Autonomy, Part II
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"Hello, 5117!"

Trauss rolls over, feeling heavy and slow-moving as his hairless skin brushes against strangely textured bedding. He groans and sits upright, looking ahead. "Four," he adds.

"Hello, 51174!" the chipper, androgynous voice repeats from directly in front of him.

He squints, trying to discern how there could be a human or android hiding in the mix of shadows and fluorescent lighting accents.

"My designation is Λ12, but you can just call me Λ or 12," it dictates, flashing its lights from white to green. "Can you see me now?"

Trauss refocuses his eyes, now noticing the black metal sphere hovering two meters from his face, seven green LEDs forming a circle on its surface and facing him. He relaxes, recognizing its design somewhat from the later years on Earth. "Lambda-12? I used to be on a task force named Lambda-12."

"I know!" it chirps, its voice ringing around the steel-walled room. "In fact, I myself am comprised of-"

"Lower volume," he interrupts.

It simulates a cough. "I am sapient, Agent Trauss," it says in a level tone. "I was just messing with you."

He furrows his brow and pulls the bedding up to cover his bare body, everything below his chest slowly regaining sensation. "Uh, sorry. Are you here to give me orders?"

"No, I am here to annoy you, mostly." It hovers alongside the bed and turns to face the wall, projecting an image of the Foundation logo in yellow out of a slot above its light array. "Oh, my. It looks like my streaming speed has been compromised. Damn this interference. One moment."

Trauss stares intently at the image, the fog in his head clearing over the next several seconds. He shudders as his pulse increases. "Λ, can you tell me about this chip in my head, please?"

"You have the PII N4, or the Personnel Identification Implant with Nanoscopic Neural Network V2.0, currently running active script 51174.edk with the following extensions and modifications: A32-004 Emotional Regulator Peripheral; A32-005 Tactile Response Peripheral; A42-006 Memetic Processing Peripheral…"

Trauss puts his head in his hands as the robot rattles off all the aspects of his brain function that are out of his control. The projected image on the wall changes to a loading bar, which progresses from 0 to 100 percent over the next 15 seconds.

"You are aware that most people do not want to stay in this part of the galaxy, correct?"

"Because of the war, yes."

"Last month, GLX-46 was bombed."

"I'm assuming that's in Andromeda?"

"Yes. It is a planet with an atmosphere rich in oxygen and nitrogen, covered 80 percent by water. The dominant native species there is most easily described as a sapient arthropod. The largest city on it was recently bombed by Twelve Stars forces, signalling the first hostile action taken by Twelve Stars in the Milky Way or Andromeda Galaxies."

"I see."

"Luckily you won't be dealing with any of that. Your task in this picture is information." Λ changes the slide to an image of a humanoid entity with cephalopodic facial features, its eyes two quarter-sized, phosphorescent yellow orbs. In the background, a male human in a suit raises his middle finger to the photographer. "This is Xyreaux. They don't have a last name, or maybe that is their last name." Λ flips to the next slide, spending several seconds on each image of the individual. "They work for Marshall, Carter, and Dark, and they developed a rather dangerous peripheral for Schulman devices. Do you want the file?"

"Uh, sure?"

Λ pauses, whirring. Trauss notices nothing.

"Alright, there you go," it says.

He looks around. "You- what?"

"I put it in you. In ED-K++. Think about it." It beeps once and quickly flashes its light array from green to blue and back again.

"…Xyreaux-Schulman Extension Components?" he cites, considering the information that is now inexplicably present in his head. He knows the full text of the document now, and spends several seconds pondering it.

"If you don't need that after this mission's over, let me know and I will remove it."

"Why is a chunk of this file missing?"

"It appeared to be behind a security permission, and was not able to be extracted from their database with the rest of the file. We have the primary details of the device, however, which is all that you need."

Trauss swings his legs over the bed and stands up, inner ear spinning but vision stable. He stands and puts a hand over his — he pauses — dick, complete with balls?

"Is something wrong?"

"I had surgery? Or- I-"

"Personnel records state that you are transgender, correct?"

"Yeah-"

"Well, Private Medical Department Note 04, added July 09 2041 in your personnel file states that Lunar Area-32 medical personnel opted to address your genital dysphoria more directly when synthesizing this body. That is what you would have wanted, correct?"

"What the fuck," he murmurs. "I suppose." He anticipates another sentence, but cuts himself short and shuffles toward the closet instead, reminding himself that he had intended to keep personal relations to a minimum on this excursion.

'This excursion.' This trip, mission, or otherwise temporary occurrence, because he would be going back to Earth, or Area-32, or somewhere else relatively familiar at some point. Right?

"There is a jumpsuit in the closet," Λ tells him, not averting its gaze from the projected image of Xyreaux.

He opens the closet, his thoughts catching up to him. His limbs move haphazardly in the low gravity, hands shaking; he isn't certain of where he is — or the date and time and how old he is — or where he's supposed to go other than here. He slides a pair of tight boxers on and grimaces as he wriggles into the stretchy material of the jumpsuit. It's exactly the shade of gray he expected it'd be, though the lack of Foundation logo present anywhere on it is a surprise.

"Shall I continue, Agent Trauss? It is important to discuss your mission."

"Can I eat first? I'm sorry, all this biological shit that's been happening is starting to catch up to me."

It beeps twice. "Oh, certainly. I will walk and talk, so to speak. Let's go look in the kitchen." Λ turns the projector off and changes its lights from green to orange as it hovers past him. The door slides open with a quiet hissing sound.

"Kitchen, huh?" Trauss follows it. "Where is this?" He takes in the details of the hallway: narrow, too many pipes and wires lining the corners and upper third of the wall, overlit with white halogen, and walled with some sort of porous gray block. He makes a beeline for the water cooler as soon as he enters the kitchen.

"We are in Kuiper Belt Outpost Red Zeta, a small facility capable of housing a max of five personnel. You were transported here in an unconscious state by Lunar Area-32 personnel for the sake of brevity. Once you are ready, we will proceed to the lower floor so that you may enter Point of Interest Zeta-01."

Trauss exhales hard, hoping afterward that Λ isn't programmed to interpret mannerisms like that; he expects its disjointed records citation voice is going to irritate him at some point, but he doubts the machine can control it. "Tracking MC&D guys like Xyreaux, right? That's what the directive said."

"Correct to a degree. They took action sooner than expected, and as such, Directive A-42 is no longer entirely accurate. Rather than tracking their personal activity, we now know the result of their activity, and you need to steal that result."

He pauses. "I just need to steal one of those things? Is that really all I came out here for?"

"I understand it may seem too simple. I know that your superiors will give you further orders regarding where to deliver the device within the next 20 hours. You will have to be careful; Zeta-01 is a nexus of anomalous activity, foreign species with foreign biology, general lawlessness, credit fraud and 'multi-level marketing', dangerous gas pockets…"

"…Uh-huh. Alright. I'll watch my back." He opens one of the steel cabinets, his face sinking when he sees the contents. "I guess it's MREs for breakfast, then. Not sure what I expected."

Λ continues as Trauss peels apart the wrapper. "As you saw in the document, Xyreaux's progress is essentially dependent upon Schulman traveling to Zeta-01. Furthermore, you can eat there too, you know. It is an oxygen-rich atmosphere with plenty of human inhabitants. There is plenty of normal human food for humans."

He wheezes. "Alright, good." He takes a bite of whatever the preserved meal is supposed to be, wincing.

Λ turns its projector back on and faces the empty wall, presenting the old image of Xyreaux. It changes to a shot of a black door under a purple awning on a crowded, dirty street, a human in a black suit and earpiece standing guard outside as muted neon reflects off an iridescent puddle at their feet. "This is the Hitchhiker's Lounge, owned and operated by MC&D. Xyreaux is a bartender here."

"'Hitchhiker's'? Intentional reference, do you think?"

"I do not follow."

"Darn. Call it an Earth reference, I guess." He wonders how many times he's going to be saying that in the future. "So I need to hit the bar, huh?"

It changes to a zoomed-in, torso-up shot of Xyreaux entering a door in the alley, looking over their shoulder. "Correct." Λ flashes its lights and spins a few times, seemingly for no reason. "And no credit cards, no names; you've been allotted 600 SOL in cash, so you're just going to duck into Zeta-01, look around, buy some clothes, look the part — uh, which can look like pretty much anything that isn't a recognizable uniform when it comes to the cultural standards in Zeta-01, but don't be too ostentatious — and duck back out."

"What? Why do I have to be seen? And how am I supposed to just steal one of these?"

It simulates a laugh. "Zeta-01 is not friendly to stealth. It is far too crowded and well-lit. You need to talk and interact. Tell Xyreaux you are an MC&D employee interested in funding further development, if needed. Make up a name. Perhaps meet up with one of the three subjects mentioned in the document if you do not want to do that, and use a similar cover. You have freedom of choice with how you want to go about this; the area is extremely populated, and no one has time to be very suspicious of one another on a large scale. If you are careful, it will be completely feasible."

He turns around to face the mirrored surface of the wall behind him. "I don't look inconspicuous. I don't even have eyebrows. Where is my hair?"

"Growing! Be patient. It will only take one week per centimeter of growth for your head and facial hair, and there are plenty of alternative-looking humans in the area regardless."

Trauss finishes the dried meat(?) hastily, surprised by how it seems to be expanding in his stomach. He stands up and approaches the cabinet again.

"That was 1250 calories, 20 grams protein. You may want to give it a minute to settle."

"Oh." He harrumphs and walks back down the hallway into the bedroom.

"There are plainclothes in the closet." Λ follows him, rotating slowly. "But you need to put that high-pressure uniform on over them. You will be entering and exiting an extradimensional rift."

"Fun."

"Indeed. All entrances are inside cavernous natural formations in rock, so do not worry about anyone seeing you enter."

"All entrances?" He strips his jumpsuit off and grabs the plain khaki pants and white tank off the closet shelf.

"Indeed. To our understanding, this portal is the only one in the Milky Way. It was the only one that showed up in scans, certainly. We are on a large ice asteroid right now, though a stably spinning one. The portal is accessible in the containment chamber at the base of that stairwell at the end of the hall."

"Whew. Alright." He grunts and bends over to pick up the 20-something-pound pressure suit off the floor of the closet. He wriggles into it, straining against the weight.

"Okay." He shakes his head by force of habit before noticing again that his hair is gone. "Let me just drink some water and then I'm good to go."

"Fast and efficient as usual."

"Do I have anything? Gun?"

"No lethal force. Not right now, at least. But there is a silent shock baton in the leg pocket of that suit, in case anyone tries anything. Next to your wallet. As I said, there are no laws. However, relative social order is appreciated there, as it is good for the many businesses. Crime is not rampant in the most populated streets."

"How big is this place?"

"The size of Manhattan Borough, New York City, New York, United-"

"Got it." Trauss walks back into the kitchen and opens the refrigerator.

"No cold water! You will get cramps!"

"Oh my god," he says, drinking it anyway. Λ spins in a few tight circles, beeping lowly.

"Do not go down there without your helmet on," it tells him as he brushes past it and into the hallway. "You will just leave that suit neatly stacked by the entrance when you arrive. Resonance imaging has indicated this portal is two-way, with no interfering connections."

"Are you coming?" he asks as he dons the helmet, zipping it onto the collar of the suit and locking the mechanism in place. He reaches down and zips the base of the legs onto his boots, struggling with the smaller locks.

"Sadly, I am not. I will be speaking to you via your implants. I would be rather out-of-place, and we cannot risk someone recognizing my design as Foundation."

"Understood." His voice is muffled through the helmet as he exits the room, his shoes thumping on the concrete. He approaches a closed door with a keypad and turns to face Λ. The robot moves forward in response, touching its light array against the pad. It retreats behind him as the door slides open, letting in a slow-moving wall of frigid air.

"In case it goes without saying, do not remove that pressure suit until you're inside Zeta-01."

"Right."

"Exit and crawl down into that tunnel for 10.5 meters. You will see a visual anomaly obscuring the color and details of the surface the tunnel drops out onto. Climb down and gently fall onto the surface. You will pass through it and land in a rocky area, likely in the dark. Your headlamp is activated with the white button on your left wrist. You can remove your suit as soon as you feel safe."

"Okay. Got it. And when I come back, I assume I'll be able to just climb up?"

"Yes. If not, there are hardware stores that sell ladders."

He looks over his shoulder. "Are you joking?"

"No. Again, it is a civilized area, and plenty of the species there have more than two limbs and cannot fly."

He nods and continues walking until he has to get on his hands and knees, Λ's chirping fading out behind him. He hears the robot slide the door shut as he rounds a corner. He's not sure if the material surrounding him is rock or dense ice, but it's light gray and scrapes against the rough material of his suit. He lowers his head, breath fogging the visor as the suit acclimates to the temperature change.

After one more curve and a slippery downward climb, he braces himself against a small outcropping of ice above the circular cave floor below him. He leans over, studying the perceptual anomaly signifying the portal's presence; the texture of the ice is gone, the surface looking like a poorly rendered object in digital space. He rotates his lower body off the ledge and drops down, expecting that he's not touching the portal but preparing himself to fall nonetheless. He lands silently on the ice. With slow movements, he taps his foot against and then into the edge near him, feeling nothing.

'All entrances are inside cavernous natural formations in rock, so do not worry about anyone seeing you enter.' He shakes off his nervousness, attributing it to the foreign environment. He sits on the edge and slides both his legs in. Still nothing. He takes a deep breath and pushes off.

Not a second after he passes through, the other side is visible; he drops neatly from a hole in the natural rock ceiling of the Hitchhiker's Lounge, landing squarely on his feet and jarring his bones. The floor creaks underneath him as he slowly raises his head to the faces of various species looking at him.

The bartender turns around, yellow eyes gleaming in the purple and blue spotlights of the disco ball. "Hey!" Xyreaux croaks, his voice monotone and gravelly. He slams a drink onto the wood counter before retracting several tendrils back into his clothing. "That entrance is VIP only."

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