The shuttle lands in a swirling of dust, settling onto its landing gear but not powering down. The cargo door in back opens, spilling yellow artificial light onto the ground. A man steps out, followed by another, smaller, bent over lugging bags and a cart. The door closes behind them, cutting off the light, and the shuttle lifts off, its warning lights offensively bright in the dark. They walk forward together, but apart from each other, as one freely strides, taking in the particular wonders of a new world; the other seeing only the straps of the bags, the rocks in the path of the cart, the man's back.
The man is older, in his early fifties, tall and looking solid under a thick gray robe. His acute gaze ticks around the terrain ahead of them, taking in the grand sweep of the night sky filled with stars, the two moons Huva and Beigasi brilliant and silver and illuminating the world. One far away, one so close you can see individual features of the massive craters upon it's chalky white surface. His eyes rest upon the uneven horizon crenelated with ragged hills. A short distance away, a patch of lights and sound glows and throbs, the only obvious evidence of human presence here. 'That would be the settlement.' He moves toward it and the baggage-carrier follows him.
The settlement is a patchwork of makeshift structures. The man looks around distastefully; this is not what he expected. It’s main feature appears to be a pub and hotel made from the salvaged shell of an old cargo ship. It’s port hull has been carved open and set up with a bar around which numerous raucous men and women are silhouetted against red light. A giant flashing screen set into the ship’s superstructure displays pornographic images and, repeatedly, a word he assumes is the name of the place in a language he doesn’t read. To the left, a hydroponics installation sits in an obvious state of disrepair. ‘I thought this was a modernized colony. It already looks like a ruin.’ To the right, a fusion station is a series of bubble domes connected by enclosed walkways. He recognizes the configuration; it is a model twenty years old. Farther away he can smell a waste treatment plant badly contained. He sighs and shakes his head and starts walking through the scrub bush toward the lights.
The port town is alive with all sorts of weird folk. Pretty girls costumed in vibrant and shocking clothing. Bio-punks with metal tubes connecting parts of their bodies. Replicants of differing models and other humans wearing varying types of environmental breathers, off-world colonists acclimatized to strange planets, here because they had failed at their previous endeavor or because this was the next new place to make money. No law enforcement presence, just a few lower-tier IDC officers straggling around looking like nothing more than pirates.
At the door to the hotel the man stops. He looks around at the girls going in and out of the bar a few feet away, and the guys going after them, and the others just hanging out looking shady. He points to a empty lot on the side of the building. “Wait for me over there, Goh,” he says, addressing the other person with him for the first time. “I have to present my credentials to a man here to receive authorization for our transport to the habitats. Protect our luggage.” The replicant looks up at him. He is a few inches shorter, and skinnier, but his body is all muscle. Dark hair cut in a ring around his head to hang down just below eye level. His eyes are black, and unnatural, the only obviously non-human thing about him. “Yes, Master Volo.” Volo turns and enters the establishment, opening the door just as another man is exiting. The man stops up short, and for a moment they are stuck together in the doorway. The man is staring at Volo in an unsettling way, like he recognizes him, though Volo is sure they’ve never met. “Excuse me,” he says politely, squeezing past him into the lobby.
Outside Goh is attending the baggage, warily eyeing the passers-by, seeing in each one an assailant, a thief, a potential murderer. He is picking out the other replicants amongst the humans almost as a reflex, subconsciously separating us from them. There are not so many of his kind here, he sees, but he expects that ratio will change when they get to the habitats where the workers must be housed. He waits for what seems like a long time before his master appears from the bar. He relaxes a bit. “We have transport to the colony,” Volo says as he walks up. “We leave immediately.” He looks around at the settlement. “It’s a long ride, but at least we won’t have to spend the night in this place.”
They had traveled for hours into the night side of the planet, Volo refusing to sleep until they arrived. Their little railcar sped away from the lights and noise, increasing in speed as they neared the vast empty land between pockets of life. Goh sits at a window, watching miles of this world go by. A sea of aquamarine grass had taken over from the scrub and dust, swaying in hypnotic patterns in the light of the moons. The hills are growing closer, their indistinct shadows resolving into sharp geometry. Before them, clusters of lights are growing in size and number. A further meld of blurred hours and they are arriving at another part of the human colony, the pre-fabricated habitats of the land lords, included with the price at a certain level of investment. Goh calls softly to Volo, who is nodding out in the seat across from him. He has to raise his voice to wake him. Volo jerks his head up, glances around, relaxes as he realizes where they are. The car begins to slow quickly yet smoothly, magnetically, then stops abruptly and they are there. The doors slide open, and Goh collects the bags as Volo steps out into the night.
The habitats are metal spheres thirty feet in diameter, their lower edge embedded into wooden platforms raised up about ten feet above the ground. They have a ring of bronze-tinted windows strung as if the sphere were pitched forward at an angle, so that they look down over the entrance. A perfectly round hole cut upward into the front is the only door. Each of these little tunnels is lit with strong yellow light. Different sizes of receiving and transmission dishes sprout here and there. Thick power cables worm out from one side, connected to lumpy capacitor stations on the ground. Thinner cables creep around the surface of the sphere like vines; actual vines and untamed flora grow out of the planks of the platforms. Volo notes one that has considerable damage to one hemisphere, a gouge that has been crudely patched with wood. The foremost pod is clearly the community hall, extra rooms built onto it’s surface, another door around back presumably for additional traffic. The IDC flag is wavering in the breeze on a pole at the bottom of the steps. Astonishingly, a tiny chimney pokes out of the top, issuing a stream of gray smoke.
Volo makes straight for this one. “You can leave the bags here. Come on. I want to get this over with and get home and sleep.” Goh parks the cart by the side of the pod and follows him up the stairs. People around them gape, some stopping in their tracks. “Hey!” One of them calls out, agitatedly. “Skinjobs go in the back door!” Volo acknowledges this as the man shakes his head derisively and walks away. “Go ahead, Goh.” He skips up the steps and enters the pod. Goh ducks his head and trots around back, burning under the eyes of several people who had witnessed the incident. He comes to a smaller door cut into one of the outbuildings. A sign hangs above it. It says “Skinners,” written sloppily in black paint. He goes inside.
Volo finds the other land lords sitting in wooden chairs around a table by a small fireplace, drinking and talking in low voices. They look up at his entrance, none acting surprised, but curious. The interior of the pod is decorated lazily with memorabilia of decades of colonization; a miner’s sub suit standing in a corner, the banners of various unions, samples of the natural resources of this planet strewn about in dusty cases. He helps himself to a cup of ale from a cask on the counter, taking his time, feeling them watching him, then sits down at the table.
"I'm Mikander Volo. I own twenty thousand acres east of Dammora ridge." He waits for the people to be impressed. None are. Everyone sitting around the table is rich in the land of this world.
One of the men speaks up. "I'm west of there." Volo looks at him. His skin is sallow and tanned a bright shade of red from the climate in whatever part of whatever world he is from. He has short yellow hair, and a gold earring in his left ear. A replicant girl sits on his lap, caressing his arms and thighs. She is impossibly thin and far too young. Her body is really just creamy white skin stretched around budding sex organs. The object of her affections brandishes a glare at Volo, defying him to make a comment on the model of sex slave he has chosen.
"Good, good," he says, looking away and then back at the man. "We'll be neighbors. Your name?"
"Salace…what are your intentions with that land?" The men keen forward, trying not to appear too eager. Volo stiffens. This is rude; technically he is not required to tell them. But here, in this setting, he feels compelled. "Soy, of course," he says, looking around at the group. "On half of it, for starters. The eastern half," he adds, feeling his eyes drawn towards Salace in a moment of guilty fear. "Then after a few harvests come in, stores and lodging and entertainment. My brother is recently retired from IDC, he left as a Colonel, he was in charge of logistics and supply for several systems around here. He has connections with merchants and growers and military surplus vendors. We're going to set up an import business here." He takes a drink of his ale, tries to ignore the men staring at him.
"Stores, lodgings, and entertainments." Salace is fixed on Volo. "That's what I'm building here." Volo meets his eyes, sees the unreasonable hatred there, smiles. "Well." He forces his smile to stay. "We'll be competitors, then." It is the wrong thing to say, his words falling flat in the room. The fire crackles for a long moment, each man contemplating his drink. Salace and Volo stare at each other. "Ep. We will."
A man in the back breaks the silence. “Where’s your gear?” Volo almost welcomes the question, a relief from this tension.
“My farming equipment is coming from Moevis orbital supply station, being delivered by drone. It will be here in about five days.” ‘I’ve just told them where I come from,’ he thinks ruefully. ‘No one would buy that amount of equipment without inspecting it personally.’ He resolves to be more careful with his personal information in the future.
Just then Goh enters the room, looking sheepish and out of place in this group of humans. His eyes catch those of the girl for a heartbeat, then she glances nervously away and continues her sick loving.
“So, which pod has been assigned to me and my replicant? I’m very tired, it’s been a long journey…I certainly enjoy speaking with you gentlemen, but…”
“Number six. You only brought one skinner? For all that work? You have more on the way, right? Coming with your gear?”
“No, my equipment is mostly automated, drone combines and planters. I will have a small staff, eventually, but for right now it’s just me and my man Goh.” He notices the men did not like this, his saying the name of his replicant. One of the men has the nerve to put a voice to their discontent. “Replicants aren’t men,” he says, swirling his ale. “They’re meat.” He drains the cup, rises from the table and leaves, nodding at the others. Goh ignores the insult; he’s used to it.
“Of course,” Volo finds himself saying to the man’s back. “Well, gentlemen, if that’s everything, I’ll retire for the night. Thank you.”
“One more thing.” Volo turns his attention to the speaker. “The dump for our waste treatment plant is a kilometer east of the colony. It’s in bad shape. The chemicals it uses to process the waste are volatile. They collect into a foam on top of the liquid in the dump. The foam is explosive and easily ignitable. It needs to be scraped up and disposed of every day before it gets too thick. Send your skinner out with the others in the morning.” Volo agrees and leaves them to their drinking and their dark conversation.
Habitation pod six is, of course, the damaged one. Volo stops for a long beat, taking it in, getting mad. He mounts the steps and activates the control console, a metal ball floating in the air outside the door. A hologram of the structure and its working and non-working systems pops up. He examines the display for a minute, browsing through things, cursing. “Well, at least the security is up.” He scans his hand console, the hiss of a hatch opening starts up, and they disappear together into the golden tunnel.
The next morning Goh wakes up in the dim light of pre-dawn alone, laying there for a moment listening to the sounds of this new world. The cuckling of chickens outside the window, the soft swish of a dusty breeze, the sharp cough and clatter of another worker up early like him. He stands up, rubs the stiffness of his back muscles after a night on the floor, checks on Volo and gently wakes him. He prepares a quick meal from what he can find, brings it to Volo’s rooms, and heads out to work.
The path to the chemical dump is lined with unnaturally crumbling rocks and grass that looks sick. Goh carries the pail and the scraper down to it, reacting in increasing stages of disgust as the fumes get worse. He sees the others already at work, wading deep into the foam to fill their pails. No one looks up as he joins them. The foam is thick, but treacherously soft, and he nearly loses his footing and sinks a few times as he goes about scraping it into the pail. The pails are emptied into a small cargo transport that sits hovering close by. As the day progresses one of the others finally speaks to him.
“I heard you have a name.”
“Yes. My name is Goh.”
The replicant looks like he wants to talk more, but the others are staring at them and he sidles away, continues his work. Goh looks after him for a moment, then wades deeper into the morass, noxious fumes blurring the air around him.
Volo is at the community hall again, climbing up the stairs with an angry stride. He’s spent his day doing a walking inspection of the hydroponics, energy and waste treatment facilities and found them to be in no better condition than those at the settlement around the port. Chickens scuttle about the bases of the pods, squawking discontentedly in the early twilight. Scrawny dogs sniff in the dirt. The smell of the place is beginning to get to him. He finds some of the land lords there around the same table, again drinking and eating. A servant is laying kindling over cold ashes in the fireplace. Salace is there, with a few others from the night before. He accepts their offer of food and drink, sits down, makes himself wait through a few minutes of polite conversation before speaking his mind.
“I’d like to talk about the condition of my pod. Does anyone know what happened to it?”
“Windstorm. Blew some debris in from a construction site.”
Volo nods, hand on his chin. “Hm. A windstorm. Who owned the construction site? The same company?”
The man hesitates before answering, glancing once at Salace. “Yes.”
Volo nods again, more firmly this time. “I’m going to file a complaint with the contractor tomorrow.” He watches everyone react to this. “Let’s talk about the condition of our pods in general.” He thumbs over his shoulder. “Those are RPC twenty-fives. I was told they would be two generations more modern.”
“You don’t like your pod? We all have the same accommodations, Master Volo.” He ignores the jibe.
“Well then we all should get together and start a class-action lawsuit. We paid for a certain promised product and were sold one of lower quality. They have to offset that cost somehow. We’re owed money.” The others stare at him uncomprehendingly, some with real malice, Salace especially. One of them speaks up, he can not tell and does not look to see who. “His cousin is the contractor IDC hired to supply the gear here.” Salace sits there as if the man had spoken with his voice. “Well,” Volo says, persistently, “you should be able to talk to him then. Work this out.” The other land lords turn to look at Salace. He says nothing. A moment of uncomfortable silence passes. Volo senses he will get nowhere in this; he says a curt goodbye and leaves fuming.
Their work at the chemical dump is almost finished, the swamp is nearly free of the volatile foam. One of the workers is washing the transport, scrubbing the residue out of the cargo space in preparation for their final load, the last few full buckets. The sun is setting away past the colony; the day is over. As they fill their pails for the last time, the same person who had spoken to him before gets up the courage to talk to him again.
“Your master must think you’re special.” There is a tone of bitter jealousy in his voice. Some of the others are paying attention to their conversation.
“I don’t know. He treats me well. You don’t have a name? None of you?”
“You do? What is it?”
"See? He named you too. He must think--"
"No. Bekpora is a word in his native language. It means 'rice.' It's what he grows here, and it's what I do for him. I pick it. It's not a name, it's a job description." Goh stares at him, unable to think of something to say. He resumes his work, scraping up the foam, stuffing it into the pail.
A few bodies down the line a commotion starts up. One of the males is getting sucked into the mud. He screams and flails and sinks in deeper as the others go on with their work. They are just leaving when the foam reaches his mouth and begins to drown him.
Back at the habitats Volo is making his leave from the other land lords. Goh catches up to him on the way back to his pod. “Well?” he says, not slowing his stride. The sun is setting, Beigasi on the other side of the world and Huva just peeking over the horizon. Darkness is creeping out from the hills. The lights of his pod glow warmly, close enough to make him want to walk faster.
“We finished the job, Master.”
“Good. Any problems with the others?”
“Yes. One of the others died. He became mired in the swamp.”
Volo stops for a second, checking his step before continuing. “Really…” He found himself confronted with something that he had known, but never personally experienced. ‘Replicants don’t feel empathy.’
“Are you alright? You weren’t hurt?”
Goh ducks his head. “No, Master.”
Volo nods. “Good. Which one was it?”
“The replicant belonged to Master Lora.”
Volo considers the name for a moment. The lights of his home are close now. “Lora. He has several others. His workers will inform him of his loss.” He stops and turns curtly.
“Good night, Goh.”
“Good night, Master Volo.”
Midnight finds Goh unable to sleep, walking around as far as he dare from their pod. The animal noises are subdued and he thinks he is alone, but sees the replicant called Bekpora pacing the same as him in the shadows. They greet each other, quietly, and stroll away a bit further to where the habitats are no longer visible as they talk. After a while Goh is wanting to get back, should Volo wake and need him. But Bekpora has to finish a thought before he goes.
"Do you see those stars?" He points to a patch of three bright stars shining slightly alone in a tiny blank patch of sky. "Those are Ginei and Lo Eca and Novi Exum. They have five colonized planets. About five thousand humans on each. More than twice that many of us." He looks at Goh steadily for a long moment. "We are more than them, everywhere. Look around." He swings his finger around the sky. "There are more colonies. We're on them too. We are on planets where there are not even any humans yet." Goh nods he hopes profoundly and bids Bekpora farewell.
Volo wakes up to a stench. He lays there in the dark for a moment, figuring it out. The smell of the chemical dump is very strong; he knows it from Goh’s clothing when he came back from work. But that had not smelled like this; he had immediately gone into the lavatory and his clothes had been sterilized, coming out with barely a trace of the chemical odor. And their habitat had not smelled this bad when he’d gone to sleep. This is different, unsettlingly potent. A blur of motion in a security monitor catches his eye, a spark. A sickening warning starts to flash in his mind.
“Goh!” Volo waits for a second, then starts to call again.
The explosion breaks the damaged wall into large hunks of flying debris. A heavy section of metal and wood knocks Volo several feet across the floor, landing on top of him, pinning him down. His vision is completely obscured, and he begins to panic in the darkness, feeling heat and pain and blood oozing out from parts of his body. The darkness grows blacker.
Volo hears a distant thudding, like footsteps underwater.
Wood crunches and metal rips as the wall is lifted from his body. Goh stands there, his clothes mostly ashes, his skin underneath melted in patches, gleaming with the raw flesh of serious burns. Holding up the wall above his left shoulder, he gives a final heave and it is thrown back the other way to shatter in chunks. He kneels, in obvious pain, his hand trembling as it reaches out to grasp Volo and draw him from the rubble.
“Goh…help me…” Volo is infinitely grateful, near to sobbing.
“Of course, Master. But…” His hand pauses. Their eyes meet, Volo’s wide with fear, the replicant’s madly tinted red by the flames.
“What does my name mean?”