“Nahiku West” is a novelette by Linda Nagata, originally published in the October 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact and now available in ebook form at Book View Café. Set in The Nanotech Succession story world, it features the early life of a minor character from The Bohr Maker.
A railcar was ferrying Key Lu across the tether linking Nahiku East and West when a micro-meteor popped through the car’s canopy, leaving two neat holes that vented the cabin to hard vacuum within seconds. The car continued on the track, but it took over a minute for it to reach the gel lock at Nahiku West and pass through into atmosphere. No one expected to find Key Lu alive, but as soon as the car re-pressurized, he woke up.
Sometimes, it’s a crime not to die.
I stepped into the interrogation chamber. Key had been sitting on one of two padded couches, but when he saw me he bolted to his feet. I stood very still, hearing the door lock behind me. Nothing in Key’s background indicated he was a violent man, but prisoners sometimes panic. I raised my hand slightly, as a gel ribbon armed with a paralytic spray slid from my forearm to my palm, ready for use if it came to that.
“Please,” I said, keeping the ribbon carefully concealed. “Sit down.”
Key slowly subsided onto the couch, never taking his frightened eyes off me.
Most of the celestial cities restrict the height and weight of residents to minimize the consumption of volatiles, but Commonwealth police officers are required to be taller and more muscular than the average citizen. I used to be a smaller man, but during my time at the academy adjustments were made. I faced Key Lu with a physical presence optimized to trigger a sense of intimidation in the back brain of a nervous suspect, an effect enhanced by the black fabric of my uniform. Its design was simple—shorts cuffed at the knees and a lightweight pullover with long sleeves that covered the small arsenal of chemical ribbons I carried on my forearms—but its light-swallowing color set me apart from the bright fashions of the celestial cities.
I sat down on the couch opposite Key Lu. He was a well-designed man, nothing eccentric about him, just another good-looking citizen. His hair was presently blond, his eyebrows darker. His balanced face lacked strong features. The only thing notable about him was his injuries. Dark bruises surrounded his eyes and their whites had turned red from burst blood vessels. More bruises discolored swollen tissue beneath his coppery skin.
We studied each other for several seconds, both knowing what was at stake. I was first to speak. “I’m Officer Zeke Choy—”
“I know who you are.”
“—of the Commonwealth Police, the watch officer here at Nahiku.”
The oldest celestial cities orbited Earth, but Nahiku was newer. It was one in a cluster of three orbital habitats that circled the Sun together, just inside the procession of Venus.
Key Lu addressed me again, with the polite insistence of a desperate man. “I didn’t know about the quirk, Officer Choy. I thought I was legal.”
The machine voice of a Dull Intelligence whispered into my auditory nerve that he was lying. I already knew that, but I nodded anyway, pretending to believe him.
The DI was housed within my atrium, a neural organ that served as an interface between mind and machine. Atriums are a legal enhancement—they don’t change human biology—but Key Lu’s quirked physiology that had allowed him to survive short-term exposure to hard vacuum was definitely not.
I was sure his quirk had been done before the age of consent. He’d been born in the Far Reaches among the fragile holdings of the asteroid prospectors, where it must have looked like a reasonable gamble to bioengineer some insurance into his system. Years had passed since then; enforcement had grown stricter. Though Key Lu looked perfectly ordinary, by the law of the Commonwealth, he wasn’t even human.
I met his gaze, hoping he was no fool. “Don’t tell me anything I don’t want to know,” I warned him.
I let him consider this for several seconds before I went on. “Your enhancement is illegal under the statutes of the Commonwealth—”
“I understand that, but I didn’t know about it.”
I nodded my approval of this lie. I needed to maintain the fiction that he hadn’t known. It was the only way I could help him. “I’ll need your consent to remove it.”
A spark of hope ignited in his blooded eyes. “Yes! Yes, of course.”
“So recorded.” I stood, determined to get the quirk out of his system as soon as possible, before awkward questions could be asked. “Treatment can begin right—”
The door to the interrogation room opened.
I was so startled, I turned with my hand half raised, ready to trigger the ribbon of paralytic still hidden in my palm—only to see Magistrate Glory Mina walk in, flanked by two uniformed cops I’d never seen before.
My DI sent the ribbon retreating back up my forearm while I greeted Glory with a scowl. Nahiku was my territory. I was the only cop assigned to the little city and I was used to having my own way—but with the magistrate’s arrival I’d just been overridden.