Monday, July 30, 2018

More Than Human

In 2190, Earth’s first starship returns from the Eidolon colony after a five-year flight. In the past, "starshippers" were always idolized: these augmented humans are modified for the new world and the public envied them -- emulated them too much, too often.

The Pure Light
’s mission is to "Keep Humanity Human" ... stem the tide of bio-tech that’s changing the human form. New laws reclassify "augmenteds" as cyborgs and deny them human rights. The more augmented one is, the less rights one has. A "fifty" -- with a body fifty percent modified -- is registered, control-chipped, property of the government and assigned to industry or battlefield.

decades since the Gilgamesh visited Earth. On Eidolon her people are free -- many were born there, genetically designed for the colony. Now they're unwelcome aliens.

Adrian Balfour journe
ys to Titan to inform Captain Dirk Vanderhoven and his XO, Jason Erickson, their crew will be seized -- reassigned to the military or mines. But Adrian has a personal agenda, and everything changes as he meets Jason. Soon, he's lying to Titan Central in a race against time. Because Adrian is a "twenty" -- unwelcome even at home, while among starshippers he's respected. Desired.

Romance explodes, filled with the piquancy of exploration as Adrian discovers how different the humans of Eidolon are. He'll risk all to get the Gilgamesh away before warships run her down and The Pure Light can turn starshippers into drones. A sizzling gay SF thriller from long-time favorite Mel Keegan.

  • Scroll down to read the first two chapters of this book 
Novel length: 86,600 words
Rated: adult (18+; sex, violence)
Publication date: 2012
Publisher: DreamCraft
Price: $8.99 - ebook
Cover: Jade

Read an excerpt... 

Chapter One 

"Something's wrong." Jason Erickson was peering into the ocean of data which writhed and coiled in the display, not even blinking. "Something's dead wrong." 

Dirk Vanderhoven had been listening to him muttering for the last half hour, which was not like Jason. The Executive Officer of the Gilgamesh was the consummate professional, and had been an interface designer since he walked out of college. He had worked with the team that redesigned the ship's AI before the Gilgamesh shipped out of the port of Reunion, and what he did not know about the machine intelligence called Sond was not there to be known. 

The ship was still dark, quiet, but she was warm now. Only a handful of the crew had been woken -- the techs responsible for overseeing the retrieval of the others, and the welfare of the ship itself. Sixty cryogen capsules remained sealed, with the orbit of Pluto twelve hours away. The Gilgamesh had commenced final braking maneuvers and course corrections three months before. The drive was still burning, bringing her back to the homeworlds at a speed that was safe for large vessels in the comparative clutter of Earth's near space. 

And still Jason was gazing into the roiling mass of the display, though what he saw there was beyond Vanderhoven. To the naked human eye, the datastream resembled a tangle of multicolored threads, weaving, unraveling, pulsing with the rhythms of a living creature. To Jason's augmented eyes it was much more, but Vanderhoven could not see what he did. His own eyes remained purely human. 

He sighed, stepped closer and dropped a hand on Jason's broad bare back. The younger man was almost naked and still glistening with sweat. He had been running -- a heavy workout was recommended, when one clambered out of the cryocapsule after five years in suspension. 

Cryosleep was not quite complete hibernation, but the body's biological clock was slowed down to less than one percent. In five years -- in fact, 1870 days -- Jason, Vanderhoven and the crew of seventy aboard the Gilgamesh had aged a little under two weeks. Two days before the brain was woken, the body warmed back to normal temperatures, received balanced intravenous feeding and electrostimulation of the muscles. Still, one climbed out of the capsule feeling stiff, sore, a little 'dislocated' from reality, and Dirk Vanderhoven knew running was one of the best ways to weld body and soul back together. He had made the voyage twice, out and back between Eidolon and Earth, and on this passage back to Earth, he shipped out as her captain. 

"What do you see?" He looked over Jason's shoulder, into the chaos of the raw data. Blue, green, gold, scarlet, colors and threads wove into Gordian knots, pulled apart and rewove themselves into new patterns. To Vanderhoven they just looked like colored lines, sometimes with the delicate complexity of fractal art. But Jason's eyes were modified when he was fourteen years old, and made his career choice. 

The interface designer looked into the heart of the data core, and his rainbowhued eyes saw a thousand levels of information. The pupils were actually silver, but they reflected and refracted any skerrick of light, never the same for two consecutive moments. Vanderhoven was fascinated by them, though Jason had forgotten about them years before. He was thirty now, in realtime. By the calendar of Earth or Eidolon he was five years older, but the years in cryo meant nothing to him. Vanderhoven himself was almost seventy, by the same calendar, and just fifty in reality, after two voyages and twenty years in suspension. 

"The fact is, I'm not sure what I'm seeing," Jason mused. He straightened his spine -- towering over Vanderhoven. He had been born on Eidolon, and was modified in utero, for the heavier gravity. People of his generation grew big, strong. Even their bones were not the same and their growth and maturation patterns were very different. They grew faster than the normal human child, continued growing till they were well into their twenties, and matured as adults somewhat later. 

By comparison, Vanderhoven was not a small man, but he was born on Earth and not modified until much later, when he decided that Eidolon would be his home. The decision was easy to make when the Gilgamesh returned to Earth the first time. Vanderhoven was then her Executive Officer; on that voyage, Captain Alicia Rodriguez brought her home, and she remained on Earth, but Vanderhoven had not much liked what he saw of the world where he had grown up. Every moment in the homeworlds, he found himself longing for Eidolon. He was permanently modified for the colony's gravity and the climate soon after the Gilgamesh returned to Reunion High Dock, the platform in geosynchronous orbit above the city of Reunion. 

"Do you want to go in?" he asked, as Jason frowned over the data. 

"Hm? No, I don't think there's a need, not yet," Jason said thoughtfully. His voice was deep, his accent soft, lilting, with the confused vowels of the languages of the people who had founded and populated Eidolon. Several accents and cadences of speech had melded into something new and attractive. "Sond, I'm seeing an unusual item in the comm log, and I can't get access." He was speaking to the AI now. "Have you processed it?" 

The machine spoke with a level, androgynous voice, imperturbable, almost without expression. "Specify." 

"The unusual transmission received five hours before you woke the crew," Jason said patiently. 

"There is no unusual transmission." 

"I'm looking right at it," Jason corrected. "Data received, logged as cy77bfg44e8. Identify the source." 

"Source is Titan Central," Sond said levelly. 

"Play it," Jason prompted. 

"Cannot play the transmission." 

Jason's head came up. He glanced sidelong at Vanderhoven with those strange, beautiful eyes. "I repeat, play the damn' transmission." 

"Cannot play the transmission." No flicker of inflection colored a syllable. 

"That's -- not normal," Vanderhoven whispered. 

"Like I told you, something's not right." Jason pulled both hands over his face. 

The sweat was drying on him, leaving his blond hair shaggy, falling into his face, which was the fashion in Reunion, at least in the year the Gilgamesh shipped out. Five years later, Vanderhoven thought, the fashion could be very different. Jason belonged on a beach, a scrap of spandex short of naked under the yellow sun of Eidolon, yet he was here, a few days away from of the edge of the Earth system -- 

And he was worried, Vanderhoven thought. "You sure you don't want to go in?" he asked quietly. 

"I think I might have to," Jason admitted. "I didn't actually want to -- too close after being in cryo. I'm not back up to speed yet." He was absently rubbing his big arms and broad chest as he frowned into the seething cauldron of the data display, and his right hand went to his neck, adjusting the band that protected the delicate synthetic tissue of his interface sockets. 

Vanderhoven respected his caution. Jason was modified for the work, but having the sockets and the cortical implants, and being able to interface safely with the AI at any moment, anywhere, were too different things. It was work he was more than qualified to perform, but the professional AI techs warned about interfacing with the machine if there was any hint of sickness or debility, much less 'cryosleep hangover.' 

"Take a few hours," Vanderhoven advised. "Get a meal inside you, and then have somebody prep you, if you could use the setup to get back up to speed fast -- I know several of them who'd give you what you need. We're still not over the threshold, the orbit of Pluto. It's just a transmission that's glitched up in the system, surely?" 

"I don't know." Jason stretched his spine, worked his shoulders around. "I've just never known Sond to be a bastard. I'm thinking, it has to be something embedded in the transmission." His brows rose, lost in the shag of yellow hair. "Maybe some new encryption or compression algorithm they're using in the last few years. We should have been updated, upgraded, on the way in, but if something got missed, overlooked, it could cause a glitch." 

"Like I said," Vanderhoven repeated, slapping the younger man's back. "Get a meal inside you, get rehydrated, prep properly if you need to -- and get a tech crew in here. If you're going to interface, do it safely. Not before you're ready." He glanced up at the monitor over his head. "We're still twenty hours out from Titan -- still braking." He gestured at the deck, through which he could feel the heavy thrum of the engines, almost like a growl through his bones. "We've got time to hash this out before we dock." 

"All right." Jason stepped back from the display and blinked his eyes clear. The synthetic pupils dilated to more normal dimensions. In dimmer light they would open up much wider than Vanderhoven's eyes, and they could differentiate more colors, more shades in the infrared, as well as tolerating brighter light at the other end of the spectrum. "I'll get Lopez and Buckner to cover for me. Give me an hour or two, all right?" 

"In your own time." Vanderhoven watched him turn and stalk away, leaving the half-lit, half-alive cavern of Starship Operations to the machines. Jason grabbed his clothes on the way out, but did not bother to dress. The Gilgamesh was warm now, and her XO was still barely clad in a strap and the familiar neckband signature to all socketed AI engineers. Beneath it, the synthetic tissues were fragile, vulnerable. They were the physical conduit via which the human mind interfaced with the machine, half-alive and sensitive, but without any ability to heal themselves. Like anyone in his profession, Jason considered his interface sockets first, and might ignore the rest of his body. Even the athletic strap was not a matter of modesty, but a concession to comfort on a six kilometer run -- the distance from Starship Operations to the engine deck and back, seven or eight times. A good stretch of the legs. 

People of Jason's generation were physically perfect, and many of the most critical modifications were prenatal. They grew up accustomed to being flawless, physically and mentally, bigger, stronger and smarter than most people of earlier generations. It was not that they were arrogant, or had any overweening pride in their bodies or intellect, Vanderhoven knew. The opposite was more accurate. They took themselves utterly for granted, and saw no reason to conceal either body or mind. 

He smiled after the younger man, and turned back to the AI. The Sympathetic Network Dynamics system was almost self-aware, as living beings understood themselves, with senses a thousand times more acute than anything wholly organic. This Sond was ten generations more developed than the original AI installed in the Gilgamesh, and much of the work was done by engineers on Eidolon. Jason, for one. He had spent hundreds of hours interfaced with the machine, and Vanderhoven could not begin to imagine the work. 

"Sond, recognize Vanderhoven, Dirk J., authorization alpha-delta-9-9-7-5- tango." 

"Recognized," the machine allowed. 

"Play the transmission Officer Erickson requested of you," he prompted. 

"Unable to comply." 

"Specify the reason for your inability." 

"Unable to specify." 

Vanderhoven took a long deep breath, held it and let it out slowly. "Then you'd better give priority to a level three diagnostic of every system you possess, Sond, because you just rejected a direct order from the commander of this vessel. Begin at once." 

"Unable to comply." 

"Damn." He backed off and began again. "Confirm that you have received signals from Titan Central." 


"Did these signals include some special order?" 


"And this special order from Titan," Vanderhoven asked softly, "prevents you from either playing the transmission or undertaking system diagnostics." 

It was an observation rather than a question, but Sond said, "Confirmed." 

It was useless trying to reason with a machine, and Vanderhoven did not waste his time. If Titan Central had issued some kind of override, it would take Jason, interfaced, to even discover it, much less root it out -- and deleting it would be far outside of acceptable protocols. 

If Jason even attempted the work, he could be censured, demoted. If Dirk allowed him to do it, much less ordered him to, the censure could ban them both from the Gilgamesh. Imprison them on Earth, when every bone and muscle in Dirk's body was modified for Eidolon and wanted to go home, and Jason was fundamentally different from the Earthbound human. He would be the proverbial fish out of water, with everything that was natural to him more than four light years away, just a speck in the night sky, in the constellation Centaurus. 

A muscle twitched in Vanderhoven's jaw as his teeth clenched. "Then, Sond, are you able to report on the status of the Gilgamesh?" 

"Routine maintenance is in process. Drones are deployed. Braking maneuvers in progress. Docking at Titan Central, minus 11:22:15. Life support systems online. Incoming comm stream from Earth." 

"Specifically for us?" 

"Civilian popular broadcast." 

"And I assume you can play it?" Vanderhoven hooked a chair with one foot, pulled it closer and sat as a monitor brightened with a compressed package of various feeds, the chaos of data which brightened the skies of Earth and streamed outward from the homeworlds every second. 

News, sports, weather, current affairs, canned entertainment, music, advertising. He viewed the millrace of images with a cynical expression. Very little had changed. 

The last word anyone aboard the Gilgamesh had heard from Earth was close to ten years old, and the news had been dire. The political climate was bleak; there was trouble at 'home,' this much was certain. Vanderhoven had chosen not to believe the situation could remain unresolved for long. Like most of the population on Eidolon, he was convinced the people of Earth were in command of their own destiny, and would soon rid themselves of an unpopular government. 

Now, his brow furrowed as he viewed the stream of images from the homeworlds, and realized how wrong belief on Eidolon had been. He saw the name and logo of The Pure Light emblazoned everywhere, and his throat tightened. 

"Sond, are you permitted to disclose your instructions?" 

"Gilgamesh will dock at Titan Central and hold." 

"Pending what?" 

"Further instructions will be transmitted after docking." 

"Damn." Vanderhoven closed his eyes for a moment, and then reopened them and focused on the confusion of images racing through the monitor. 

As Jason had said, something was very, very wrong. 

Chapter Two 

Four hours into the ten hour flight, the main engines shut down and the deck beneath Adrian Balfour's feet lost the subtle vibration which had thrummed through his soles for so long, he had ceased to notice it. The Vincenzo Ricci would cruise on momentum for ninety minutes before rotating to present the drive for braking thrust. She would shed speed for four hours, until she slid into the Titan system and rendezvoused with the tugs which would take her in and dock her at Titan Central. 

It was two years since Adrian had last seen the skycity which orbited high above Saturn's largest moon, and the previous trip out had also been work. He thought of himself as an itinerant laborer, going where the government sent him, when there was a mess they wanted sanitized. Being part of a clean-up crew had never been his ambition, but in the last twenty years, people like Adrian took what they could get. 

He might have been on Earth, living in a nice apartment with a view of the ocean and his own housekeeper drone -- a partner with similar working hours; three weeks of paid vacation time per year, and the freedom to apply for travel vouchers to go where they wanted, not where they were told. 

Instead, he was living in an apartment in Ganymede City -- admittedly nice enough -- but out here the pay was far too modest for a lowly Civil Representative to afford his own drone; and the partner, the vacation time, the travel vouchers, were the stuff of imagination. Ganymede was too far from anywhere to make holiday travel realistic. The only people who lived out there were either engineers whose vocation took them into the Jovian system, or they were assigned. Adrian was on assignment. 

He had been on Ganymede for a little over a year already, and he had four years to go before he could request reassignment. The time dragged at him like a prison sentence, but he knew he was lucky to possess as much liberty as he did -- and it came at a price. 

He frowned down at the legs which were the root of the problem. They were thrust out toward the coffee table and crossed at the ankle before him, where he sat in a corner of the dim, quiet observation lounge on the starboard side of the Vincenzo Ricci's habitation module.

Almost the whole ship was engines, fuel, cargo gantries and handling cranes. The 'cab,' as the longhaul pilots called the pressurized body accommodating humans, was a hundred meters by twenty, slung under the nose, as far away from the fusion reactors as possible. The cab was sheathed in armor against the probability of collision with micro debris, as well as the toxic fallout of the drive, into which the ship must fly during brake thrust. 

People whispered that these ships were unsafe -- death traps that made one sterile, or twisted up the chromosomes until passengers should never be allowed to have children. Few young women would fly on them. The government intended to ban all pre-menopausal women, and all unsterilized males. 

The legislation would go through soon, Adrian thought, and allowed himself a sigh. What the government decreed happened. Restricted travel was one more freedom people would lose, and few would even mourn the loss, just as few had protested the legislation controlling the borgs. The thought reminded Adrian of his legs, and he frowned at them again. 

They were reconstructions. There were titanium rods where his bones ought to be, and synthetic muscles, tendons, nerves, even though the blood that pumped through them was natural human blood, driven by his own heart, and his own living skin sheathed the synthetic tissues. He could feel through that skin, and it was blood-warm, but the truth remained. The legs were classified as augmentations, many times stronger than human limbs. They were borg, and when 'normal' people knew you were modified, they stared at you. 

Some idiots believed a man with modified legs ought to be able to run at a hundred kilometers per hour -- as if the flesh-and-bone hip sockets, pelvis and spine would tolerate the stress without smashing like eggshells. The same people thought a modified limb should be able to lift incredible weights, as if the real, living shoulder joint, scapula and spine would carry the stress. 

The truth was much less dramatic. Adrian could run like the wind, and his modified legs could lift far more than normal human legs, but the limiting factor would always be that the rest of him was entirely human. Normal. His legs were reconstructed of necessity, not out of ambition or vanity, unlike the athletes, performers, soldiers, who flocked to the studios to be augmented when the technology was new and chic. 

Adrian would have been among them, as soon as he turned twenty, had the education, the job, the salary, to afford the work, which was not cheap. He had dreamed of the modified eyes that made ordinary human eyes seem half blind, and of the tireless limbs that would propel him into the zero-gee games where the beautiful people played -- 

Had played. Before the purge. 

Looking back across the gulf of twenty years, he realized how lucky he had been. His legs were rebuilt of necessity, when they were pulverized in the crash that killed his parents, but the rest of the work would have been pure desire on his own part. Like a whole generation of kids, he had gazed at the celebrities with awe and lust, wanting them, wanting to be like them. 

Some of those celebrities were still at large, fronting for the government, making impassioned speeches about how it was crucial to preserve the purity of humanity, and holding up as negative examples people like the ballplayers, the dancers, whose limbs were 'too long,' whose skin fluoresced with rainbow colors, whose eyes were 'phony' with the augmented lenses that gave them extraordinary vision. 

Adrian wondered how many of the government's tame celebrities believed a word they said, and how many had traded complicity for liberty. It would have been so easy for him to be like them. The legs, alone, earned him the citations in his passport, licenses and work record. 

He was a 'twenty,' just under the percentage of augmentation which warranted special treatment. If he had had his eyes done, as he had wanted, he would have been a 'twenty-five.' The ears -- modified to let him hear like a fox -- would have made him a 'thirty.' And what he had desperately desired was the implants, the cerebral augmentation, which would let him upload a new skill, a language, a science, directly into his brain. 

With that work done, he would have walked out of the studio as a 'fifty,' and on the day The Pure Light rode into office on the 'human purity and integrity' ticket, he would have been picked up off the street like a criminal. Untold hundreds of thousands of 'fifties' were recategorized as borgs, and most of them vanished. 

Such thoughts chilled him to the marrow, because he had wanted all this with a burning passion. He was fifteen when his parents were killed and his legs were rebuilt, and even then his normal human eyes were fixed on education, career, job, to win the cashflow to make the rest happen. 

He wanted to race ultralites in the thermals of Rotorua, and kites in the low gravity and super-dense, super-cold atmosphere of Titan. He wanted to play network chess with the masters from Shanghai and Tokyo, and free-climb El Capitan, right to the top, with his own fingers and toes, no ropes, no tools, no tricks, the way the professional borg climbers did it. 

Those climbers were among the first to vanish, arrested as Adrian would have been if government had changed just a few years later. He was eighteen when the pickups began, with an already-fat bank account, and six months of college behind him. The fancy job and rich salary were still years ahead of him, and his legs were his only augmentation. He had won medals in the athletic events at school; he had played soccer well enough to have been made an offer to play with a pro team. 

The offer was withdrawn the moment the government was sworn in. Twenties like himself were still free men and women, but they were not permitted to benefit from their augmentation. A twenty could not be an athlete, a dancer, a performer. Those like Adrian were not arrested, but they were vilified as pollution. 

The borgs whose augmentations were visible, were the first to hide. Many of the fifties ran, before they could be taken into custody. Some were still running, and Adrian could find no way to blame them. As a government agent, he heard sketchy reports of a company of 'mavericks' hidden somewhere in the asteroid belt, perhaps a few thousand fifties who had stolen ships, made it away and somehow stayed away. 

He could have been one of them himself, and he knew he would have gloried in his augmentation, like the rest of his generation. He was one of the kids who grew up in a time when the starship crews were exemplified as the great heroes of the age, more courageous, smarter, more beautiful and desirable than the rest of humanity. And all of them, down to the last man and woman, were modified for the work and for the environment in which they would be living. 

They were categorized as borgs now. And they were beautiful, Adrian thought wistfully. They were different, not even the same shape as the mundane human, if you looked closely at the way their bodies fit together. Eyes, ears, nothing was the same, and their brains were augmented for the work they did. Some of them had the physical interface sockets that allowed them to bond directly with a ship's AI. They could hear comm traffic, process inhuman oceans of data, even perceive the life signs of their companions. 

And in bed, they were said to be beyond a man's wildest dream of paradise. Adrian felt a thrill through every nerve as he contemplated this last. He did not know if it were true, but since the forties and fifties did everything better than mundane humans, why should their lovemaking be any less extraordinary? 

His eyes flicked up to the chrono, on the bulkhead by the observation ports, and the thrill redoubled. In a little over seven hours, he would be looking into the strange, lovely eyes of one of these. 

The Gilgamesh was due to dock at Titan Central in five hours, and the Vincenzo would couple up at the government sector an hour later. The signal had already been sent -- he had dispatched it himself: 

The Government of Earth formally greets Captain D.J. Vanderhoven and requires a meeting with the Civil Representative from Ganymede City, earliest possible. 

The message was bald, stark. Dirk Jan Vanderhoven would receive it several hours before his ship docked, and it would surely come as no surprise. He would have known at least a day before, his ship was under the command of the Titan AI, and nothing short of taking his own AI offline would give him back control of his vessel. 

Again, Adrian sighed. The situation was far from anything he had dreamed or hoped, in the days when he had idolized the starship crews, and wanted to be among them. He had never had much hope of actually making selection -- he was too ordinary, and he knew it. He was only a little above middle height, he was far from genius level, and his only claim to any athletic prowess was the modified legs, legacy of the crash that changed his life. 

Once, the crew of the Gilgamesh would have been demigods in his eyes. Now, he was the bearer of dire news and he had spent hours rehearsing the words, trying to get them right in his own head before he had to speak them to a man who had just brought a starship back from the first human colony beyond mankind's home solar system. 

How did you tell such a man that he was a prisoner, and would be scanned so that the degree of his augmentation could be assessed, and his liberty curtailed accordingly? People still said, 'Don't shoot the messenger,' but if Adrian were Dirk Vanderhoven, he knew he would probably have seized the first weapon that came to hand. 

Twice, he had tried to wriggle out of the assignment, and both times the order came back refuting his claim. He pleaded illness, which would have prevented him making the flight out to Saturn, but the medic found nothing amiss. He claimed other duties, pressing matters tying him to Ganymede, but the roster was administrated by an AI, and you could never fool the machine. The last thing he could say was that he objected to the government's borg policy. The confession would cost him his liberty, as well as his job; and perhaps his life. 

So Adrian Balfour was on the Vincenzo Ricci, six hours out from the government docks, with Saturn a bright disk in the sky, dreading the moment when he would look a man like Dirk Vanderhoven in the eye and tell him that he and his crew were in the kind of trouble you did not just walk away from. 

This mobile friendly version of MEL KEEGAN ONLINE created and posted by webmaster JADE.

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