Cauldron of Ghosts – Snippet 40 

JULY 1922 Post Diaspora

“You’re all under arrest. It turns out I have a long-suppressed megalomaniacal personality. Who knew?”

Hugh Arai, consort to Queen Berry of Torch

Chapter 23

“Talk about a stroke of genius,” Ruth said, shaking her head with admiration as she studied the data on her tablet. “Which one of you wants to take the credit? Or are you willing to split it, in the spirit of” — she waved her hand airily — “whatever. Take your pick. Collectivism, cooperation, humility, whatever rings your bell.”

Victor looked disgusted. “Let Anton have it — or better yet, Yana.”       

Who, for her part, was looking at her own body in the same wall mirror Victor was using — and didn’t look any happier than he did.

“I look like a cow. What possible use are udders this size? I’ve got enough production capacity for quadruplets — but there are still only two nipples. So what’s the point?”

She glared at Victor. “Do men really like this nonsense?”

Victor didn’t look at her. He was still examining his own body and looking no happier than she did. “Ask someone else,” he said. “I was socially deprived as a youth. My opinion on these matters is not to be trusted.”

Thandi Palane had left off examining her new body ten minutes earlier and was now relaxing in an armchair. Her cheerful equanimity concerning her new physique was due to the simple fact that it wasn’t much different from her old one. Given that Thandi’s ability to commit mayhem was a large part of the reason she’d been included in the mission, it would have been counter-productive to change her body so much that all of her muscle memory would have gotten skewed. So, the gene-engineers had settled for adding a little weight and height.

The main change had been to her face. They’d eliminated the distinctive Ndebele facial features. They’d left her very pale skin tone as it was, but she now looked like someone from a heavy gravity planet whose ancestry had been mostly northern European instead of African. She was also a lot less good-looking.

Yana, on the other hand, now had a physique that looked like a teenage boy’s notion of the perfect female figure. A particularly callow boy, at that.

The engineers had given her a face to go with it, too. The former attractive blonde was now a gorgeous brunette whose ancestry seemed to be East Asian rather than Slavic. About the only thing they hadn’t changed very much was her height. Nanobots could do a lot, but the only way to drastically shorten someone was to remove bone or cartilage, both of which carried health risks if taken too far. So, they’d shortened her, but only by two centimeters. That would be enough to throw off any automatic body gauge software that Mesa‘s security forces might be using.

The precaution was probably unnecessary, but changing a person’s height by a few centimeters was not significantly risky — so why not do it? Anton, Victor and Thandi had all had their heights changed as well, but in their cases they’d been made a little taller.

“Take credit for what, Ruth?” asked Andrew Artlett. He was sitting next to Steph Turner on a sofa against the wall opposite the big mirror. His physical appearance had been modified only slightly, because there was no need to do more than that. The one time Mesan inspectors had come aboard the Hali Sowle, Andrew had stayed in his cabin. The Mesans might still have his genetic record — or rather, that of the Parmley clan members to whom he was closely related — but they hadn’t made any physical images of him. The only reason nanobots had been used on him at all — his nose and brow ridge had been thickened, his cheekbones made more prominent and his eye and hair color changed — was to protect against the remote chance that the Mesans had somehow gotten their hands on old holopics of him. That chance was so remote it was well-nigh astronomical, but since a minor body adaptation was easy they’d decided to do it.

More precisely, Anton and Victor had decided to have it done — over Andrew’s protests. He’d accused them of being motivated by nothing more than a determination to spread the misery around.

There was… possibly a bit of truth to the charge. Nanobot body engineering was a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

“Take a look at this,” Ruth said. She keyed in some commands and her virtual screen was enlarged tenfold and projected far enough away so Andrew and Steph could see it easily.

“You see this and this? And this?” She manipulated the cursor to highlight three figures on the screen. The figures were labeled Perspective Density, Adjustment Velocity and Reversal Prospect.

Andrew’s frown was enhanced by his modified brow ridge. Steph’s frown looked about the same as it always did, because her features had been modified to make her face a bit more slender. As with Andrew, her body modification had been minimal and mostly confined to her face. The likelihood that Mesa had good holopics of someone who’d owned a small restaurant in the seccie quarters was small. They might have a few images, but they wouldn’t be precise enough for body identification software.

The real danger for her was that the Mesans certainly had her DNA on record, for the good and simple reason that Mesa obtained DNA samples at birth from every resident of the planet. And even if Victor and Anton’s hypothesis that Jack McBryde had badly damaged Mesa’s security files was correct, it was unlikely that McBryde had gone so far as to destroy all DNA records. He would have targeted the records of Mesa‘s enemies — which, ironically, would not have included Steph Turner at the time.

So, she’d gotten a genetic sheathe, as had Andrew. Steph’s was more subtle than that given to everyone else, though. There was no need to disguise her origins as a Mesa seccie. To the contrary, that would be an integral part of her cover. They’d only needed to put a few changes in the sheathe that would obscure her individual identity.

“Ruth, I haven’t got the faintest idea what any of those numbers mean,” said Steph.

“Same here,” said Andrew. “And I’ll add to that — hey, I’m a dummy, okay? — that I don’t even understand what the terms mean. I know what each one of those words means, taken by itself. But what the hell is the ‘density’ of a perspective?”

Berry piped up. “I’m a dummy too.” She was perched on the edge of her seat and leaning over in order to get a better view of the screen. “How about an explanation?”

Ruth looked at each of them in turn, her expression a mix of puzzlement, mild consternation, and uncertainty. Those sentiments could be translated — quite easily, by her best friend Berry — into the following phrases:

How can anyone be this ignorant of basic sociometric attitude assessments?

Am I supposed to explain what this all means?

I’m really not the best person to do that since my explanation is likely to be harder to understand by people who don’t know anything to begin with.

Anton came to her rescue. “Translated a bit roughly, the terms mean the following. ‘Perspective density’ refers to the sureness of the opinion. They call it density because — “

“– they’re a pack of cone-headed sociometricians and they’d rather die than use clear terminology,” said Victor.

“Well, yes, that too. But as I was saying before I was interrupted by Secret Agent Sourpuss, they use the term ‘density’ because the firmness with which someone holds an opinion is usually the product of multiple cross-associations. To give an example, a person believes a planet is a sphere because they know many things which all reinforce that opinion. Whereas if their opinion on a given subject is established by only one or two inputs, that opinion’s density will be thin.”

“Except the term they actually use for a thinly-sustained opinion is ‘disagglutinated,'” said Victor. “It’s got six syllables instead of one. This is why Anton and I are spies instead of sociometrician cone-heads.”

Anton shook his head sadly. “He’s always had a bitter streak. Mind you, he’s also right. They are a lot of cone-heads.”

“What does the number mean, then?” asked Andrew. “Perspective density: 0.67.

Ruth decided she could answer that one easily enough. “It’s a scale of 0 to 1, in which ‘0’ means the perspective is so disagglutinated — and for the record, I think the term is quite appropriate — that it might as well not exist, and ‘1’ is a perspective so heavily and completely buttressed by a multitude of other opinions that it is accepted as pure and simple fact.”