"A bounty hunter, seriously?" Denal sounded incredulous. "How did he even know we were here?"
It was the day after my friends had come back from their assessment trip, they'd found a decent sized chunk of something dense and grey, they hadn't checked what it was officially but the readings I'd seen suggested something in the area of osmium. And they had become certified members of the miners guild, like myself except that they would still be going on these expeditions. Though now I wasn't too sure I wanted to leave the habitat.
"He said that he tracked us thanks to the miners guild sending messages asking for references to the Ceres Directorate." I replied to Denal's question, he looked a bit guilty about something at my statement. "And anyways even if one of us wasn't stupid enough to list some references on their applications there are several financial records that would place us here. The large-scale exchange of our Ceres qcoins for Vesta's, the mortgage payments we send their way to fend off repossession, et cetera. Probably why he was in the region in the first place, no way he could have flown all the way here from Ceres in the three days since we applied to the guild."
"Not necessarily." Cole threw in his opinion. "Vesta is passing fairly close to Ceres now. And there are a lot of ships faster than ours. I'd guess that a bounty hunter would use a fast courier class ship or maybe a military surplus interceptor if they're chasing people. And maybe we should keep running too, make it harder to find us."
"Cole, with the communication relays connecting every station in the belt anywhere we tried to hide would be known everywhere within hours." I found it a bit hard to believe that he was still determined to leave this place. "And most governments would have just let him take me, and you too once you'd come into port. The Marquez Guild reviewed the evidence and sent him packing, even if they tripled our rates."
"Tripled?" Aniya exclaimed in disbelief. "Can we even afford that?"
I told her truthfully, "I don't know. Maybe, it depends on how much we can make off these jobs."
"We should move to the Wolf Guild's territory." Denal suggested, I suspected he was still a bit infatuated with that rules-bending investigator who had saved our lives on our first day in the asteroid. "I bet Olga would give us a better price than these guys are."
Yep, definitely infatuated, at least he was leaving me relatively alone now. "Odds are her progenitor would charge us just as much. And that would make the commute to and from the spaceport a regular gauntlet where anyone who wanted to claim our bounty could go after us. Marquez at least will be able to keep us safe from bounty hunters and hit men by our livelihood." I neglected to mention the real reason, that being the blackmail that Derrick Marquez had inflicted upon me when he threatened to include what many would take as evidence of perverted sexual practices in the video he sent out as evidence of our justification for killing an executive's clone.
"So, what are we going to do if we can't afford it?" Cole asked, probably with a bit of justification but I thought he still sounded overly critical of Vesta's society.
I came up with an idea that I thought might work. "I'm not stuck on the ship for extended periods of time anymore. Maybe I could do some more analysis work for the guild while you're out mining or something." Surely the miners guild needed all the analysts they could get if we weren't even allowed in the field.
A week later I found myself in the minute apartment I'd rented looking over job listings. It turned out that being the newest chemist in the miners guild, no matter that I had just as much experience as most of the "senior" members, meant that hardly any jobs were ever thrown your way. I wasn't even allowed to perform the tests on the osmium sample that my friends had brought back. That load combined with the tungsten we had brought in the previous run had barely netted enough to pay the Marquez clan for another couple weeks. What with the guild's 10% and the storage fees for the tungsten and other assorted expenses. So they were already out on another expedition to find more heavy metals for the guild to profit off of.
Wait, did I say "clan" when referring to the Marquez Protectors Guild? Oh, right, well about then was when I guess I started to see the Protectors Guilds for what they truly were. Though to be honest it was a web show that I started watching while waiting for the miners guild to send me some work, "Crowns of Furtopia" I think it was. It was this fantasy series that took place on an alternate earth inhabited by parahumans instead of humans and technologically equivalent to 10th century Europe. The main plotline seemed to involve these families, yes they could reproduce in the fictional world of Furtopia, known alternatively as "clans" or "houses" that governed various regions of the country on which the show was set. Apparently the show had gained such a following on Vesta that some of the terminology had seeped out and it wasn't uncommon to refer to the Protectors Guilds as "house Wolf", or "clan Marquez" or any of a dozen different variations on those because the leaders of the Guilds had such large clone families. Anyways it was an impressive piece of work, they filmed with live actors wearing replica middle ages clothing and on board a Cole habitat that was pretty heavily terraformed and they edited out the sloped upwards ground and sky to make it look like it was actually on a planet.
Speaking of those clone families I had been scrolling through the list of jobs that were currently open on the asteroid when I came across a listing from the Society for the Preservation of Parahuman Species. Curious I opened the entry and found that it was for a position as a biotechnician in their cloning facility. The pay was substantial, with negotiable hours, but what really caught my attention was the line that stated "Protectors Guild insurance covered entirely." If that meant what I thought it meant the job was as good as pure liquid platinum for someone like me, I might even make enough to pay for my friends' insurance. I applied immediately.
I was taken by surprise an hour later when I received a call from the SPPS on my tablet, they wanted an interview by video chat already. I opened the chat app and was greeted by the image of a large brown creature that looked halfway between a badger and a bear, a wolverine I would later learn. The interviewer directed his large brown eyes at mine and introduced himself. "Good morning Argentum, my name is Caleb Burns and I'm here to determine if you're the type of parahuman the Society for the Preservation of Parahuman Species needs in order to continue our most worthy goal of ensuring the survival of our culture." I could barely see more than his head but he seemed to be wearing some sort of white lab coat with intricate designs of DNA helixes patterned up and down the lapels in gold or possibly a ceremonial robe of some kind.
That was an interesting question, "the type of parahuman the SPPS needs"? What types of parahumans was he referring to? Species of non-human genes? Skill sets? Body type? I couldn't tell what he was referring to so I started to talk about my hobbies. "Well, I have been performing my own DNA tests using the genetic material of myself and my crewmates for about four years. Attempting to find the genes that were modified to make me a neuter instead of male or female."
This Caleb being was obviously not too interested in my statement, probably because I had already listed my hobby of messing with the codes of life. "Yes, yes, what exactly was it that persuaded you to apply for this position?"
I thought that saying "the insurance coverage" wouldn't be particularly well received so I chose to share the other thing that had attracted me to the opening. "That advertisement, with the human picking over the remains of parahuman civilization after we've all died off. I thought it was rather inspiring."
He stared at me with an expression of surprise on his face. "Really? Those ads worked? I thought they would never convince anyone. You know, the idea of family being too foreign for most parahumans."
Family? Oh, the last scene with the clone taking care of his ailing progenitor. "I suppose some things are just embedded in our genes."
"Yes, yes, I suppose they are. The directive to propagate those genes being one of the strongest I suppose. Would explain why the Guildmasters all rushed to support the old man when he offered them additional clones." The wolverine suddenly seemed to realize that he'd said something he hadn't intended to let slip and covered his mouth with two pairs of hands. Or rather one pair of hands and one pair of paws, it seems he was a taur. Slowly, embarrassed, he moved his hands and paws away and continued speaking. "Anyways, speaking of clones what do you think of them?"
I thought back to the Vice President's clone who attempted to kill us, and the Marquez clone that threatened to expose certain details of my and Aniya's lives. And how their progenitors had sought disproportionate retribution for one's death and the other had apparently enabled his clone to extort extra money from their customer base. But I also recalled the message presented by that ad, and Denal's half-serious comment about our group getting a bunch of clones once we had enough to commission them all. I thought of the possibility of those powerful people's clones becoming the entirety of parahumanity within the next century, they might even become the majority within my own lifespan and make my last few years a living hell before I broke down and ceased to be. "I believe that we need to think about our future. And clones are the future for our kind."
"That's good to hear." Caleb replied. "It says here that you came to Vesta recently aboard a mining ship originally from Ceres. And that you're a registered member of the heavy metals miners guild here. Why would you want to join the SPPS when you're already employed?"
Not good, I couldn't tell him why I needed more money, that would be the interview equivalent of suicide. "They don't give very many jobs to new chemical analysts, they didn't even allow me to do the purity control for my former crew's hauls." I contemplated whether I should tell him a bit about the high insurance rates I'd been subjected to.
"And I'll bet that the Marquez Guild has been extorting a lot of qcoin from you since you just showed up on Vesta, haven't they?"
I was instantly horrified at that statement, how much did he know? "Maybe, a little." I tried to sound calm but was finding it difficult.
"Well, don't worry about that." Caleb Burns shot me a wink and smiled. "Jakob Griggs and Jerome Marquez are old buddies, I'm sure if you sign on he'll figure out a way to cut your rates down a bit."
Cut my rates? How much influence did the SPPS have? "I was under the impression that all insurances would be covered."
"Well," Caleb shrugged and slicked the fur on his head back. I could guess that I had caught him in something. "Technically it's deducted from your paycheck, but we can usually convince them to lower their rates significantly, and the pay we offer is considerable in and of itself."
"How much is 'considerable'?" I found myself asking.
He quoted me a rather respectable pay rate, not quite enough for me to live on with the increased Marquez fees. But if he was telling the truth about the Society's leader having the ability to lower the insurance paid by his employees, I might even be able to help cover my crewmates as well. I agreed to come over to their facilities and take a look around.
The Society's headquarters was a five-story building built into the cave wall of the cavern covered by the Marquez Guild. The front face of the structure was halfway covered with animated holograms similar to the one I had seen earlier, along with murals of DNA helixes and parahumans in biofabrication tanks and other stuff like that. I walked up to the front doors made of stained glass showing a nude male savannah cat with his arms and legs spread out in a pattern that made it look like he had four arms and four legs. Wonder what that was supposed to mean?
Caleb Burns was standing by the front counter in the main lobby, my guess that he was a taur was correct, and he had somehow managed to tie his robe slash lab coat in such a way that it enclosed his hind legs without showing anything. He saw me and gave a slight bow in my direction. I returned the gesture. "Hello, Argentum, welcome to our humble cloning laboratory for the preservation of the parahuman clade. Are you ready to begin the tour?"
I told him "yes" and the wolverine in a robe turned to a sealed hatch next to the counter, it was marked "Decontamination chamber". He swung it open and gestured for me to follow. We found ourselves in a room filled with light environment suits hung on racks in a variety of shapes and sizes. Caleb removed his robe and wriggled into a large taur-shaped suit, I did the same with my kilt and vest and a medium bipedal suit with a large enough tail.
"Through this door is our main production floor." He explained, speaking through an external speaker on the front of his suit. "We have a lot of delicate equipment and biological substances out there. The last thing we need is contamination from loose fur or someone breathing too hard."
I supposed I could understand that. Though I had to wonder about the state of my own experiments seeing how I hadn't bothered with airtight seals on my safety equipment. "Will this be where I will be working?" I asked him.
"Part of the time, you'll probably be in quality control. Making sure there's no unforeseen mutations in the cell cultures." He rattled off fairly quickly. "Most of your work will be done in the side labs."
He opened the other door and we walked out into a massive room that probably qualified as a cavern in its own right. There were at least three stories worth of machinery, all chugging along and mixing some vat of cells or pumping some fluid into a tank like the one the clone at the end of the ad emerged from. One of the tanks had a bluish skeleton inside, which brought to mind the long-decayed corpse in the same ad, while another adjacent tank had a body that was almost complete, half covered in a layer of skin.
"You'll mostly be coming out here to take samples from the cell cultures." He pointed at a set of small vats hanging suspended above one of the biofabrication tanks. "It's almost completely automated. All we need to keep this running are a couple of technicians who perform maintenance and repairs every few weeks."
We came to a stairway leading upwards to a large room with a glass wall facing the production floor. Through it I could see a half-dozen parahumans of various species in hazmat suits fussing over a variety of beakers, test tubes, petri dishes, and gene sequencers similar to the ones I had on our ship but obviously much more expensive. As we entered a tall male who appeared to be a spotted cat of some sort, possibly a savannah cat like the one on the front door, approached us.
"This is Maximus Griggs, he is the supervisor of this team." Caleb introduced the tall feline as. "Maximus, this is Argentum, ze is interested in the open position here."
"Good to see you Silver." He gave me a rather cat-like smile as he said this. I guessed that he knew enough ancient Greek to know what my name meant. "You have any prior experience with genetic testing and mutation screening?"
"I've performed some experiments on my own." I began to tell him. "Trying to engineer nutrient algae that tasted like bacon. And performing DNA tests on myself to figure out why the parts shops can't make me a set of sexual organs."
"You're neuter then?" Max inquired quizzically. Not that I didn't blame him, even without this baggy suit it was hard to tell my actual gender, or lack thereof. I nodded. "Well, we do some organ replacement and augmentation on the side." My ears perked up, which I'm sure was noticeable even under that suit of mine. "We found that we can give neuters a cock or a pussy, or even both, but unfortunately the gonads require genetic alterations that cause the immune system to reject them without a lot of drugs."
My ears flicked downwards in disappointment. What good would a pole or a hole be without the sex drive to use them? And I was still a bit in denial of the drive I had at that point. "Well, I hope I have the chance to contribute to something a bit more important here."
"You will." The savannah cat told me. "We're building the future for all of the diverse parahuman species here." He waved back at the production floor we'd just left.
At that moment something about his name clicked in my head and I realized that it sounded a bit familiar. "Are you by any chance related to Jakob Griggs, the founder of the SPPS?"
Maximus snorted loudly at my inquiry. "Oh, I'm related all right. I'm one of his clones." I was afraid of that, would he act like two-thirds of the other clones I'd met? "But dad wasn't the founder, that was his progenitor, who was simply named Griggs. He died in an accident a year before me and my brothers were decanted."
He was a clone of a clone? "Sounds like he's a bit young to be running something this important."
The second-generation clone smiled at me before speaking further. "Maybe but we learn fast you know. Look at me, I'm barely two years old and already I'm supervising an entire lab."
So the same nepotism I'd seen on Ceres and in the Marquez Guild existed here too. At least the one who would be my boss seemed agreeable enough. And the pay and benefits package were pretty good. "So, where do I sign?"