The week-long burn to Jupiter’s L4 point, the location of my new home, a small asteroid mining community called Hektor, was a steady 1G with a bent flight-plan and an unterminated flipover. The tourists were comfortable, the one-ways didn’t panic, and I didn’t care – I was neither a tourist nor a one-way. I was a convict.
As I emerged from the rock-side airlock a large mass presented in front of me. I looked up reflexively, and had to grab a crash bar and close my eyes to avoid vomiting. After a moment I opened my eyes and took in the scowling freak show that was my caseworker, Gabriella Aldrin, frame of reference rotated an impudent 30° CCW from mine. Buzzed black hair, two nasty scars running up the side of her pale neck and dark face, and surprisingly, a pair each of wiry-muscled arms and legs. She ticked all the other boxes of the stereotypical Belter image; I wondered why she hadn’t swapped out her feet for another pair of hands.
“Ye Rogstad? The vet’narian?” She stared at me. I stared back.
“Yes, I’m Doctor Rogstad. Are you here to show me to my quarters? I need to pick up my luggage.”
“Yer luggage’ll be there, butcha need a haircut, Goldilocks.”
“Why on Earth would I cut my hair?”
“Ain’t on Earth. Hair clogs filters, gets caught’n machines.”
“It won’t be a problem. I braid it every morning.”
“And unbraid it every night, nah?”
“Sooner or later yer sheddings’re gonna clog some filter, makin’ the environmentals work overhard. Average person sheds a kilo of hair’n skin a year. Adds up, missy.”
She dragged me to the barbershop, bouncing me off walls, ceiling, and floor. When we got there I was surprised there weren’t any one-ways lining up for the same treatment, but most I’d met had short hair already, coming from places where lice and fleas roamed freely in the wild.
The barber was efficient. One hand to keep stabilized and three to work with; he had my braids off in 15 seconds and my scalp buzz-vacced to stubble inside of ninety.
“Missy, dunno whatch yer in fer, butcha shaver clean and’ll havem lotsa lookies.”
I looked at Aldrin in confusion.
“If ye shave yer head, ye won’t have a hard time getting laid, Doctor.”
“Yer a doctor? Cut ’n’ sew er genetweaker, Missy?”
“Ah, pet doc. Goodest! Not havem pet doc sincer Costa kicked it, nah.”
The first month passed quickly. I kept my head down and mouth shut, working sixteen hour days, too busy to obsess. I couldn’t keep my own books, but I had read-access to them; the bottom line was gratifyingly healthy. Best of all, my work kept me engaged with the two types of people I like most – animals and their humans.
Most of my practice involved humanity’s favorite solution for the vermin we’d brought with us to the stars – cats. There were the traditional four-legged cats, eel-tailed serpentine cats, even a few flat cats. The other major population was a chimera designed for microgravity environments, suitable for companionship and intelligent enough to be a helpmeet in daily life.
Imagine a six-limbed monkey the size of a large cat, with a long, prehensile tail and webbing between its limbs. Give it large ears and eyes reminiscent of a Chihuahua and short but soft neon-hued fur, and the result is canis familiaris novellus®, a.k.a. the Spiderpup™. To make this abominably cute monstrosity useful, you stuff its head full of canine psychology and deploy litters of it into every micro-G habitat and colony you can. Spiderpups can carry tools, transport messages, squirm into small spaces, and keep their favorite human warm. For minor emergencies, their saliva is anti-bacterial and reacts with vacuum, turning into a sticky paste for patching small holes in suits and bulkheads. If things are truly dire, the spiderpup can transform into a plant-animal hybrid that breathes CO2 and exhales O2, and it can provide a starving belter with a meal or two. Every part of the spiderpup is edible, though foul-tasting. That’s good – eating a rockjock’s pet will get you stuffed out an airlock posthaste.
I followed the barber’s advice and kept my head shaved – not to get laid, but to replace braiding as my daily morning ritual.
One evening my hair floated through the door. It was attached to a gangly teenage girl, face and hands a shade tanner than mine despite lack of sun. Her clothing was that odd adaptation of East African fashion to microgravity, Christian rather than Muslim, that I’d often seen in National Geographic simvids. She floated in, artfully wrangling three squirming spiderpups in diapers.
“What’s your name, young lady?”
“I am Nuhamin. Can you help me, Miss Doctor?” Many of the generation born rockside had clean accents and decent command of Standard English. Aside from a bit of melodicism in her voice, so did Nuhamin.
“Oh my! What did these rascals get themselves into?”
“Chocolate. The owners didn’t know better!”
“I wouldn’t have known better. Just because they’re called “pups” doesn’t mean they have any canine DNA. But they’re just mildly sick, which is probably intentional.”
“If you design a pet from scratch, ensuring it doesn’t eat its owner’s snacks is a feature.”
“Oh. That sounds…”
“Well, I can’t disagree. Let’s get them into the back.”
I watched her float them into the exam room. It would have been easier to have dragged them here in a mesh bag, but I could see that “easy” wasn’t her priority – the pups were. She reminded me of myself, before disappointment and responsibility forged me into the charming cynic I am today.
Cleaning out the pups was no different than cleaning out any other mammal with an upset stomach. The diapers had done the heavy lifting and it was now a matter of cleanup and disposal. Nuhamin knew her way around the rear end of a sick animal, and the two of us took care of them quite quickly.
“I have a question for you, Nuhamin.”
“It’s not often I meet a bald teenager.”
The poor thing turned pale and looked at my scalp.
“Congenital atrichia. Is this-”
“My hair? It used to be. It looks much better on you. I’ve been told I look quite fetching bald and should have no problems finding a date on a Friday night.”
“You’re okay with it?”
“I’m quite fine with it, my dear.”
I sedated the pups and then helped Nuhamin float them home. The tunnels became narrower and dimmer as you got further from Main Core; it was enough to get me a touch claustrophobic, but it didn’t take long to get to her home, a warren cluster shared with half a dozen other families.
Her mother was surprised to see me, but not too surprised to chew her out, presumably for being late – the words were an impenetrable mix of Amharic and Belter English, but the emotion was clear. I’d had similar lectures from my mother at that age, and it usually had something to do with animals. I waited until her mother was finished.
“Nuhamin, why don’t you get these three back to their owners while I talk with your mom?”
She bounced deeper into the warren, sedated spiderpups in tow.
“I’m Frida Rogstad.”
“I am Tselot. Ye new pet doc, nah?”
“Yes. Arrived a few weeks ago.”
“Welcome t’Hektor. Me daughter no trouble?”
“No, quite the opposite.”
“She told me about her condition.”
“I read and read and it so simple, but not here. Europa or Ceres, simple fix. Not here.”
“It shouldn’t cost much to go to Europa.”
“Ye think? Ye pay O2 and CO2 fee, pay H2O, eat nothing but algae AM, noon, PM, think ye save money raisin’ three childs on miner pay? Send husband out fer weeks to find big rock, gold rock, but no find ’em. Just small rock to pay for eat’n breathe.”
“Is good. She happy, she smart, she no die. Good daughter.”
“She’s very good with animals. I wanted to ask a favor…”
A few weeks later I was woken up by an emergency alert. On Earth that would mean an accident, probably involving a drone or vehicle colliding with someone’s pet. The question of what constituted an emergency in my current practice woke me up cold sober. I bounced out of bed and didn’t bother changing clothes – if it was important enough to wake me, they wouldn’t mind me showing up in long johns.
I bounced through the door between quarters and office, and the office door dilated to reveal my next patient and pet owner – Gabriella Aldrin.
It took me a moment to recognize her. She showed signs of rapid decompression or extended low pressurization – eyes bloodshot, blood-stained nostrils and ears, the purple of burst capillaries punctuating every inch of visible skin. Our eyes met for a moment and then I saw the bundle in her arms. An unbreathing spiderpup, eyes closed, skin halfway transitioned from supple garish pink to stiff vegetable green.
“Follow me,” I said, then launched into my exam room. I pulled up floaters, pausing just long enough to nod towards the cradle. She put her pet in the cradle murmuring the things all mothers do when their baby is sick. I got the telemetry up and vitals showing on one of the floaters, pulled up the relevant literature on the second, and started running diagnostics on the third.
The poor thing was halfway into a transition it wasn’t designed to back out of. Intentionally lousy engineering if you ask me. Given time, reverse engineering the process wouldn’t be difficult. Unfortunately, time was something this little pooch didn’t have.
“Can ye save ’er?”
“The odds are about 30/70, but the more you talk the worse they get. Sit down, shut up, and wait.”
Rather than reinvent the wheel, the designers would have used an off-the-shelf solution to manage the transition. In short order I’d found the agent, a nanobot consisting of a chlorophyll-packed payload, a protein-eater, and a starch-weaver. I’d seen similar nano-agents before; it took 30 seconds to isolate the trigger logic and another 5 to confirm the obvious solution.
“Ms. Aldrin, have you an implant?”
“I need the station AI –”
With a thump the door closed and a moment later my ears popped. A translucent figure in a jumpsuit appeared.
“30 PSI?” it asked.
“That should be adequate.”
“Excellent.” He turned to Aldrin. “Hello, Gabby. Rough trip?”
“Hey, Martin. Yah, took some scattered pinholes a half day out. Plugged most of ’em but we lost so much O2 had to overburn back.”
“I’m glad you made it.”
“Did we? Is Glitter gonna be okay?”
The AI nodded to me; I checked the floater and saw that the nano-agent was reacting as hoped.
“The transition has halted, but she’ll need her blood scrubbed before we depressurize the room. The pigmentation should fade over the next few weeks, but the structural changes will take longer to break down. I’d say a month of bed rest.”
Martin blinked out.
“Look, I’m sorry about yer …” she said, rubbing her head.
“Have you met my intern, Nuhamin?”
“Yer shittin’ me.”
“She’s sharp and very good with animals. Which reminds me, I need my caseworker to approve her pay.”
She closed her eyes for a moment.
“Done. Yer not mad?”
“I’m a little mad. But she needs my hair more than I, and I needed the reminder to keep my mouth shut for a while. And now I realize why everyone is so nice to me.”
“Thank ye. Fer understanding.”
“I think you owe me a nice dinner.”
“Of course! Y’hook up wit’ someone, yet?”
“No. I was engaged.”
“He waitin’ fer ye?”
“No. His family – he couldn’t marry a felon.”
“Dirtside basterd. Well, some of me hubbie’s friends clean up nice, or I could bring one of me own if yer omnivorous.”
“I’m not ready for that, but I wouldn’t mind making some friends.”
“Think ye already have.”
Copyright © 2016 by Matt Downer. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork Copyright © 2016 by Ray Lopez. All Rights Reserved.