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First Chapter of Replaneted (a.k.a. “Terraforming Romance”)

I had only been parked at the spaceport portico for three minutes when this man who decided he was king of the cul-de-sac stormed up. He had bulldog jowls and a gray uniform that made his body look like vacu-wrapped biscuit dough.

“Hey, lady. You can’t park that shuttlecraft here. Move your butt!” he said, pointing a hot dog-finger at me.

“I’m waiting for-” I said.

“Like hell you are. Move your tuchus or I’ll hand you your ass.”

“I’m Lady Camilia Nakamura-L’etoi’s chauffeur. I’m picking her up here,” I said.

“Oh, yeah? You got a veri-doc that says that?”

“No, but… she should be here shortly. Her rocket landed thirty minutes ago.” I held up my PADD with a live feed of the spacecraft’s data. It noted which station the passengers were at–baggage retrieval, decontamination, gravity adjustment.

“No doc-ument, no doc-king,” said Sausage Fingers.

“Lady Camilia is expecting me. I can’t-“

Sausage Fingers whistled at an auto-patroller drifting across the pathway. “Yo. Over here!”

Auto-patrollers look like blocky robots but have no AI. A tiny camera sits in a telescoping antenna on the head. The cop’s face appears on a screen in its stomach. They’re dumb mobile units so all the cops can stay at their stations and remote in where needed. That way they don’t put their bodies at risk on the street and the robot takes all the abuse.

The auto-patroller monotoned in a dry female voice “Are you initiating a dialogue with a stationary enforcement officer?”

“Yes,” said Sausage Fingers.

A spinning circle. Then the screen showed a pudgy cop’s face wearing dark reflective AR lenses. I couldn’t tell if he was at a desk or not.

“Hey, Dougly.” Sausage Fingers said. “Good to see you’re still on the beat.”

“Ernius,” he nodded. “What’s the problem?”

“This lady’s parked her shuttle in the middle of the entryway of the spaceport. Other crafts gotta land here.”

“I’m not right in front of the door,” I said, holding my arms out.

The auto-patroller–Officer Dougly–rotated on its grav-disc to face me. “And can I have your name?”

“Zaira Ravine. I’m the chauffeur for Lady Camilia. She’s coming back from Luna Gamma II today and-“

“That bird’s been down for forty-five minutes,” Ernius said to Dougly. “Anyone on that flight is long gone.”

Dougly added “You’re telling me Lady Camilia uses a driver? She doesn’t have an autonomous vehicle?”

I said “She doesn’t use them. You can see my contract if you want.”

Dougly the “not-quite-a-robot” spun a few degrees, then backed up to see my shuttle. “What is that? Five? Seven decades old?”

“Seven,” I said. Maybe I lucked out. Maybe I got a cop who liked vintage vehicles. “It’s a Carthage model LW Bellona.”

“I wouldn’t pick up my son’s spider-crabs in that thing,” said Ernius “Sausage Fingers” McWhoever. “I bet she’s dumping it.”

The robot’s head perked up. An auxiliary camera grew like a periscope to give a higher and wider view.

I waved at the cop to get his attention. “If you would just give me a chance to-“

“Lady… Miss Ravine… I don’t care what you got. You can’t land a shuttlecraft in a non-designated zone. I should charge you for misrepresenting your position–that’s fraud. But I’m just going to cite you for the violation-“

My eyes swelled. “Oh no. No no no. Please.” Violations and fines came out of my pocket, not Lady Camilia’s. I was not her employee, just a contractor. That meant the vehicle wasn’t Nakamura-L’etoi property, it stayed mine. But everything I did was under my liability, including fines.

And the authorities on Greenwich weren’t stingy about handing them out. Their taxes paid for their lifestyle. The cheapest penalty was steep enough I wouldn’t be able to eat for a month.

“Please-please-please. I can’t afford it.” I pleaded.

“Then ask your ‘lady’ for a loan,” Ernius sneered. I could hear something churning inside the auto-cop. Something old and grindy spinning up to print my ticket information.

Officer Dougly said, “Next time, don’t make up some story about how you’re waiting for Camilia Nakamura-L’etoi-“

“She is not waiting for Lady Camilia,” said a prim female voice. “Because she is now here.”

The three of us turned to Lady Camilia Nakamura-L’etoi, standing in the wide doorway, leaning on her gnarled varnished cane. Two flanking men in spaceport uniforms (a safety orange and tan) acted as guards. A red box floated beside her–the lady’s suitcase–its grav-disc glowing underneath.

“Oh. Pardon me.” Ernius took off his hat, revealing he had no hair. “I- I didn’t know… I didn’t think… I didn’t expect-“

Lady Camilia’s eyes narrowed down Ernius. “I am one hundred and seventy-eight years old. Forgive me if it takes a bit longer than the average man to get from one place to another.”

Camilia spoke methodically, adroitly. Every word sounded like a brick attached to a fist. She was a figure model covered with paper skin, but her brain was as sharp as a knife.

The two spaceport workers leaped to her side as she took a step, holding out their arms like she was a wobbly stack of dishes.

“And you,” she said to her escorts. “I told you neither your attendance nor protection was necessary.”

“We just wanted to make sure you got out fine. It’s not-“

“I am now leaving the spaceport, so your ‘supervision’ has ended. If I needed your help, I would have asked for it,” she snapped like a striking cobra.

“Do you need any help getting into your shuttle?” one of the workers asked.

“For the further three steps I must walk, I wish to be unescorted. If you would be so kind, please return to the more useful work you were doing before I arrived.”

The two spaceport personnel both nodded, their faces red, and went back in.

“Now,” Lady Camilia said, staring daggers at Robo-officer Dougly. “What business do you two have here with my transportation?”

“Milady, I’m sorry.” Ernius walked up to her, hunched. “I really didn’t know this was for you. She parked- I mean, this is the zone where-“

“I have just returned from Gamma Luna II. And the journey there was no better than the one back.” She turned to Officer Dougly’s automaton. “I am allotted only so many steps in life. I intend to make them count. So I arrange my transport as close as possible to my point of egress. Does this make sense to you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then you won’t begrudge me for bending the rules slightly when I have business?”

“No, of course not, ma’am.” Ernius continually bowed his head.

“Good. And you? You seem to have no further business harassing my chauffeur, do you?”

“No, ma’am,” Officer Dougly said. The auto-patroller rotated and headed back to its preprogrammed route.

“Do you need any help with your luggage?” Ernius asked. “I can help. Please, let me help.”

“Do not touch,” Lady Camilia said. “My chauffeur handles my luggage. Therefore you no longer have any reason to be here. So get out of our way.”

“Yes, ma’am. Yes. I’m sorry. Excuse me.” Bowing, Ernius retreated from the awning and backed into a bush.

While this was happening, I maneuvered Lady Nakamura-L’etoi’s luggage to the rear of the shuttle. When I shut the compartment, it hissed to let me know it had vacu-sealed to prevent shifting.

I stood by the side and hit a tab on my PADD. The side wall of the shuttle folded up like an accordion. A wide flat tongue extended from the bottom edge.

While Lady Camilia gingerly walked in, the gathered crowd snapped pictures and called friends over. Seeing a Nakamura-L’etoi was akin to meeting a fictional character in real life. They were people you read about, not met.

Finally, I got inside–much quieter in here–and took my place at the taupe piloting console. I entered a code and the dashboard woke up. The most important gauges slid to the two screens on either side of my silver control globe. I placed my hands on the globe, suspended in a mini-gravity well allowing frictionless movement. Three-dimensional flying needed more than a steering wheel.

Lady Camilia leaned out of her seat to look at me. “Poor Zaira, what happened?” In here, the pretenses dropped and she sounded like a caring grandmother.

“Oh, it was nothing. Some problem with the veri-doc. It was just awkward,” I said. Total lie. If she came ten seconds later, I would have been eating ketchup packets for a month.

“You have been under my contract long enough that one should be able to recognize such a distinct craft.”

“Maybe it would be better if we put your name on the side?” I had volunteered to redecorate my shuttle in Nakamura-L’etoi colors when I was hired, but she politely declined. She liked the “stand-out classic” style, much like herself.

She could have commissioned an automated flyte-yacht, twelve stories and big as a blimp. If she wanted a sidewalk in the air, I bet they’d build it for her. “The whole point of leasing this vehicle is to declare myself without having to declare myself. If I have to tell others that I’m the most powerful person on Greenwich, then I’m not the most powerful person on Greenwich, am I?” Lady Camilia asked.

I laughed and nodded.

The anti-grav discs pushed the shuttle off the ground. My hands waved around the navigation console globe the way a psychic manipulates a crystal ball. Piloting is really managing. You do a little programming, a little navigation, then watch to make sure nothing goes wrong. My stomach rolled pleasantly as the shuttle accelerated toward the skyway routes.

“How was the trip?” I asked.

Lady Camilia groaned. “Imagine the dullest thing that you can and it was twice as dull as that. At least traveling by land, one may watch the scenery. In space, nothing moves.”

The only people who could see the stars were those like Nakamura-L’etoi’s. Ones who lived over the light pollution and cloud cover.

“What about Gamma Luna itself?” I asked.

She sighed. “Like all other visits. Fifteen minutes of actual work accomplished, the rest filled by posturing and social calls. Really, at my age, you’d think they’d want to get to the point faster. I could keel over any second.”

I laughed out loud. The funny thing was she still had years left, according to her doctors. They thought she could get to two hundred. Whether it would be a good two hundred…

“Do they still want their sovereignty?” I asked.

“They say they do, but of course, it’s for show. Every colony thinks they can be self-sufficient, but they’re all dependent on each other. And they need our corporation to coordinate that. They still need rebreathers to go outdoors. And they need subterranean pressure coils to increase gravity. We supply all that. This is a situation where there can be no compromise. So negotiation is pointless. ‘Tis the nature of a moon to revolve around its host.”

“I hear life isn’t pleasant there.”

“And it’s not going to get more pleasant for centuries. Yet many people believe in staying. They have such hope for a better future, they don’t mind sacrificing generations to the present. A colony is only as good as the people that work it. People are like plants. They can be groomed. They can branch and flower. They can grow in the tightest of conditions. And they die very easily. But we got a deal out of them at least. Let’s get home.”

I bit my lip. This would have been a great time to bring up my contract. It would expire by the next month and Lady Camilia hadn’t said anything about renewal or amending. I was worried she’d forgotten about me in all the things she’d had to do.

Hopefully, we’d built enough rapport that she’d want to hire me as a full-time employee. That meant more money, more benefits. I’d have to keep the shuttle in a Nakamura-L’etoi garage, but it would be worth it given how I lived now.

It’s one of those things you have to bring up but don’t want to. Yet when the opportunity came, I froze, gripped my console, and hesitated until the moment passed.

Only I could feel the acceleration as I raised the throttle and opened the fuel lines. Keeping balance between the mag-levs and forward thrust was tight, but that was the job description.

I make it sound like an action-packed scenario, but this had been my shuttle since I was a little kid. I could feel the air outside, the gravity inside. When I banked left, I leaned with it, like I was an organ inside its exoskeleton.

Human drivers are a dying breed. The city’s infrastructure prevents vehicle collisions, making driverless vehicles more convenient and cheaper. But also constrained by their programming. They couldn’t break the speed limits, not even a little. They couldn’t swerve around a building or overclock their engine. Moderation was the key to their safety. And nothing could break it short of a hack job that would be detected as soon as it was installed.

Whereas I can bend the rules of the road. Or air. I could slip a little bit closer to that radio control tower and shave a few seconds off the trip. And those seconds add up.

Camilia lay back and took a deep breath. “Zaira, do you think you could lower the wall screens? I’d like to see the city.”

I disengaged the shuttle’s interior opaque covering. The beige walls faded away and a monster of a ecumenopolis spread out before her. Glass and metal buildings rose and fell like a frozen sea of industry.

She hadn’t asked to open the walls for a long time. I figured she got bored looking at the same city over and over. Travel time was one break from the constant go-go-go of her life. If she wasn’t talking to me, she was napping or holding teleconferences.

Flying cars soared along efficient routes. Hovering signs like “Artificial Intelligence Deserves Equal Rights” and “100% Synthetic Beef: Tastes Like the Real Thing!” flew by. Above the clouds was all tubes and satellite dishes and giant buildings.

Camilia reclined and watched it go by. “Zaira, never give this up. Nothing smashes so delightfully in the face of nature’s expectations as human flight. Don’t trade this for anything. They say there won’t be a single human pilot on the planet in ten years–that all vehicles will be automated–but I don’t think that’s true. I think you’ll be working for some time.”

That would certainly be good news to me.

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Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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