fiction by michael werneburg

"Hey, here it comes," sneered one of the soldiers lounging around by water treatment plant. He and his two comrades were in civilian clothing but with their specific gene mods they couldn't possibly be anything but soldiers. Each of the purpose-built brutes stood just shy of three meters tall and was accordingly thick through the chest and broad of shoulder. They were also studded with hardware implants and data ports. Arrogant young males like this made my life hell and I hated coming by here but it was on the direct route between my quarters and the Big Room.

"Damn, I swear it's getting uglier by the week," agreed one of the others. The cretins really did live up to the stereotype they'd engendered. They were obviously appalled by my mid-gender state. But it was just as well. They were usually all over my wife every time they saw her; I didn't need that kind of attention, and wasn't looking forward to its onset in this environment once I got back to fully female. Why did these goons hang out at the water treatment plant, anyway?

"Heya, freak," the third said, finally joining the fun. "That baby of yours taken its first steps, yet?"

All three laughed. I carried on, leaving them to their hilarity. I was fair game because I was an outsider; a rare civilian this far out in humanity's frontier in space. But my lifestyle was a further reason for them to fear and hate me. We'd found intolerance everywhere of course, and I'd long since stopped defending myself even in normal circumstances. Here on Readyworld, I was just too busy to bother.

And I'd have my hands full with Site 4 for months to come, if not years. Readyworld—and Site 4 in particular—was showing real promise. I was beginning to believe that I might finally strike it rich.

The alien installation was a surprisingly sophisticated complex of buildings with supporting structures such as solar arrays and a sewage treatment plant. It was of a thoroughly alien design and was such a new discovery that no one knew how it had been built, let alone why or by who. That's why I was here, along with a couple dozen other specialists.

It was a hollow sphere that understandably caught people's imagination and recognizing the potential revenues Administration was encouraging that interest. They were building a hotel out on the coast.

A ship had touched down pre-dawn, and now there were tourists zipping around on sedans as if they owned the place. None of these insufferable sight-seers seemed happy with what they found on Readyworld; a raw mud-ball devoid of luxury or amenities. Readyworld's sun was a red dwarf and its lighting was dim and insufficient for human eyes. Plant life was thin everywhere except near the equator and the largest animals amounted to primitive amphibian herbivores we called feeps and a variety of small fish. Everything was orange-red and ill-lit, causing human eyes tended to strain even at mid-day. There was no one around to serve these people, and no charming local villages to explore (or exploit).

I ducked into the small outlying building that was my destination. I plunged down a gloomy ramp that descended before me, and used my implanted heads-up display to activate my jumpsuit's lighting. I headed down the broad spiral ramp and into the Big Room. It was an underground cavern that filled the entire hill below Site 4. I was sure that his place held the secret to Site 4. And my financial security!

As I made my way down the spiral ramp I wondered as I always did what the aliens must have looked like. There was, of course, a betting pool on that very subject amongst the scientists as well as military and support staff. Currently one of the exobiologists was placing large sums on something that resembled a three foot slug with the upper body not unlike a giant polyp. I hoped rather fervently that he was wrong. My bet was on something more like a three-foot spider with four arms. Lena said she hoped I was wrong.

At the thought of her, I reached out with a thought.

"Hi hon," she said. At once I had the strong mental impressions of wan sunlight and the smell of detergent. She was in the laundry facility.

"Hey, how are my girls," I asked.

"Well, Baby's just fine," she said.

Sometimes I wished she'd use the girl's proper name; we'd agonized over it long enough. I was about to say something to that effect, maybe one of my chirpy pleas to 'call her Sonia', when she added, "But I've had to put in a complaint about Dium, again."

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