Art: Rebekka Dunlap

Backup Man

Presenting a true biopunk epic, from one of the genre's greats. Bodyhacked mercenaries, double-crossing mechs, and the hunt for the elusive Golden Cow that can recolonize the nation's lost wildlife.

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Apr 7 2016, 2:00pm

Art: Rebekka Dunlap

Sometimes you just need to go all-out cyberpunk. Or rather, biopunk. Here, genre great Paul Di Fillippo weaves an action-packed sci-fi-noir through a corporatized bio-future still reeling from a climatic near-miss, one that's chock full of bodyhacked punks and double-crossing mechs. Come for the carnage, stay for the satire. In our correspondence, Di Filippo tells me he first started publishing fiction set in this universe back in the 90s—and presciently posited a President Trump, decades ago. Here we are, with all hell about to break loose all over again. Enjoy. -the Ed.


I was waiting patiently in a bar for a woman, a moldie and a splice, playing the AR overlay of that ancient heist film Rififi on my memtax, which I'd just upgraded to the newest model of living contact lenses, all jellyfish proteins laced with silicene circuitry and an RGB chromatophore micromatrix.

I knew that when that trio walked in, all hell would shake loose.

The bar was a trendy spot named The Holobiont's Hideaway, in the AdMo neighborhood in DC. Particulate-filtering airfish drifting gently through the biolit dimness; imene tuki and Karelian rune singing on the sound system; sombai cocktails at twenty NUbucks a pop. And even though Washington was something of quiet, backwater burg these days, with all the political action and players of the Northamerican Union centralized in Vancouver, this place was still jammed.

This decorous clientele made the impudent trio stand out all the more when they finally showed.

The woman—pumped up with printed muscles—wore a form-hugging secondskin whose jade-colored smart defensive exoscales caused her to resemble some giant bipedal gila monster. Her bare human face and mane of russet hair consorted oddly with the rest of her reptilian appearance. But any erotic allure was instantly quashed by the large spinner gun she held in her hand. From within its capacious disc-shaped magazine came the gentle hum of a propulsive wheel revolving at many, many RPM that belied its deadliness. Capable of dealing out hundreds of high-velocity, centrifugally expelled rounds per minute, the spinner quelled any lustful thoughts.

The unclothed moldie looked like every other moldie: a bulbous-limbed, vaguely anthropomorphic, protean shape that quivered with internal tides. Its translucent mycosymbiont "flesh," mottled in the colors and textures of the decaying matter on a forest floor, was threaded with filaments and gently circulating organelles. Its facial features brought to mind a bas-relief human phiz done in Play-Doh.

The splice's hybrid components, apart from the obvious baseline human contributions, were fairly evident: mandrill, hyena, osprey and bat. Across his barrel chest, the troglodytic transgenic wore a bandolier of spore bombs and paired lysing pistols.

The advent of the trio had cemented the room with stillness and silence. Appearing to be the leader of the invaders, the woman grinned as if relishing our fear.

"All right, my pretty little zoons, " she commanded in a forceful and confident yet not overloud voice, "show me Drew Prosnitz, this minute, and no one suffers so much as a splinter!"

Drew Prosnitz was the name I was currently using. But I did not immediately reveal myself, wanting to see how serious these reivers were.

A few thousand nigh-instantaneous rounds of B2-alloy marbles opened up a hole in the ceiling, resulting in a surprisingly tiny cascade of debris—that section of the building's roof having been more or less shredded and atomized and dispersed outward in a cloud of wood and plaster.

A lonely unstanchable female sobbing from the back of the room accompanied my standing up.

"I'm Drew Prosnitz."

"Sniff him, Rowley."

The splice came over to me and stuck his snout into my armpit.

"It's him," Rowley growled, and I was glad I had opted for the full suite of tailoring. And then the splice barked the question I had been waiting for. "Where's the Golden Cow?"

"I lost it."

The woman leveled the spinner gun at my midsection. "Are you shitting me, Prosnitz? You don't just lose the key to forty million acres of rewilded prairie as easy as misplacing your memtax."

"Maybe 'lost' was the wrong word. It was taken from me."

"Who's got it now?"

"One of those rogue Russian bots, a kibe. A full artilect named To Wound the Autumnal City. He's gone to ground in Meccanoville, after suckering me in and ripping me off."

The woman lowered the snout of the spinner gun a tad. She looked slightly less distrustful now, which meant she had bought my story. I figured her overweening hubris and ego, combined with the allure of the prize and my apparent fucking-up, had partially disarmed her defenses. "Okay. Not great, but okay. That's all we needed to know. Meccanoville's tough, but we're up to it. Everyone just stay put for five minutes after we've gone."

The trio started toward the door.

"Wait," I said. "The Golden Cow is keyed to my suite. Right now, out of my hands, it's gone dormant. That's all that's stopped the kibe from using it. I'm the only guy that can wake it up."

"Goddamn it! Okay, Prosnitz, you just bought yourself a ticket to Meccanoville."

Outside, the night air was fresh and cool, promising a freedom not immediately obtainable under my present circumstances.

With Rowley and the woman trotting, and the moldie shlupping pseudopodishly along, we hustled around a corner to a trim Terrafugia four-seater PAV. I was shuffled roughly into the vehicle, in back next to the moldie. Its truffle smell filled my nostrils. Its fibrous flexible lips blorted out, "Huggit." It took me a minute to realize the moldie was sharing its name.

"Huggit," I repeated. "And Rowley. And—?"

"Yola. Now shut up while I lift us out of here."

The car's rotors took us aloft, and then we switched over to the fan propulsion and autopilot. When we hit our cruising speed of roughly 300 MPH, Yola disengaged her seat and swung it around to face me, as did the splice.

They both looked damn serious. Which I guessed was appropriate, given the stakes.

For the past twenty years, the Northamerican Union had been remediating the Second Dustbowl that had hollowed out the center of the continent before the climate was engineered back to stability. Now, finally, the pristine prairie was ready for recolonization. The reopening would be a Land Run akin to those of one hundred and seventy years ago, like the first Oklahoma rush of 1889. The area had been effectively quarantined against interference during those two decades of rewilding by being seeded with a gnarly silicrobe plague, sentient-specific and restricted to the dimensions of the zone by GPS parms.

The kickoff to the Land Run would be the disabling of the quarantine plague.

That's where the Golden Cow came in.

The Golden Cow was a unique KidBuddy™-sized pet, created by the NU authorities. The gut flora in the Golden Cow constituted the shut-off signal for the plague. Bring the Golden Cow to the border of the region, send it across the line to poop, and the guardian silicrobes would deactivate themselves in a rapidly propagating wave, opening up the territory for settlement.

Always with an eye toward bread and circuses ever since the spectacle days of President Trump, though with considerably less gaucherie and bloviation, the NU—now going through one of its more defiantly anarcho-libertarian administrations—had decided to pull a Willy Wonka: Set the Golden Cow loose somewhere on the continent, and let it be found by some lucky citizen, no matter what temporary, collateral-damage disturbances of the peace resulted.

And that citizen would be guaranteed one percent of the hundreds of millions in Land Rush application fees collected from the Sooners.

The lottery-cum-scavenger-hunt had been mandated by a plebiscite conducted under government contract by the Omnicom Group of MadMen, who had offered a variety of scenarios for the reopening of the Second Dustbowl. Believe it or not, the Golden Cow riff had been one of the less insane.

That had been the plan. But I—or rather, the real Drew Prosnitz—had seen fit to jump the gun.

I could see by the abstracted refocusing in Yola's dominant eye that she was scrolling through my CV on her memtax, learning, maybe, that I was a somewhat exceptional, but basically jumped-up thief whose ambitions had exceeded his powers.

Yola finished reviewing my stats and media profile and regarded me with some real appreciation. "Yotta slick, Prosnitz, the way you got in and out of the Royal Canadian Mint with the Golden Cow. I've never seen anyone spoof NU-level security like that."

I tried to sound sincerely proud—and bummed out at the same time.

"Yeah, I thought I was pretty clever—until I made the mistake of trying to bring that goddamn kibe onboard."

Rowley the splice said, "You should've known meat and silicene never share the same lifestance, Prosnitz. Hell, even the moldie here is hard to parse sometimes, and he's totally organic."

The lungless Huggit blorped out an affirmatory via its modulated eructions. "Metabolists rule!"

Yola said, "The only smart thing you did was key the Golden Cow to your self-suite. To Wound the Autumnal City is stuck with a dead key now. But we won't be, once we reclaim it."

Rowley's chimeric phiz conveyed doubt. "Meccanoville's a scary labyrinth, Yola. A meatgrinder. Think we can get in and out okay?"

"We've got Prosnitz here to help us zero in on whatever structure holds the Golden Cow. We barrel in hard and fast from above, before the kibes even know what's happening. Prosnitz, can we count on you throwing in with us? Four-way split? We could use an extra guy in the assault. Otherwise we'll just have to put a synaptic boot on you and ream out your suite signatures. That's a lot of work, and some other crew might interfere before we can do it. What do you say?"

I pretended to ponder. "Sure, why not? A quarter of a fortune is better than one hundred percent of nothing."

The atmosphere in the PAV grew more relaxed, and we all began to act like best pals. But I knew that in reality I would be deader than the Constitution once I gave up my suite signatures.

Rather, that would have been my fate, had I been the real Drew Prosnitz, who was instead sitting safe but frustrated in a NU prison cell.

The trip to Meccanoville took under two hours.s at our rate of speed. We spent the time discussing strategy and tactics. We arrived at the kibe metropolis just when dawn was a rumor.

Meccanoville occupied the former site of Detroit and environs, a sprawling congeries of undecorated, black spun-carbon-fiber windowless buildings of all shapes and sizes that obeyed rules of an architecture foreign to organic lifeforms. The territory ceded to the kibes by the Metabolist-Silicene Treaty of 2042, the semi-independent polity generally kept to itself.

The Golden Cow was unrecoverable by the NU authorities within these precincts, since an armed intrusion from official NU forces would have been tantamount to an act of war against a foreign country. A civilian attack was a mere felony.

Yola issued me a spinner gun, Rowley strapped on some more bombs, and, through an extruded organic pipette, Huggit slurped up from shipboard reservoirs several kinds of catalysts and acids that plumped out his vacuoles. I pinged the dormant Golden Cow, we homed in on its response, and set down on the nearest flat roof.

Yola and I wore heavy backpacks full of B2-alloy marbles that fed directly into our spinners.

The twinned streams from our guns swiftly opened up our passage inside. We jumped down into the unknown.

Have you ever seen an ancient bit of anime featuring this oddball sailor character named Popeye, called "Lost and Foundry?" Popeye's kid, Swee'Pea, wanders into a factory which features one deadly senseless apparatus after another, a host of robotic tools performing crazy functions incidentally injurious to mere meat. Swee'Pea narrowly escapes each terror, while Popeye get hammered.

That was the best analogy I know to convey what we encountered in Meccanoville. The pitch-black place was flooded with non-visible frequencies that the kibes used in place of light. Luckily, our memtax adjusted and gave us false-hued sight. Heat, noise, motion smote us from every side as we dashed through the maze.

Many of the kibes ignored us or fled. The ones that fought back with all the Asimovian-limited personal defenses at their command, we cut down mercilessly.

Huggit sprayed his corrosive fluids to fine effect. Once, like an autonomous blankie, he enwrapped a kibe that was all flailing appendages and stopped it even at the loss of a good portion of his amorphous mass, gobbets of mycosymbiont flesh flying hither and yon. Leaping like a catnip-crazed kitten, Rowley hurled bombs full of nano-particulates that caused kibe joints to freeze solid. Yola, her secondskin harmlessly absorbing the impact of many projectiles, exhibited the unnerving habit of screaming like a banshee with every kill.

And me, I had to be careful not to show everything I was really capable of, fighting at Prosnitz levels only.

Somehow, during an interval that probably took under five minutes but seemed like an eternity, we fought our way to the inner lair of To Wound the Autumnal City.

The kibe that Drew Prosnitz had stupidly trusted lay coiled around the Golden Cow. The artilect known as City etcetera wore the body of a cyber-snake, with a fringe of branching manipulators emerging from its "neck" just behind its head in a fractal corona.

I sensed City's high-level suite probing mine, getting past my false ID. The kibe started to speak in the anomalous baritone of a famous actor. "Wait, you're not—"

I atomized the kibe's head before it could blow my gaff.

Yola grabbed up the sleeping Golden Cow, and we yotta scrammed.

Safely back in the airborne PAV, we looked at our trophy.

The soft, warm, somnolent form of the miniature yellow bovine, about as big as a baseline Shih

Tzu, hardly seemed worth millions of NUbucks, but it was.

"Wake it up," said Yola.

I tried to sound unsuspicious. "No need yet. You don't want it pooping in the cockpit here. Wait till we get to the Dustbowl."

Rowley looked up from the controls. "Nearest point of the border is just outside Wichita. About three hours flight."

A diminished Huggit said, "Must regenerate."

"Me too," I said. I realized suddenly that I was bleeding from a dozen non-serious wounds.

Yola dug out the first-aid kit and we all got patched up. Water and some nutritional bars helped restore us. Then I reclined my seat, and went to sleep.

That is, I fell into such a state that when the others trespassed and pinged my suite, as they were sure to do, they would find me unconscious, my telltales indicating deep sleep rhythms in my brain.

But my second brain, a rudimentary intelligence distributed across my microbiome and gut, would still be using my ears to listen.

And so I heard their whispered plans to kill me in great detail.

A fine Kansas morning greeted our arrival at a broad meadow at the edge of the Second Dustbowl. I "woke up" and climbed outside where I could stretch.

Yola set the Golden Cow down on the grass. She let loose a swarm of bonded notary-public drones to record our claim. "Okay, Prosnitz, wake it up so it can poop and make us rich."

"I think not," I said. "I'm taking the Cow back to the Mint and leaving you three here. I would have taken you all down earlier, but I didn't want to risk crashing the PAV."

"Like hell you are! We can get your suite signatures off your dead body."

"Sure. But you have to kill me first."

My backup systems had come online when I left the PAV. Now, I moved faster than any transgenic or modded human, and crushed Rowley's windpipe before the splice could even draw his lysing pistols from their holsters.

I spun toward Yola.

Not wanting to vaporize my valuable body, she put one single marble through my heart.

One of my hearts.

Despite the trauma I didn't go down, and this failure to collapse stunned Yola just long enough.

I grabbed one of Huggit's hands, tore it off like ripping a piece of fruit leather apart, and crammed the myco-flesh into the bloody gaping hole in my chest. Then I picked up Huggit and hurled the weighty moldie at Yola.

The moldie instinctively flattened out as I had anticipated and wrapped around the woman. Then I was atop the pair. I drove a fist and arm straight through the squelchy moldie and punched Yola in the head hard enough to dent her skull.

Huggit disengaged from Yola and reformed into his manlike shape.

"Am I going to have any trouble with you?"

"Huggit no trouble. You moldie lymph-brother now."

I looked down at the moldie hand sticking awkwardly out of my chest. "Okay, I guess so." I hustled Huggit back into the PAV.

Then, on a hunch, and definitely exceeding my official mission remit, I woke up the Golden Cow.

The miniature bovine lifted its belly off the grass, came to its feet and trotted toward the invisible barrier delimiting the preserve. According to the advertised scheme, it should poop, the silicrobe plague should go dormant, and the whole wide range open up for settlement. I figured the NU honchos could hit the reset button after any premature triggering.

But no such outcome happened. Instead, the Golden Cow stopped just short of the perimeter, turned, regarded me and spoke in a happy anime voice.

"This competition has been a test of the marketing penetration of Omnicom Group and the efficacy of its social media algorithms. Actual administration of the Second Dustbowl resources will be handled by the Department of the Interior. No monies will be forthcoming to any individual, despite all advertising, as per liability clauses twelve and sixteen in the revised NU Constitution."

The KidBuddy™ powered down. I picked it up and carried into the aircraft.

Aloft in the PAV with a somnolent Huggit, I contacted my bosses at the Security Intelligence Service and let them know their duplicitous Sweepstakes, derailed by Prosnitz's larcenous derailment, could be rebooted.

And I could return to my real identity, get repaired, and wait on the shelf until SIS needed a backup man again.