the ventilation intake. "I think you've got some ergokinetics, young woman," she said, reminding Cammy of her grandmother. "Next time, more thinky and less sparky."

"I'll fab another box," Tael said, scooping the extinguished bits of the old one into a waste bag for recycling. "Back in a couple hundred seconds." She left the medbay.

The other psionic had left before Cammy could get a word in, so she turned to Kronen. "Doctor, I'm beat. I need a shower and some food. And a nap. I'm so exhausted right now I can barely think."

Kronen checked the medical readouts, then nodded. "You're right, Camile. Take a couple kiloseconds and rest up. But try not to fall asleep! I want to see if you can do that animal possession thing again... that is, if Volkan and the others can purchase a housecat for you to ride in. You did say you'd prefer a feline, right?"

"Damn right she does!" Tael's voice came from the speakers. Her avatar appeared on the wall and took the form of a curvaceous woman with strongly feline features. "Miyah!"

"A cat will be fine." Tael's sudden interest in her was flattering, but Cammy found it somewhat embarrassing. Since she was so well integrated with the ship--and in fact, was practically its avatar--the only place Cammy had privacy was her bunkroom. But if she went in there she might figure out that she was embarrassed. Perhaps she knew already via the ship's sensors and her own psi abilities. But if she did and still persisted... I'm over-thinking this. I need a meal in me. "I'll be in the Mess, Doc."

Food was on Cammy's mind on the short walk to the Mess. And food awaited her in the galley output tray when she arrived. Cheeseburger with the works, waffle fries with ketchup, and a chocolate shake to drink. An almost exact replica of what she had eaten planetside. Exactly what she had in mind. "What the hell?"

"That was me," Tael's catgirl avatar said. "Just something I grabbed off your surface thoughts. It's not like Ruby's Diner down below, but a reasonable facsimile."

"I'm starving after all that work," Cammy sighed, looking at the tray hungrily and taking it back to the Mess Hall's single table. "Any news from the group down below?"

"They're having a tougher time than we did. Our she-Spartan apparently has a background as a private investigator somewhere in her murky past life. She's almost three hundred years old, you know. A lot of folks who get that old have gone through a dozen different careers and probably changed bodies even more often to keep boredom at bay. She must have saved up for that custom job for a century to get this pissed!" the catgirl said, tail swishing.

Cammy reflexively reached for her HUD and pearls to chat with Amy, but remembered she wasn't wearing them. But that apparently didn't matter. The table's holoprojectors flickered on and displayed a screen that showed her bunkmate had been sent a text ping. The reply was so slow they could watch each letter appear on the screen. "Still... looking. Volkan... is... pissed," Amy sent. "Time is money, after all."

"Don't type back," Tael said. "Put your hand on the table and just think of what you want to say. Less sparky more thinky."

"Can I eat something first? I'm famished."

Tael lashed her virtual tail. "Fine, fine. Besides, I don't want your cheeseburger to get cold."

The burger was good, but vat-grown meat simply didn't have the flavor or texture she had eaten planetside. Tael's catgirl image shrunk down into an orange tabby housecat, crouched in front of the plate, tail lashing hungrily. Cammy raised one eyebrow. "What are you doing, anyway? You're not really here." She reached out to poke the hologram, only to find real-feeling fur and flesh. "What the?"

"Hardlight projectors," Tael purred, laying on her side. She started licking her forepaws. "There's all sorts of things about this ship I've been ferreting out. It's why the Captain hired me. Whoever she bought the Ceres from didn't even bother removing any equipment. They just changed the software to block access and didn't even tell the buyers what they were getting. For instance, I'm dead certain this ship can go much, much faster. At least six, seven-Q."

2,400 times the speed of light. The likely top speed of that scout ship.

"Still, it's not like you can eat anything," Cammy said. The garage back home had had a working hardlight unit, which came in very handy for emulating specialist tools. Unfortunately it needed half the garage's two dozen two-meter wiffleball fusion units just to run. Cammy finished her meal with the cat watching her from the table. "Okay, now I'll give it a try."

"Not without me, you won't," Kronen said, entering with a new puzzle box as well. Kronen's features were rather motherly compared to the rest of them. The masculine version wasn't anything like it, though oddly enough she'd had better bedside manner as a man. "Back into the Medbay, both of you. Especially you, Miss Kitty-Tael. In person."

The holographic tabby vanished in a flash. "Be right there."

So much for my shower. Cammy followed Doctor Kronen back to the Medbay.

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After destroying a second puzzle box and allowing her to take a shower while they made another one--beefed up against power surges this time--Cammy finally got the "thinky" part right. It was a three-dimensional maze inside. Cammy had to push her mind into it, but realized that was simply a blind alley by itself. Once she realized that, the world around her became a blinding tracery of electrical signals.

"Focus on the puzzle box alone," Tael said gently. "Block out all the rest. Like this." She placed her fingers on the back of Cammy's head.

Immediately everything except the puzzle box looked normal again. After a few tries she managed to do it herself. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," the antenna-eared girl said. "You'll blind your psi-senses if you don't learn that right away."

Now that she could see the maze from outside it wasn't difficult to find the file. The qubits arranged themselves in neat rows, ready for download. But she couldn't see what the data was supposed to represent! "What's this supposed to be, Tael? Video? Your vacation holos? A recipe for a cheeseburgers?"

"You won't find out unless you can have the talent to read qubit data," Tael said. "I need my exo-cortex to do that. You still don't have any enhancements other than your pearls. What does it look like to you? Is it in neat lines or is there a shape?"

Tilting her virtual viewpoint, Cammy looked at the data again. What were once neat, glowing rows had started to twist and curl around one another, swirling together into a messy mass of pasta-like shapes. Spirals, helixes, and long strands. ~Well, they were in nice neat rows,~ Cammy said. But she realized it hadn't been aloud.

~You found the vocoder. Good! You're doing a little low-level netrunning right now, so...~ Tael said. Suddenly her catgirl avatar was standing next to her in simspace. ~I think you're a natural technopath.~

~You mean, you hope I am,~ Cammy countered stiffly. All she had was a viewpoint, no avatar. She simply wasn't skilled enough yet.

~Damn right I do, Cammy!~ she replied heatedly. ~Erm... sorry. Now, let's see if you can turn this mass of data into something you can recognize. It's not something I can really teach. Call it 'Feminine Intuition' if you think it'll help you concentrate. That's what they call it on Levett, you know. It's considered 'unmanly', believe it or not. I doubt they have anyone over a Psi-One. Strange planet.~

~So shut up and let me concentrate,~ Cammy said, irritated at her overly chatty crewmate. She returned her focus to the swirling mass of data again. It was a little less chaotic now, taking on a vaguely human shape. She concentrated harder, How am I supposed to download this without a neo-cortex or my pearls?

~Don't think of it as mere qubits,~ Tael said. ~In here it's as real as your brea--I mean, your bunk.~

~You were about to say 'breasts'; I can tell. Why does everybody have to emphasize my being a woman now?~ Cammy asked, somewhat rhetorically. The data started to lose shape again as she lost concentration.

~Because you do, girly girl. All. The. Time. You act like you're the first man to ever discover what being a woman is like. So, if you can tear your gaze away from your tits and vag for a few minutes, keep your eyes on the prize,~ the catgirl continued. ~If you can't tell me what it is from in here, we'll go ahead and to the input/output portion. If you can't do that, well, no big deal. Your talents will probably be elsewhere.~

Cammy stifled an indignant retort. Tael was utterly, completely right. She had turned herself into a showgirl ever since coming out of the tank. She wasn't about to stop, but obviously some of her crewmates were getting fed up with it. Maybe it was time to pull back a little. To simply be rather than be flamboyant.

Cammy reached out and grabbed the end of the tangled strings of data. It felt like reaching into a wet mass of writhing pasta. The strands easily slipped through her simulated fingers. Fingers she could see now, coalescing out of the data-swirls emerging from her viewpoint. She started to wrangle the data.

Dr. Kronen's distant voice was very faint. "Your heart rate's jumped, Camile. Don't push yourself too much. Pull out if you feel strained."

The file now had a familiar shape to it, and it slowly began to resolve itself. Part three dimensional puzzle, partly moldable like clay, and part feminine intuition, the unordered mass came together. It was Camile. Or rather, her old male form, standing on Hera's surface in front of the dropshuttle. He stood there in a filter suit, which pretty much all Heranites wore from birth to neutralize invading nanobots. He wore a transparent mask.

He had been very, very pale after the Ceres crew had literally peeled him out of the base filtersuit. The body underneath had been hairless, ugly, stocky, though muscular. Homely, even by Hera's loose standards. And heavier than he looked due to the concentration of nanobots in his body. Camile was unsurprised that looking at it now... it didn't feel like it had been hers. It belonged to someone else. When--if--she became male again, she didn't have to look like that at all. Once she tired of being a girl, maybe something like that Spartan. ~Are there any other holos of... him?~

~That's the only one,~ Tael confirmed, the mocking tone gone from her voice. ~The only file, honestly. What do you want done with it? You were very eager when we told you about the chrysalis tank and what we planned on doing to

Cammy had more than just a viewpoint now. A simulated body--exactly like her physical one--had coalesced inside the puzzle box's active memory. ~Did you ever wonder why there were so many women on Hera, Tael? We needed every womb to keep our population from collapsing. Hell, they would've made us all hermaphrodites if they'd figured out how! Many of the men I knew had androwombs, when they could get the organs to take. It sometimes killed the volunteer if something went wrong. We considered it worth the risk.

~But I wasn't eligible in the first place. Probably because I was so clogged with junk nannies like the Doc said. Grandma said there was a tear in my birth filtersuit...~

~I saw the sensor data on the pregnant men. Nothing we hadn't seen before, honestly. But it's not like you weren't valued, right?~ Tael said. ~You're a damned good fusion tech.~

~Thanks, but it isn't about my mechanics skills. I couldn't contribute to the sperm bank, either,~ Cammy said bitterly. ~And... you know what? I'm not that person any more. Ever again.~

~You know, you shouldn't have been able to make sense out of that file. Takes some special talent to read raw qubits,~ Tael said. She turned back to the image in simspace, as real as the two of them. She stood on the simulated surface of Hera and walked around Cammy's past self. Purple-green grass grew around his feet. A sign the planet was healing. ~What do you want to do with him, then? Think you can... copy your current avatar over him? Some kind of catharsis might help.~

Camile Reiser hesitated, but only briefly. ~I'm not that person any more.~ A ghost of herself flew towards the holo data, reshaping it into herself in a filtersuit instead. ~Should I bring the file out?~ she asked.

"You've done enough, Camile," Kronen said. "Far more than I ever expected you could in a single session. Shut down and get some more rest."

Tael's avatar faded, leaving a hint on how to do that herself. Cammy looked at the holo from all sides until she felt satisfied, then followed her crewmate.

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Perhaps it was the sheer physical and emotional exhaustion that kept Cammy from doing more than having a few mundane dreams. In the first she was back on Hera, working on a salvaged ground vehicle at the garage. Nobody seemed to notice that she was female. The second dream was basically a somewhat twisted version of the reactor service she and Amy had completed a few days ago. Since the entire crew had been feminized the whole reactor was clogged with a thick estrogen fog that smelled like the worst cloying perfume she could imagine.

When she rolled out of bed Amy was in the lower bunk, a pillow over her head, never having changed out of the red dress she had worn down to Levett. A query to the room's terminal told Cammy they had been gone fully thirty hours before returning. Chief Esker, the ship's bored Cargo/Passenger Specialist Yvonne Frakes, and Amy had looked high and low for Miss Spartan and the other two. Even with Tael's intelligence from tapping into a hardline at the mansion, they were nowhere to be found.

A planet of less than a million, but homes for a hundred million. If they've got unrestrained neo-cortexes they could hack the local maintenance bots and be just about anywhere, Cammy pondered, staying quiet. She slipped into the bathroom alcove and closed the door behind her. She had been as exhausted as her sister Cadet Engineer and fallen asleep in her shipsuit. Since the gravity had been reduced by half, presumably by Amy as she came in, her breasts weren't all that sore from sleeping on her belly. Hooking one fingernail over the neck of her shipsuit, she pulled down with a jerk.

The nanofabric unzipped easily and slipped off her body as it turned semi-liquid, flowing down the drain for recycling. The shower nozzles all around started a gentle warm rain, with a little soap. Cammy sighed with pleasure as it went through a very sensual massage cycle, then started humming to herself as she washed her long hair.

More information popped into her brain. News that made her pause for a few moments before it fully registered.

The Levett Gate was closed. The Laplace Gate Authority had finally made good on their threat and shut their end down. Gates were constructed in quantum-entangled pairs and could not be re-tuned to a different location. Unless they still had some FTL ships somewhere, Levett was now confined to their home system. That's not going to go over well with Cap, she thought, changing from shower to the dry cycle. Her skin was pale and wrinkled. She chose a short-sleeved shipsuit with a white/blue herringbone pattern on her sides, a blue tummy and back, and thickened white support-weaves around her breasts, crotch, and buttocks. "There. I feel human again," she said, leaving her dry auburn hair loose this time.

~Looks like we're in for a longer jaunt back to Laplace,~ Captain Cairn said over the network. ~Today it's me, Reiser, and Ross again to continue our search for wayward passengers. I want you two prepped and ready in six kiloseconds. Try not to wear anything too medieval, girls. I'm not going to be a stickler for your outfits this time, but we need to be more circumspect than we were before, so keep that in mind.~

Cammy sighed and stepped back into the alcove. ~So which is it, Cap? Do we lay low or wear shipsuits?~ she thought to herself.

~Reiser? When did you hook into the comm system this directly?~ Cairn asked. ~Nevermind. I read Dr. Kronen's report on your psi tests. It's going to come in really handy very soon. If we don't find the other passengers in two hundred kiloseconds we're casting off anyway. I don't want the Levett government getting any ideas they can commandeer the Ceres. If they want to hire me for critical cargo work, that's fine. But after what happened on Hera I'm not taking any chances.~

~Understood, Cap,~ Tael added. ~You're going to need both of us to find our quarries, right? Frankly, I'll be of better use up here.~

~They can't interfere with tachyon signals with your type of encryption, Ross. You'll be fine. I think I'm going to need both of you with me if I'm going to find our passengers. We're going to focus on Miss Spartan first, then the ICP agent, and if we have time, the last one. Four kiloseconds, girls. Cairn out.~

~Cammy, are you even wearing your pearls or your pack?~ Tael asked. ~I'm asking because I don't think you are.~

Tael was right. ~What's happening to me?~

~Don't panic, girl. Even basic un-enhanced technopaths don't need interfaces. Your psionic talents are simply using the idle processors nearby to do the work and projecting the images into your visual cortex. You're probably still using your pearls, they just don't have to be on you. Just near you.

~Oh, speaking of your pearls, come meet me in the Fabbery. I'm adding a second row to your necklace that'll have a tachyon connection to the ship and some netrunning enhancements. It pays to have backups. See you in an few, girly girl.~

Amy had awoken while Cammy showered. She hadn't stripped out of the low-cut evening dress yet, and slumped lethargically on her bed. "You sing loudly, you know. I'm not saying you have a bad voice. On the contrary, it's lovely. It's just loud."

"Sorry, Amy. I didn't even realize," Cammy replied. Images flashed through her vision. Vague, distorted pieces of conversation here and there throughout the ship, transmissions from Levett's surface, audio and visual. The walls of the bunkroom turned translucent, data and power lines flaring angry blues and yellows. Everything pounded in at once. She almost fainted, and did fall to her knees. "Owwww..."

"Cammy? What's wrong?" Amy said, the lethargy fading from her voice.

As quickly as it started, the bombardment of sound, image, and data ended like a switch had been shut off. The headache vanished, and she was able to get to her feet with a little help from Amy. "Nothing! I'm fine. I just need some food in me, I think. After I change outfits--again."

After deciding to just wear a short blue dress over her shipsuit, and a pair of comfortable shoes in preparation for a lot of walking, Cammy noticed that her contact lens displays were still in their case on the dresser. She put everything she thought she'd need in her purse, including the pearl computer set, then headed for the Fabbery.

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"We're sorry, but Space Traffic Control is shut down and all space and air traffic is grounded. Please return to your ship and remain in orbit until authorities re-open landing facilities," the automated faux-male voice said. STC hadn't been closed after they'd undocked from the Ceres. So far the reaction to the Gate closure was muted, though the government was taking precautions. They assured everyone that an interim solution was forthcoming in just a day or two. Until then, people were to stay home, avoid unnecessary travel, and bide just a little longer.

Just a little longer. A million nervous people waited for an answer. Everyone knew by now that the Founders did not have the money to purchase the kind of technology needed to completely undo the gendercide. That they were isolated for the next year and a half probably hadn't sunk in yet. For now there was nothing burning. No riots in the streets. Just an eerie pregnant silence.

The dropshuttle Persephone was fifteen meters long and was reconfigurable for cargo, passengers, or a mixture of the two. Its current cargo was the Ford Family Flyer, which barely fit inside. Engineer Kun had made a few modifications to it, including replacing the ducted fans with small Newton Drives and the fusion engine with a more powerful unit to run them. It could now go supersonic.

~The spaceports are all closed, Cap,~ Tael said. ~I can get us down, but they won't like it. The plus side is that I finally pinpointed where Miss Spartan is holed up, so getting to her won't be a problem. It'll be getting her out.~

"Why's that?" Cammy asked.

~She's in jail in New Seattle. Assault charges gushing out the bitbucket. Have a look at this mugshot. Sorry about the resolution. I pulled it off their quaint television signals.~

The disheveled woman from the earlier photo was replaced with someone who obviously had anger issues. The police report read that she had beaten up half a bar full of despondent former men who hadn't won the holobelt lottery. Apparently Miss Spartan had stormed in looking for whoever she thought had released the virus--or knew someone who had. ~Get this, Cap. Look at that name. It took some work, but I found the name of the person she was looking for. That's our missing ICP detective,~ Tael said.

Detective Frederick Hoyle, based at the Inter-Colony Police on Varrus. Supposedly killed seven years ago during a raid on a Psi-Seven suspected of running an illegal body modification shop on the planet. "That's the last minute passenger," Captain Cairn said. "I'd very much like to pick her up. Her spouse told me that the Psi-Seven had given her and the entire team on the raid custom Proteus viruses. Turned them all into twelve year old girls. Why the Levetters didn't just send her home for treatment after that incident I can't even begin to imagine.

"Instead they just declared her and the other victims dead, gave them new identities as orphans imported from offworld, and put them into their school system. And they somehow shut off her neural lace, which is no small feat!"

"You think that scout ship from earlier was actually trying to pick her up?" Cammy wondered.

"Hell if I know, Cammy. We're not the only game in town. We're just faster than the competition our size." Cairn shut her eyes and leaned back in the acceleration chair. The dropshuttle yawed to the left.

Cammy felt the shuttle's sensors scan their orbital path through the thousands of re-created Sputnik, Vanguard, and Explorer satellites. Remembering what had happened to the puzzle boxes the previous night she kept her hands to herself. Tael smiled at her. "Don't worry about shorting anything out. The panels aren't made of explodium or anything. Just be thinky instead of sparky. There's some interface points for fingertips on your left. It'll be good practice."

With the second row of pearls and a realtime link to the Ceres, adding the Persephone wasn't too difficult. Her mind was abuzz with data, most of which was simply too fast to read with any accuracy. It was like sitting next to fast-moving rapids trying to spot fish in the froth. She was still able to watch the dropshuttle from the ship's sensors as it shrank into the distance, and from the Persephone's own.

~We're going down anyway. Notify STC that we're fully certified to land without their assistance. We'll land in one of the vacant suburbs,~ Cairn said. ~Begin descent.~

Tael allowed her to watch the whole sequence of plotting a path through the orbits of hundreds of pieces of space junk. Cammy watched the orbital plots for a few seconds, checked the emissions spectra of the replicas that were still beeping, then wondered aloud. ~Captain, are we sure that this is just space junk? These orbits aren't as random as they look.~

~Well, they're obviously a passive defense system,~ Tael said patronizingly. The twin Newton Drives flared, spewing red-orange light as they spun up, dumping some inertia into photons and storing the rest. The anime girl pointed the dropshuttle more or less directly at their landing point and moved towards the safe path.

As soon as they started one of the replicas broke free of its neat Newtonian orbit, flaring blue-white as its own mini-Newton Drive spun up. The shuttle automatically evaded the sudden projectile, which quickly took up position in front of them. It was a silvery sphere a little over half a meter in diameter, with four whip antennae. As it spun slowly, an iris opened at the top, revealing an single lens, like an impersonal red eye. "You will... immediately... return to... orbit. This is your... only warning," it radioed in an impersonal tone.

~We have clearance!~ Rebecca Cairn retorted, transmitting what they'd received before undocking. ~Everything's in order!~

"Return to... orbit," the automaton repeated. "The next... attempt we will... disable your craft. Have a... good day." The eye started to slide shut, then abruptly opened again. "Just a moment... Just a moment..."

The Space Traffic Controller from their first drop hailed them. This time when she was on-screen she was what this planet considered properly dressed for a woman. But her tone of voice was anything but friendly. "What the hell do you think you're doing up there, Captain? Everything is shut down! Get back to your ship!"

"Control--" she looked at the woman's nametag, "Veronica, we are perfectly capable of landing without any assistance at all!" the Captain replied. "You have our credentials right in front of you! I've set this shuttle down in places far, far less hospitable than Levett."

"Oh, I believe you, Captain. But you're not orbiting some strange new world. We're having a small emergency down here. As my wife said, just a teensy, tiny titty problem." She gestured with a thumb and index finger. "Until I hear otherwise, we're shut down," she insisted.

"I will be leaving orbit in about fifty hours your time," Cairn continued. She had bound her blonde hair into a tight topknot, and wore the same pantsuit as the last time. "I have four passengers to pick up before then. I won't cause you any trouble." She looked at the defense drone still gazing at them from through the sensors. "At least, not any more trouble."

~You know, that's actually pretty ingenious,~ Tael said. ~Getting hobbyists to launch a defense system like that. Wonder why it didn't activate when that scout ship came in the last time? The layers they have farther out certainly didn't work.~

~I don't think it got close enough,~ Cammy replied, pulling up the sensor records. ~These orbits are high enough to take decades to decay, but low enough that it just didn't get close enough. So they asked us to intercept.~

"Let me contact my superiors," the Controller replied, sighing. "You're already halfway down, so descend and maintain three hundred thousand feet."

"Forgive me, but... Veronica?" Cairn said, confused. ~What is it with these people and taking female names?~ she said to her crew.

The pretty red-haired woman tugged on the offending nametag. "Oh, this. Not really my idea. It's not official yet, but to 'prevent gender confusion' we've been told to either choose a feminine female name or one will be chosen for us. This came down from the Founders Council, we think." She snorted.

"This hasn't gone beyond government employees--yet. If you won the lottery you get to keep your male name, of course. Otherwise--otherwise we're to--and I quote--'adopt life habits, mannerisms, style of dress, and anything else appropriate to reflect your present circumstances,'" her voice had a resignation to it. She folded her arms under her breasts. "Present circumstances! I guess these girls are here to stay. Give me an hour or so, Captain. STC out."

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Grounding and restricting travel for the next two days made the eerily vacant New Seattle even more of a ghost town. Cammy found the gleaming spires and upscaled replica of the Space Needle at New Seattle Center even more disturbing than the half-melted ruins on Hera. STC wanted to keep them as close to their craft as possible, so had temporarily classed the Persephone as a "commercial transport flyer" and given it a special exemption. Captain Cairn handled the dropshuttle deftly between the skyscrapers as she carefully descended to the Levett Planetary Police facility.

A police cruiser shadowed them on the way down. It was pill-shaped, with its agrav lifters integrated into the hubs of its wheels, which could rotate for a grounder mode. The dropshuttle landed two blocks away from the local headquarters, in front of a vacant shopping center. Once powered down, Cairn turned to her newest crewmember. "Are you up to this? It's perfectly fine if you feel like staying with the shuttle."

Cammy was taken aback by the Captain's rather maternal tone. "I'm fine, Cap. Honestly. I just... don't feel right just sitting on my pretty ass, if you take my meaning."

"Well, I'm just a little disappointed with your choice of attire. It's not exactly what I would've chosen, but... at least put a can of suitspray in your purse in case you have to make some changes. Okay? Let's go."

What's wrong with it? It's just something I threw on, Cammy grumbled to herself.

Halfway to the headquarters building Cammy's "data vision" gradually came back. She could see the neo-cortex layer in the Captain's head and the halo of spread-spectrum emissions surrounding the three of them. Tael was by far the most active, having far more bandwidth back to the ship than Cammy herself did via the tachyon link. Cammy briefly switched to the ship's sensors, using them to track the three of them from orbit. It was like being in two places at once.

A hand on her shoulder kept Cammy from falling over on the ground. ~Steady there, girly girl. I don't recommend netrunning while you're ambulatory,~ Tael said. ~You need a neo-cortex before you can fork yourself. I don't care how powerful you might end up.~

~There's another you running in the Ceres?~ Cammy replied incredulously. ~Isn't that sort of like an AI?~

~Yes, and sort of yes. Why do you think I need the tachyon link? I don't like getting too far away from myself,~ the anime girl technopath said.

It was easy enough to tell which data cables were in use; they flared yellow. Power lines flickered between blue and red. The formed a web-like tracery under the streets and through the buildings. Even the unoccupied structures still had internal power sources for the maintenance 'bots.

The number of faux-men in and around the police station was astonishing, given the severely limited number of belts available. More, they all looked the same. Apparently poor Dr. Rogers hadn't been able to get to everyone's belt before the government had distributed them. And the "chest problem" hadn't been fixed. The faux-men bounced in a soft, female when they walked as the cut-rate projectors failed to compensate. Cammy could easily see through the holograms anyway.

Anybody who wasn't in a hologram wore what looked like a rather hastily redesigned version of the standard blue police uniform as a dress that looked very ill-suited for the job. The Captain approached the front desk. The woman sitting behind looked up from her paperwork. The screen on her primitive display glasses flashed. "Ah, you're Rebecca Cairn? Of the Ceres?"

"We're here for Roberto Baines," she replied.

The female cop raised her eyebrows and gave them a cold look. "So I see. Miss Renee Baines is charged with six counts of assault. Frankly, we haven't seen anything like that on Levett before. Oh, we had our occasional bar brawls. But that was when..." she looked sideways at her coworkers and spoke more quietly. "When the men couldn't control themselves."

"I believe Miss Baines' homeworld has an extradition agreement with Levett," Cairn continued matter-of-factly.

"They do. But unless you've been named Agents of the Court, she's staying here until either the Gate reopens or she gets out early for good behavior." She looked over the tops of her half-circle glasses at them.

Cairn smirked and handed her an envelope. The young policewoman opened it, furrowed her brows, then stood up. "I need to go check with my superiors about the veracity of this, Captain Cairn. Have a seat."

~I think she's a born-woman,~ Tael said as they watched her go at a brisk walk. ~Everyone else can't walk in those heels like she can. What the hell is the Levett government thinking? You can't expect someone to act what they think of as 'feminine' just because they happen to be female. Not unless you sideload a tonne of behavioral mods and some knowledgebases, and you can't do that without a neo-cortex.~

Looking around, Cammy saw that many of the older people did have neo-cortexes. Their halos were very, very slight, but just visible to her technopathic vision. Those without them were young enough to have been born here and were a virtual blank beyond the visual. She had a feeling that not very much in the way of lawbreaking happened on Levett. A society this carefully homogeneous screened out troublemakers even among their children, though a certain amount of rebellion was expected and even encouraged. The information board on the wall opposite their waiting area touted a seventy percent drop in violent crime in the past month.

The populace was probably too hormone-shocked to engage in much crime, such as they had. Waking up with a pair of breasts you didn't have the night before will do that to a person. Plus, men were responsible for the vast majority of violent crime on just about every human world Cammy's connection to the Ceres historical database could call up.

Cammy folded her arms and took a couple of deep breaths. The place even smelled more feminine than it had any right to. She wondered if they'd programmed the maint-bots to add "feminine touches" to the decor overnight.

While they waited, the new technopath let her mind wander.

~Don't wander too far, girly girl,~ Tael said. ~These folks don't like psionics, so stay near.~

The people in the police headquarters became tangles of thought. Cammy wasn't a very good telepath--yet--but she could read the shapes and colors easily enough. Who had once been male was even more obvious with the flesh no longer in the way. Anxiety, uncertainty, and distraction colored the former-men, especially the younger ones who had likely been born and raised on Levett. The older ones not so much. To varying degrees their thoughts were multiple swirls of conflicting emotions.

On the other hand, the born-women had just as much, if not more, in the way of self-doubt and anxiety, though it had a different flavor than their counterparts. What could they be afraid of? she wondered. There was the obvious: They weren't getting their husbands/boyfriends/sons back anytime soon unless they had one of those cheap holobelts, and even then not really. But Cammy felt that there was something more to it, but couldn't put her finger on it.

The tachyon flash almost blinded her this time. She put her spectral forearm over her eyes and fell back into her body, psi-senses still hurting. Tael picked up on it this time and, with one hand comforting her, called the Ceres. ~Look sharp! We've got company!~ she said to the crew still aboard. ~Wuh...~

An almost physical sensation slammed into both of them, with Tael taking the brunt of the physical impact transmitted down the tachyon link to the ship. The link flickered briefly, and for a fraction of a second recovered, before it went completely dead. Tael slumped in her seat, as if she was a puppet whose strings had been cut. Cammy herself was brought to her knees, retching up breakfast and probably dinner as well.

To their credit the officers stopped brooding over their unexpected, unwanted womanhood and came over immediately. For some reason the Captain wasn't looking at them, but instead shouting into a makeshift communicator Jia Kun had given her. "Ceres! Respond, do you copy?" she shouted.

The link returned as abruptly as before. ~Both starboard Newton Drives are down!~ Jia Kun reported. ~We're crippled! There's no way we can pursue!~

~What about Levett's defense system?~ the Captain asked.

~Totally useless, Cap! It's a different ship than the last time. An Arrowhead class. If Tael hadn't known something was up the damage would've been worse, but I doubt they were trying to destroy us anyway. But she's not re-synching with her ghost. Something's wrong. You'd better get her back up here, now!~

Cairn knelt down next to her ill Cadet Engineer. "What happened? Did you feel it this time?"

Cammy still felt dazed from the tachyon flash. Trying to invoke that supersense again caused physical pain. "Ow! Cap, I did. But I'm feeling a little fried right now"

"Do we need to call an ambulance?" a faux-man cop said.

"I need to get my crew back to my ship, um, Mister Kerr. We're not from around here..."

"Obviously," "he" scoffed, pointing at Tael's ears. "What is she? Some kind of gynoid? Overtly human robots are illegal on Levett."

"I assure you she's completely real. Those are exo-cortial antennae, and she just had an interruption in the signal," Cairn informed him. "We just need to... oh! Good, there they are." Handcuffed and dressed in a neon orange jumpsuit several sizes too large, Miss Spartan was escorted down the hallway. The Captain turned to the faux-man cop again. "We will need some help getting everyone back to my dropshuttle, if you don't mind."

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The Ceres didn't look in good shape. The starboard aft hull had taken the brunt of the crippling missile attack. Both Newton Drive pods on that side were damaged beyond their ability to fix in a timely manner. They weren't stranded by any means, but their normalspace propulsion was hamstrung. Their new passenger leaned forwards towards the viewscreen. "How in the seven hells did you get your hands on a Farallon VCS?" she asked, incredulous.

"What?" Cairn replied, preoccupied with the damage assessment report. "They're selling them, believe it or not. Or they were a few hundred megaseconds ago. Not an opportunity I could pass up, since I was on that end of the Arm. Nearly bankrupted me, but she's paid for herself several times over. You recognize it?"

"Where do you think I got the Spartan custom bod? They had thousands of these beauties mothballed after that big Selenium War on that end of the Arm. Guess it was easier to sell them as-is instead of scrapping them. Hard to believe it's just a cheap cargo ship over there." Baines looked at her delicate fingers and frowned. The woman had an even more Amazonian physique than the normal Levett victim. She was as muscular as she was shapely and beautiful. Her dark hair was very short, a pixie cut. "Whoever released this virus... it was good enough to almost overcome Farallonese medical nannies. Damn thing erased half my mods!"

"Out of idle curiosity, did you find out who did it?" Rebecca Cairn asked.

"No, but I know who's on the trail. I was meeting with her before that Seven's thugs showed up. Pretty young thing the Levetters royally screwed over! Managed to make sure she escaped." Baines frowned. "Damn it! Where is my head? I shouldn't have told you that! You could be working for them!"

"Actually, we're in the employ of one Trav Wil and the ICP. You met with Detective Hoyle?" Cairn said, carefully piloting the dropshuttle to docking.

Baines started laughing. "You don't know what you've gotten yourself into, Captain Cairn. You really don't. I wouldn't blame you if you decided to break orbit and leave right now. Assuming your slipdrive still works."

Cammy listened to their conversation as she tended to the still-unconscious Tael. The crew area of the dropshuttle could hold seven people, and there was even a pull-out bed with basic medical support. She hadn't reconnected with the ship yet, and instead relied on the original system in the first row of pearls. "Why didn't you tell me you were that dependent?" she muttered over the hum of the engines, wondering if Tael could hear her.

"Frankly, I'm more worried about where the hell that little scout ship went," Tael's voice came through her earring-speakers. "You're the one who sensed it before the ship did, girly girl. I want to know how the hell any psi can do that! I'm a Psi-Four, myself. I doubt even that Seven down on the surface can do that you can."

It wasn't the first time Tael's ghost in the Ceres had spoken to her, but it was the first time she'd replied. Running multiple instances of yourself felt far, far too close to artificial intelligence for comfort. The fact that her meatbody had simply gone limp made Cammy wonder if that cop hadn't been correct. "Okay, Tael. Come clean. Which is the real you?"

"Both, though I admit I was more in the ship-node than my fleshnode," she replied, her anime avatar appearing in Cammy's contact lenses. "The problem right now is that I can't re-synch with that body."

~What do you mean 'can't'?~ Cairn asked. The dropshuttle's docking clamps engaged with a thump.

~Captain, I hate to be a bitch, but I warned you that I shouldn't be away from myself,~ Tael replied angrily. ~This tech my exo-cortex is based on doesn't respond well to interruptions. Worse, all of my technopathy is in that fleshbody that's laying there so uselessly. You've lost your Psi-Four if we can't re-synch, and it's a violation of my contract. I hope you're happy.~ Her image blinked out.

Cairn looked like she wanted to hit something. She slammed the palm of her hand against the arm of the acceleration couch, then winced and started rubbing her thumb and forefinger. "Just fucking great, Reg. Just great!" the blond fumed. She noticed Cammy looking at her. "Yeah, Reiser, even I fuck up every now and again."

Cammy decided to change the subject. "Captain, what does VCS stand for?"

"Victory Cargo Ship," Baines supplied. "Basically, any simple cargo ship design built at high speed during wartime. While I was getting my mods there maybe half a gigasecond ago they were still using them during the last stages of that war they lost. Last ditch effort. They centralized all nano-fabrication in their home system and used these babies to get supplies where they needed to be in huge convoys. Easier to avoid the enemy in slipspace and avoid Gates entirely. Good strategy. Pity it didn't work.

"Thing is, on this side of the Arm there aren't enough concentrated resources to bootstrap even halfway to a Singularity. It'll fuck up any civilization that tries," Baines continued. "Shit, there I go again. Now that I'm a woman again I'm a chatterbox. Half a gigasecond as the perfect man isn't a fraction of the time I really need to explore the male sex!"

Cammy wasn't sure how to respond. "You were a woman for...?"

"My entire life! A hundred gigaseconds! It got boring!" Baines fumed.

Tael's catgirl avatar appeared behind Miss Spartan, visible only to Cammy since she was using her displays. "Blah blah blah, yap yap yap! Does she ever shut up?

"Camile, Doc Kronen's here with the stretcher for my meatbody. Goddamn it! I might have to drag myself all the way back home to re-synch. Long trip. Six thousand lights."

Now who's being a chatterbox? Cammy thought, folding her arms.

"Don't get too comfortable, Cammy," Cairn said. "You, Volkan, Amy, and Yvonne are dropping right away. Split into two teams. You and Volkan will find our wayward ICP detective, and the others will pick up Dr. Frost. The rest of us will finish the damage assessment and repair what we can. We'll break orbit as soon as you return."

~What about that scout ship, Cap?~ Tael asked.

~Out of our hands. Let the Levett government handle it,~ Rebecca replied. ~I want to be out of here as soon as possible, but I'm not going to get caught flat-footed again. We'll remain on combat alert until we enter slipspace. Finish up as fast as possible.~

Separator k.png

As the dropshuttle descended once again Cammy considered removing the tachyon link from her pearls. She decided to keep it shut down rather than detaching the second string. Amy sat next to her, wearing a full-body shipsuit that was actually low profile armor. Cammy had changed into a similar outfit. This time the "away team" wasn't bothering with trying to blend in. Get in, accomplish the mission, and get out.

"Okay, everyone," Volkan said, standing up and going to one of the lockers next to the cockpit door. "Captain says we're at combat alert, so I want each one of you to check out a pistol. We're going in armed.

"Our mouthy Miss Spartan gave me a data dump of who we're going up against. First, Detective Hoyle knows we're looking for her and will likely make contact as soon as she possibly can. Reiser and I will have to put ourselves somewhere she can find us, and hopefully not attract the attention of either the Levett government or that Psi-Seven who has her number. With any luck that scout ship was here to pick the Seven up and she'll be out of our hair. Pings? Questions?"

Cammy stared at the weapon she'd just been handed. Considered a substandard sidearm on Hera, it still got the job done. It had a half dozen firing modes and could create the same number of ammunition types, from simple slugs to micro-grenades. "You saved my gun! I don't believe you actually saved my piece-of-Junk gun!"

"It's better than anything we have here, Cammy. Hard to believe. But we've disabled the plasma beam. We don't want to bring any buildings down on us. I think Cap would be very put off if we caused too much collateral damage, and she's always prone to bitch when she's femme. Okay. Frakes, Ross, we're going to air-launch the flyer. Get to Dr. Frost's and stay there until we can flyover and pick you up. Ready?"

"We're going," Frakes said in a monotone. The Cargo/Passenger Specialist was another orphan Cairn had picked up on another outlying colony, and about as indifferent to her current gender Cammy thought was possible. She had wavy black hair and wore Company blue shipsuit armor. "C'mon, Burke. Let's fly."

"Good luck," Amy said, giving her crewmate a hug of encouragement before squeezing into the cargo area where the Ford flyer was. A few minutes later the Persephone had slowed to subsonic speeds at sixty thousand kilometers in altitude and released the flyer from the aft cargo ramp. The aircraft's new twin Newton Drives left distinct blue trails through the air that faded to red.

Although all traffic was no longer grounded, ATC wouldn't allow them a suborbital boost to get them to New Seattle more quickly. They were forced to slow to commercial speeds, which meant over an hour's travel time rather than just a kilosecond. Cammy removed her contacts and her pearls and tried to pull her thoughts together, pinching the bridge of her nose.

"Still feeling burned out, Reiser?" Chief Esker asked. "Cap didn't give you any time to recover."

Even with the displays and pearls off, Cammy would see the halo of emissions surrounding the transceivers on the Chief Steward's black-haired head. Looking at it for too long felt like staring into the sun. "Ow... You're spraying data all over the place, Chief."

"With Tael out of action you're our only psi, Reiser. I'm going to need you."

"I have what? Five, ten hours of training? Yeah, I'll be a big help," Cammy sulked. "Probably end up getting us both killed."

"Wondering why the Captain didn't just have us break orbit and go as we are?" Volkan said. "We have obligations. Besides, if we can get this Detective home, we'll get some good cred with the Inter-Colony Police.

"Look, don't worry about your psi-talents. Just do what you can. I'm sure Hoyle has contacts somewhere. She'll want to get in touch with us, so monitor for a transmission from her."

Cammy folded her arms under her breasts, closing her eyes, leaning back in the chair. "Yes ma'am."

Monitoring transmissions was easy enough without needing to use the dropshuttle's touch-interfaces.