Paolo emerged from the subway and looked around the intersection. Well-dressed business people swarmed about him, carrying their briefcases or staring into their data units. The streets were clean here, and the buildings modern and well-maintained. Above them, the enormous black glass mass of the Jinsei arcology nearly blotted out the sun.

This was a fashionable business district. It had originally sprung up to house Jinsei's legion of sub-contractors, but had become trendy and was now home to most of Neo York's up and coming businesses. Not true corps, but the richest and fastest-growing smaller firms. Moving into this district was often seen as an invitation to a buy-out, a way for Neo York's entrepeneurs to obtain a position in a megacorporation and a shot at true wealth.

But, Paolo smiled to himself, there were those in the district who harbored no such ambitions.

He saw the building he was looking for across the street, and knew it even before he checked the address. It was one of the new generation of skyscrapers that had sprung up since the rise of the arcologies, built by a generation of architects who chose to answer the arcologies' enormity with elegance and craft. The designer of this building had been creative indeed, arranging a collection of intertwined, curving towers of blue glass that scintillated even under Neo York's smoggy sky. It was a jet of water streaming into the sky. Its proximity to Jinsei's front gates suggested a fountain, but to Paolo it seemed to act in defiance of the oppressive black monolith.

The doctor crossed the street and made his way in. He held out his identicard as he walked, letting the building's software optically scan the unit until he heard the chime. He looked down, and followed the line of blue lights that had appeared in the otherwise pristine marble floor. They led to one side of the lobby, and a series of booths labeled "Visitor Stations." He winced as he recognized the style of technology the building used, but stepped inside.

"Welcome to Maclaurin Towers," a voice announced. "Please state your name and your destination."

Chances were the software already knew about Paolo's appointment, and simply wanted a sample for voice identification. "I'm Dr. Snak—" He stooped himself. Sometimes, it was hard to remember who he was. "I am Dr. Paolo Zanabria," he said. "I have an appointment with Constance Wenton of Sea Goddess Enterprises."

There was a brief lull, and the doctor wondered if the machine were scanning for a voice match among known felons, or if his voice print were being accessed from some subscription database. "We are delighted to have you," the voice said at last. "Please follow the square blue line, and enjoy your stay."

Paolo nodded politely in case a human were monitoring, and followed the newly-formed line of illuminated blue squares to a bank of elevators. As he stepped inside, the blue light leapt onto the elevator controls and illuminated a space beside the button for floor 42. The button lit itself, without any prompting, and Paolo slipped to the back of the elevator as others piled on.

I thought all systems like this were phased out years ago, he fumed, aggravated by the ridiculous line of dots. A human receptionist is more pleasant, and these silly optical guides have always grated on my nerves. It was the automation that bothered him, the gratuitous subjugation of the human visitor to the native machine.

At last the car stopped, and the doctor slipped out. The blue dots obligingly leapt to the floor again and began guiding him down the hall past several office suites. He resisted the temptation to enter the men's room—he had no need, and it was pointless to defy automatons.

The virtual guide took him to the end of the hall, and obligingly back-lit the tastefully understated nameplate reading, "Sea Goddess Enterprises." He strode inside, and almost sighed in relief at the sight of a human receptionist.

"Dr. Zanabria," greeted the man politely. He was young, possibly a student, with dark skin and a head of dreadlocks dyed a deep green. The immaculately pressed suit and tie, and carefully genteel tones made his unusual coiffure the only thing that seemed out of place. Paolo was absolutely sure Constance had hired the man personally. "Ms. Wenton is expecting you. She will be—"

"Paolo!" Came a perfectly cultured British accent. The voice was instantly recognizable to the doctor as the product of his own craftsmanship, and he turned.

An enormous abstract sculpture stood before him, where moments before had been only empty hallway. The figure was seven feet tall, humanoid, and curved in a way that suggested femininity. But its legs and shoulders were asymmetric across its body as if the material had been nearly melted and allowed to settle. The skin was uniformly smooth and hairless, a deep terra cotta broken only by a lighter red where the eyes should have been. Slight roundings in the head suggested a nose and mouth, but there were no actual breaks in the skin there or anywhere else. And someone had carefully tailored a light green skirt-suit to match the odd frame. The result was both striking and elegant.

He had never seen this cybernetic body before, but he would have known its occupant had he met her anywhere in the world. "Hello, Constance," Paolo greeted, smiling warmly despite his usual reserve. She surprised him by coming up to embrace him, her long arms gathering him in before he could protest, and she took his hand as he pulled away.

"I can't tell you how good it is to see you," she said. It never ceased to amaze Paolo that she could act in such brazenly unconventional ways, and yet somehow still leave one with the impression that she was a woman of taste and class. It was what had made working with her some of the best times of his career.

"Well, I'm certainly glad to be here," he said. "You look lovelier than ever."

She couldn't smile, of course, but impossibly her body language gave the impression that she had. "It's my own design," Constance offered, turning to let the cyberneticist see the entirety of the work. "You like it?"

"Very much so," Paolo replied. She had designed only the cosmetic appearance, of course. Someone else would have grafted it onto the chassis. A Diana-5, he guessed. "Did you design the suit as well?"

"No, I had that done in Paris," she replied. "I'm afraid I don't have time to design my own clothes these days—I've been very busy!"

"Indeed she has," came another voice.

The doctor looked over to find two newcomers. The man who had spoken was short and hairless, with gray skin but with fully human features. It was Jacques, the company divemaster. Paolo knew him to be Nigerian, and suspected the gray skin was the by-product of some genetic upgrade intended to improve his performance under water. That sort of thing normally reserved for members of elite commando groups, but the doctor had never asked. He would never have held his current post were he not an expert on aquatic and amphibious combat.

"Good to see you again, Jacques," said Paolo, extending his hand.

"And you." The Nigerian took his hand and shook it. He did not smile or make any gesture of warmth, but gave his customary respectful nod. The motion seemed to indicate he viewed the doctor as a genuine asset, and that was enough to make the cyberneticist feel welcome.

That sentiment was not universally shared. "Doctor Zanabria," said the woman beside him coolly. It was Ayla Lee, Sea Goddess' only full-time doctor. She was experienced in trauma medicine and a competent hand at basic cybernetics, but lacked the skill with machinery to truly master the latter discipline. Her deficiency was something she had never forgiven Paolo.

"Dr. Lee," he greeted, extending his hand. Her blonde hair was longer than he remembered it, and her skin lighter, indicating she had perhaps spent less time in the sun. But the most dramatic change was her rounded belly, and Paolo smiled in spite of himself. "Congratulations," he offered.

"Thank you," she replied in tones that indicated she did not wish to discuss her pregnancy.

Eager to change the subject, Paolo asked, "Is Paul here?"

"He's with the Nereid," explained Constance. "Running a geological survey off northern Australia. But he'll be joining us for the conference."

The cyberneticist was surprised. The Nereid was a sophisticated research vessel, and it cost a good deal of money to keep her afloat. Normally Constance held off on surveys until the last moment, so that she could use the ship as a dive platform on the same cruise.

"Northern Australia?" asked Paolo. "Remind me to find a way to dive the Great Barrier Reef on your nickel."

Predictably, Lee frowned, Jacques gave no response, and the cyborg seemed to smile. "I don't think you'll want do dive, Paolo," she observed. "It's scenery only a geologist could love."

She led the group back to the conference room, and took a seat at the head of the table. The rest of the team fell into place around her, as Constance's elderly secretary emerged from the adjacent room with a tray of coffee mugs.

"Decaf with cream, black, and thermonuclear," he said, passing Lee, Jacques and Paolo their respective mugs. He smiled, and said quietly to Paolo, "Good to see you again."

"Thank you," replied the doctor, wishing he could remember the man's name. He'd been with the company since its founding, and like all of Constance's employees seemed devoted to her. The cyborg inspired remarkable loyalty, and her people never left.

The holotank at the opposite end of the room flickered to life, and Paul Tanner's weatherbeaten features came into view. He was in his mid-thirties, phenomenally fit, and at the moment clad only in grease-stained t-shirt and cut-off jeans. It was night in Australia, and he was obviously trying desperately to finish something.

"Hello, Paul," greeted Constance. "Sorry to drag you away from your work."

"It's alright," answered the geologist. "We've got the probe working again, but won't make another drop before morning. Hello, doctor," he added to Paolo. The cyberneticist smiled politely.

"Alright," said Constance, bringing the meeting to order. "Paolo, we need some custom-design work done to meet a contract with the R. Scott Foundation. Are you familiar with ecosystem associated with the deep sea volcanic vents?"

The doctor smiled. This promised to be intriguing. "Vaguely," he replied. "It's mostly bacteria and a few crude multicellular organisms, obtaining their energy through the oxidation of sulfides from the volcanic vents, correct?"

Constance nodded. "Correct," she replied. "Chemosynthesis instead of photosynthesis. R-Scott has contracted with us to obtain samples of bacteria from a vent north of Australia. They want a thorough survey of the fissures surrounding the main vent, and have offered bonsuses based on the number of viable species returned to the surface for study."

"So you need modifications to allow you to conduct the survey," Paolo stated.

"Exactly. Paul, would you please brief the doctor?" Constance prompted.

The geologist nodded, and manipulated some controls off-screen. Abruptly he was surrounded by displays showing the vent and its surrounding topology. "The system of interest is located at a depth of 3 km. Surrounding terrain is comparatively recent seabed, the results of a modern magma outflow. Associated with the vent itself are a catacomb of fissures. Their total depth is unkown, but they appear to span an area of about 1.5 square kilometers. Temperatures within the network range from normal undersea conditions to 95 degrees Celsius near the central vent. Plumes of superheated steam vent at unpredictable intervals, some reaching temperatures of 120 Celsius. Mineral content is high in sulfides, and rich in a variety of other minerals." Data flashed across the screen.

"And everything you've found is in line with the data provided by R-Scott?" prompted Jacques, speaking for the first time.

"That's correct," he answered. "Our data is less complete than theirs, but it's all in agreement."

"You believe that the fissures are entirely self-contained," Jacques queried, seeming to pursue an important point.


It was an important point, the doctor thought. It was not lost on him that no one had given him any specifics as to the location of the fissure. R-Scott wanted something from this particular system. Perhaps there was something special about the microorganisms here, which would make them valuable templates for genetic modification and use in industrial processes. Or perhaps they were contemplating some form of biomining, modifying the organisms to draw specific elements out of the water and rise out of the vents where they could be harvested. None of which mattered to Paolo directly, of course, but it was interesting to consider.

Since the Divemaster seemed finished, Paul moved on. "The difficulty in any automated survey of the fissures is the conditions. Venting gas makes the network too noisy for sonar, and the water is too turbid for optical sensors. Additionally, the passages are twisted and lines with jagged stone, so cables foul and cut. We know R-Scott lost a probe that way, and we damn near lost ours," He added ruefully. "The fissures of interest are too small for a manned submersible or a deep sea hardsuit, especially after they were modified for those temperatures."

"So a cyber-dive is the only option," Paolo observed.

Constance nodded. "R-Scott wants us to handle it, because they don't have this kind of experience with hostile environments cybernetics." Another clue that there was something special about this particular system, Paolo surmised. R-Scott couldn't contract with a major corp without risking a security breach. "We've made some preparations. We've sub-contracted with a group at U-Maryland for sample containers for recovery of organisms. Preliminary tests on those look good, and we should take delivery in one week. We've also contracted with Woods Hole for use of their facilities—they have a chamber which can reproduce the conditions in the vent."

The doctor blinked. "You've done quite a bit," he observed. "When did you plan to start diving?"

"Three weeks."

Paolo's jaw dropped. "What!?" He demanded. "You're expecting a functioning body for this mission in three weeks?"

"Two," amended Jacques tonelessly. "We need a week to drill the team."

"We would have hired you three months ago," Dr. Lee observed. "But you were dead at the time." The woman was obviously wishing that were still the case.

"We originally contracted with Excalibur Systems," Constance explained. "But a week ago they told us they needed a six month extension. That would void our contract with R-Scott."

"What problem were they having?" asked Paolo.

Constance gestured to Lee, who answered. "Their design called for the development of muscle actuator bundled with piezoelectric cooling filaments. The result was a temperature gradient that made the actuator behave erratically."

"Idiots," muttered the doctor darkly. Constance smiled at this, but he barely noticed. "Why did they need that kind of tissue?"

"The body needs cooling," observed Lee, as if explaining it to a child.

Paolo looked over irritably. "Have they given you the design?"

The company doctor pulled out her pocket data unit and initiated a display in the holotank, removing Paul's image. It did not affect his ability to see and hear, of course, but it was rude. "Here's their design," she said.

The image on the screen was the familiar undersea cybernetics chassis, with a silhouette somewhere between a mermaid and a seal. The body consisted of a sleek torso tapering to a long tail, and arms flattened in the wrists to provide steering surfaces. The skin was gray and hairless, and the form lacked clear muscle definition. Lee added several cross-sections and annotations to clarify the design.

"Most of the design is very standard," Lee pointed out. "The musculature and intrinsic life-systems are unchanged from the previous generation." She was referring to the fact that Constance had only a single hostile environments shell, which she modified for every mission. Hence, one generation per mission. "The external kevlex sheething is standard as well, though it's been doped to make it a better heat conductor. The coolant layer is the layer beneath that." The doctor frowned. "That's the one they can't deliver."

Paolo considered. "And the body is satisfactory in all other respects?" he asked. "What about sensory issues?"

"We've acquired a specialized unit from the French military," Lee explained. "It—"

"We have a special sonar unit," Jacques cut in coldly. He locked eyes with his co-worker, clearly furious that she had said as much as she had.

Across the table, the cyberneticist shrugged. What they didn't tell him, he wasn't responsible for, and now that he checked the design more closely he noticed a "black box" attached to the sensory mesh. They'd given Excalibur the necessary specs, and that was all Paolo would need.

He pulled a datacord off the table and, at a nod from Constance, jacked in. He inspected the design more closely now, manipulating the display in his mind.

The secret to hostile environments cybernetics, he mused, was putting aside all you preconceptions about what a cyborg—or a human being—should be. That was what had made his Pisces design so successful in orbit, his recognition that however comfortable a human form might be, it was ill-suited to zero-gravity. Worse, it encouraged the cyborg to cling to invalid concepts, such as "up" and "down."

Here, though, the psychological error was entirely Excalibur's. However deadly the small firm's military cybernetics program might be, they were worthless for hostile environments work. Paolo had known the answer before he even started, and some simple calculations—done in his head, not on Constance's machines!—confirmed it.

"I can do what you want," he told her confidently.

The cyborg could not sigh, of course, but she seemed to. Lee simply asked, "How?"

The doctor was about to answer, but stopped himself. He was in private practice now, and he had a business to run. He was trying to figure out how to raise the subject in an appropriate fashion, but Constance interrupted him.

"How much do you want?" she asked, with a hint of amusement at the doctor's clumsy style.

Paolo, of course, had no idea what his services were worth. But inspiration struck, and he quickly rifled through the packet of data Lee had prepared on Excalibur's design. His hopes were realized when he found a document which should definitely not have been in the materials Sea Goddess had given him.

At his will, Sea Goddess' contract with Excalibur appeared in the panel at the end of the table, the total highlighted. "That will do nicely," he said.

His satisfaction was driven to new heights by the delightful shade of purple Dr. Lee assumed. Constance simply laughed musically at the tableau, and Paul's voice could be heard snickering as well. Even Jacques seemed to have trouble hiding a grin.

"Alright," the cyborg told him. "But how are you going to do it?"

"The sample canisters," Paolo observed. "All less than 2 kilos, correct? How many do you expect to carry at once?"

Constance looked at her Divemaster. "No more than four," answered Jacques. "We will also have a tether harness, so she won't get lost in the fissures."

"Still, that's a very light load," Paolo observed. He gestured to the screen, and began making modifications to the Excalibur design. "Forget the fancy materials," he said. "Make a cooling layer under the kevlex out of standard piezoelectric mesh. Put the musculature below that—"

"There's no room," objected Lee. "You'll need a new kevlex sheath, and gigantotherming will undercut your cooling."

"Put the musculature below that," the cyberneticist continued, sketching it in as he went, "But use only about 10% of the normal actuator thickness. Then it will fit."

Constance shifted forward for a closer look, while Lee spat back angrily. "That cuts muscle strength almost to nothing!"

"It gives her strength slightly above human norms, which will be sufficient to carry sample containers and a harness," answered Paolo. "The lower quantity of muscle tissue will also produce less waste heat, and we can downgrade the power cells to further reduce heat issues."

"But she'll be weak!" objected Sea Goddess' doctor.

"She'll be strong enough to accomplish mission objectives," Paolo countered coldly. "Heat is the number one obstacle to this mission, and this is the approach that beats it."

"But—" Lee started to argue.

"Jacques," Constance cut her off, suddenly all business. "Your opinion?"

The Divemaster looked to Paolo. "The kevlex sheath will remain intact?"

"Fully," Paolo answered. It would make her resistant to projectiles and explosions in some circumstances, though at the depths of those fissures detonations were more deadly than ever.

Jacques returned his attention to Constance. "I want three more patrol drones, and another teleoperator," he said. The cyborg nodded. Clearly, Jacques' concern was with military intervention by a rival corp. The Divemaster wanted additional firepower to face down threats the cyborg could no longer handle.

"Paul? Your opinion?" Constance continued.

The disembodied voice replied, "I don't see any more security in muscle strength," he observed.

Lee seemed irritated. "What if she were caught in a cave-in?" demanded the doctor.

"The odds of being caught in one she could dig her way out of are minimal, even at her maximum strength," the geologist replied. "I consider it more likely that she'll get hit by venting steam, in which case, additional heat protection would be better. Doctor Zanabria, can you incorporate emergency cooling into your design?"

Paolo nodded. "Yes," he confirmed. "Either by overbuilding the piezoelectric system, or including some sort of emergency cooling vent."

"Alright," concluded Paul. "This sounds like a good way to go."

"Can you deliver on time?" Constance asked.

"Yes," replied Paolo. Then, resisting the temptation to grit his teeth, added, "But I do not have the legally-mandated insurance necessary to practice cybernetics. I can build the body, but Dr. Lee will have to perform the transplant."

Lee seemed about to comment on this, but a look from the cyborg cut her off. Paolo hated his status, but knew that having the doctor perform the simple procedure in Constance's facility was safer and easier than trying to arrange something in the Zero Zone. He wondered vaguely if he could do the procedure on the high seas, and made a mental note to investigate.

"Alright, then," Constance concluded. She paused, and said. "Paolo, I have to go. I'll let you make arrangements with Dr. Lee to start work on the body as soon as you're prepared. And, if you're available, will you join me for dinner tomorrow night?"

The request caught Paolo by surprise, but he was pleased. "Of course," he said. "I'd be delighted."

She nodded, and the group said their good-byes. Paul signed off, while Jacques followed Constance out, leaving Paolo alone with Dr. Lee.

"Shall we begin?" she asked coldly.

Paolo nodded, dreading the coming ordeal. The figure he had stolen from Excalibur had seemed breathtakingly high a moment ago, but suddenly, it did not seem like nearly enough.

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