Chapter 2

Magdalena sat at her dresser and arranged the skirt of her jade evening dress, adjusted the corset and rolled her shoulders revelling in the freedom of off-the-shoulder evening wear. She sighed. She closed her eyes and revelled in the soft touch of air on her skin. The benefits of piping the input of a sensor-net directly into her brain could never outweight the simple luxury of truly _experiencing_ the sensations. She opened her eyes and regarded herself in the mirror. Piercing green eyes, flawless alabaster skin below mid-back length mahogany hair. A necklace of pearls hung around her neck – a gift from her latest suitor. She pulled a fur-trimmed wrap from a hook next to the dresser and wrapped it around her shoulders before picking up a brush.

She started to draw her hair back, pinning it into place. The music-box on the dresser chimed and began to play _Masquerade_ from “Phantom of the Opera”, how approprite. She smiled.

She glaced at the upper corner of her mirror and ghostly writting appeared on its surface: The captain was enacting Protocol Seven and calling for a full Quroum. She shrugged and continued to brush her hair, slowly, deliberately. Enjoying the sensation of every stroke of the brush, the way the movement of her arm brushed sensuously across the fur of her wrap. With hair pinned back she glanced around the room.

The figure in her bed was still. From the vantage of her dresser he looked so peaceful, almost like he’d just slipped into sleep, succumubing to the draw of the post-coital afterglow. He wouldn’t be interrupting, or even witnessing, the call.

She turned and activated the holo-projector. The view in her mirror shimmered. A dark, austere room with six seats around a circular table replaced the reflection of her bedroom. The voice of her Captain spoke as the view was still forming, “… as for Anthropology …” Four figures dressed in their full sensor-net second skin turned and started at her out of the mirror.

Shawna Jenkins, poster-child and arguably the most sensor-net addicted of everyone on the crew, muttered loud enough for the holo-projector to pick up. “That’s obsene. All that naked skin. I cant believe she would go native like this, ditching her sensor net to walk around with the primitives, wearing nothing but bare skin and a few rags.”

Magdalena almost laughed. The voice of a true believer. Human faculties were too slow, the visible spectrum of light too restrictive. Binocular, forward facing vision too limiting. Magdalena shivered slightly at the thought of her lover’s touch and the remembered sensation of his last breath on the skin of her neck. Sensor net be damned, the real thing wins every time. She smiled at the thought and focussed her attention on the ghostly apparition in her mirror, “Oh come now Shawna. There’s more to life than that.”

Before the Captain could cite her for insubordination and breaking Protocol, she continued, “Sorry. Yes. Protocol Seven.”

She introduced herself and gave her deignation for the record. After this point all findings would be logged against her. No-one could steal credit nor (in theory) could she pass the blame for failure on to another crew member. All evidence would be checked by a second on the crew for veracity. Protocol Seven would only be enacted for the most critical of missions. Absolute proof. No doubt about methods. The crew would either be vilified or glorified by the end of the mission.

Magdalena continued with her preliminary report, “It’s a stratified society. You got that right Li. Your specimins have been noted as lost but their lives were unremarkable. Minor issues resulted but their abduction was far better executed this time around than the last time. Well done Li. This is a closed society with clear release valves and insertion points for sociological engineering and maintenance along the way. I am convined that the on-board society was manufactured – there are too many diversions from true nineteenth century England – my full report will detail all evidence and under the limitations of Protocol Seven, all finds will be independently verified.”

She paused, lifted a silk hankerchief from her dresser and dabbed at the corner of her mouth. Going native indeed! If Shawna only knew the half of it. The blood-stained scrap of silk landed in a waste basket to the side of her dresser as she spoke again, “Well, Shawna darling, _going native_ as you put it does have it’s little perks. If you’ll excuse me, I have a ball I must attend.”

She shut down her link and stepped away from the dresser. As she approached the bed the reclined form became less peaceful. Blood from his torn neck had soaked the pillow and sheet on his side of the bed. Magdalena smiled at the thought of kisses on her neck, and the pure ecstacy of plunging her teeth into his. Beauty had its price and he’d paid in full. She turned and strode out of the room without a second glance.

The holographic projection of Magdalena flickerd and vanished. The conference room reverted to shades of grey and silence hung in the air for a moment. The Captain scanned the remaining crew then spoke, “You all have something to do. Get to it!”

As Li Phan walked out of the mess hall doorway a hand grabbed her left arm. She pivoted and found herself almost nose to nose with Shawna.

“Do you mind?” she said attempting to pull her arm free. The fingers held her in an iron grip that only tightenned the more she struggled.

Shawna hissed at her through clenched teeth, “Synth-flesh? Are you kidding me? I say you’re full of crap and contaminating your results.”

Li tried to imagine Shawna’s face under the sensor-net. In almost four years she’d never seen Shawna’s real face. Not once had she slipped off the net and enjoyed the cool air of the ship on her natural skin. The words on their own were confrontational. Without clear facial expression Li was hard pressed to soften things at all. Did Shawna mean the insult? Was she joking? Li had learned the hard way that a literal interpretation of words could cause trouble. She was out of her depth. Suddenly she felt sixteen years old again. The years of behavioural analyst input and therapy melted. “Literal Li” made herself known, jumped to the fore and claimed the adult brain. “Literal Li” the high-school freak. “Literal Li” the ass-burger. Her breathing quickenned and beneath the sensor net she could feel the prickle of a cold sweat. “Literal Li” started to panic without the stabilizing effects of adult training.

“Get your stinking hands off me!” she snarled. All of the teenage years came to the fore. A tidal wave of high-school angst rose up and crashed onto her waking perception. In moments her right hand went from relaxed to a fist, the arm from hanging at her side to a swift uppercut aimed at Shawna’s jaw.

Shawna moved with speed that blurred even the sensor net’s ability to capture. She pivoted. Pulled on Li’s left arm. Swept her legs from under her. Her other hand coming up to throat level to put her down hard. In the moments of an arm moving to throw a punch Li went from standing to on the deck with Shawna above her. The iron grip on her arm was gone, replaced by an equally steely set of fingers around her throat holding her down.

“I have the power to ruin you. You _need biology_ to render a verdict on this so called synth-flesh. When the time comes, remember. You owe me. I own you bitch.”

She released the potentially fatal hold and stalked off down the corridor leaving Li on the deck.

If this book is to be believed I’ve been here for over a day now. Its strange. My mind is hazy on the details of the confinement. I dont recall sleeping, eating or using the bathroom, yet here I sit without need for food, feeling refreshed and displaying remarkable intestinal fortitude. How long this can continue I dont know but I thank God. Yes, I suppose I do. I cant think of a worse proposition than to be confined a small room with a bowel movement as my only company.

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