A few years ago, a military doctor walking the corridors of New Jakarta Space Station saved Melati’s life. She signed up for the International Space Force to pay back her moral debt to him. But her family thinks she has betrayed her people. It was ISF who forcefully removed their grandmothers and grandfathers from the crowded slums of Jakarta to work in interstellar space stations.
It is Melati’s job to teach six-year old construct soldiers, artificial humans grown in labs and activated with programmed minds to serve in an interstellar war. Her latest cohort has one student who claims that he is not a little boy, but a mindbase traveller whose swap partner took off with his body. It soon becomes clear that a lot of people are scouring the space station for this fugitive, a scientist with dangerous knowledge about interstellar space.
The best place to hide in the space station is amongst the many cultures and subcultures of the expat Indonesian B-sector. Looking for him brings Melati into direct conflict with her people. She does not want to be seen as one of the enemy, but if the scientist’s knowledge falls in the wrong hands, war will come to the station.
Praise for Shifting Reality
“I couldn’t put it down, staying up late to finish reading. Melati is a great character who stands up for what she believes in an entirely plausible way.–Australian book reviewer Tsana Dolichva”
“This is not a generic mystery set in some futuristic space station. There is technology core to how this society works, such as that of imprinting a human personality on a body, that is integral to the story.–Just Add Story”
“Thirty minutes,” Lt. Laura Jennings said into the silence of the Construct Activation Unit.
A digital clock on the wall counted down the seconds in big blue letters. Tick, tick, tick.
Melati sat up in her chair, eyes on her monitor—still blank—and her hands poised over the keys. “I’m ready.”
In the ward, nine cribs stood in three lines of three and within the cribs lay nine boys, each surrounded by banks of equipment. The glow from little LED lights in the machinery made a multi-coloured fuzz over their peachy skin. Their eyes were still closed. So peaceful.
As usual, the C-shift had prepped the room, taken the heavy covers off the cribs, removed the breathing apparatus, so the boys only remained encased in their spidery immobilisation harnesses, and pads and snaking leads of BCI—Brain-Computer Interface—electronics.
Air hissed out of ceiling vents against the background of the usual station noises: the rumbling of lifts through the station’s spokes, the clicking of expanding or contracting metal as the station rotated and parts of it moved in and out of sunlight, and the distant clangs of dockings and undockings of ships, the churning of ore-processing machines and other industries that went on in the station’s bowels.
“Initiate wake-up sequence,” Dr. Chee said into this microphone, without looking up from the computer. “Cohort Grimshaw152.”
Laura Jennings typed on her workstation.
Melati hit “initiate” on her screen. The central computer hub responded with a subtle increase in humming frequency that would never be noticed if it was not for the intense silence in the room. A line of green lights blinked into life on the large display above Dr Chee’s head.
Nine dispensers stopped delivering sedative. Nine slow waves on the screen became intermittent wriggly waves.
Nine heart rate monitors increased their soft beeping. Nine heartbeats in perfect unison. Melati loved that moment when heartbeats synchronised for the first time.
Some people believed it was the moment a construct cohort truly came alive, and the nine children became aware, thinking humans.
Forty beats per minute.
Nine brain activity sensors recorded spikes of activity. Nine pairs of hands twitched. Chests went up-down-up-down in increasing frequency. In her mind, Melati already saw these boys in her classroom. Young Grimshaw constructs were usually boisterous, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t stop talking, had to do stuff with their hands—
Fifty beats per minute.
Data streamed across the screen, large blocks of mindbase code, in verb-noun shorthand, organised in neat blocks of lines roughly the same length. Melati recognised many of the lines, since she had helped design a lot of the code. This was the Prep module, everything the boys needed to know about their situation at awakening. Their names, that they were six years old, that they were students, that they had eight brothers, that they were male, and that they were to be ordnance specialists.
Sixty beats per minute—wait, one monitor was two beats ahead of the others, no make that three beats, no five, nine.
The boy already had his eyes open. He stared at the ceiling, blinking.
Melati’s monitor showed a spike of activity in one of the nine columns. His heart rate was almost a hundred beats per minute and the mindbase modules that scrolled over Melati’s screen were irregular and full of long and short lines.
She definitely had not written this code.
“Laura, have a look at this. There’s something odd going on with this module.”
Melati spoke softly, because too much noise disturbed the constructs at waking time.
Laura frowned, pushed her screen back into the recess and rose.
While she crossed the room in Melati’s direction, the boy raised a hand and pulled at the heart rate sensor taped to his chest. It wouldn’t come off and his fingers found the corner of the tape that held it down and started pulling at it.
Laura went to his crib and pushed the boy’s hand away gently. “Shh, you can’t take that off yet.”
The boy raised his head and looked around. His eyes met Melati’s. He frowned.
Laura said, “Doctor, can you come here? There’s something wro—Hey!”
The boy pushed her away and sat up, but stopped halfway because he still had most of the BCI patches stuck to his head and the leads weren’t long enough for him to sit. He twisted around, his face a mask of frustration. The drip tube attached to his arm was too short for this action and the stand wobbled ominously.
“Doctor,” Laura said again.
“Quiet,” Dr Chee said, lifting one half of his headphones where he had been listening to recorded procedural instructions.
His voice sounded calm and authoritative. He glanced at the boy, and went back to his work. “Dial up the sedative.”
But the boy had already ripped the tape from around his wrist and yanked out the drip. So much for the sedative. He pulled at the BCI patches stuck to his head. Clumps of soft cherub-like hair came out.
Laura groped around to stop him. “Hey, leave that on. Stay down. You’re not ready yet. Get assistance, Melati.”
Melati half-rose, hesitated, and looked at Dr Chee. She’d been allowed to watch this procedure under specific instructions not to interfere with the med staff.
Dr Chee slipped his headphones off and rose quietly, taking an injector gun from the bench against the wall.
Melati mouthed, “Do you need help?” But he gestured at her to keep monitoring the wake-up module’s progress.
The boy sat in his crib, looking over the edge to the floor as if contemplating how to get down, muttering, “Got to get out, got to get out . . .” He pulled at the hospital gown, smearing blood over the front. “Where are my clothes?”
Laura said, “We’ll give you clothes in a minute. Please stay down. Let me re-attach your drip. You’re not ready to get up—”
The boy ducked under her grasping arms and in a surprising display of agility, jumped out of his crib, tangled in the remaining BCI wires and tubes, and tripped, dragging the drip stand to the floor. It fell, taking down a tray of small equipment from an adjacent table. Syringes and other implements bounced over the floor. A bottle smashed in an explosion of glass and fluid.
“Please stay in your bed.” Laura managed to grab his arm, but he twisted himself loose and ran towards the unit’s door. He looked for a door handle—the door didn’t have one; it was controlled through staff passes—and banged on the metal surface. “Where is he? Where is the fucking bastard?”
At that moment, the door opened from the outside and as the boy charged through, two emergency nurses came the other way. The two of them, Laura Jennings and Dr Chee restrained the boy. In between their uniformed bodies, Melati glimpsed the doctor’s gloved hand jamming the injector gun against the boy’s arm.
Moments later, he collapsed and the two emergency nurses carried him to his cot.
Meanwhile the other boys had woken up.
One of them sat in his cot, looking wide-eyed at nurses re-attaching leads to his unconscious brother. As if in slow motion, he opened his mouth and produced a long, animal-like wail.
To hell with not interfering. Melati ran to the bed and put an arm around his shoulders. He felt hot and thin under her touch. Shivering.
“It’s all right,” she said, stroking his arm.
His brother in the next crib tried to reach him. His arm tangled in the drip tube and his face distorted with distress. He gave an anguished cry, yanking at the tube.
“Shhh,” Melati said, one eye on the large display on the wall. The modules had finished loading, but his brain activity showed huge spikes and valleys instead of the usual steady line.
Another boy was trying to untangle himself from the surrounding equipment.
Laura looked over her shoulder. “Get them to stay down before they ruin my entire lab.”
One nurse grabbed the boy closest to Melati by the shoulders so he remained in his crib while Laura detached him from his patches, muttering and cursing. As soon as the nurses let him go, the boy clambered from the crib, stumbled—the first time on his feet—and joined Melati and the crying boy on the cot, wrapping his arms around both of them.
The other boys were crying, too, and Dr Chee and the nurses went from one to the other trying to keep all of them in their cribs. Laura, bleeding from a glass cut in her forearm, was running around detaching them from their patches and drips. But there were four med personnel and eight conscious boys. Some of the boys managed to free themselves. Two were running around in nothing more than recyclable gowns, stepping in glass.
At the sight of bloody footprints on the floor, one boy screamed, his hands clamped over his ears, a high-pitched wail that cut through everything. One of his brothers ripped off the patches Laura had just re-attached and jumped off his cot to join the injured brother. One of the emergency nurses hauled him under the shoulders, and he started screaming, too.
Melati rose, disentangling herself from the boys’ arms. “Stop! Stop fighting them!”
The two emergency nurses looked at Melati with that familiar who-the-heck-is-that expression. They were men, both taller than her, and white. They were constructs themselves; she saw that in their perfect faces if not the cohort patches on their uniforms. Up until now, they had simply disregarded her, like they would disregard a cleaner shuffling about after end-of-shift.
She pushed away irritation and continued, “You can’t treat them like this. They’re vulnerable. They’ll remember.”
None of the people in this room would have to deal with the inflicted trauma in her classroom; Melati would. And within four months, she would be expected to turn in a fully-educated and functional cohort for combat training.
Laura drew herself up. “Melati, didn’t your orders include the line that you wouldn’t interfere with medical personnel while you were here?”
“They did, and I’m sorry for my transgression.” If they heard any sarcasm in that, that had to be their imagination. “My first concern is for the boys. Too much noise distresses them. They get scared and confused. Their first impressions after waking are very important for how they will behave later, in my classroom.”
Dr Chee nodded, slowly. “It wasn’t really necessary to restrain them with force.”
Laura said, her face stiff, “It was necessary from where I was standing. I’m responsible for the ward. They were wrecking my equipment.”
She glared back at Melati.
Dr Chee waved at the emergency nurses. “Thank you for your assistance. Everything is under control now.”
The nearest nurse released the boy whose arm he’d been holding. The boy sank down on the floor, crying. Melati pulled him up and enclosed him in her arms; he smelled of hospital and clung onto her shirt with bony hands.
She whispered, “Shhh, it’s all right. All right. I’m your teacher. You’ll be fine. Don’t be afraid. We’re here to help you.”
She met Laura’s glare over his head.
Meanwhile, a second boy came over and a third one, until all of them stood in a tight knot around her. The best way to calm a newly-woken construct was by letting him feel your heartbeat, so she took the first boy’s little hand and placed it through the holes between the buttons of her uniform, on her chest.
His little hand was warm on her skin. The other boys gathered around him, holding hands, touching shoulders. Their expressions calmed and faces relaxed.
Melati ruffled their hair and spoke soft words to them.
Laura retreated to her desk, scowling.
The boys clung onto Melati or each other, staring at their ninth brother on the bed. He lay limp on the pillow, his cherubic dark curls in a mess. Blood ran from the drip hole above his wrist onto the white bed cover.
One of the boys said, “What’s going to happen to him?” His voice trembled.
“He’ll be fine,” Melati said, but she was by no means certain. She’d never experienced anything like this before. She could still see him trying to open the door; she could hear his shrill voice Where is the fucking bastard? Where had he even learned that language?
She raked her fingers through his hair, feeling the gazes of his brothers on her as if they could sense her doubt. She repeated, to convince herself, “He’ll be fine. The doctor is going to look after him.”