Love this tusker - Editor
by Dinesh Pulandram
There I was again, at the Hive Mind, scratching my tusk against the bar. Was like a recurring nightmare. Here to see the Marx again. Here to beg him for work again.
It’d been a real shit week too. I’d got shot by stone soldiers, thrown off a 10,000 foot drop by a razor tank, and barely escaped. To boot I’d used up all my medibots. Ahh, the ice cold feeling of medibots going through my veins. Them medibots were almost like biocrack. I couldn’t do a job without ‘em.
I was sick of it. Sick of doing it all myself, sick of the cycle. Even a rhino has limits, you know.
I tapped my hoof to the pulse-punk and ordered my favorite. A liter bottle cognac and synth-meat satay skewers with peanut sauce. I’m a vegan, don’t eat real meat. Yeah, everyone’s surprised when I tells them. You can be big and strong without eating meat, ya know. Just look at the diplodocus. Herbivore.
“Where the Marx?” I shouted at the bartender, Limei. Limei was one of the Marx’s dunces. Half her face was tattooed--one of ’em a dragon that kept blinking at me. She had long arms covered with bangles. I never seen bangles look so hot before. I stared at her arms--she could leave them bangles on--as she passed the cognac and synth-meat. I slurped on the cognac and eyed her boobs.
She said, “Hey, the Marx is in a trawling session. He’ll be envirtua for about a week. Strictly not to be disturbed.”
“Taik!” I yelled. I thought maybe I should barge his sanctuary, rip him out of his jack. But fuck it, there was no point moping.
I hit the dance floor and joined a quad’ette: a redhead, a brunette, a blonde, and a raven-head. My colors of the rainbow. Hive Mind brang everybody together: hybrids, physicals, rhinos, software-selves, and aethers--some call ’em ghosts, but they’re just holos after all.
I crashed to this airseat and fumbled in my pocket for Wilson’s Chocolate-Orange snuff. How I take it, I put the chops on a hooftip, inhale, and savor that sweet hit. Then quick take a drag from the cigar I grip on the same hooftip.
I was tired, so I knocked off. When I blinked awake, I saw her.
She moved like a military mech, choppy, as if her legs and arms swung on hinges. Anything that moved like a machine, I’d been trained to zoom in on. She was on Velvet Delight, the level above where the guests went for a tumble. I followed her reflection on the LED mirrors. She walked backwards. Strawberry-fluro cocktail in one hand, the other held out. Three human males crowded her in. They herded her to one of the private booths and pushed her behind the drapes. That didn’t seem right.
I got off my arse and ran through the sweaty bodies on the dance floor. I jumped, grunted as I hit my chin against the ledge, grabbed it, and vaulted over the rails. I landed with a boom. (Rhino’s ain’t made for elegance.) It was much quieter and darker there in the passageway.
I burst into the booth. One of the men was squeezing her jaw. Two others held her arms apart. They turned maggot white when they saw me.
I said, “Get out.”
One. Two. Three. Poof. Them was gone.
I started to ask, “What was they--” but she said, “Got a light?” pretending it was every day a rhino saved her ass. I scented her fear--it came thick and strong.
She was cross-legged on the velvet sofa. My eyes traveled down her body, and my cigar went tumbling out.
She had no real arms or legs. The only parts of her that was human was her torso, neck, and head. Her neck jacked in to a squarish frame that covered her tiny chest. Her entire exo looked like it was assembled from Coke cans.
Embarrassment--a sour scent--mixed with her fear. She didn’t look away, though. She stared right at me. Daring me to say something.
“Light me up,” she said.
I snorted, flicked the burner. Her lips trembled.
Her eyebrows were surrounded by red and white dots that curved down to her cheeks. Jawline sprinkled with glitter. A nose ring twinkled bright against her black skin. She was breathing hard, and sweat beaded up on her collarbone. I wanted to lick it.
I tried to do the human intro thing. Hand shaking. Rhinos just sniff each other.
“Amalric,” I said and put out my hoofhand. She ducked. My hoofhand was half the size of her face.
Stratos high as I was, I tried not to stare at her artificial limbs. I been stared at all my life. Fuck if I’ll do that to somebody else.
“I guess them three ain’t part of a bondage act,” I said.
“Huh. Anything but.” She took a long drag, flicked at the hair that fell over them dark eyes, and said, “Thanks for dropping by.”
“Always keen for a fight.”
“So it’s true what they say about rhinos, then?”
“What? Them say lots of things.”
The edges of her lips curled. “Seat? My neck hurts looking up at you.”
“Curry-laksa,” I said, seating next to her.
“That’s what Malaysia is famous for. You know, tasty red coconut curry mixed with ’em noodles. It’s delish. They got it here. I get it with extra tofu. Hungry?”
She looked at me and then laughed.
“What?” I said.
“You eating tofu,” she said. “Go ahead, I’m starving. It’s been ages since I had a laksa.”
See, I warmed her up. My rhino charm works on all the ladies.
While we ate, she talked about Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, and Buddha. I heard the names before but had no idea who they was, ’cept for Mohammed. He was a boxer.
By nature I’m a crap listener. Most people seem to spout shit, so I switch off. But when she talked…I never been that enthusiastic since I led a charge with the Rumble-Pack, even if I didn’t understand much.
She said, “I’m interlacing my points of view with rationalism and romanticism.”
Romanticism I liked the sound of. I told her I only knew about rhino-ism, and she laughed.
“Where you get all that info from?” I said.
“You read books?”
She said, “I’ve lots of antique fetishes.”
Outside, the music had slowed down from pulse-punk to L&S-Goth. Love music makes me sick, no matter how the DJ tries to mash it. I knew we must be coming to the end of the night, but I felt as if I’d swallowed a dose of medibots. I didn’t want to leave.
I edged closer to her.
Her purple lips blew smoke-rings. I snatched at one, and it broke apart.
“Ha ha,” she laughed.
I blundered it, then. Asked her, “So how you end up like that?”
Her lips smooched left and right. She turned away.
Then she said, “I remember the signage in the Water Wars. It was always a giant-sized rhino in magmite armor. Did wonders for the recruitment campaign. Where did you all go?”
Normally I don’t like answering questions like that. Ain’t nobody’s business. But she was curious. The gov’ment left us untagged, so it’s hard to find rhino details these days, even on the neuralnet.
“Few left go abouts here and there. We don’t travel together, though, always by ourselves.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
“Nah,” I lied, “them’s no trouble. Main trouble is feelin’ like, like maybe there ain’t no purpose for being here now them Water Wars is over.”
Whoops. Couldn’t believe I admitted that. This girl was having a strange effect on me, opening me up like a rhino ration pack.
She looked in my eyes the longest time, then nodded, took a last drag.
“So where you live?” I asked.
She stumped her cigar butt on a steel ankle. “Come see for yourself.”
She lived in the povo part of town. So stupid. She couldn’t even look after herself in a nightclub. We was in an alley with critters in the shadows. They perked up when they saw her, but when they saw me they pissed off.
“This is it,” she said.
The place was white with black windows. A drain that stunk real bad gushed next to the building.
Inside her apartment, it was different. First thing I noticed--she lived alone. I know cause her place was as empty as mine. Her walls were digiprinted with black-and-white pebbles. Her kitchen had this little waterfall that fell between two plants. Them plants looked so delicious that I took a bite out of one. I chewed, only it wasn’t as green as it looked, more crunchy than I expected.
She looked at me all strange.
“What?” I said.
“I can’t believe…That’s an authentic bonsai you’ve just…Oh never mind. Come this way.”
She grabbed me like she was in a hurry. Her rusty exo-fingers got a decent grip. In the living room there was an oversized neuralnet recliner. Multi-pronged. It was the only thing worth money in her place. I kind of guessed it would be the center of her world. I mean, where else would you go if you had no arms and legs? Swimming?
“You want to try the hook?” she said.
I said that I did.
“Go ahead,” she said.
I jacked myself in. The apartment faded as her virtual dashboard came online. There was mixed-up colors (too weird to say what they was), and music--religious chants with a dash of pulse-punk. A giant worm, transparent bats, and the scent of pineapple. Ahead, rainbows and lollipops floated on foam. A thousand AIs spoke.
Humans are crazy. It was starting to give me a tuskache.
Anyways, in the middle all that, I saw a black island. My fighter instincts got me prickly. I only spotted it cause I ran a scan. I learned that when I started trawling. If you don’t run scans in the neuralnet, you get burnt by Inquisitors.
The island led to an inky corridor. It was ambush-quiet in there. My hearts started to beat quicker. On the black slab a scroll melted out. I read it.
I logged off. I was shaking. I ripped the jack out, said, “You got a Gene-Vault’s blueprint stored on your root drive? You insane?”
“I lifted it three days ago. It was a silent copy. The Inquisitors have no idea.”
“It’s a fucken Gene-Vault!”
She arched an eyebrow. “I’ve got blueprints for all seven Gene-Vaults.”
“No way,” I said. She had to be boasting. Not even the Marx could trawl the net that good, and he had unlimited processing power.
I said, “How…What you plan to do with this?”
“Look at me.” She knuckled her exo. It made a hollow ting. “I can use the inventory in the Gene-Vault to make me normal. Give me legs and arms like a real girl, so I don’t have to plant myself into this chassis every morning. Do you know how long that takes?”
Her black hair swung down as she stared at a rusty toe. “I’m sick of people looking at me like I’m a freak.”
I said, “The freak thing we got in common.” I raised her chin. Shit, for a sec I was shaking bad. Something about touching her fuzzed me up.
Her eyebrows lifted, and her lips opened. She said, “We do? But you’re a rhino. Invincible. Invulnerable.” She laid a hand on my chest.
I thought what she had to do each morning. She would wake up, maybe wriggle around to slot herself in that chassis. I was born strong, with all my limbs intact. Never thought that was special. Until I seen her.
The holoprint rotated above my hoofpalm. “Why this one?” I said.
Her hand was still on my chest. I shifted closer and put my hoofhand around her waist. She felt so teeny, like she’d break if I hugged her.
She said, “It’s taken me eight years. I started looking when I was twelve. That particular Gene-Vault”--she nodded at the blueprint--“holds the highest-grade gene-ampoules. I’m talking yoctobot-synthetics.”
I raised my brow ridge.
She said, “It’s stolen. Governments stealing from governments. I believe the Australians lifted it from the Chindian government.”
“Yoctobots,” I said, “we only got nanotech. They what, ten generations ahead?”
A single yoctobot gene-ampoule was worth squadjillions. If I got in on this, I would never have to beg the Marx for work again.
“It’s stealing what’s stolen. So it’s not really stealing,” she said.
I said, “That don’t worry me. Unique sigs, that’s the problem. That type of tech is going to have ’em.”
I’d tried and failed to rob a Gene-Vault before. Since then, I’d thought a few things out. I knew I needed someone with smarts.
“I can wipe the signatures,” she said.
“Shit, yeah? Even if you escape somehow, you’d have to go off-planet.”
She said, “I’m not particularly attached to where I live. Neither are you.”
I huffed. “What’s your name?”
“Manjulali Chekitana. Lali for shorts.”
I told her she was a cheeky girl and she smiled. What a smile! It punched your heart.
I rubbed my snout against her nose--the rhino handshake. Lali smelled of pleasant surprise. Right then, it wasn’t about a shitload of cash.
People is only ever interested in rhinos cause they want to use us for toughs, but there was something else with Lali. She trusted me. She knew I’d be there to catch her.
I watched the last of my golden liquid fall on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
“Charming,” Lali said. “Do you always urinate on national monuments?”
“Just glad to be back in Australia.” I tapped on the steel beams and grinned. “You think that’s bad, eh? You should have seen this big load I did on the Statue of Liberty.” I winked at her.
“Sounds like you’ve got some deep-seated psychological issues with authority.”
“I did piss on the Great Wall once.”
She shook her head.
“Here, a present.” She bent down and unzipped a large bag.
“Fifty-medibot slim-packs! Now them is the key to my heart.” The slim-packs were disc shaped, made out of steelcrete. They must have cost a fortune. The armor on my thighs was fitted with sockets that hooked up to slim-packs. I stowed ’em away on my back webbing, made sure they was tied snug.
“We’re going to need those,” she said seriously.
“Hey, check out my back-strapped scabbard.” I twisted to show her.
“Triple-headed missile launcher,” she said. Her fingers made a “ting” against one of the heads. “Nice belt, too.” She nodded at my socketed belt filled with grenades.
She said, “My turn. Have a look at this.” Lali unhitched a bolt-rifle.
“Nice.” Her rifle was heavily modified: extra large LED on the sights and a mesh of red micro-circuitry. I checked out its sights and whistled. It had alternate-fire mode, so it could lob grenades. A real evil gun. I liked it, a lot.
I handed it back to her, said, “It’s small but powerful, just like you.”
I think she blushed, but she turned away real quick.
We double-checked everything. Then I checked again. My motto: check, check, and recheck. The escape plan involved a boat. I used a GPS scan to check the boat was still tethered to the pier.
Lali had a bunch of portable comps to tap into systems. She also had the set bombs. She was supporting artillery and intelligence. I was the siege engine.
“Did you check the hover-boards charges?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yep, they’re full. I even brought extra battery packs.”
I said, “C’mon, then. Let’s go.”
I floored the hoverbike and we tore through them streets. The Gene-Vault was right in the middle of the Sydney Opera House Crater. My wikinet search said the SOHC was consecrated ground. You couldn’t normally place buildings in those zones. How the heck these people manage to place a Gene-Vault there?
Lali’s grip tightened on me as we drove the streets. When I felt her boobs press against my back, I lost focus and almost cleaned up a biocrack addict. Shit! Them peoples was more dangerous than radiation potholes. The addict stumbled behind us. As we turned a long corner, he approached a group of cybes. They dangled a packet of blue powder in front of him and prodded his groin. He stared at them, eyes waxy.
“He’s dead,” I said. I knew what them cybes would do to him.
“Damn biocrack. He can’t be more than eight,” Lali said.
When we passed the Sydney harborside, Lali made all these sad noises. Said she visited there ages ago. Said the water was blue before. I kept quiet, but as far as I can see, there’s nothing wrong with glowy green water. Mutant fish look like sliced tendons, but they actually pretty tasty. I ate them in the war.
I parked the hoverbike in a secluded area, and we got off.
The opera house looked like cracked eggshells. Wall chunks all over the wet ground. Lali said the walls was called sails ’cause the opera house was designed to look like a big ship sailing into the ocean.
Sticking out from the middle of this mess, like a tooth that had bit through, was the Gene-Vault. Its slopey sides disappeared into the water. Six rhinos in white masks guarded the entrance, armored and magazined to the brim. In front of them, burning bins gave off a black smoke. Them bins was filled with tar-fuel to keep the rhinos warm. Normal fire won’t warm through our skin. On the roof was two large cameras, their lenses stretched out.
“I thought you said that the Gene-Vault was lightly guarded?” I said. It was looking like my failed job for the Marx all over again.
“Compared to the others,” Lali said. “Actually, what we’re seeing here is the rear entrance. The front entrance is underground, and that’s where our egress point is.”
“Timings check, please.” I synched the clocks on our comps. “Deal is fifteen minutes. That’s it. If we there longer, I’m pulling us out. Got it?”
I hawked up and spat a goober.
“Today is a good day to die!” Lali laughed. “Hey,”--she walked to me, stood on tippy-toe, and smooched my tusk--“be careful.” Then she jumped on her hover-board and headed to the Gene-Vault.
“You coming?” she says.
My three thumbs traced the spot she kissed. I cursed and shot after her.
When we reached the entrance, them rhinos opened fire.
I slammed my board against a bunch of rocks and ducked the lase-fire. I didn’t even get a chance to peek over. I blind-threw all six grenades, and they whistled through the air, zeroed in on their targets. There was a “clunk” as they stickered themselves to the bins.
“Get down!” I shouted
The grenades exploded. Black smoke poofed in the air, and I saw them turrets come alive. Necks whizzed like they was infected with viralware. The cams couldn’t spot us cause we was still ducked under. But soon as we stepped out, they would.
Lali took out something like a briefcase.
“What you doin’?” I said.
She said, “Distracting those turrets.” She popped her case open, and n-moths fluttered up, millions of them. They clouded them turrets in blue wings.
“Now!” I shouted. I jammed on my oxyfilter and sprinted to the entrance. My hooves crunched on the debris. Turret fire thundered in my ears. Lali had gone in already. The girl was fast. She had this strange move: she’d run two large steps, do a small step, then take another two large.
Inside, it was dark and wet. The sprinklers spat water. I slipped a few times and then smashed the crap out of ’em. The red emergency lights were low, but finally I found the passageway.
Damn. Twin clanium doors barred our way.
I retreated, then charged head first. I slammed the doors. They shuddered. I had to do it two more times before them doors gave in. Then I crashed through.
It took me a second to realize I was on stairs, and they was vibrating. Lali passed by in a blur. Then them stairs collapsed. Lali had detonated our set-bombs. I was thrown, hit a steelcrete pole and rolled to a stop. Everything was dusty. My left ankle took a bad twist. It sent sharp bites into my feet, all the way up my calves.
Gunshots came from the corridor. I ran and found Lali laying behind a pillar.
“Shit,” I said. Lali’s frame was shot. Purple liquid oozed out her artificial legs. “That okay?”
“I feel great. You want to help kill those?” Lali nodded in front of her. She ducked shrapnel as another salvo of lase-beams blasted.
“Okay.” I rolled next to her, unclipped my gauss-cannon, and fired. The grenade blasted out, detonated at the far end of the corridor. The backdraft singed my skin. I knelt and covered Lali. Her silver-pink hair smelled of circuit-boards and mech-lube.
“I’m alright, Mr. Muscles.” She fit so nice in the crook of my arms, but she slipped out of them, pointed behind me. “The vault is right here.”
Lali knelt before the vault. The doors had two yellow bars across ’em. Thousands of network ports was embedded on the door. Just looking at it confused the crap out of me. Lali took out a data cable from her navel-receptacle and jerked on it. When it had enough slack, she jacked into a port. The display on her forearm blinked with scrolling code.
“Quickly, three seconds left!” I said. I covered her and aimed down the hall. I heard footsteps.
Damn, but those was the tensest two minutes of the entire mission. The Klaxons stopped blaring, and the lights flickered off. I switched on the four LEDs on me shoulders. The yellow beams narrowed my vision, so I had to keep turning to catch everything.
“Found it. There.” Slowly, Lali pumped code down the wire. She thumbs-upped me. “Double done.”
The vault door swung open, and there it was. Rows and rows of gene-ampoules hovered along them walls. Lali’s fingers brushed each one, searching for her yoctobot-synthetics. I had never seen so many gene-ampoules in my life.
“Can’t believe I’m inside one of these,” I said.
“Where is it?” Lali said.
She ducked under a steelcrete shelf. Then she hissed in delight. She pushed against a blank space in the floor and found a hidey hole. Four pyramids was in there. They glowed purple, orange, black, and milk-white.
“Yes!” She scooped ’em up, then hugged me.
“’Kay, let’s get out of here,” I said.
My UI was blinking red: sixteen minutes. One minute over. In my worry, I forgot to get in front of Lali. She was heading for the doors. My first mistake that night, and by Grey Tusk did I pay for it.
“Hold it!” Rhinos busted in and opened fire.
I ducked. Red lasers exploded into Lali. Hurled her backwards. She crashed into the wall.
Her little exoskeleton was completely crumpled. A green smear ran from her cheeks to her stomach. The metal on her stomach had ripped apart, showing pale brown skin hadn’t never seen sun. Her hands opened, and them four pyramids fell out.
The world turned red. I stood and charged. Them rhinos sidestepped, but I flicked gel-grenades on ’em. Rhinos have a tough skin. We don’t notice so much when small things touch it. They reached out to get my neck, but I slipped their grip.
They exploded in red mist.
I picked Lali up. Shoved the yoctobots into one of her Velcroed pockets. Her exoskeleton was one cheap knock-off job. She seemed to wince when I did it. I figured any sign from her was a good thing.
Drizzle coated everything outside. A shadow moved, and I raised the gauss-cannon. I aimed and almost pressed the trigger. But it wasn’t nothing. I told myself to calm the fuck down.
Lali mumbled. I took her down and cradled her. Underneath a slit in her chassis was a little screen, displayed her heart rate. It said 25 beats per minute. If I didn’t get help, she would flatline.
I lifted her up and ran to the pier. I ripped off the camo-tarp, jumped into our boat. I got out my knife. Was about to slice the rope when I heard a noise. I strained my ears. Then I thought, Amalric, stop kidding yourself. I went to slice the rope--
I staggered, crunched to my knees, and stared at the three holes through my chest. They looked like glowy ends of cigars.
“What’s a brickface like you runnin’ and gunnin’ with a human?” A rhino stood on the pier. The triple-muzzle of his bolt-rifle glowed. Rhino killers, that’s what we call a triple-muzzle bolt-rifle. You can hit both them hearts in one shot.
I couldn’t speak shit. My mouth tasted of iron. The world was goin’ dark.
“Rhinos ain’t no never run with humans. Especially one like that. She a biocrack whore?” The rhino neared the boat. I couldn’t see him, but I heard his footsteps closer.
All I seen was the synth-wood planks that formed the hull. The red gushing onto the planks was my blood. There was a lot of it.
“Quickly!” Lali’s voice hissed behind me. She sounded far away. Something prodded me in the back--the barrel of my gauss-cannon.
A massive boom and the boat rocked. The rhino was right in front of me.
“Gosh, you a tough one to kill, looks like I need to shoot yer again. You won’t survive this one, brickface,” he said.
The air moved.
I was quicker. My shot scored right above the knee, slicing him at the quads. He screamed. I got up and pushed--weakest push I ever done--but he went overboard. Somehow, I managed to slam the throttle to full.
The boat sped into the night.
It was so damn dark. Couldn’t see shit. It was a miracle I found the cove we marked. Lali and me both needed serious doses of medibots.
“Lali?” I tapped her cheek. She stopped breathing and dizzied out. Her life force was on a sure fade.
I searched for the medipack. Things was starting to get weird. I saw two boats and two Lalis, and then two of everything. I grabbed the medipack and sucked in gushes of air. The pack had been shot to shit, and there was only two slim-packs left. That wasn’t enough medibots for both of us.
“Shit, fuck, fuck!”
My body screamed for medibots. Now I knew how a biocrack whore felt.
I brought the medipack to the socket on my thigh, almost about to lock the pack in and save myself. I’d killed for medipacks before. No way I could give them up now.
My eyes shifted to Lali. She looked like one squished aluminum doll.
My medibot-starved brain worked clear just a few ticks. I thought of the first night I met Lali, how she looked at me so kind when I said I had no purpose. And I thought, I’ve lived so far, and them war’s gone. Maybe Lali’s my new purpose. She was like me in a ways, and that was why we got along so fine. There was no guarantees in life. Rhinos knew it best. You had to give things a go.
Gakit! I reached for her.
Her chest was cut and bleeding. She looked dead. I injected the medibots into her stomach. Her eyes rolled back, and all I seen was whites.
I’d only used one slim-pack when she made this “huuuh” sound, like her lungs got shot, then said, “The yoc…” and dizzied out again.
The world was dipped in biochems. Everything blurry and slow. I looked at the big empty bag I never got a chance to fill with our haul, then to Lali’s pockets.
The yoctobots! I understood what she was trying to say. Them yoctos could heal as well. I undid the Velcro straps around Lali’s thigh. The yoctobot-synthetics came tumbling out: purple, orange, black, and milk-white. All glittering.
I put one on her abdomen, removed the medipack’s needle injector, connected it to the little pyramid, and pressed the needle in. The purple pyramid lost its color as the fluid went inside Lali. I done the same for the other three.
My body convulsed. Threw me back. I shoved the last slim-pack to my thigh socket, but it clattered against the armor. I tried again, but my hoofhand wasn’t working right. For a sec I thought I’d die. But on the third try, there was a click, and them medibots surged in my veins like ice. I shuddered. Ecstasy. There wasn’t much left, but the stack was enough to restore my left heart.
When I opened my eyes, Lali was glowing. Her body flickered purple, orange, black, and white. Damn yeah, the yoctos was working! Where her exo had been--the arms and legs was gone. Heat radiated from Lali like she was a piece of graphene being cooked in a superfab. I shaded my eyes and only looked when her body cooled down.
My Lali was brand new, from the crinkles on her knees to the fine hairs on her forearms. Her limbs was dotted with sweat. Her skin was soft, smooth, and very, very warm. Her nipples reacted to the cold. She curled up and shivered. I laid the camo-tarp over her. Then I got down next to her, put an arm across that tarp, and rested my snout on her head.