Today’s Tuesday Short Story is by Greg Stolze. Greg is an award-winning RPG and fiction writer and games designer, author of such awesome games as Reign, Godlike, Wild Talents, Unknown Armies, and many more. His fiction works include novels such as Godwalker, Switchflipped, Mask of the Other, and Sinner, and numerous short stories.
“Playborg Photographer” is based on Greg’s own RPG …in Spaaace! which is available free of charge here. There’s also a setting book for the game called Dinosaurs …in Spaaace! available for only $10 from Indie Press Revolution here.
by Greg Stolze
Xotappath T’logga woke up, had his usual breakfast (fruit compote and a warm bowl of restaurant-grade bone meal) and was already stylishly dressed before he realized something was wrong. With a frown, he went back to the bedroom to wake his best friend.
“Solly,” he said, “Something strange just…”
“If it’s a weird dream, can it wait? I think I suffered a memory crash while I was recharging.”
Xotappath’s auxiliary heart began to beat, and he felt a tingle in his electricity gland. “What’s the last date you remember?”
“Niketober twenty-ninth, and now it’s Micrsoftember fifth. You didn’t accidentally shock me or something, did you?”
“I don’t think so… because I don’t remember anything for that week either.”
* * *
Xotappath T’logga was the last survivor of a proud warrior race. He was also a fashion photographer, and his friends called him ‘Xo’.
Solly was a small robot, about the size of Xo’s fist. He was self-aware, flight capable and autonomous, built to be a combination camera and telephone.
When the pair realized that they were both missing the same chunk of time, they went to the offices of Playborg magazine.
* * *
“Are you sure you weren’t just on a bender?” the Editor-in-Chief asked.
“Solly’s got amnesia too.”
“Whoa. That’s something, then.” The EiC was ex-human. He had an extra arm, ear and mouth to compliment a neural split, which allowed him to concentrate fully on two conversations at once. While his primary mouth was speaking with them, his secondary was on his phone.
(His phone was a racy pink number named Sascha who was always either teasing or being sweet to Solly, capriciously, with no regard to Solly’s attitude towards her.)
“You must’ve gotten on someone’s bad side. When was the last time you got a brain-print taken?”
“I dunno. Six months ago?”
“Great Paglia’s Ghost, Xo! I back up my mind every week!”
Xo shuffled his feet. “You know what happened that one time.”
The EiC frowned, then remembered. “Well, if you’d use a reputable memory storage facility instead of some fly-by-night ‘freelancer’ you wouldn’t have problems with your early sexual awakenings being broadcast pay-per-view.”
“Hey, at least it was with a sentient species,” Sascha said. “How’d your lawsuit against him go?”
Xo shrugged. “It’s still pending.”
“You’d have a stronger case if you hadn’t torn him limb from limb,” Solly said.
“He was asking for it.”
“Once, sure, but five times?” Solly persisted.
“They weren’t all dismemberments.”
“Five resurrections probably ate up any profit he made,” Sascha added.
“Yeah, but I got a couple months’ rent off downloads of the first murder footage.”
“…which he’s now suing us for showing,” Solly said.
“It was worth it just for the P.R.,” the EiC said. “Your name recognition got a real bounce. ‘Proud warrior tears apart pornographer.’ It played well on Rigel.”
“How ‘bout, ‘Proud warrior avenges memory theft’?”
The editor stroked his chin. “You guys learned something, and someone went to some trouble to get it out of your heads. Yeah. Look into it. If there’s a story…”
“I don’t write,” Xo warned.
“Fine, fine, I’ll get Steve or Wordbot5 to ghost it. That okay?”
“I want a raise.”
“A raise?” asked the Editor, as if Xo had asked to eat one of his wives. “What makes you think I’m going to give you a raise?”
“If I had more money, I wouldn’t need to go cheap on my memories.”
“This from a guy wearing not one but two neckties that cost… what, five hundred Bashri credits each?”
“One’s a knockoff,” Sascha said.
“And I can’t represent Playborg in anything but the finest fashions, can I?”
The EiC hung up and focused both halves of his attention on Xo – the photographer could tell because he was tapping all fifteen fingers on his desk. “Elections are coming up on seven of the thirteen democracies in the Big Thirty systems,” he said. “You find me some news that’ll make those poor voting bastards forget their troubles, and there’ll be a nice bonus in it.”
* * *
Playborg magazine aimed for a broad, cross-species readership – physiology mattered less to the editor than an interest in fast vehicles, stylish clothes, indulgent personal consumer technology and, of course, prurient images. Xotappath T’logga added some nice macho swagger to the masthead, and while he’d really wanted to be a landscape photographer, he’d adapted to the slopes and contours of lovely specimens in advanced stages of undress. Whether it was the voluptuous curves of a Rigelian athlete’s wings or the delicious nubbly texture of a Phormath starlet’s exoskeleton, Xo T’logga could capture it at the angle, lighting and composition most likely to provoke public hoots and lengthy private adoration from Playborg‘s target readership.
* * *
After shaking hands with the Editor, Xo went to a bar.
“What do you want in there, Dave?” Solly asked. ‘Dave’ was a taunt used by artificial consciousnesses from the Sol system – some obscure piece of robot humor. Xo ignored it.
“Well, I was thinking I’d start with a nice single malt and a beer back…”
“You think drinking is going to solve this?”
“Not solve… mm… perhaps I’m retracing my steps?” Xo didn’t sound terribly certain.
“Then you should be getting a ticket to Delta York.”
They entered. It was noisy, a busy lunch crowd, but it parted for Xo’s bulk.
“Were we in Delta York?”
“No, but while we were in the elevator I cross-referenced appointments with us in all the phones we know. You know where we were that week?”
“I don’t need to.” Xo smiled. “I have you for that.”
An unpleasant clamor was becoming more audible as they approached the bar. Soon the pair noticed that it was a human and a gray, squabbling (as usual), and right in front of the tap.
“We were orbiting Venus in Sol, shooting next month’s cover.”
“Yeah? Who was it?”
“Vuldanka from Triros Seven.”
“Whoa!” Xo said. “She’s gorgeous! And I think we might even be biologically compatible, more or less! Hey, you don’t think…?”
“You know, me and Vuldanka… the Playborg philosophy…?”
“I can see why she’d want to forget it, but not why she’d want you to forget it.”
“Mm. And it doesn’t seem like the sort of experience I’d invite you to share, does it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You surprise me sometimes, Xo, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you surprised yourself.”
Xo blinked. “You lost me there.” He turned to the bickering pair, who had started shoving one another. “You two mind going outside?”
“What’s it to you?” the gray demanded, spinning around and then turning even grayer.
Xo emptied his spore gland on it.
“Thanks,” the human said, giving Xo a high-five.
“Do me a favor and drag him to the curb?”
The human nodded.
“Is he dead?” Solly asked.
“What am I, a doctor?” Xo ordered his drink and then said, “I presume you’ve already got us tickets?”
“One ticket. You’re packing me in carry-on.”
Xo groaned, but he knew better than to argue.
* * *
“I was expecting a longer wait,” Solly said as they boarded the spaceship.
“Nice, isn’t it?”
“Well, I’m in the middle of downloading the images we shot.”
“That shouldn’t take long, should it?”
“It’s not the files, it’s the counter-surveillance crap Sascha and I have to run…”
“Sascha?” Xo cocked an ear-fan in a decidedly roguish fashion. “Why ask Sascha and not the art director?”
A few lights on Solly’s display blinked green, then amber. “I’m dodging the art director’s answering machine. I lost a bet. Besides, Sascha’s all right.”
“I think you two have something going on.”
The display light deepened to red. “That’s ridiculous.”
“You ever think about building a little baby phone? You and Sascha?”
“Mix my personality program with that cheap Centauri code she runs? I’d rather procreate with the toaster.”
“Oh, so now you’re attracted to my kitchen appliances?”
“Attraction has nothing to do with it!”
“Hey, no, the toaster can be…” Xo started to snicker. “…pretty hot.”
“You biological life forms and your… urges. Reproduction is a lot saner and more reasonable among robots, you’ve got to admit that.”
“Less fun, though.”
“Hey, if robots wanted to have orgasms, they’d be a hundred times more efficient than the biological sort. Faster too. But then who’d get all the work done without worrying about impressing a potential mate? And dammit, what’s taking that file so long?” Solly said. “Pretty soon they’re going to power me down for hyperspace.”
“You could try it without the… what did you say it was? Counter surveillance?”
“No way. Do you have any idea how many drooling hackers would like a free preview of next month’s cover?”
“I’ll guess… six?”
There was a pause, broken only by the gentle whirr of the spaceship launching and piercing the atmosphere.
“Solly? Is six right?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I was right, wasn’t I?”
“You got a lucky guess.”
Xo sat back with a smug smile, which faded as Solly displayed the pictures he’d taken.
Vuldanka had posed before a space station window, with the storms of Venus swirling behind her. Her lithe figure draped itself on a variety of chairs and cushions, but always with the boiling clouds below, their luminous mystery reflected in her wide, vulnerable eyes, in the sheen of moisture on her lips and tentacles. Xo and Solly had used her to create a monument of innocent sensuality, wordlessly begging the viewer for instruction in the wanton arts of pleasure and promising something extraordinary but enigmatic in return.
It was breathtaking.
“Now it’s personal,” Solly muttered.
“Yeah.” Xo knew just what the phone meant. Before, losing a week had been embarrassing and weird, but now… he wanted to remember that shoot, he wanted to remember taking those pictures, but that experience was lost to them forever. They could only look at the images and dream of what it had been like, to take a moment of beauty and freeze it.
* * *
Delta York, in deep space, was styled after the popular “New York” brand city. Unlike the original, Delta York’s franchise owner had decided on a strict and ruthlessly enforced weapons ban. No hand lasers, no tasts, not even fighting knives. After a bitter legal battle, robots were defined as “weapons” only when their strength exceeded that of a standard industrial forklift.
All this was good news for creatures like Xotappath, whose bodies had evolved to kill and maim without recourse to machinery.
* * *
“Ms. Vuldanka ain’t seein’ no-one.”
“Funny,” Solly said. “You don’t look like an optometry-bot.”
The metal figure before them shifted its posture.
“I’m actually a law-bot,” he said. “Fraternal Order of Evil Space Lawyers.” He grinned. “But I’m built on a combat chassis.”
“Yeah, is that an MK-22? 23?” Xo asked. “I did a photo shoot on Applied Nihilistics designs for Mercenary Lifestyle magazine.”
“It’s an MK-19, and I’m programmed to ignore flattery. Also pleas for mercy. So, are youse two gonna move on, or do I have to get litigious on your asses?”
“Take it down a level, Clarence Darrow,” Solly said. “We’re here on business. We did a shoot with Vuldanka last week.”
“I know. I remember you two – smart alecs.”
“Yeah, that sounds right,” Xo said, with a glance at his phone.
“I also remember you signing confidentiality agreements,” the lawyer added.
With a chime, the display on the lawyer’s chest revealed a baffling and arcane contract. Solly glided in front of the other robot and said, “Hold still, I want to image this to our legal department…”
“You ain’t imaging nothin’,” the law-bot said, and swatted Solly off into a corner of the room.
“Hey,” Xo said. “I am Xotappath T’logga. I’m the last of the Gurwadrín, and a son of Mabokth, Slayer of Worlds.” Xo released a little charge from his electricity gland, putting an instinctive Tesla twist on it – a static charge that made hair stand on end and really irked certain robots. “I am the culmination of a billion years of evolution, focused on producing the perfect warrior and no one hits my friends.”
“You got a license to make those threats, bub?”
“My threat license is current and personal. But I’m only licensed to kill in the interests of Happy Chappy Publications. There’s a story behind that door. You going to get out of my way?”
The robot lawyer shrugged and turned to the door button… then came back swinging.
* * *
The Gurwadrín race had evolved three primary weapons. They were strong and fast too, with a crunchy outer shell and some redundant organs, but what had made them contenders on the galactic stage was this trio of personal attacks.
First was the spore sac, which released a cloud of debilitating and possibly lethal microorganisms. It was only useful on biological life-forms and precisely machined robots.
Second, they could deliver electric shocks through their extremities, stunning or even frying their prey.
Finally, the dramatic spurs on a Gurwadrín forearm were not just sharp, they were antennae for projecting a finely focused field that disrupted clouds of shared electrons – the bonds that hold molecules together into solids. In practical terms, Gurwadrín spurs were knives that could gouge an eight-inch gash through anything.
Against the law-bot, however, Xo fell back on a dirty trick. Decades back, his ancestors had stolen a supercomputer and commanded it to build a virus that modified the behavior of robots when fighting Gurwadrín. The program instructed them to raise the weapon with which they would strike, then pause a moment while overloading their most vulnerable electrical system, which they would reveal with posture. Thus, when the mouthy lawyer turned to attack, he held his fist up for a moment and leaned his head in.
Grabbing the head, letting loose with a good shock, that was child’s play. Then it was just a matter of hacking the lock into Vuldanka’s personal suite, where they found her high as a satellite on Psichosis.
* * *
“Psichosis,” Xo said. “I should have guessed. Were you taking it during the shoot?”
“But of course,” the supermodel purred. “You, however, were a spoilsport and wouldn’t join me.”
“My race prides itself on discipline. I would never soil my body with a drug so foul.”
Even in systems that were generally liberal about recreational pharmaceuticals and brainware, laws against Psichosis were enacted and enforced. A nasty combination of drug and pyramid scheme, “Psiko” was a dose of short-lived micro-machines that briefly re-wired the hindbrain for euphoria and a diminished sense of personal responsibility. Like other drugs, it was highly addictive. The nasty twist was that it programmed in a burst of receptive telepathy, so that there was a strong incentive to get others nearby hooked as well. The more proximate addicts, the more addicted the user felt. The more neighbors got high, the higher each one felt.
Seeing Vuldanka with the trademarked pink recycler hooked to her major blood vessels and her largest collection of sweat glands (to recapture the drug as it was expelled by her system and efficiently reintroduce it) Xo was satisfied that he’d found the supermodel’s dirty secret.
Solly, however, was programmed to observe. He’d recently purchased an upgrade that allowed telephoto-enhanced ocular devices (like him) to focus in on a biological life-form’s eyes and, by using resolution enhancement and reverse-focus algorithms on the reflections therein, recreate an image of what that creature was looking at. He activated it in the fine Playborg spirit of using a tech-toy just because he had an excuse. But what he found made him pause.
Vuldanka had been looking a mirror. She had, in fact, been surreptitiously glancing at her own back in a mirror. Curiosity piqued, Solly looked at her back and he knew.
“It’s not drugs at all,” he told Xo. “She’s got a frond! By the Dianetic Pope, she’s a Kulligag!”
* * *
The prowling, aggressive Kulligag race bore a passing resemblance to the gentle, pastoral residents of Triros Seven. It was an accident of evolution, similar to the way that Terran sharks looked like porpoises.
One significant distinction was that the demisexual Kulligags possessed what was called a ‘frond’ – a bright red, fern-leaf-shaped organ on a stalk that was essential to mating displays.
Another was that Kulligags were high-gravity predators, evolved in an extremely competitive environment.
Once Solly told him, Xo could see how an ambitious Kulligag – muscular, lean and graceful – might get itself heavily modified and pass for a particularly attractive Triron. But the whole idea was just… yucky. It would be like a human male finding out that his favorite centerfold was not, in fact, some attractive young actress, but rather a cunningly shaved lowland gorilla that had undergone many hours of elective plastic surgery.
Compared to that, Psichosis addiction was nothing. It could even be considered titillating.
* * *
“So, the addiction was just a ruse? You almost had me fooled.”
Vuldanka blinked. “No,” it said. “I’m a Psiko too.” Then the creature leapt with the poise of a predator and snatched Solly out of midair, only to be enveloped by a cloud of Xotappath’s spores.
“Yow,” it said. “What stinks?”
As Xo was attempting to formulate a plan B, two lean tentacles whipped across the room, entangled his legs and slammed him, head-first, into the floor.
“I expected a mighty Gurwadrín to have quick reflexes,” Vuldanka sneered.
“I always assumed I did,” Xo mumbled, trying to clear the sudden ringing in his head.
Vuldanka jumped on him. It really hurt and, mainly by reflex, Xo emptied his electricity gland.
It was enough to fling Vuldanka back and give Xo time to stand, but the Kulligag recovered with distressing speed. He remembered that Kulligags were well represented in the Ultimate No-Holds Fighting League and was trying to remember what tactics had defeated them when Vuldanka pounced again and this time clobbered him with his own phone.
“Oww!” He and Solly cried out in unison, and Xo swept his arms up. Vuldanka instinctively recoiled from the spikes on his forearms, but though he knocked Solly free, Xo failed to do more than leave light scrapes on Vuldanka’s tentacles.
“That’s it? That’s your disintegrator spur?” It seized him again.
“They’re vestigial. I had them cut down,” Xo said, grabbing its throat to push the creature back.
“They interfered with his solar sailing,” Solly said helpfully, bolting for the door.
“I’m starting to understand why your race is extinct,” Vuldanka snarled.
“Extinct… but… one.”
“Not for long.” Xo’s arms were slowly starting to bend, and as he watched a patch of flesh on Vuldanka’s throat turned rosy, then red, and then a sharp and dripping appendage emerged…
“You agreed to forget,” the mock-model hissed. “You didn’t want to remember. Well this time, you’ll remember even less. Once my eggs hatch in your brain, your body won’t be worth resurrecting. By the time they clone a body and scan in your brain-print, I’ll be another unremarkable Kulligag. Maybe I’ll even hunt down the new you, get some payback for ruining Vuldanka. Now that I know how easy killing you is.”
“Hey,” Solly called. “What do you think I should title this one? I’m thinking ‘Hot Hot Ovipositor Action’.”
The model froze, the deadly appendage just brushing Xo’s chitin.
“This chamber is broadcast shielded.”
“Yeah, that’s why I’d go out through the door. You forgot to lock it, Dave. I can get these images to half a dozen medianauts in three seconds unless you let him go. Try your vanishing act then.”
Xo watched his enemy’s eyes narrow as Vuldanka’s drug-riven brain tried to process this scenario.
The tentacles went slack.
* * *
“You know, I warned you,” Solly said as they rode to the spaceport.
“It seems to me that the classy thing would be to not mention it.”
Solly ignored him and continued. “I told you that if you were going to keep relying on that ‘warrior species’ cachet, you might want to get chipped for some kind of, you know, fighting skills. In fact, as I recall, the downloaded martial secrets of the Brotherhood of Siracian Procurer Monks was on sale. But no. You had to buy music trivia.”
“Your tendency to nag is your least attractive trait, Solly.”
“Your tendency to get pounded by supermodels is yours.”
Xo turned to gaze moodily out the bus window. “Besides, I think you need a prehensile tail to do Siracian Pimp Fu.”
“You could get an implant. Replace that ridiculous human gadget.”
“My penis? But it’s so… I don’t know. So nifty.”
“You’ve never used it.”
Xo turned back. “I used it two months ago at the Senator’s party.”
Solly flew in a tight, impatient circle.
“You’ve never used it for what it’s for.”
“Unlike music trivia,” Xo said, “Which I use daily. Forget it. The penis stays.”
Solly emitted a disgruntled chime, but said nothing until they were boarding the plane. Xo was silent too, until he reached his seat. Then he looked at his phone and said, “Why do you suppose it did it? Just for the money? It seems awfully… weird, y’know?”
“It was probably a pervert,” Solly said. “From what I can tell, you biological consciousnesses are all kinky.”
* * *
Back at the office, Solly saw Sascha fluttering angrily towards Booters, the lobby robot juice bar. “Hang on a second,” he told Xo, zipping over.
Xo amused himself for a few moments by flirting with the cigarette machine, and when Solly flew back, Xo could instantly tell from his friend’s slow pace and the angle at which he held his lens cap that something was wrong.
“Sascha’s pretty messed up,” Solly said. “She’s been doing low amperage shots… I think she overloaded her discretion unit, ‘cause you won’t believe what she told me.”
“The Editor’s meeting with some political groups. Weird ones, like that guy who wants to outlaw irritation subroutines in the Horsehead Nebula. And she thinks a representative for People For The Eating Of People.”
“Maybe he’s doing a story on fringe politics.”
“The Brotherhood of Slightly-Less-Evil Space Lawyers had a guy there too. They’re hardly obscure. I think he’s auctioning off the release date of our story.”
“Elections coming up, remember? Sascha found some sketchy newsclicks about those groups backing mainstream politicians – scary stuff that could really hurt the candidates, if the biological majority starts paying attention.”
“You know my feelings about politics…”
“I know your lack of feelings about politics, but this is important. A big story – a kinky sexy story with strong visuals, like ours? Timed right, it could provide cover allowing a Senator or Jefe or Permanent Democratic Operating Officer to get elected despite some troubling alliances.”
“What are you saying? That we should scuttle the story? I know your half of the bonus would just about cover what you owe your bookie.”
“We’re journalists. Our job is to tell the truth. Do you want Vuldanka to get away with her grotesque deception?”
“Xo, I’ve heard you say ‘flirt with the camera, baby’ a few times too many to buy the journo integrity argument from you.”
“Sascha said it was pretty much down to either the Antibuddhists, or the Coalition for the Ethical Treatment of Genocide.”
“Could you live with yourself if you knew your work helped distract someone from theirs?”
* * *
Two weeks later, Xotappath T’logga woke up, had his usual breakfast and was dressed before he realized something was wrong. With a frown, he went back to the bedroom.
“Solly,” he said, “Something strange just…”
“Yeah,” Solly said. “Look at that.”
Lying on his dresser was the latest issue of Playborg, with a splashy cover promising to reveal ‘Vuldanka’s Naughty Secret!’ There was a stub for a substantial paycheck next to it, along with a note. Both of them recognized Xotappath’s handwriting as they read, “Good job guys and believe me – you don’t want your memories back.”