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Under the Surface · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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On the Job
"I'm Colleen Trager from Athelbard Security," Midge said again, trying extra hard to keep her ears perked around the edges of her uniform hat. "Ms. Masimoto's already signed the work order as you can see, and—"

"And if it were up to me," the human at the reception desk snapped, "you throps wouldn't be allowed in the building. So back away while I ascertain what sort of felony you're committing here." His pudgy pink face wrinkling, he held the compad closer to his mirrorspex.

Moving slowly, Midge put an extra five yards of highly polished marble between her and the equally shiny desk, her tail still wagging through the hole in the back of her trousers, her tongue still lolling in that idiotically happy expression her distant collie dog ancestors had pretty much invented. Her enhanced sight, though, let her follow quite clearly the readouts flashing across the inner surface of the guy's shades, and she had to feel sorry for whatever AI he was jacked into.

Fortunately, the AI Midge was jacked into was an order of magnitude brighter than any AI this toady was ever going to meet, so she wasn't worried in the slightest about them twigging to the phony credentials no matter how much they pushed and pulled at them.

Tyg's laughter tickled the inside of her skull. Twigging? the AI asked. Where on Earth did you pick up that archaic turn of phrase?

You should talk, she sent back. Who says 'Where on Earth?' Maybe you'll recall that we're not entirely welcome in that part of settled space?

I could slip us in. Tyg didn't have a face, of course, but Midge had never had any trouble imagining the smug expressions that went with her usual tone of voice.

Ladies? Torvald, for his part, always managed to sound scared through the link. Could we maybe not talk about the places where local law enforcement has 'shoot on sight' orders for us? At least not in the middle of a job?

I swear! Tyg sent. It's like you organics have no sense of fun at all!

Midge had to struggle not to roll her eyes, but at least Tyg had started bantering with Torvald. She'd been oddly deferential toward him when Midge had first brought him into their partnership, rescuing the little terrier from his indentures during a job a year and a half ago. A former schoolmate of hers and trained as a butler, he'd proven to be quite the organizer, too, and Midge had to admit she wouldn't have even known how to start putting this job together if Torvald hadn't—

"You! Throp!" The receptionist crooked an imperious finger in Midge's direction. "Don't move! Security's on its way!"

Midge could almost feel Torvald cringe even though he was safely hidden away in the bowels of The Flying Tyger across town at the spaceport. Her link to Tyg, on the other hand, whirred in her head like a top. The planetary datasphere's quiet, Midge, she sent. If this guy had really twigged to you, half the global defense force'd be on its way.

"Yes, sir!" Midge said out loud, tugging at her hat while she sent, Yeah, he's just being a jerk. "Thank you, sir!" she made sure to add, ignoring the temptation to activate the vocal enhancements that would've rattled the exquisite stonework reaching three stories up to the crystal ceiling, the sky outside as blue and pure as it only ever was on very old and rich worlds or very young and barely cultivated worlds.

Mùchǎng had practically crowed about its place near the top of the "old and rich" category ever since Torvald had guided the ship in for a landing. The ferns wafting their delicate tendrils around the lobby, for instance, glowed with colors and emitted fragrances too vibrant to be natural even though Midge's senses told her they were real. It was all so stereotypically human, purposefully cultivating plastic-looking shrubbery, but then that's how Mùchǎng had become old and rich, wasn't it? Forty-seven different crop developers had headquarters in the planet's various biomes, and the things that grew here didn't seem able to grow anywhere else in settled space.

Her various perceptions began buzzing, and Midge had to fight the urge not to straighten to her full height. A trim, older human male dressed in the same sort of uniform as her had stepped from a corridor across the lobby and was striding easily toward her.

That he wasn't bothering to shield the glow of his enhancements told Midge a great deal about him, and the proprietary way he surveyed the lobby as he moved through it told her several more things. "Good afternoon, Ms. Trager," he said, holding out his right hand. "I'm Lloyd Exeter, head of security here as Maslin Biotech. I hope I haven't kept you waiting."

Taking his hand and shaking it, Midge wished she could be anywhere else in the galaxy. From every indication she could glean, this guy was polite, detail-oriented, focused, maybe as enhanced as she was, and was likely the one person she was going to have to kill before she could leave this damn place.

"Not at all, Mr. Exeter," Midge said, refusing to allow a single note of tension to enter her voice while she frantically reviewed her contingency plans. "I've never been to Mùchǎng before. It looks fascinating."

That's good, Tyg whispered somewhere around her inner ear. Act like it's possible to judge a whole planet by visiting one section of one city. If he thinks you're an idiot, he'll underestimate you when push comes to skull-smashing shove.

Only her long years of working with Tyg kept Midge from flinching, but the AI had a point: Midge set her body mods to signal subservience to this man in every way short of submissive urination.

She could sense Exeter's enhancements picking up the readings she was giving out, but weirdly enough, his smile got gentler instead of more condescending. "It's a lovely world," he said. "That's why I'm honored to do my part to keep it safe." His eyes positively twinkled. "Now, how can I help you today?"

Almost, she forced herself not to stare at him, but an anthrop who didn't get the third degree from the security chief of a place like this would stammer like she'd been given a bouquet of roses. "I...I have a, umm, a work request from—" Midge let herself give a little gasp as if she'd only just realized she was still shaking his hand. Pulling away, she stared at that hand, then at the other one, her eyes opening wider and wider. "My compad!" she exclaimed, squeezing her throat tight to put a squeak of fear behind her words.

But Exeter had already turned to the jerk at the reception desk. "You've still got Ms. Trager's pad, haven't you, Steele?"

The receptionist's face looked like he was trying to swallow something that was still alive and had more legs than he'd been expecting. "Ms. Trager? Really?" He held the compad up by one corner. "I'll likely need a flea bath after this little episode."

"Ah." Exeter took the compad and turned back toward Midge. "A regular Saturday night for you, you mean."

Midge heard Torvald giggle along the link, but the receptionist sputtering nearly drowned the sound out even though it was inside Midge's head. Exeter gestured with the compad toward the corridor he'd emerged from. "Shall we, Ms. Trager?"

Figuring that a meek and mild technician would still be stunned by all this, Midge just nodded and followed, holding her ears at a sort of half mast between up in happiness and down in confusion.

"I hope you can forgive Mr. Steele," Exeter was saying. He looked over his shoulder at her, smiled, slowed, and when Midge slowed as well, his smile became a grin; he stopped, took a step backwards till he was standing beside her, then he gestured again for her to proceed. "Sadly," he went on, Midge starting forward with hesitant steps, "some of our employees seem unable to understand that anyone who's here to help Maslin Biotech is to be treated with the utmost respect." He shook his head. "That's apparently a much less common philosophy of life than I'd like to believe, but then I'm sure I don't need to tell you that."

"Yes, sir," she said because he seemed to be waiting for her to say something. "Thank you, sir."

The quiet gagging sound in her ear, Midge knew, came from Tyg, but the silence from Torvald concerned Midge a great deal more. Focus on the goal, she sent along their link. If you can figure out a way for us to meet our objective without collapsing this guy's head, Torvald, I'm listening. 'No collateral damage' had been her own philosophy of life since her first job, and she took a great deal of pride in the way she'd so far managed to kill only the targets she'd been hired to kill.

Tyg's sigh would've tightened her stomach if she'd been allowing her body to react to such things. Because this wasn't a job like any other: no client, no target she'd been hired to kill, no monetary payoff awaiting them upon completion. Tyg hadn't liked the idea from the beginning—Midge hadn't been crazy about it either—but Torvald had quietly and persistently presented his case. And now?

The mouth of the corridor ahead grew larger, and Midge knew from the schematics that they were heading for the staff elevators. "It's odd, though," Exeter said just as they moved out from the vast openness of the lobby into the confines of the corridor. "Ms. Masimoto's never brought in an external consultant before without having me vet said consultant. She's at her family's hunting lodge this week with limited connectivity, but the text message I got in response to my query implied that your appearance here was to be something of a test. Do you have any information on that point that you can share with me, Ms. Trager?"

Yeah, Tyg sent with a giggle. Tell him a friend of yours has hacked the entire planetary datasphere and can send him any damn text she wants to.

"I'm sorry, sir," Midge said instead, looking as contrite as she knew how. "My orders simply state that I'm to fly out here and fulfill this work order." She tapped the compad. "I'm not even supposed to unseal it till we're in the elevator."

Exeter was nodding. "Ours is not to reason why and all that." He winked. "I've got a few guesses, though, based on Mr. Steele's reaction to you. I'd say that Ms. Masimoto wants to see how certain of our departments here handle a fully credentialed anthrop visitor."

Midge gave him a smile she didn't remotely feel, then they were rounding a corner, the corridor ending at two elevator doors. Exeter touched the button, and the doors to one of the cars slid open. He made a gesture inviting her to precede him, and Midge stepped inside.

Standing with her back to the elevator wall, Midge let her masked senses open a bit wider, ran her virtual thumbs over the deactivation nodes for all six of the hidden energy bolt blasters that were currently trained on her, and waited for Exeter to push the 'door close' button.

With a waggle of his eyebrows, he did, but once the doors clicked shut, seriousness came over him like sudden ice over the surface of a pond. "What part of your orders can you share with me, then, Ms. Trager?"

Midge didn't make a show of punching the code into her compad the way she'd planned: this wasn't the sort of situation she'd expected to find herself in, after all. A few quick strokes, all very subtle and professional, and she nodded to the buttons beside the elevator door. "Could we have the eighteenth floor, please?"

His eyebrows going up again, Exeter pressed that number on the panel. "Interesting," was all he said.

The ride went by smoothly and quickly, Midge preparing her measures and countermeasures. Still, she could almost hear Torvald's heart beating faster and faster, could almost see his stubby claws whisking over the surface of his compad, running probability scenarios to try meeting the challenge she'd given him. Changing plans in the middle of a job, after all, was something else she never did...

A tiny jolt signaled their arrival, and the elevator doors opened onto a much simpler lobby than the showplace downstairs: a square, gray-and-burgundy carpeted area with two hallways leading off to the right and the left. In the middle, a dark-haired, dark-skinned young human woman sat at a desk, her brow wrinkling and her gaze darting back and forth between Midge and Exeter. "Lloyd?" the woman asked. "What's this?"

Exeter looked over at Midge. Midge stepped off the elevator, offered her compad to the woman, and said, "I'm afraid I'll need to ask that this entire floor be evacuated, please."

"What?" The woman's gaze did some more darting, this time between Midge and the pad. "Is...is this some kind of joke?"

Say it, Midge, Tyg muttered. Say, 'I don't hear anybody laughing' like they would in a movie. Please, Midge?

Not saying anything at all, Midge instead concentrated on exuding an air of authority. That seemed to settle the young woman's attention on the compad, and her little gasp told Midge she was finally seeing what it said. She picked up a stylus, tapped it to Midge's compad, tapped it against her own, and stared at the several lines of text that popped onto her screen. And if Tyg was as good as Midge knew she was, that would be followed by—

Without another second's hesitation, the woman's fingers began flying over her pad, and a something that sounded like a heavily muffled gong began going off. "All personnel," the young woman said, and Midge could hear the echo of her words from each of the two side corridors. "This is not a drill. I repeat: this is not a drill."

Because, Tyg offered with an audible smirk, I am indeed that good.

Midge retrieved her pad and opened the sensor app Torvald had built based on the records he'd found detailing Athelbard Security's usual practices. Looking over, she kept herself from smiling to see Exeter pulling up a very similar-looking app on his own pad, and together, they scanned the white-coated humans who began trickling into the little lobby.

The humans seemed to know the drill, spreading their arms and legs so Midge could wave her pad around them before they continued in an orderly fashion to the door marked 'Stairway' to the right of the elevators. That Midge didn't find any illicit data storage devices surprised her, but since it made her job a little easier, she certainly wasn't going to complain.

Finally, the young woman rose from her desk. She walked over to Exeter, he scanned her, and she left by the stairway door as well. The muffled gong was still sounding, but Exeter reached over, tapped the compad the woman had left there, and everything went quiet. "And now?" he asked.

A few taps brought Midge's forged orders back to the screen. "Room 1811," she said, nodding to the right-hand corridor. "That way, I believe?"

This got some more raised eyebrows from Exeter, but he started up the right-hand corridor, Midge falling in behind him. Numbered doors went by in the beige walls, their sequence confirming what Midge already knew. "At the bend in the hall," she said.

Exeter glanced back, but he didn't speak. A few more steps brought them to 1811; she pushed the door open, and Midge followed him in.

It could've been any advanced biotech lab on this planet or any other. It wasn't, of course, and now that Midge was here, the original plan had called for a very careful but very thorough demolition of everything here. Including—

Tell him! Torvald's sending came to her more frantically than usual. He's a decent human being, and when he learns what they're doing here, he'll...he'll help you destroy it!

His little stutter at the end told her that this solution hadn't passed his probability tests. Which meant he wasn't relying on anything except his gut.

Midge? Tyg's voice cut into her ears. Don't you dare—

But Midge was already throwing off her masks, letting the full extent of her enhancements yawn and stretch and bristle to life. Exeter's widening eyes told her that his own enhancements were letting him know exactly what was going on, so she kept her voice quiet and calm. "We need to talk," she said.

"Well, well, well." Exeter stood a little straighter. "I had my suspicions as soon as I saw you, but I just couldn't figure out why anyone would hire the notorious Canis Major to assassinate a nobody like me."

"Not you." Midge jerked her chin toward the data storage units and computer stations behind him. "What they're brewing up here."

His forehead wrinkled, so Midge went on. "It's a highly contagious mechavirus that very specifically targets the modified genetic sequences that separate us anthrops from our ancestor animals: our brains and our voice boxes and our upright posture and all that. Certain humans have apparently decided that putting us together a century-and-a-half ago was a mistake, and these genocidal little nanobots are their way of dismantling us from the inside out."

She could feel Tyg and Torvald both holding their breaths. "Maslin's the most paranoid company I've ever seen," she continued, "so we take out this room, it's likely the formula gets lost for good." At least, all of Torvald's research pointed to that conclusion. "You're a reasonable person, Mr. Exeter. Surely you can see—"

"Ah." Exeter held up a finger. "But ours is not to reason why, remember?" The pseudoskin burst from the adamant struts of his hands, and he fired a full volley of bolt blasts directly at her.

Amping up and warping her magnetic field, she deflected the blasts. Not back at him, though: back into the data storage units. As she'd thought, his enhancements nearly rivaled her own, so when his bolts struck, they blew through the type ten shielding like it was rice paper.

"No!" he shouted, and he let fly another volley. Again, she bent their paths, sent them crackling and sizzling back into the irreplaceable lab equipment, but one incoming missile didn't deviate. Her targeting senses identified it immediately, and she threw herself sideways, spun in midair, and aimed a blast of her own, incinerating the nasty little thing. A bioemp bomb—a damn powerful one, too—designed to short out an enhanced nervous system as thoroughly as an old-fashioned EMP could short out a radio set.

Which pretty much settled the question for Midge. She brought her own batteries to bear on the man, and when he deflected her bolts back at her, she recharged them and scattered them to the four corners of the room, everything they touched shattering to dust.

But of course, his enhancement only nearly rivaled hers: he missed the bioemp she tossed at him while her bolts kept his system busy. It struck him like a bolt of lightning, his enhanced muscles seizing up and freezing him into a grimacing statue of meat and metal. He toppled over without a sound.

She plastered the room with a few more volleys, slagged Exeter's head just to be sure—he probably had personogram backups recorded somewhere, anyway—then blew a hole in the wall so she could jump out into Mùchǎng's lovely clear blue sky.

That alarms weren't hooting from every street corner eighteen stories below surprised her a little, but, well, this was one of the more civilized places in settled space, wasn't it? Other than cooking up the odd genocide here and there, of course...

The silence over her links bothered her more than anything else, though. Sure, her partners had their own portions of the plan to take care of at this point, but she could usually feel Torvald's ragged breathing against the inside of her neck. She did hear some sirens from the direction of the space port as she reached the top of her arc and started curving ever so gently downward, and turning in that direction, she almost cheered to see the streamlined shape of The Flying Tyger barreling toward her at speeds she was sure local traffic control must be objecting to.

Slowing her perceptions and maxxing her shield power, she used her magnetics to meet the wonderfully predictable course Torvald was piloting and barely got the wind knocked out of her when she slammed into the ship's own magnetic grip, wrapping around her as welcoming as a warm blanket on a winter night. The process was automatic after that, sliding her into the specially designed docking bay that Tyg had charmingly christened The Coffin. I'm aboard, she sent. Status?

Covering you, Tyg responded immediately. I've scrambled their systems so bad, they're shooting at each other instead of you. Come and get me, though, will you? I think we might want to add this place to our 'do not call' list.

Roger that. And since she still wasn't hearing ragged breathing, she swallowed in her darkened, form-fitting pod and asked, Status, please, Torvald? She knew he was okay—somebody was flying the ship, after all—but she needed to know... You remember where we left Tyg, right?

His sigh almost seemed to ruffle the fur between her ears. In geosynchronous orbit. I've got her pod all ready, then we can hit the tunnel drive and be on our way.

Thanks, Torvald. She wanted to pop the top off her pod, climb up to the bridge and rub the fur between his own ears, but she was pretty much running on fumes at this point. I'm sorry we couldn't make things work out back there.

I just was hoping that maybe... He sighed again. But once we pick up Tyg, I'm setting course for somewhere out of the way like Delieb or Marches. We need to lay low for a while, make sure this actually crippled the mechavirus's development, and, I dunno, maybe take a little R&R?

A snort from Tyg. You organics are so delicate! Almost as delicate as the AIs 'round these parts. So, yeah, the sooner we get back to the frontier, the better I'll like it.

All right, then. Midge settled back and let the diagnostic programs trickle into her. Wake me up when it's dinnertime, all right?
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#1 · 3
"Thank you, sir!" she made sure to add, ignoring the temptation to activate the vocal enhancements that would've rattled the exquisite stonework reaching three stories up to the crystal ceiling, the sky outside as blue and pure as it only ever was on very old and rich worlds or very young and barely cultivated worlds.

This one sentence is trying to communicate like five or six different ideas.

The story itself seems to be a bunch of sci-fi tropes tossed together in a salad. Not that I think any of them are bad, or too difficult to understand, but it's just so much thrown at me at once, along with lots of jargon and technobabble that I have to decipher. And we got multiple AIs in this girl's head, oh yeah and she's a genetically engineered furry, and something about settled planets... it's just too much. Even if there's some interesting connection formed between all these ideas later, for right now I'm not sure what to focus on.

That he wasn't bothering to shield the glow of his enhancements told Midge a great deal about him, and the proprietary way he surveyed the lobby as he moved through it told her several more things.

What great deal? What more things? This setting's already so futuristic and alien that I don't trust any of my common sense to fill in the blanks here. Information overload.

I admit I did read more than I planned to, partially to see if it makes a little more sense as it goes on. I got about to the "No collateral damage" bit before stopping, because it felt a little late to emphasize that this is some dangerous criminal heist. Yet at the same time it was moving kind of slowly, having polite chitchat with Exeter and the angry receptionist. A slow burn, while the voices inside Midge's head are going back and forth lightning fast.

I dunno, it's not too bad of an opening, just unfocused. It's in too much of a hurry to show off all this neat worldbuilding from every angle, instead of letting me start with a singular view.
#2 · 1
The story itself seems to be a bunch of sci-fi tropes tossed together in a salad. Not that I think any of them are bad, or too difficult to understand, but it's just so much thrown at me at once, along with lots of jargon and technobabble that I have to decipher. And we got multiple AIs in this girl's head, oh yeah and she's a genetically engineered furry, and something about settled planets... it's just too much.

+1 all of this. If I had to pick one word to describe the story it would be "cluttered." There's a ton of stuff here and it's not clear why we're supposed to care about any of it or how all of it connects together. The heist feels generic, Stakes are not established until we are more than halfway through the story, and a lot of the elements The Story Goes to some lengths to introduce are never actually used.

Also, I'm sorry, but that action fight scene was less than dramatic. That's where I started to completely tune out. His story is trying to be a slow-paced action-packed character-driven social commentary powered Heist novel, and that is too much stuff for 8,000 words.
#3 · 1
tl;dr: A solid enough cyperpunk heist story that ends faltering due to the underdeveloped (but very central) character conflict.

I noticed a theme this round, and it was "stories that began too early." Not to say that this isn't a common theme, it just really jumped out at me this round because it feels like there are a lot of really clear cuts and new starting points. In this case, we should be starting on the idea of "Boy it sucks that I'm going to have to kill this guy, doesn't it?" That's where the plot really starts, and where a lot of the later focus is on.

The challenge here isn't in her completing her job (sort of emphasized by the fact that we don't even really know what it is until we are deep in there - another issue, I think, in that we don't have any understanding of the stakes until we are basically at the end of the story), it is her completing the job without killing this guy. And that's honestly a good concept for a competence porn story. You know Midge and her crew is going to dunk these fools, but can she do it without also having to ice this seemingly reasonable dude?

The problem, of course, is that the story doesn't really give us much reason to care about Exeter. I mean, he's not a blatantly racist douchebag, but otherwise we don't really know anything else about him. Making this more a character piece where we start immediately with him greeting her, then follow up with the two bonding more thoroughly on their way through the facility would do a much better of setting up the final conflict than the current structure does.

To that end, the reason he opposes her in the end is... problematic. While there is something to be said for having sympathies for people just doing their jobs, he is also defending a truly reprehensible thing without much apparent regret or concern. Like, it is well and good for you to be loyal to your employer, but not really having any issue with this anthro annihilating virus is a pretty good way to kinda go "well, maybe you aren't such a big loss."

So yeah. Again, I think the pieces for a solid story are here, but you need to refocus a little bit to really make them work. Hone in on that conflict and sell it!
#4 · 3
First, the use of underlined sentences is awful.

I must disagree with Andrew entirely. This feels, as the first two reviewers said, like a patchwork of semi-futuristic but cliché and hackneyed concepts thrown together in a bowl and mixed hoping something palatable will come out. Bad luck, it didn’t. Matter of fact, I wasn't even 1000 words into this that I was already bored to death. To be honest, I ended up skimming over the rest of the story for words I didn't know (“indenture” was one of those), but that’s all the value I could get out of this story.

Sorry author, but I’m obviously light-years away from your intended audience.
#5 ·
On Feb. 1st:

I got a semi-rejection from Jeff Eddy at Sofawolf Press, the folks who reprinted my first novel and published my second, a "companion volume" to the first. They liked a lot of things about the stand-alone science-fiction novel I'd sent them, but they had suggestions, too, and the letter said that I would be welcome to resubmit if I was "inclined to do some modification and work on some issues."

One of the issues they focused on was the main character. At the beginning of the story, she pretty much has everything she wants from life, and her primary focus throughout to the book is keep the status quo from unraveling. The editorial team thought that maybe bringing a second POV character into things, someone who is trying to get something and who would run up against the primary POV character, might help the overall structure.

Well, I was thinking about this when the prompt dropped here the next day, and I suddenly found myself remembering a story I'd had published in an issue of Sofawolf's magazine series Anthrolations back in 2001. Midge, a.k.a. Colleen Trager, a.k.a. Canis Major, would be the perfect character to be the secondary POV in the abovementioned novel, and I began freewriting to see if I could come up with a somewhat self-contained story that I could then turn into a new first chapter for the book.

What I came up with here is neither story nor chapter, but it's jumpstarted my thought processes for revising the book for resubmission to Sofawolf. That's kept me away from reading for the contest here, though, but I hope to get at least some of the final ballot looked at before Wednesday. :)