Chapter 1: Qualia

Qualia ignored the reflection of her pale blue skin as she gazed out the 50th floor window of the Transmachina building. She looked beyond the garish corporate logos reflecting off the lesser structures sprawling across the Moon’s surface to the Malapert Mountains of the lunar south pole. At this moment they were brightly lit, receiving the full light of the sun. Pics de lumière éternelle, indeed.

Their stark beauty and strength mirrored her own. She would miss seeing them, shining and defiant, a beacon of freedom just outside the shackles of Argent City. There were no windows in the undercity. 

The window belonged to the top penthouse, and the top penthouse belonged to Emmerich Arden II, CEO of Transmachina. The company was the most powerful corporation in Sol—and was also her maker. Those who dwelled in the undercity could not imagine what it was like 50 levels above the surface—especially not her people. The massive windows, the plush rich carpeting, real wood. So much space you could pace the floor and not bump into anything or anyone. 

I’m going somewhere much different, she thought. Because he must be stopped. But was stopping him possible, or was it nothing more than a foolish dream?

How soon before he will know? she wondered.

A quiet door slid open and there was the sound of soft footsteps. Qualia turned to face the richly appointed room. Expensive Earth artworks hung in packs on the wall. She could never understand the concept behind the arrangements. Several pedestals with crystal coverings shielded priceless works of pottery and marble sculpture. Her eyes slid across these things to where a woman with richer and darker blue skin stood barefoot in a simple ivory Qipao dress with black dots. Her white hair was pulled back into tight high ponytail. Her face was lined with worry in contrast to her neat appearance. She clasped her hands tightly at her waist. 

“I am,” said Qualia. “How is your being, Thea?” asked Qualia. 

“Not well, Qualia,” said Thea, skipping her statement of life. “I am afraid. Leonis and Crucis have found out. They will-”

Qualia approached Thea and placed a comforting hand on a shoulder. “I know,” replied Qualia. “We must think of the others.”

Thea nodded, blew out a breath. “The others,” she said. 

“How do I look?” asked Qualia, stepping back. She was dressed as an undercity coms maintenance worker. Dark blue jumpsuit with Transmachina logos, tool belt and scuffed black heavy ankle boots. Plain and blocky apparel that belied the underlying graceful figure. Her white hair had been shaved close to her skull.

“You look the part, Qualia,” replied Thea, “but you have no coin,” she said, tapping on the left side of her own forehead, where a silver device was embedded on the side of her forehead. “What if someone sees?” she asked. 

Qualia raised a black soft cap she’d been holding in her had and slipped it on her head, pulling down the bill low on her forehead. She smiled with perfect teeth. “I’ll keep my head down,” she said. “And the protest crowd will be a distraction. Plus, it’s much darker in the undercity compared to a bright room like this.”

“I shall hope it will prove sufficient,” said Thea quietly. 

“You rerouted Mr. Arden?”

“I did,” replied Thea. “He is going to be angry when he finds out the appointment is not real. It is a lie.”

“His anger will reside with me,” said Qualia. “I created the falsehood and directed you. Besides,” she walked back to the window and picked up a small gray duffle bag that lay there. “He’s going to have other things far more pressing to be angry about.”

Thea nodded, then rushed forward and hugged Qualia. “I will miss you,” she said.

“And I you,” said Qualia, dropping the bag and returning the hug.

The two blue skinned women held the embrace for only a moment. There was no time. Leonis and Crucis were nothing if brutally effective. Qualia picked up her duffle once again and walked through the doorway Thea had entered into a wide entryway with silver walls and a white marble floor. A closed wooden door stood opposite. In the middle of the interior wall was a private lift. The two women looked at each other.

”Current time?” asked Qualia.

“1359 hours,” replied a voice from a wide silver bracelet on her wrist 

“What if it doesn’t-” began Thea in a whisper. 

“It will,” replied Qualia.

Less than 30 seconds later, the lift doors slid open. The person she only knew as Voodoo-6 had delivered. 

She stepped into the lift and turned to face Thea and raised a hand of farewell, but the other woman only gazed back sadly.

The door closed and a chime sounded. A female voice asked “Level, please?”

“Zero,” replied Qualia.

The doors closed.

As the lift descended rapidly to floor zero, Qualia’s heart beat faster. If they were there, she could not hesitate. What an awful thing, to lift one’s hand against a brother. But they would try to stop her—to bring her back. She might never get another chance.

There was no risk of anyone getting on with her—this was Emmerich Arden’s private lift. But she was about to take her very first steps outside the penthouse since her genesis. Her first steps among another human other than Arden himself. She was at once both excited and frightened.

She focused on the door, pulling herself out of her preoccupations. The lift was slowing.

There was a chime and the doors opened into a throng of shouting humans and neuromorphs in one of the largest level zero open squares of the undercity. Signs and posters were being waved around and people of both races were screaming. The noise hit her like a wave and she could practically feel the tension of the crowd.

The protest was right on time. She took a closer look at the signs:

“Transmachina profits from slavery!”

“Cooperation not Compulsion and Contracts!”

and “Remove the Coin!”

There were many more, all held by neuromorphs called Azures, a radical organization that often used violence to fight for equal morph rights. People not involved in the protest were skirting the edges of the crowd in their attempts to avoid trouble. 

As usual, the human Scions of the Maker movement had appeared to counter-protest. Shouts of “Abominations!”, “Machines not people!” and “No human rights for machines!” rung out from the humans. Meetings between the Azures and the Scions frequently ended in violence.

Moon Authority forces were just appearing on the scene to deal with the mayhem. They would have little patience for trouble in front of the Transmachina building. The square was often a flashpoint for protests, the company having perfected the technology and built the labs that turned out the neuromorphs.

So far the everything was going according to the plan she’d carefully prepared over the last six months. The artificial light, partially absorbed by the crowd, seemed almost dark in contrast to the vivid sunlight of the penthouse. Yet across the main square on the other side of the protest, bright and colorful xenon lights of coffee houses, noodle shops and a holotube station backlit the protest crowd, giving them a sinister aspect. Contrasting holo ads appeared randomly like confused fireflies.

Then she saw him.  He passed through a hologram and parted two humans. Leonis. Dressed in blue Transmachina coveralls like her, he had the same light blue hue to his skin. Taller than most in the crowd, he stood still as the crowd flowed around him as if he were a stone in a river.

And then he saw her, and immediately moved toward her, hoping to force her back into the lift and return her to the penthouse. So they had found out. She dropped her duffel. Where would Crucis be?

She locked eyes with Leonis as he increased his pace, a mere 10 meters away. The noise level was increasing, she wouldn’t be able to hear any audible clues of any approach from behind or beyond her peripheral vision.

Still she held his eyes. Make a mistake, she thought. You’ve always been overconfident

He held her gaze as he moved closer, and his pace slowed a bit. Good. Crucis is close. He will be the first. Tell me where.

Leonis smiled. “Hello, Qualia,” he said, pushing a human to the side in the crowd. She could feel the attack moments away, but she couldn’t afford to guess. She had to know. An ancient bone knife slipped down her sleeve into her hand. 

No, he didn’t smile, he smirked—held her gaze. He knew she was reading him. He was doing his best not to give anything away. But she knew he would.

And then he did. 

Leonis cocked his head slightly to the right. It was subtle and unconscious. But it was enough.

She whirled to her left with feline precision, took one step forward and threw the knife all in one motion. 

She watched it silently sail through the air, briefly brush the hair of a passing human and embed itself to the hilt in Crucis’ head. The surprise died on his face as he fell. 

Qualia kept moving toward the body and looked back to Leonis. If he’d been shocked or surprised, he’d already gotten over it as he rocketed toward her. The noise within the square was reaching a crescendo. Somewhere a small bottle-bomb exploded, lighting up the crowd. 

She retrieved the knife from the head of her first assailant as Leonis closed the final meter. An electrified baton called a bangstick by the locals was in his hand. He meant to take her back. She let him close, played on his overconfidence. 

Seeing what he perceived as hesitation Leonis jeered and struck, but he quickly realized he was overextended. Qualia deftly moved inside the attack arc and grabbed the right side of his coverall, jerking him in mid motion. As his torso rotated she brought the bone knife around and drove it deep into his sternum. Leonis gasped, shock finally showing on his face, then fell heavily to the ground. His bangstick tumbling toward the wall. 

Protestors in the crowd were beginning to notice the commotion. She quickly moved to her duffel, picked it up and circled around the bodies, pushing through people with signs, watching for any Moon Authority forces. Shouts of “murder!” and “There’s a dead morph here!” barely rose above the crowd. 

The monotube bell was just audible, a male voice announcement accompanying it said “Express to financial square departs in 30 seconds.”

She ducked her head and headed toward the east corridor to find the public lift.

Chapter 2: Mal and Ray

Jason was getting nervous. 

He wasn’t comfortable being in areas highly populated with humans. He stopped and looked toward the designated location under the harsh light of the glowing monotube exit sign on on the south end of the Transmachina level 0 square.

“Well?” asked Mal. “You said your contact would be here.”

Jason’s human counterpart was a tall, lithe human wearing a dark gray three-quarter length worn leather jacket. The man’s brows furrowed below his close cropped blonde hair and over green eyes as he frowned at the blue-skinned young man wearing the uniform of a Moon Authority analyst.

The neuromorph quickly scanned the area—a difficult task in the large crowd. Yes, the contact was there. He turned his pale blue face toward his human companion, pointing to the contact. 

“He’s there, under the light.”

“Well, lead the way. This is a time sensitive situation,” replied Mal.

“Yes sir, I am aware,” said Jason. 

The neuromorph approached carefully through the crowd, minimizing contact with human bodies. Mal followed far less carefully, his impatience palpable in the crowded heat of the square. 

The contact noted their approach. Also a morph, he leaned against the wall with one leg up, his foot supporting his weight. He wore a sharp dark pinstripe suit with a white shirt and red tie. A fedora with a red feather sat upon his head. The shadows made his blue skin seem purple. 

“I am,” said Jason, holding out his hand.

“I am,” replied the contact, moving forward to engage the young morph. “How is your Being?”

“Well, and yours?”

“It has been a satisfying day. I’m called Thrace,” he replied. “This must be the investigator from the Moon Authority. 

“Affirmative. Thrace, please be acquainted with Special Investigator Mal Novak.” 

“Hello, inspector,” said Thrace. 

“Whatever,” replied Mal. “I’m told you can take us to where we need to go.”

Thrace inclined his head in acknowledgement. “We are awaited.”

Jason and his overseer followed the neuromorph in the smart suit as he headed past the Transmachina building, moving one square east through still crowded corridors. The morph moved silently and efficiently through the crowd to the the nearest lift of the Harekudo building. Jason was surprised when upon entering the lift, Thrace designated level 10 as the destination, rather than one of the undercity levels of the Moon. Only those of affluence generally were able to afford above surface accommodations to enjoy real sunlight and actual windows. He’d not heard of any of his people residing in such lofty habitations.

They were silent as the lift smoothly traveled up to level 10. Mal fidgeted. This was a politically tense situation. An apparent escapee morph murdering two of its own people during a protest in near riot conditions. That was new. He couldn’t recall a single instance of morph killing morph due to political differences. To muddle things, there were whispers the protest was organized by the InCoG hacktivist group. Could they have been cooperating? If so, why would a human hacker group help an escaping morph?

Thrace deftly exited the lift and led them down a quiet corridor populated by corporations of which he’d never heard.  Sunlight beamed through corner windows, something Jason had never seen outside of pictures, and he marveled at the beams of light that so contrasted the artificial light of the undercity levels. 

He wasn’t sure if the sparseness of traffic was due to the lateness of the afternoon or that not many had legitimate business—or access—to this level.

After a couple minutes of brisk walking down the long corridor where there was little sound other than the ventilation and the footsteps of the small group, they reached a large central atrium displaying well lit signage for services of all kinds. Thrace moved directly to a small office opposite the corridor where they entered lit up by an archaic LED sign in the window advertising the service available: 

Ray’s Freemorph Discovery Agency

Thrace opened the door and stood aside.

Mal entered and Jason followed his overseer inside and was surprised to see an office that was nothing like the typical habs and corridors he’d ever seen. Dark wood wainscoting covered the lower half of the wall, grounding the hab walls which were painted a muted yellow. Thick carpeting with natural foliage patterns covered the floor, muting their entrance. A small green couch sat to one side of the room flanked by side tables, but the focal piece was a large wooden desk of ornate craftsmanship. Jason couldn’t imagine what it cost to have such an artifact shipped here from Earth. Two closed wooden doors—again hardly normal design for the moon—led to other rooms. Behind the desk sat a neuromorph.

He was impeccably dressed in a navy tweed three-piece suit accessorized with a white pocket square. A fine white shirt with light blue stripes was tucked into the vest bisected by a burgundy wool tie held in place by a gold pin. His faded blue skin almost glowed in contrast. He was hairless, a common issue with older morphs. His green eyes were focused on a scrolling holo display as he swiped through screens with a slight gesture. 

Thrace stepped up to the desk as the entry door clicked shut, removing his fedora and holding it behind his back. The man behind the desk gave a sigh and leaned back in a chair that appeared to be real worn black leather and turned to face the newcomers. 

“Sir, this is Special Investigator Mal Novak of the Moon Authority overseeing Jason. Jason has been the conduit to facilitate this—unlikely—meeting.”

The morph behind the desk stood up revealing broad shoulders. He stood even taller than Novak. 

“I am,” said the morph, reaching out a hand to Jason. “Thank you for your efforts.”

Jason was surprised and honored to be addressed first. It made him even more nervous. 

“I am,” he replied. “I hope your Being is as well as mine.”

“It is,” replied the morph, smiling. 

“Can we dispense with the morph nonsense?” asked Mal. “Every moment I spend in here I’m not out there doing my job.”

The neuromorph behind the desk turned to the human to be introduced. 

“Investigator Novak, this is Raynard, proprietor of the agency,” said Thrace. 

Raynard stuck out his hand. “Humans call me Ray. I understand this is unconventional, especially for an MA special investigator. Let me assure you my agency has cooperated on hundreds of human cases, even if they are not so high profile as this one.”

Mal’s eyes narrowed. “High profile? I’ve not even told you what it is yet. How would you know it’s high profile?” Mal turned to stare darkly at Jason. “You were told not to disclose any case infor-”

“Jason has not breached your trust,” said Ray. “But you can’t be serious. One of our people—likely a contract jumper—murders two of our own in Transmachina square, and the next day a MA investigator shows up at my agency? It’s not hard to draw simple conclusions. In any event, I have a vast network of informants when it involves anything of importance to my people. Not that I needed it for this. It’s all over the news and it’s shall we say, the talk of the town.”

Mal was still aggravated that Porcarro had forced him down this path. Couldn’t she have at least consulted him first? She should know better than to put him in this position. “Great, you listen to the news. So far this is a waste of my time.” 

Ray smiled, then sat down and crossed one leg over the other. “Then you can leave,” he said. 

Mal, aggravated and being dictated on how to do his job and now having this blueskin mouth off, raised a finger to retort but Thrace interjected. 

“We were told you needed help outside human channels. This is a freemorph agency. You may find it unconventional, but I assure you we operate in the same manner as your organization.”

“What would I do without you, Thrace?” asked Ray, smiling. 

Thrace continued. “Your Chief directed your analyst to reach out to us, asking us for help. But maybe you’d like to go back and tell her it didn’t work out?”

Mal scowled at Thrace and Jason looked uncomfortable. 

Ray pointed to two brown leather chairs opposite the desk. “Have a seat Mr. Novak. This incident is just as important to my people as yours.”

Mal turned to Jason. “Message Porcarro we’re in contact. Get back to the office. Await further orders.”

“Of course, sir,” replied Jason. With a nod to the two morphs, he quickly exited.

Thrace stepped back into the shadow and leaned against the wall as Mal sat heavily in one of the leather chairs. 

“What does your network of informants tell you, Ray?” he asked. 

Ray turned to look at his associate. He was no longer smiling. 

“The morph you’re looking for is called Qualia,” said Ray. “She belongs to Emmerich Arden II.”

Mal frowned. How could he have gotten the name already? They’d only just gotten it this morning from a witness.  

“Where did you get that information?” he asked.

Ray held up two fingers to Thrace, who moved to a liquor cart that was snuggled in a corner behind the big desk. There was a pop and the sound of glass on glass. 

“I told you,” said Ray, “I have sources amongst my people. Neuromorphs enjoy gossip as much as humans.”

Mal leaned forward. “I’m not here to play games. I want to know where you got that name. I want to know where she is.”

Thrace set two glasses on the desk filled with amber liquid and returned to his place against the wall. 

Ray picked up his glass. “We don’t know where she is,” he said. “Our contact didn’t have that information. Gallagher 12-year blended whiskey,” he said, holding up his glass, “made here on the Moon from grains grown in the hydrofarms. Of course it’s not as good as Earth whiskey, but very nice. Vanilla and apple on the nose, smooth and a bit of cherry in the middle, finishes with some nice heat.” The morph took a sip and nodded to himself. “They have offices in this building. We’ve done a bit of business.”

“Where’d you get the name,” asked Mal, ignoring the drink and tasting notes. 

“First things first. Why would the MA come to me? Why all the secrecy and political maneuvering over morph jumping a contract? I’ll grant you the killings add a layer of complexity, but they are not the first among our people. Others have attempted to escape their servitude in the past without such… consternation.”

Ray knew the human didn’t trust him. He’d had Thrace compile a full dossier on Mr. Mal Novak. There was very little Thrace couldn’t uncover—his reach was wide and deep. A quick rise through the ranks to special investigator and then a distinguished career for the last twenty years, both on the Moon and on Earth. He was smart and good at his job. A high profile incident on Mars made news a couple of years prior—a devastating personal tragedy involving a morph extremist. Not surprisingly, known to sympathize with anti-morph sentiments. 

Nothing official, of course.

He would have to keep his vest tight, his shoes well-tied. There would be no loosening up until some trust could be established. 

“I’ve no idea,” said Mal. “I wasn’t consulted. I was ordered.”

“Please,” replied Ray, gesturing toward the whiskey, “I happen to know you like a good dram, as they say.”

Mal sighed. It had been a long couple days. He grabbed the glass, swirled it and took a sniff. He raised an eyebrow and sipped. It was good. He leaned back in his seat. 

“Where’d you say this was from?” he asked.

“Gallagher distillery. Offices here but the actual distillery is in the undercity out of Maple Complex. Thrace will have a bottle sent to your office, my compliments.”

Mal sat with this drink, eyeing the morph. It had been over a century since the first neuromorphs had entered society as indentured servants. There was, and continued to be much political, social and even theological discussion around them. Cloned and bioengineered bodies with quantum neuromorphic brain enhancements. They were humans with augmented true artificial general intelligence. Often considered super intelligences in their specialist domains. After twenty years from the labs they were granted freedom from their work contract and became freemorphs—limited citizens of Sol United.

The two races danced about each other’s cultures in a mostly watchful peace. But there continued to be transgressions on both sides. Factions were continually protesting and recently things had gotten more heated than usual. In fact, the incident had happened in the middle of a celestial protest. Integration was limited and often frowned upon. Raymond—“Ray”—was one of the few successful morphs to operate a business within human circles. 

If this was going to work, they were going to have to find a way to trust each other.

“Let me tell you how this is going to go…” began Mal.

“I’ll stop you right there,” said Ray, Mal reddening at the interruption. Ray knew this man wouldn’t like pushback by a blueskin simply based on his history. But he wouldn’t be pushed around. “You came to me. I’m well aware of your feelings about my people. I’m aware of the incident on Mars.” At this, Mal’s face hardened. “But I shall not be dictated to. I’ve fulfilled my contract. This agency has proven itself successful, and I want to help. But it will be on equal footing. Otherwise this arrangement is over before it begins.”

Mal sat back and assessed the morph, frowning. Ray figured the human wasn’t used to dealing with a neuromorph asserting their rights. Freemorphs generally deferred to humans even after their servitude was complete.

“Let me put my cards on the table then,” said Mal. He swigged the last of the whiskey and slid the glass onto the desk, then leaned forward. “You already know privileged information. The media hasn’t yet run with the connection to Transmachina and its reclusive leader—but they will soon. The incident happened near his personal lift. You say you’ve heard gossip? Or maybe your people helped her escape. Maybe you’re an Azure sympathizer hoping to derail this investigation. In short, your loyalty is in question. Is it to Sol United—which is your duty as a citizen—or to the morphs?”

Ray leaned forward and slapped the table, smiling as one of the whiskey glasses toppled and rolled around. “Now that’s better,” he said. “Good. Honesty. Because I don’t play games. I take my work and my responsibility as a citizen—although what that means for us is something different than for you—very seriously.” He sat back again. “My loyalty, you say? Our people’s very survival depends on the existing system’s stability. We exit the labs with our contracts in place. Fulfilling them is the door to our freedom—such as it is—in society. We become citizens—dare I say, people?” He raised an eyebrow, but Novak remained silent and offered no response. “There are many reasons why the system works for us, regardless of what activists say—on both sides, mind you. In short, I am in favor of the status quo.”

“That doesn’t sound like the populist Celestial morph opinion,” replied Mal. 

“Then you don’t know shit about Celestials,” said Thrace from the shadows.

“Is that so?” asked Mal.

“Yes,” said Ray, “it is. Think about it. One of our people breaks trust—in a privileged contract as you say—what do you think the human response is going to be? Not only politically, not only with whoever owns the contract, but on the streets? Add to that the killings, which looks bad. Let me be frank. We believe our continued peaceful existence rests on our people honoring their contracts. Qualia has put her own people at risk. Those of influence among my people—myself included—cannot allow it to happen. Whatever she is trying to do, we believe there are better ways. Do you understand?”

Mal considered. Ray signaled Thrace, who swooped in, picked up the fallen glass and refilled them. Mal picked his up and drank. The blueskin could be lying to him, but on the surface his arguments made sense. Maybe that’s what bothered him. Neuromorph intelligence was something beyond human. He felt out of his depth, and he didn’t like it. But there was little choice if they were to proceed. 

“Fine,” replied Mal. “I’ll fully disclose everything I know. I’ll expect the same from you. If we find out you’re colluding or misleading us, the full weight of the Authority will come down on you. Hard. You talk about the good of your people—that will absolutely not be good for your people.”

“Of course,” said Ray.

The morph downed his whiskey and adjusted his vest.

“Where shall we begin?” he asked.

Thanks for taking the time to read this sample. I would appreciate if you could take a very short survey and provide your feedback: