Author : Bob Newbell
The passport control agent looks at me and sighs. “Another one,” he says succinctly. His use of “one” rather than the epithet “shellhead” probably has little to do with concern that I might be offended. The woman in front of me got a “Have a nice day” from the man. I get a jerked thumb over his left shoulder to indicate I can proceed.
I’ve gotten used to it. I received a similar reception at Bradbury Station. It wasn’t always like this. Ten years ago, right after I got shelled, the reaction I and the small number of people who had undergone the procedure got tended to be more curiosity than jealously and bigotry.
“Can you feel anything?” a skinny twentysomething on the RFS Valentina Tereshkova had asked me nine years earlier.
“Yes,” I’d told the young Russian. “There are sensors that feed into transducers that connect to my nerve endings. Everything feels a bit different from what skin feels. But, yes, I still have sensation.”
“So, you can feel everywhere? And, uh, everything…works?”
I’d smiled. “Everything works,” I’d said.
Shelling was novelty back then. The first patients who underwent the procedure had nanocomposite plates glued to their skin. In addition to being impractical and dysfunctional, they looked like early sci fi movie robots. Astronautical physicians soon realized that replacing the skin itself with a microtessellated armor was the only viable solution. It can flex and distend as well as human skin and it solved an important problem: cancer.
In the 2160s, significant numbers of people started migrating beyond Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars and the Lagrange V station. Outside of the protection of Earth’s geomagnetic field, solar and cosmic radiation caused cancer rates among space travelers to be seven to ten times that of their terrestrial peers. Trying to protect off-world settlements and ships with massive shielding or high-powered EM fields proved to be expensive and difficult. It was noted that travelers who spent more time in their spacesuits tended to have lower cancer rates. But suits are cumbersome. A more intimate solution was required.
“What have you done to yourself?!” my mother had said to me when I first saw her after my shelling. My uniformly gray skin with its subtle sheen made me some kind of a freak in her eyes.
“My job keeps me in space most of the time,” I’d explained. “If you can’t go outside the Van Allen Belt for any length of time you can’t advance your career.” After that afternoon, we didn’t talk again for nearly three years. And even to this day, things aren’t like they used to be between us.
“Welcome to Amazonis Planitia!” says a cheerful voice that snaps me out of my reverie. The voice comes from a smiling black man who extends his hand as he walks up to me. But the man’s coloration is not that of a person representing the darker hued races of the human species. I see my reflection in his ebony shell as he pumps my hand. His features and accent are Chinese.
“Dr. Cheng? Sorry if I was a bit distracted. I got a somewhat chilly reception upon arriving here.”
“From the 软壳,” he says. The term he uses sounds roughly like “ruan ke”. He notes my confusion. “The ‘soft shells’,” he reiterates. “An impolite term, perhaps, but one that is catching on.”
“Guess they don’t like us too much.”
“They don’t like what we represent: a higher level of commitment to be out here. Our resolve is more than skin deep.”