Calibration

1

“How can you possibly-”

Aayen thought again; the noise was too much to speak aloud. Dust billowed around the front and sides, merging into a beige cloud behind her as the tank sped onwards. How Pensay knew where she was going, Aayen couldn’t begin to guess; she heaved herself to one side of the chair, and strained upwards towards the screen, only to see no evidence of driver aids on it. The tank leapt off another jump and then bounced to the right, throwing her across the floor. She decided to start again.

#How can you possibly drive this here? You’ll wreck it!#

#O.C. has mechanics, right?#

#Yeah, but that’s not really the point.#

#Totally is the point. Look, you chose to come.#

That was true. Even so, she didn’t expect Pensay to, despite the weight added to the vehicle, continue to aim to beat her best time on Deck GAD’s desert rally track. But she did, and a familiar terror ensued. A gate came up; Pensay gunned the accelerator even harder, if that was possible, and shot past it. Aayen heaved herself up to check the screen, which flashed green and red – faster in the sector, still down overall after a slow start. There was still several kilometres more of this stage, and she silently despaired.

#OK, I was gonna address the legal issues. We have to be clear on this, Pensay, I’ll stick with you day and night until this is completely, utterly clear.#

#You’ll sleep in my bed?#

#I’ll have to kick Jarn out, but yeah, if it comes to that.#

#!!!#

#Exactly.#

Aayen found herself almost immediately punished with a ninety degree bend, and a hairpin that curved sharply downwards, ensuring that she found herself touring the tank’s platform almost entirely.

#Are there really no tethers back there?#

#No. You could’ve added them…#

She somehow felt that she wasn’t really getting round to the point. There were legal matters. They had to be dealt with. This was not her doing, and for that matter, it wasn’t even the Council’s; this came right from 114,099. She had already signalled the relevant text, but Pensay hadn’t got back to her; and in this case, consent-

#…is required in, really, in triplicate of triplicate, if you catch my drift.#

#So it’s complicated?#

#Yeah, we have to be completely, utterly, beyond-no-doubt sure and have the evidence to show as much. Of course, I always have this nightmare scenario playing in my head, which says that the Dharans could well fuck it up if they chose to, anyway, just to destabilise the whole situation.#

#Sounds fun. But yeah, I get your drift: we have to go about this right.#

Aayen got Pensay’s drift too, albeit one of a much different kind; the car slid another forty-five degrees to tackle the final corner of the stage, and then charged for the line. Rushing through the gate and braking hard, the holographic display slammed the numbers into their consciousness – the sector was much faster, and overall, the stage was a personal best… by 00.00.00/0001; the absolute minimum of bragging rights were available. Pensay punched the air anyway, her arm wavering as the tank fishtailed. Finally it stopped, pushing the occupants forward.

“So, the legal.”

“You remember everything?”

“I do, but it kinda has to be sequential.”

“That’s fine. If you need to go through each point in turn, then do so. And even if it takes a year, do so. We’re asking quite a lot of you.”

“I recognise that.”

Pensay nodded, turned back again and hit the accelerator. The tank rushed forward again, and charged towards the black strip of road that started fifty metres ahead of it. As it reached it, the tank suddenly lurched forward with the extra grip and kept on rocketing towards top speed.

#You’re not racing, now. There’s no time trial.#

#I know.#

2

Aayen had been waiting for nearly an hour, but she exhaled a little more with relief as she sensed the buzz approaching. She looked around the lecture hall, currently empty, and then checked through the slides on the desk screen. The buzz grew, not louder, but closer all the same; a distortion, a sort of non-visual ‘bending’, occurred. She knew it and its generator were at the door.

“Hey, Pensay. So you decided to come.”

“I figured that I might as well traumatise myself completely before I say yes.”

“Technically, it would be me traumatising you.”

“Yes… but I figure that I would bear responsibility if I chose to let you do it.”

“TouchĂ©.”

She wasn’t sure if it was touching for Pensay to give her a reprieve, or a little insulting that she wasn’t being allowed to bear the brunt of her own mistakes. It was probably both, actually; it was probably also moot.

“OK. So the first thing, of course, is that if you were to say yes, you would be walking into the kind of minefield that almost no Qareen citizen – that almost no Shango citizen, for that matter – ever strides into. The whole modification thing, of course, it raises questions, difficult questions that no-one really wants to go into, about, after the result, who you are and what you are and why you are and so on and so forth.

“I imagine they’re quite fair questions, too. I mean, if we can change someone’s body, and change their mind, then even if we keep the original settings on a bit of paper somewhere, figuratively speaking, are they even still the same person? I’m not the person to answer that, but it’s hard to suggest that a strongly possible answer – even the most likely answer – isn’t no.”

Pensay seemed unfazed by the possibility of herself being subsumed into an entirely different identity, but then again, she had probably imagined worse eventualities before arriving.

“OK, I should probably get round to the first thing: physiology. Now, the good news is that your typical Dharan doesn’t look too unlike your typical Qareen. There are, of course, differences in skin tone…”

She brought up two spectra of skin samples, the top one Dharan, the bottom one Qareen.

“Dharans have less variation, but the population as a whole is thought to be smaller-”

“Really? But aren’t they present across hundreds of galaxies? Maybe thousands?”

Aayen nodded. “Yes. But they live in smaller communities, and less of them per galaxy. Overall it works out as less. Of course, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t overwhelm us if need be.”

“Surely that depends on our progress? Right here, that is.”

Aayen had seen every graph relating to this, and had to admit to herself that the question was a little naive, at least.

“No. Not really.”

She wondered where exactly the conversation had deviated from, and turned to find that diagram again, of the unnaturally long bars of skin morphing through various hues and shades.

“So yes, racial diversity is lower, in part due to lower population, but also – and on this I can only hypothesise – because there may well be a more homogenous Dharan experience, which means similar environmental pressures. Either way, the result is that we end up with, and it’s not just skin here, but the whole outer appearance, with a more homogenous and arguably simpler-looking being.”

“Deceptively so, I guess,” Pensay added.

Aayen nodded and changed the diagram, this time to two silhouettes.

“Indeed. What’s underneath is much more complication, and another thing is, there is in fact, much more underneath. The average Dharan is between forty and fifty per cent taller than the average Qareen, depending on who you’re measuring. Again, little diversity, more homogenised, could still kick our asses.”

“Fair enough. So I become a bigger, stronger and differently coloured individual?”

“Yeah, more or less.”

“I can handle that.”

Aayen nodded again, but more sceptically. Tackling one component of the job was surely the kind of thing anyone could handle; taking on all of it, the complete, utter, entirety of it – well, Aayen wondered if she could.

3

The next session was a little tougher on several levels.

“What’s this one?”

Aayen pulled up the first slide, which was actually a projection of what appeared to be a tumbled mass of toroidal and spherical objects, connected by fleshy-looking tubes and masses of strings.

“Internal organs. As you suggested last time, this is where things get complicated. Very complicated.”

The diagram expanded, unravelled from its roughly cuboid shape to a flatter plane. As it did so, and spun through ninety degrees, it revealed the true nature of its structure.

“The Dharan anatomy you see here is something we know little about. In fact, you’re looking at the limits of our research; somewhere across the Confederacy, a Dharan female was once incapacitated and then scanned, and that scan is pretty much the bulk of what we have. There are other instances which corroborate this, but beyond that, we’re almost completely unaware.

“It’s like this whole setup, generally,” Aayen continued, waving her hand across the projection, “we’re not actually sure if this is one organ, or hundreds, or an ambiguous cross between the two – certainly all of the linkages suggest some kind of network amongst everything we’re seeing here. The hypotheses with the most credence suggest that we’re dealing with a highly decentralised system, here, that things such as respiration and digestion are spread across the whole system. It’s possible that each organ has, or can do, multiple functions, which effectively means that any and every Dharan literally has dozens of backup hearts. Cardiac arrest is likely impossible unless the Dharan, as a whole, completely fails to keep living. That probably means cramming explosive up the rear and pressing detonate.”

Pensay laughed, although the imagery also disturbed her a little.

“Speaking of rectums-”

“I think we have enough detail.”

“No, no, you need to know about rectums, it’s important. The essential point here is, they’re slightly smaller than usual, because this digestive setup is, like you’d expect, more efficient. As, presumably, is everything – not to mention most likely faster, stronger, tougher than any natural-born Qareen. And as we know, a natural-born Qareen is already the descendant of a genetically-engineered ancestor and certain genetic protection inside the womb.”

Pensay nodded impassively. Through both sessions, she had asked what was necessary to ask, but generally she had taken it all in, intrigued but not overly alarmed or concerned. Perhaps the changes she would undergo were too big for her to comprehend; perhaps she simply would not realise the extent of the wave of changes until they were upon her.

“You said you don’t know much about all of this,” she stated in a way that was rolling into a question. After a pause, it came. “How would the procedure work on such a minimal basis, knowledge-wise?”

“We might have to make it purely cosmetic. Qareen anatomy disguised as Dharan, which wouldn’t be an ideal solution, but if it has to come to that… if it has to be merely skin-deep,,,”

Pensay re-examined the projection, walking all the way around it, and looking under it. The joke went straight past her.

“You have inadvertently revealed one thing about the Dharans, though, Pensay.”

She was probably still listening, but showed no sign of increased attention.

“We know that a strong bluff can potentially win them over. We might not know how their eyes work, for instance, but we can hope that it’s a passive, receiving system that doesn’t view internals by default. If there are cyborg systems involved, then we’re in trouble. But that’s the risk we have to take. And that is why there’s so much legal procedure that needs signing, and why it’s not to be done lightly.”

Aayen looked at her student closely. It was hard to tell, but it was just possible that she was starting to understand; and that, Aayen thought, was probably the best she could hope for.

4

It was strange, Aayen thought, how this place never seemed to change, how the feel of each session seemed constant. It was as if, every time she came to the lecture hall, she had entered a temporal void, where nothing ever could change around her. Apparently the Earth people, the humans, had once (or did, or will) possess such technology, genuinely; the big enduring mystery of Qareen science.

Her student did seem to change, though, albeit gradually; each time she turned up, there was a little more anticipation, and a little more apprehension, visible in her stance and appearance.

#Third one, Aayen. I guess this completes the trilogy.#

“I guess you’ve decided? Or is this the one that swings it?”

“I’m not sure. So I suppose so, when you put it like that.”

Aayen reached for her projections once more. “OK,” she began, “this, the final part, might be our toughest challenge. If the other organs are going to be a bit of a cosmetic, surface-detail job, then this may well have to be even more so, because there is nothing more mysterious than a Dharan brain.”

She found the right projection and revealed it. In between the two of them was an almost completely smooth, roughly egg-shaped mass, grey and generally homogenised, right down to the small black lines that provided the only detail on the alleged brain.

#Now that is just weird. Completely…#

“Alien?”

“I’ll say.”

“OK, so there’s one problem that surrounds Dharan brains, and it’s this – we don’t know how they work. We don’t know, at all. We can guess about other organs, but this simply seems to be a dead weight, and yet it – well, you know what it does; it creates things we can’t even imagine. It outthinks us every day, even though there are less of them, and if this brain,” Aayen said, jabbing at the projection, “if this brain is genetically engineered, then this is the one outsmarting that outsmarts them all.”

“I’m guessing this’ll be a very short lecture,” Pensay replied.

“Yes. Unfortunately it will. I suppose you have subgames to clear.”

Pensay paused. “Well, I suppose I could go through the procedures first.”

“Now, now, no cheating.”

5

It would take days for the procedure to even be possible to carry out, but that was just as well; finishing the game would also take days, so Pensay was fine with that. She was also fine with how the game was going; early on, she had played badly, but she was hauling in the gap as the opposing coalition changed players. With the catchers gone from the court, the balls just kept on whooshing past her opponent and thudding into the back wall, or else bobbing slowly away from the wall after a perfectly-timed drop shot grabbed the point.

After 00.27.00 of time against her new opponent, she was level on her stint, and she served aggressively to go ahead; after a few tame returns, she hit one fast and relatively high, where its trajectory headed towards the man’s torso. He fumbled the return, the ball winding up behind him, and tumbled to the floor.

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