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Dr. Belton sat quietly in tube-car L7, pod 14. After twenty years it was this part of the job he hated most. Today it was a long uphill ride from Sym Lot 04 to the central reprocessing plant for all of Obitron, Symcore 1, the center of the corporation's sprawling synthetic human development project. Dressed in an impeccable, speck-free dark suit, he leaned just slightly forward in his seat, a Symcore stock datapad resting on his lap. This time the person who sat across from him was a young woman dressed neck to toe in a soft white body glove, Symcore logo branded on the lapel.
She was painfully beautiful, and the private pod was small, their knees awkwardly close. With long straight platinum blonde hair, her skin had the glow of perfect health. Her form was slender yet ample, and her posture was perfect, with hands clasped in her lap and eyes cast down. An occasional scowl flickered across her brow. Belton tapped his datapad to begin.
"Look at me please," he said. The woman looked up, her perfect symmetry was striking, dark sleepy lashes blinked, and her irregularity came into full view. One eye was milky and white, glazed over as though fogged up from the inside.
"Any visual acuity in the left eye?"
"No." She replied. Belton slid his finger down the datapad and made a note in the appropriate column.
"Turn your head to the left." She turned and pulled the hair away from her shoulder. Dr. Belton raised his datapad and there was a soft chirp as it scanned a tiny blue corporation codemark at the base of her neck. He nodded and paged through the next few forms with the tip of his finger.
"Everything seems to be in order. Now, during your year of acclimation, before you were out-stocked, do you recall any unit inspections?"
"Yes. There were many."
"And did the technician ever mention your eye?"
"Yes. My techmaster told me my eye would have to be replaced." Belton shook his head.
"No no no," he muttered. "Did you at any point see a SEDL agent? Were you assigned an advocate?"
"SEDL? I don't know what that is." Belton glared at his datapad- tearing through case history with a swipe of his hand- no mention of SEDL was to be found. He talked to his lap as he searched.
"I don't understand... SEDL is Symborn Emigration and Defense League; their organization protects your right to exist after out-stock is completed- when you are qualified to leave Obitron and begin a client service term. State your name?" He looked up.
"Satra-Dera," he corrected. She nodded.
"The name of your human inspire comes first. Satra's music is heard by billions across the Empire- you can be proud that your client chose her likeness for you; Satra is one of the most expensive symborn fashions on the market."
"I enjoy her band. Legion? They are my favorite band."
"You've heard them play? During acclimation?"
"No. During my claim-stasis period, where I was when you signed me out. I was hoping the buyer would have come to get me sooner, but I understand. I'm not fit for display in my condition." He nodded, staring at her.
"Of course. And how long were you in stasis?"
"Three years." Belton swallowed a choke, coughing loudly until the itch in his throat went away. He spoke in a rasp, cleared his throat and tried again.
"Three years?! That's not possible. That can't be right..." he re-scanned his notes; nothing. Her case was simple, there was almost no mention of the claim-stasis period. "Stasis should have been a month at most... And you stayed on the Claim Center campus? What did you do there?"
Satra-Dera smiled, looking around the pod.
"I learned about the Empire, and the factory where I was born. I learned about my world, the planet Obitron. I was taught to sing, and I swam in the waterfall on the courtyards with other symborn. They told me my education was important because my client would travel to all Core Worlds and much would be required of me." Belton wiped his forehead and chewed his lip. This was all wrong.
"Do you understand where we're going?"
"Reprocessing. To repair my eye."
"No!" He shook his head. "Sorry, yes... but it's not that simple. Your eye is the symptom, not the problem. There is a deep anomaly in the circuitry of your brain; which has damaged your visual stem. This could result in erratic or even dangerous impulses." Satra-Dera blinked at him. She shook her head.
"I was told my eye needs to be replaced."
"Yes, but the problem is bigger; the frontal lobe of your brain has to be replaced."
"I see." She turned away, glancing through the glass front of the pod at the shimmering walls of the tube. Pulsing light blinked by at a dizzying pace. Belton exhaled and flicked back to the top of her file.
"I have to ask you a series of questions," he said quietly. The questions would not matter. She wasn't going to remember the interview, or the ride, or anything at all. A different symborn would emerge from the repair procedure. "How did you feel when you emerged from acclimation, when you first walked?" Belton rubbed his eyes.
"It was very nice, but I have a question... Will I feel the procedure?"
"No," Belton whispered. He cleared his throat. "No. There is no sensation. Next question. How are you feeling now?" She nodded and smiled slightly.
"I'm nervous. And I feel lonely. There were friends in claim-stasis that I grew to know personally. They were amusing and, warm to be with." Belton shook his head and reached out to touch her knee.
"This is not an easy situation, and I want to be frank with you. This repair is not something you will come back from. Your mind will be removed and replaced; you will become a different symborn." Satra-Dera opened her mouth and closed it.
"But that's not what is supposed to happen. I'm to meet my client and we are traveling. We are going to all Core Worlds." Her eyes were shiny. Belton scratched his knee.
"This," he poked the air in her direction. "This never should have happened- you don't out-stock a symborn to claim-stasis for three years and then throw away... and then discard the result. Clearly I don't make the rules, but if I did this never would have happened. There is gross incompetence all over this case..." SEDL would have a field day. But she had never met her advocate? "I still can't believe you never..." he shook his head. "There's just nothing we can do about it now. The system isn't perfect."
"The system isn't perfect," she smiled and blinked the wetness from her eyes. "Will my repaired version still go to my client?"
"Y-yes of course."
"That is good. He must be very important."
"He's not," Belton surprised himself. "Ah, that's not to say- I mean he's an inspector for Symcore, he wouldn't treat you very..." He trailed off as he looked at her. His face felt hot, and his collar was pinching him.
"Is it too much to ask for a little professionalism?" he muttered, rifling through new forms and making selections with lightning speed. "The safeguards are in place for a reason. As it so happens I know a SEDL councilor who'd run away with a story like this; it would be a scandal." But she was looking out the window now, admiring the approaching brilliance far ahead.
"Will someone else get my memories? I have learned so much." Belton shook his head slowly, and then nodded.
"Yes... yes I'll see to it." He was feeling sick. The data pad flickered brightly as he recalled her case files, his fingers working a dance across the screen. Satra-Dera watched until he froze, his hand poised above the device. It was done.
There were no more questions, and the rest of the ride was spent in silence. After what might have been a few minutes or perhaps an hour the tube-car began to slow- the soft whir of the engine dying away until only the faint hum of the energon track below them could be heard. It came to a full stop at a many tiered platform, high up in the factory towers of Symcore 1. Miles of tube stretched behind them, and as the window panels slid open an acrid smell blew up through the floor from the gap between car and bridge. Two android centurions in glistening white armor waited outside. Belton's hands tingled as he stood up. A young technician, her Symcore lab coat flapping behind her, jogged down steps to their platform and rushed toward them.
"Client change! Client change! We're running behind." The woman yelled, huffing up to the doors as Satra-Dera stood and tossed her hair, her eyes fixed on the floor.
"Dr. Belton," the newcomer said politely, looking up at him. She was rather small and a bit young for a repro tech. She held up her datapad for a sync. "I need the latest procedurals, we had a mix-up with a last minute client swap, I haven't even had time to open the dossier. Looks like the inspector's owner number has been revoked- he's no longer the buyer. And she's defective?" The tech leaned to peer through cascading blonde hair at Satra-Dera's face but she turned away, staring at her seat in the tube-car. Belton's hands were burning now. He twitched but did not raise his datapad.
"Y-yes she's got an eye... issue." And then with a flourish he collapsed. Coughing and retching with dramatic flair he sprawled to his hands and knees, the datapad pinned in the gap between the car and the bridge- his fingers tingled, and he let it go. It sparkled as it fell, flipping and twinkling down into the factory haze, and then it was gone. The young tech gasped.
"Dr. Belton! Your datapad!"
Satra-Dera gasped and backed into the wall of the tube-car. Belton scrambled to his feet and slapped his knees.
"No harm! No harm done, just a bit of a dizzy spell."
"But Doctor, the procedural codes!? That was your secure pad I don't have them." Belton nodded.
"It's routine- ocular transplant that's all. She needs a closed stem cybernetic eye. Brown to match if you can."
"A... what? But that's highly irregular and how can I initiate without the codes?" He looked at her badge.
"Technician... Harten is it? I've been repro liaison for almost twenty years and I've got the codes right here, not to worry." He tapped his forehead as the tech handed him her datapad. Satra-Dera stared at him as he completed the form orders in a flash.
"I have a question," she said quietly. Belton returned the datapad to the technician, who studied it with new fondness. The Doctor grabbed Satra-Dera's arm and spoke in her ear.
"I'll see you in out-client later... memories intact." Her eyes widened and she squeezed his wrist.
"Thank you Doctor Belton," she whispered. With a stiff nod he turned away, ducking back into the tube-car.
"See that we have a SEDL advocate waiting to meet her, and vocation services." Technician Harten nodded.
"Really, he wants her contract-released already? You've been in touch?"
Dr. Belton took his seat, hands folded in his lap. He watched as Satra-Dera walked down the platform toward the stairs to the service hall. She was pulling her shimmering hair up into a bun as she walked, but stopped to look back at him and smile. Gazing into her empty seat he nodded. The tube-car jostled and started away from the dock.
"Dr. Belton? You've spoken to the client?"
"Of course I have," he answered. "He's me."