Transmutes: a story

Finally on Earth. I’ve dreamed about just seeing it up close. I should be more excited to be here. Instead, just nerves. Blame the illegal cargo. Thawing out now. Not sure what to call him: my worker, my slave, maybe my brother. Can’t ask him. He’s barely literate. Not quite human.

They made him this way. I swear I’ll find a way to make them pay for it.

 

I met him, this version of him, five months ago. Not sure what first grabbed my attention. I think it was something I saw in his pale eyes, behind the emptiness, the deep sadness of a soul that had seen the dark side of too many moons.

Most transmutes don’t have that much inside. Or at least, they don’t show any sign of having that much inside. The eyes are as empty as their faces, with a sameness that matches their barely distinguishable facial features.

He was one of 22 deep miners that arrived on Phobos, one of Mars’ two misshapen moons, on the same day I did. He was about my age, I’d guess; maybe a bit older. Hard to tell with transmutes. The records said he was sixth generation, but the notes on his early years were vague.

He was fresh from a send, which leaves them more dazed than normal. At normal, most were barely there.

But there was something in those eyes when they locked in on me. Aware. Familiar.

I’d just transferred in from a base on one of Neptune’s satellites, slowly working my way back toward Earth after some career setbacks.

Phobos_colour_2008I’d never been to the homeworld. I was born on a satellite orbiting the Moon, did my school from there and on a lunar base. Earth was almost a myth to me. I wanted to put my toes into oceans of water and walk through fields of green. And I wanted to do real medicine, not just mind drone miners.

Being a full human, I’d flown to Phobos on a freighter. I was still shaking off the grogginess of months in drugged hypersleep when I wandered into the transport control room. “Awake? Might as well get to work,” was the first sentence I heard from Drake Companyman.

(I should note that was only close to his last name, Campagna, but I’d come to think of it as his identity. He handed down the company’s laws and enforced the overarching rules. When you depend on your employer for every breath you take and every drop you drink, you don’t necessarily notice how deeply it takes control of you. Like a knife being inserted slowly, inch by inch. It only hurts at the start and then when they give it the occasional twist.)

He was a big guy, 6’3 and topping 230, all muscle, and none too bright despite degrees in biology and molecular formation. A brute with a degree is still a brute. And while technically his job was the care and feeding of transmutes, what he mainly did was muscle them around.

Two of his medical aides were there, as well as a few of his soldiers.  Karin, tiny and all of 22, gave me a smile as a greeting, while Marcon, in his 40s and just graying, gave me a shrug. Companyman was not their favorite, and newcomers usually courted favor with the boss.

They were both kind to the transmute workforce, I’d learn later. And so they watched very closely as I looked the new arrivals over — for skin color and eye focus, as well as tremors and other signs of a tough transport. I took notes on a pad, including the readouts from the vitals indicators they all wore.

They wanted to see if I regarded the ‘mutes as human, or less. And how much less.

Most of the ‘mutes were nondescript, and I kept my intake notes minimal. I’d been doing this for a few years, first on Mars itself and then off Jupiter and then Uranus. I was conscientious and careful as a scientist, but not a star by any means.

Which was OK. I didn’t want to stand out. My older brother had been a star. Standing out had gotten him into trouble. The fallout got us both sent to the Outer Worlds. He’d been demoted as a renegade. My career had stalled early by association.

But he’d died so long before, I’d stopped complaining about him by the time I got to Phobos.

Anyway, the ‘mute I mentioned, TM 15482, stood out from the latest group of transmits. He was second to last out of the transporter. Last out was a trim female, obviously more shaken. He was leading her and seemed to be trying to protect her. Compassion was an emotion beyond what you saw in most transmutes, particularly moments after they’d been zapped across the solar system. The process, and the drugs that eased it, blanked their limited minds.

The whole flash between he and I lasted only a moment. Eyes locked. Recognition? Karin and Marcon noticed, filed it away for later. No one else noticed.

The new workers were led off to a bunkroom. I found a cantina and nursed a beer before well-needed sleep. But the eyes of TM 15482 stuck with me. Like he wanted someone to help her. Like he knew no one could help either of them.

 

I settled in to do my job – watching the ‘mutes work tapes, checking monitors, mending small cuts and pulls, running results from the blood draws gathered every five days, surveying diets and ordering supplements. Transmutes don’t have a human’s self-awareness, and they’ll work themselves dead if you let them.

I found myself spending extra time focused on those that came in the day I did, the group that included TM 15482. Most of the observation and planning were done from a shared room of desks and monitors. I’d finished my tasks one day and was watching that group when Karin and Marcon snapped me out of it. “That’s him, right? The one you connected with when he arrived,” Karin asked.

I clicked the computer to something else. “Yeah, his group. It was my first day, too. Natural fascination.”

Didn’t want her to make a big deal of it, or think it was some weird attraction. There had been scandals with keepers abusing transmutes.

“Maybe, but you saw something with him in particular. You weren’t wrong. He was unusually sharp when he left the machine,” Karin said. “I checked his records for you.”

I barely acknowledged I was listening, but I was. “Born on Triton, grew up to work the O2 plants for the outer worlds. Place is loaded with water and carbon monoxide. Other components you can use to make breathable air. He was unusually intelligent there, too; took on the most complex tasks. Eventually they sent him to riskier mining work. Charon, a couple of others when they were opening new mines. He’s been transmuted a lot.”

That was unusual. The outer moon colonies, like ours, rely on transmutes as a workforce. They beam some around quite a bit as needs change. But managers like Companyman tend to the keep the sharp ones, as they’re more useful and easier to manage.

My colleagues knew that, too. “Only the troublemakers tend to move that much. But nothing in his records,” Marcon said.

“Sometimes I think they zap them because they’re too smart, because that’s trouble,” Karin added. “I hear your brother thought that. Love to hear about him”

“I don’t want to go there,” I told them.

“Maybe another time,” Karin said. “Over a beer.”

 

That drink came a few weeks later, after a particularly rough day.

‘mutes are usually docile, but they can be obstinate. Marcon had gone into the east corridor, where the ‘mutes were refusing to leave as lights went dark for the day. Companyman had brought in rough security guys. He ordered Marcon to his room for 24 hours after he tried to intervene.

Karin needed help to cool off, or she’d have gotten into it, too.

We were back in that cantina. The beer was a little sour and gritty, but it did the trick.

“So Rikel Calmers. I read about you.”

“No one writes about me. Maybe you read about my brother.”

She laughed. “Yeah, him. But I also read your personnel file. They sent you to the Outers a year after him. Not to the same place. You must not have seen him for years before…”

“Before he died. That’s right.”

Guess it was time to share. I wanted to stop paying for his sins and someday get to Earth. But even space isn’t big enough to escape your past.

“He was five years older than me. By the time I deployed, he was already upsetting the order. Referring to the ‘mutes as a slave labor force. He wondered why they were allowed to mate, to create more transmutes. And how the workforce kept growing beyond what the low birth rates would allow. He thought transmutation was a mistake we should let die out.

“He tried to quit but had a contract. And he would have made noise on Earth. They sent him to Pluto to work it off. As far away as he could be sent. Died in a hovercraft accident on an exploratory flight, totally pointless. I didn’t get to his funeral. Had to watch on video, long delayed.”

Cheery story. Way to silence a conversation.

Eventually Karin spoke up. “They are slaves, you know. Forced labor. Not that they know it. There’s no alternative, that’s the line. Everyone in space works for their keep.”

“Sounds like you don’t accept that as an excuse,” I told her. Neither did I. But I’d learned to live with it.

 

I guess I should explain in case you don’t know the history of transmutation.

Teleportation had a long been a sci-fi dream. And when precious minerals were found on the moons of Jupiter — new elements that could power machinery, new jewels that bedazzled buyers — it became a scientific necessity. They figured it out, and it promised to change everything. Space travel was costly, moving a few people in each ship over long periods of time. Teleportation allowed travel at the speed of light without costly vehicles.

But it wasn’t that simple. The devices had to change matter into energy, creating a beam of particles and corresponding data to let you put the puzzle back together. You lost a bit of in the process. At the other end, another transport reassembled it, using a bit of extra raw material to replace the lost fidelity.

Like a photograph, you were limited by pixels. You couldn’t quite capture the original.

Teleportation worked with plants that served as seed crops on the new colonies, even if the food never tasted quite the same. It worked on rare minerals, though precious stones lost some of their gleam. It worked on animals large and small, though some pets got snappy.

Eventually they sent people. And plenty were willing to go. Sure, it was risky; you couldn’t ignore that. But even if you only got to keep 10% of what you dug, a few years working on a rare-mineral mine could make you rich. Or so they were told.

If the early colonists noticed anything amiss, they didn’t say it. It was only after a couple of decades that problems became obvious, first in those who’d been transported several times. There was memory loss and a decline of mathematical abilities. And as they aged, features softened and voices changed until they looked and sounded more and more alike.

And then came their kids, and then grandkids. As they grew, there was a sameness to them. And a sort of mental haze, exacerbated if the kids were transported a few times. It took a while to realize what was going on. Partly because the process was slow, but also because most of those beamed around were miners and laborers. They remained physically strong, and no one much cared what they looked like or whether their IQs slipped.

By the time a fourth generation emerged, we’d identified the problem. Transmutation did something to DNA that stripped out individual traits. The decay started at the cellular level over just a couple of years. It had taken years to manifest itself in noticeable ways in the first generation. By the fourth, you could see it at birth. They looked more and more alike as they grew, faces slack, eyes greyed.

I’ll let the religious experts debate questions of soul and humanity, but over time, this whole class of colonists became basically a new species, less individual, hive-like in their similarity. They worked, slept, ate, had sex. That was about it. The raw instincts.

Eventually the problem was impossible to deny. But what to do with the thousands now living far from Earth.

Sending them all to Earth wasn’t an option; teleportation would make them worse, and there weren’t enough ships to carry them all in suspended animation. It would cost fortunes, take years and leave the colonies all but empty. And no one wanted them home anyway.

Transmutation of full humans was outlawed; there would be no new transmute bloodlines. But the ‘mutes living off-world would eat well, sleep in warm rooms and get ample rest, even be allowed to breed. All deemed basic needs, even for the not-quite human.

They’d have to work. Hard work, with their salary the cost of life support. And they’d have to move when work made it necessary by transmutation. The line was they couldn’t get much worse.

That created a need for security people and a new class of medical workers, like me, to maintain the colonies as long as the transmute population lasted.

“And what’s the end to all this?” I asked her. “That’s what my brother wondered.”

He saw the system, the colonies, as unsustainable. The transmute population would degrade even farther, losing the ability to work and the desire to procreate. Birth rates were falling.

He wasn’t the only one saying this, of course. But then he took a leap. He did the math. Judging by population figures, death totals and birth rates, the transmute population should have already died out.

Instead, it was rising.

 

In the weeks that followed, I kept a close eye on TM 15482. He spent a good deal of his time with the female he’d come in with. Odd how they form these pairs, since they can’t really speak to even trade names.

Chemical, I guess.

Our base was deep in the Stickney crater, and the transmutes worked the mines deep below that. This was hard, physical work. The strike that created the crater had nearly split the moon, creating a honeycomb of tunnels. Mining the ice was tough enough, but the trace minerals created by that strike were interlaced in hard stone, so separating them out was all handwork.

Late one night — the base ran in 12-hour day-and-night cycles, to simulate Earth — I was running TM’s history from a screen in the biostudy lab. He’d been born and raised in relative comfort. He worked as a helpmaid until he was retrained to open new mines. There were no notes on his health or performance from early in life.

For the past six years, he’d been listed as a valuable, smart mine worker. For transmutes, that meant simply that he could be handed a tool and stay on task. But rather than locked down, he’d been sent to eight different sites in that span, each time by transmutation.

It was a wonder there was anything left in those eyes.

“Doesn’t add up, does it?” whispered Karin, startling me. She’d come in with several coworkers and Companyman. And was looking over my shoulder. “If he was sharp, why keep beaming him around? They lose acuity with every trip, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for good.”

“You sound like my brother,” I told her.

Companyman had overheard. “Look, it’s best not to even think of the ‘mutes as people,” he told me in those early days. “It’s a herd. Give one too much attention and it can start leading the pack. Let the pack get out of hand and they’ll rampage. I’ve seen it.”

That was true. There had been an uprising on one of the Ganymede bases. And I’d heard they’d lost a mine on Deimos, the other Martian satellite. The staff was stampeded, and one of the ‘mutes opened an airlock.

 

It was late that night when Karin slipped into my little compartment. “Hey Rikel, want to show you something. I think I can trust you.”

Great. Mind you, I’m into women and space is lonely. But those days I was focused on getting back to Earth. No entanglements to get in the way. “Look, I like you but I’m not…”

She laughed a little. “Not that. C’mon.”

In a room deep and locked away, Marcon and a couple of others were working with a half dozen of the transmutes, including TM 15482. The transmutes were looking at computer screens, touching various icons and looking at the response. Basic reaction to changing cues, but mental tasks well beyond their daily repetitive tasks.

A couple of the ‘mutes were even being read or maybe reading simple books.

“Companyman would be furious we’re running these tests, so we do this after base hours,” Karin told me.

I barely heard it. Too busy being amazed. Tracing a maze, unlocking a pretty picture, even reading. These tasks were beyond transmutes.

“We pick out the high functioning ones and work when we can. Turns out if their brains are challenged, they can regain much more function over time.”

“Regain?”

“We assume they had it once, or it’s in there somewhere. They can learn. Teaching only starts when you believe someone can learn.”

She sat me down next to TM 15482. He was looking at screen with a simple grid on it. Squares flashed green in a simple order. If he touched the squares in the same order, a smiling animal appeared. He seemed to like it.

“That’s amazing,” I said to no one in particular, but he heard.

And then something happened that was impossible, and that I could not have imagined. It brought to mind something my brother had told me in one of our last conversations, a secret even the activist in him could not speak to anyone else. A dangerous secret. I had often wished I could forget it.

TM 15482 looked to me with those eyes, pale blue, with barely a color at all. Transmute eyes. I saw streaks of some recognition, streaks of brown. My brother’s eyes were brown.

A whisper. It sounded something like my name. And a word. Forget.

And then all hell broke loose. Companyman and some of his soldiers. He immediately got into Karin’s face. “What the hell are you doing?”

She was flustered but tried to ignore him. Behind him, soldiers were using prods and staffs to gather the ‘mutes and get them headed back to quarters.

“You’re overstimulating them,” Companyman complained.

“It’s just research,” she said. “We’re not hurting anything.”

But he was yelling. “This is how they turn on people. Your job is to keep them calm.”

She tried to say more, but he wasn’t listening. “We’ll deal with you later.” And he looked over the rest of us. “All of you.”

He locked on me for a second. And then as he was leaving, he ran into the last of them, trying to leave guided by his soldiers. TM 15482 was the last in line. Companyman had one of the prods and zapped him with it, across the back of the knees.

TM went down for a second, gasping. Then he was up and moving again. Mouthing words. Forget me? Or was I imagining it?

 

Several of us were in the med lab some days later when Companyman came in. Cheeks red, still angry. Marcon drew his wrath. “I’m hearing you are behind the unauthorized experiments. You and some of your cohorts.”

The medical man acknowledged it. Didn’t want to respond beyond that. Karin was still young. She wanted to get in between them. “We’re just doing our jobs, sir. Sometimes we try new ways. Sorry you can’t get your head around it.”

He looked at her fiercely; I thought he’d go off. But no. “I don’t really give a damn what you do with them. Make sure you don’t tire them out too much to work. Rikel?”

He turned to me. Not really a question. “Let’s talk.”

He led me down a corridor to his office, the outer room of his quarters. He got three rooms, counting the bathroom. Door was open. Private shower. Luxury here near Mars.

“You’ve expressed interest in Earth?”

He had my records. Standing request for transfer. He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’d steer clear of anything unauthorized. It’ll get you in trouble,” he said sternly. “The ‘mutes are trouble. And these doctors. Big trouble.”

He reached for something in a cabinet. A bottle of a real Earth whiskey, two small tumblers. “Have a drink with me,” he said, again not waiting for an answer. Not that I’d say no to any terrestrial alcohol.

But that meant I had to make conversation. “Companyman, you worked on Triton, right?”

“Yea, why? Bleak place. Really terrible enviros.”

I tried to say it idly, like I was just chatting. “One of the newer mutes, TM 15482. Spent time there. High functioning. thought you might remember him.”

The boss laughed. “Like I’d remember a mute. Like we were buddies.”

But he got interested, too. “Why, is there a problem? He carrying something? If he’s a risk, we can put him down.”

He clinched his fist at that. Seemed to like the idea.

“No, just doing some research. Tracing DNA patterns and heredity.”

“Research out here is pointless. We’re babysitters. Figured you knew that and that’s why you wanted Earth.”

I drank the last drops. Ready to go, but he wanted to make sure his message had been clear. “I know about your brother. Took an interest in these ‘mutes, the way you’re interested in that one. Don’t be. I know how he ended up.”

He knew what? That my brother was shipped out to a Saturn moon, then the cold moons. Took seven years to get him out there, each new post a little riskier. “Yeah, dead, way out in the cold.”

“Ever wonder why a med guy was overflying a Pluto moon? On an exploratory mission?”

I declined to try to answer the question. “Good. It’s best not to forget the questions the company doesn’t want to answer. Not when the people you’re asking for answers control your life support. Best to just forget it.”

But what did he know? Companyman shrugged. Said he was just guessing and poured himself another drink. He left my glass empty. Done with me.

Good. I was feeling claustrophobic. But I couldn’t forget anything,

 

I took to reading alone after my shifts, in a little hidden chamber, top floor of our base. Most of the base was hollowed-out stone, and at the bottom of a deep crater, so we never even saw the stars. But if you climbed a couple of tight passages, a small windowed room on the uppermost level opened up with a view of a sliver of sky.

You got stars, and Mars or another moon when the angles aligned. And I liked to think it was one place they didn’t monitor us 24/7.

“Hey,” said the voice quietly. Karin.

I said it back and she squeezed in beside me. “I wanted to share a couple things with you.”

I did a double take. Again. It’s not like there aren’t women in space, but the ratio on a mining colony isn’t good. It had been a long, long time, and she was cute in a bodybuilder kind of way. She knew what I was thinking, just snickered and waved it off. “These aren’t things you’ll like.”

Pulled out a touchscreen. She showed me the energy data for the last transport date, the one that got TM to our base. Generally, a bunch of transports are done on the same day, since you get the right planetary and lunar alignments only occasionally. It wasn’t unusual for a half-dozen stations to send 20 or 30 transmutes through each on a transport day. “On this day,” she says, “there were 214 transmutations. But energy drain was enough for 250.”

“That’s strange.” Energy in space is a premium; stations conserve everything they can. “But don’t they have to bounce some between stations, when the paths aren’t clear?”

“Yes, but there wasn’t enough of that to explain it. Roughly 90% of the energy use is in disassembly and reassembly. You can’t get this unless some were disassembled more than once.”

But why? “Maybe making the hard cases docile?” I wondered out loud. My brother would have thought that. Each transit has a stunning effect. There was a theory you could use extra transits with disciplinary cases.

Or something else, she said. “TM 15482. I ran his DNA records.”

“Something unusual?”

“No; perfect as transmute strands go. But they duplicate exactly another transmute still working off Neptune. A female. Apart from the Y chromosome, the DNA is exactly the same.”

Which was impossible. Even among transmutes, no two sets of DNA can be an exact match. “A fake then,” I told her. “A bad fake.”

Karin wasn’t done. “I ran a new test on him. Yes, someone had changed his records. I ran his actual DNA.”

“And you got a match.”

She nodded.

“A match to another of the ‘mutes?”

“No. A familial match to one of the crew.”

She tried to hand me the device, now showing his records. I stayed as I was, laying on the floor, looking up. I think I’d known for a while, known what we’d find if we looked too closely. Kinship is a powerful thing.

“It’s almost impossible to tell how closely they’re related, given the decay of transmute DNA. But one to four generations. At least 25% related.”

The red planet had emerged above us, a crescent of it over the crater’s edge. “It can be beautiful up here,” I told her. “But we’re in a hole. It’s a horrible place.”

She waited a while. I think she guessed that she didn’t have to say it. Finally she did. She wanted to be sure. “You know he matched with you, right?”

 

The alarms went off right about then, and we raced to the med lab. The cameras showed security people pushing lines of ‘mutes out of one of the mine shafts. Then just a few, in small groups, missed on the first push through.

Someone had ruptured a steam pipe; buried water was chipped out of rock and melted into steam to move it to storage through those pipes. There was a chance the hot steam would hit another vein of ice or a volatile mineral, creating an explosion.

“There,” she said, pointing to one of the monitors. It showed TM in a deep chamber, with the woman he’d become attached to, and Companyman.

Companyman hit the slow-moving TM with a stun stick, the electrical shock device all the guards carry. “Can you get sound?” I asked.

She could. TM was on the ground, cringing, while Companyman waved the stick as a threat. “Stay down. I knew you’d be more trouble than you’re worth.”

He hit him again, causing a small seizure. “I should just do you. Settle my staff down. That good kid, Rikel, you’ve got him torn up.”

He hit TM again. “You did this to both of you.”

Then the woman was there, grabbing at Companyman. He turned, and he was a big man. Shocked her against the rough wall. “Bitch.”

“Stay down,” he yelled at TM with a wave of the stick. Pushed her back again, face to the wall now, bent over the edge. “I’ll show you how we deal with your kind.”

Kept the shock stick on full until she was shivering. We couldn’t believe he was doing it, torture or worse. There were cameras all over the base. But of course, he controlled where the recordings went.

We saw TM coming at him. Companyman, pressing her into the wall, did not. TM with a crushing drill, a forearm sized tool used to split rock. Glowing red. Pressing deep into Companyman’s abdomen, humming, screeching. Turning his lower back and pelvis into pebbles and dust, as it would an intrusion of bedrock.

Then a pause. Marcon had walked in at some point. He spoke first. “You two go get them. Put the mess out an airlock. I’ll deal with the recordings.”

“It’ll be OK, right?” I asked. “What Companyman was doing – this was self-defense.”

“Wouldn’t help,” Karin told me. “TM killed a full human. They’ll purge him just to avoid future trouble.”

“Then what?”

“I have an idea,” she told me.

 

I can imagine Companyman’s replacement looking for me in the lab. She sent me a note about it, later. I saw it when I woke up after the hypersleep trip.

“It’s his shift. Where the hell did he go? The mine?”

Karin just answered like nothing unusual had changed. “He left. Outta here.”

“You can’t just leave a moon.”

“But he did, just like Companyman did,” Marcon chimed in. “Mikel had Pri 1 orders. Earth. Had to leave right away.”

“Did we even have any solo craft in dock?”

“No. Put him in a freighter. Only had half an ore load, anyway.”

It was all in order. Marcon had done the paperwork. Done it well.

 

I might have been asleep by then. If not, I was soon after. I suppose I could have entertained myself for the months between us and Earth, but the fresh food and water wouldn’t have held out. Nutrient bath in a sleep chamber was much more efficient.

I woke a couple of weeks before arrival and gauged the speed so we’d be one of several freightcraft arriving at the orbital station at the same time. We were barely noticed. He was still in sleep and packed out like luggage. Included in my personal cargo, loaded onto a shuttle for the trip down.

And now we’re parked. He’ll be awake soon. Marcon and Karin tracked down some old friends of my brother, and they’ll meet us soon. We’ll figure out the rest after that.

TM 15482 won’t understand much of it. Probably never will. He’s just evidence. That transmutes aren’t just being handled, treated well, or phased down. That someone is making more of them.

Making more of them out of full humans they want to silence.

People like my brother.

He’s not my brother anymore, not really, even if he once was. I know that. Certain things aren’t recoverable.

Sometimes I hope he was my brother. I hope there’s a little bit of him left in there. I saw flashes. I hope that maybe somehow, he’ll understand a little of what we’re doing. And be proud of me.

Other times, I hope he never was. Or if he was, that he’s truly gone. Because being trapped inside a transmute is a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.