8050 words, novelette
A Jar of Goodwill
Points On A Package
You keep a low profile when you’re in oxygen debt. Too much walking about just exacerbates the situation anyway. So I was nervous when a stationeer appeared at my cubby and knocked on the door.
I slid out and stood in front of the polished, skeletal robot.
“Alex Mosette?” it asked.
There was no sense in lying. The stationeer had already scanned my face. It was just looking for voice print verification. “Yes, I’m Alex,” I said.
“The harbormaster wants to see you.”
I swallowed. “He could have sent me a message.”
“I am here to escort you.” The robot held out a tinker-toy arm, digits pointed along the hallway.
Space in orbit came at a premium. Bottom-rung types like me slept in cubbies stacked ten high along the hallway. On my back in the cubby, watching entertainment shuffled in from the planets, they made living on a space station sound exotic and exciting.
It was if you were further up the rung. I’d been in those rooms: places with wasted space. Furniture. Room to stroll around in.
That was exotic.
Getting space in outer space was far down my list of needs.
First was air. Then food.
Anything else was pure luxury.
The harbormaster stared out into space, and I silently waited at the door to Operations, hoping that if I remained quiet he wouldn’t notice.
Ops hung from near the center of the megastructure of the station. A blister stuck on the end of a long tunnel. You could see the station behind us: the miles-long wheel of exotic metals rotating slowly.
No gravity in Ops, or anywhere in the center. Spokes ran down from the wheel to the center, and the center was where ships docked and were serviced and so on.
So I hung silently in the air, long after the stationeer flitted off to do the harbormaster’s bidding, wondering what happened next.
“You’re overdrawn,” the harbormaster said after a needle-like ship with long feathery vanes slipped underneath us into the docking bays.
He turned to face me, even though his eyes had been hollowed out long ago. Force of habit. His real eyes were now every camera, or anything mechanical that could see.
The harbormaster moved closer. The gantry around him was motorized, a long arm moving him anywhere he wanted in the room.
Hundreds of cables, plugged into his scalp like hair, bundled and ran back along the arm of the gantry. Hoses moved effluvia out. More hoses ran purified blood, and other fluids, back in.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “Traffic is light. And requests have dropped off. I’ve taken classes. Even language lessons . . . ” I stopped when I saw the wizened hand raise, palm up.
“I know what you’ve been doing.” The harbormaster’s sightless sockets turned back to the depths of space outside. The hardened skin of his face showed few emotions, his artificial voice was toneless. “You would not have been allowed to overdraw if you hadn’t made good faith efforts.”
“For which,” I said, “I am enormously appreciative.”
“That ship that just arrived brings with it a choice for you,” the harbormaster continued without acknowledging what I’d just said. “I cannot let you overdraw any more if you stay on station, so I will have to put you into hibernation. To pay for hibernation and your air debt I would buy your contract. You’d be woken for guaranteed work. I’d take a percentage. You could buy your contract back out, once you had enough liquidity.”
That was exactly what I’d been dreading. But he’d indicated an alternate. “My other option?”
He waved a hand, and a holographic image of the ship I’d just seen coming in to dock hung in the air. “They’re asking for a professional Friend.”
“For their ship?” Surprise tinged my question. I wasn’t crew material. I’d been shipped frozen to the station, just another corpsicle. People like me didn’t stay awake for travel. Not enough room.
The harbormaster shrugged pallid shoulders. “They will not tell me why. I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement just to get them to tell me what they wanted.”
I looked at the long ship. “I’m not a fuckbot. They know that, right?”
“They know that. They reiterated that they do not want sexual services.”
“I’ll be outside the station. Outside your protection. It could still be what they want.”
“That is a risk. How much so, I cannot model for you.” The harbormaster snapped his fingers, and the ship faded away. “But the contractors have extremely high reputational scores on past business dealings. They are freelance scientists: biology, botany, and one linguist.”
So they probably didn’t want me as a pass-around toy.
“Rape amendments to the contract?” I asked. I was going to be on a ship, unthawed, by myself, with crew I’d never met. I had to think about the worst.
“Prohibitive. Although, accidental loss of life is not quite as high, which means I’d advise lowering the former so that there is no temptation to murder you after a theoretical rape to evade the higher contract payout.”
“Fuck,” I sighed.
“Would you like to peruse their reputation notes?” the harbormaster asked. And for a moment, I thought maybe the harbormaster sounded concerned.
No. He was just being fair. He’d spent two hundred years of bargaining with ships for goods, fuel, repair, services. Fair was built-in, the half-computer half-human creature in front of me was all about fair. Fair got you repeat business. Fair got you a wide reputation.
“What’s the offer?”
“Half a point on the package,” the harbormaster said.
“And we don’t know what the package is, or how long it will take . . . or anything.” I bit my lip.
“They assured me that half a point would pay off your debt and then some. It shouldn’t take more than a year.”
A year. For half a percent. Half a percent of what? It could be cargo they were delivering. Or, seeing as it was a crew of scientists, it could be some project they were working on.
All of which just raised more questions.
Questions I wouldn’t have answers to unless I signed up. I sighed. “That’s it, then? No loans? No extensions?”
The harbormaster sighed. “I answer to the Gheda shareholders who built and own this complex. I have already stretched my authority to give you a month’s extension. The debt has to be called. I’m sorry.”
I looked out at the darkness of space out beyond Ops. “Shit choices either way.”
The harbormaster said nothing.
I folded my arms. “Do it.”
Journey by Gheda
The docking arms had transferred the starship from the center structure’s incoming docks down a spoke to a dock on one of the wheels. The entire ship, thanks to being spun along with the wheel of the station, had gravity.
The starship was a quarter of a mile long. Outside: sleek and burnished smooth by impacts with the scattered dust of space at the stunning speeds it achieved. Inside, I realized I’d boarded a creaky, old, outdated vehicle.
Fiberwire spilled out from conduits, evidence of crude repair jobs. Dirt and grime clung to nooks and crannies. The air smelled of sweat and worst.
A purple-haired man with all-black eyes met me at the airlock. “You are the Friend?” he asked. He carried a large walking stick with him.
“Yes.” I let go of the rolling luggage behind me and bowed. “I’m Alex.”
He bowed back. More extravagantly than I did. Maybe even slightly mockingly. “I’m Oslo.” Every time he shifted his walking stick, tiny grains of sand inside rattled and shifted about. He brimmed with impatience, and some regret in the crinkled lines of his eyes. “Is this everything?”
I looked back at the single case behind me. “That is everything.”
“Then welcome aboard,” Oslo said, as the door to the station clanged shut. He raised the stick, and a flash of light blinded me.
“You should have taken a scan of me before you shut the door,” I said. The stick was more than it seemed. Those tiny rustling grains were generators, harnessing power for whatever tools were inside the device via kinetic motion. He turned around and started to walk away. I hurried to catch up.
Oslo smiled, and I noticed tiny little fangs under his lips. “You are who you say you are, so everything ended up okay. Oh, and for protocol, the others aren’t much into it either, by the way. Now, for my own edification, you are a hermaphrodite, correct?”
I flushed. “I am what we Friends prefer to call bi-gendered, yes.” Where the hell was Oslo from? I was having trouble placing his cultural conditionings and how I might adapt to interface with them. He was very direct, that was for sure.
This gig might be more complicated than I thought.
“Your Friend training: did it encompass Compact cross-cultural training?”
I slowed down. “In theory,” I said slowly, worried about losing the contract if they insisted on having someone with Compact experience.
Oslo’s regret dripped from his voice and movements. Was it regret that I didn’t have the experience? Would I lose the contract, minutes into getting it? Or just regret that he couldn’t get someone better? “But you’ve never Friended an actual Compact drone?”
I decided to tell the truth. A gamble. “No.”
“Too bad.” The regret sloughed off, to be replaced with resignation. “But we can’t poke around asking for Friends with that specific experience, or one of our competitors might put two and two together. I recommend you brush up on your training during the trip out.”
He stopped in front of a large, metal door. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“Here is your room for the next three days.” Oslo opened the large door to a five-by-seven foot room with a foldout bunk bed.
My heart skipped a beat, and I put aside the fact that Oslo had avoided the question. “That’s mine?”
“Yes. And the air’s billed with our shipping contract, so you can rip your sensors off. There’ll be no accounting until we’re done.”
I got the sense Oslo knew what it was like to be in debt. I stepped into the room and turned all the way around. I raised my hands, placing them on each wall, and smiled.
Oslo turned to go.
“Wait,” I said. “The harbormaster said you were freelance scientists. What do you do?”
“I’m the botanist,” Oslo said. “Meals are in the common passenger’s galley. The crew of this ship is Gheda, of course, don’t talk to or interact with them if you can help it. You know why?”
“Yes.” The last thing you wanted to do was make a Gheda think you were wandering around, trying to figure out secrets about their ships, or technology. I would stay in the approved corridors and not interact with them.
The door closed in my suite, and I sat down with my small travel case, no closer to understanding what was going on than I had been on the station.
I faced the small mirror by an even smaller basin and reached for the strip of black material stuck to my throat. Inside it, circuitry monitored my metabolic rate, number of breaths taken, volume of air taken in, and carbon dioxide expelled. All of it reported back to the station’s monitors, constantly calculating my mean daily cost.
It made a satisfying sound as I ripped it off.
“Gheda are Gheda,” I said later in the ship’s artificial, alien day over reheated turkey strips in the passenger’s galley. We’d undocked. The old ship had shivered itself up to speed. “But Gheda flying around in a beat-up old starship, willing to take freelance scientists out to some secret destination: these are dangerous Gheda.”
Oslo had a rueful smile as he leaned back and folded his arms. “Cruzie says that our kind used to think our corporations were rapacious and evil before first contact. No one expected aliens to demand royalty payments for technology usage that had been independently discovered by us because the Gheda had previously patented that technology.”
“I know. They hit non-compliant areas with asteroids from orbit.” Unable to pay royalties, entire nations had collapsed into debtorship. “Who’s Cruzie?”
Oslo grimaced. “You’ll meet her in two days. Our linguist. Bit of a historian, too. Loves old Earth shit.”
I frowned at his reaction. Conflicted, but with somewhat warm pleasure when he thought about her. A happy grimace. “She’s an old friend of yours?”
“Our parents were friends. They loved history. The magnificence of Earth. The legend that was. Before it got sold around. Before the Diaspora.” That grimace again. But no warmth there.
“You don’t agree with their ideals?” I guessed.
I guessed well. Oslo sipped at a mug of tea, and eyed me. “I’m not your project, Friend. Don’t dig too deep, because you just work for me. Save your empathy and psychiatry for the real subject. Understand?”
Too far, I thought. “I’m sorry. And just what is my project? We’re away from the station now; do you think you can risk being open with me?”
Oslo set his tea down. “Clever. Very clever, Friend. Yes, I was worried about bugs. We’ve found a planet, with a unique ecosystem. There may be patentable innovations.”
I sat, stunned. Patents? I had points on the package. If I got points on a patent on some aspect of an alien biological system, a Gheda-approved patent, I’d be rich.
Not just rich, but like, nation-rich.
Oslo sipped at his tea. “There’s only one problem,” he said. “There may be intelligent life on the planet. If it’s intelligent, it’s a contact situation, and we have to turn it over to the Gheda. We get a fee, but no taste of the real game. We fail to report a contact situation and the Gheda find out, it’s going to be a nasty scene. They’ll kill our families, or even people you know, just to make the point that their interstellar law is inviolate. We have to file a claim the moment of discovery.”
I’d heard hesitation in his voice. “You haven’t filed yet, have you?”
“I bet all the Gheda business creatures love having you watch humans they’re settling a contract with, making sure they’re telling the truth, you there to brief them on what their facial expressions are really showing.”
That stung. “I’d do the same for any human. And it isn’t just contracts. Many hire me to pay attention to them, to figure them out, anticipate their needs.”
Oslo leered. “I’ll bet.”
I wasn’t a fuckbot. I deflected the leering. “So tell me, Oslo, why I’m risking my life, then?”
“We haven’t filed yet because we honestly can’t fucking figure out if the aliens are just dumb creatures, or intelligences like us,” Oslo said.
“Welcome to the Screaming Kettle,” said the woman who grabbed my bag without asking. She had dark brown skin and eyes, and black hair. Tattoos covered every inch of skin free of her clothing. Words in scripts and languages that I didn’t recognize. “The Compact Drone is about to dock as well, we need you ready for it. Let’s get your stuff stowed.”
We walked below skylights embedded in the top of the research station. A planet hung there: green and yellow and patchy. It looked like it was diseased with mold. “Is that Ve?” I asked.
“Oslo get you up to speed?” the woman asked.
“Somewhat. You’re Cruzie, right?”
“Maricruz. I’m the linguist. I guess . . . you’re stuck here with us. You can call me Cruzie too.” We stopped in front of a room larger than the one on the ship. With two beds.
I looked at the beds. “I’m comfortable with a cubby, if it means getting my own space,” I said.
There was far more space here, vastly so. And yet, I was going to have to share it? It rankled. Even at the station, I hadn’t had to share my space. This shoved me up against my own cultural normative values. Even in the most packed places in space, you needed a cubby of one’s own.
“You’re here to Friend the Compact Drone,” Cruzie said. “It’ll need companionship at all times. Their contract requires it for the Drone’s mental stability.”
“Oslo didn’t tell me this.” I pursed my lips. A fairly universal display of annoyance.
And Cruzie read that well enough. “I’m sorry,” she said. But it was a lie as well. She was getting annoyed and impatient. But screw it, as Oslo pointed out: I wasn’t there for their needs. “Oslo wants us to succeed more than anything. Unlike his parents, he’s not much into the glory that was humankind. He knows the only way we’ll ever not be freelancers, scrabbling around for intellectual scraps found in the side alleys of technology for something we can use without paying the Gheda for the privilege, is to hit something big.”
“So he lied to me.” My voice remained flat.
“He left out truths that would have made you less willing to come.”
Cruzie shut the door to my room. “He gave you points on the package, Friend. We win big, you do your job, you’ll never have to check the balance on your air for the rest of your damned life. I heard you were in air debt, right?”
She’d put me well in place. We both knew it. Cruzie smiled, a gracious winner’s smile.
“Incoming!” Someone yelled from around the bend in the corridor.
“I’m not going to fuck the Drone,” I told her levelly.
Cruzie shrugged. “I don’t care what you do or don’t do, as long as the Drone stays mentally stable and does its job for us. Points on the package, Alex. Points.”
Airlock alarms flashed and warbled, and the hiss of compressed air filled the antechamber
“The incoming pod’s not much larger than a cubby sleeper,” Oslo said, his purple hair waving about as another burst of compressed air filled the antechamber. He smiled, fangs out beyond his lips. “It’s smaller than the lander we have for exploring Ve ourselves, if we ever need to get down there. Can you imagine the ride? The only non-Gheda way of traveling!”
The last member of the team joined us. She looked over at me and nodded. Silvered electronic eyes glinted in the flash of the airlock warning lights. She flexed the jet black fingers of her artificial right hand absentmindedly as she waited for the doors to open. She ran the fingers of a real hand over her shaved head, then put them back in her utility jacket, covered with what seemed like hundreds of pockets and zippers.
“That’s Kepler,” Cruzie said.
The airlock doors opened. A thin, naked man stumbled out, dripping goopy blue acceleration gel with each step.
For a moment his eyes flicked around, blinking.
Then he started screaming.
Oslo, Kepler, and Cruzie jumped back half a step from the naked man’s arms. I stepped forward. “It’s not fear, it’s relief.”
The man grabbed me in a desperate hug, clinging to me, his hands patting my face, shoulders, as if reassuring himself someone was really standing in front of him. “It’s okay,” I whispered. “You’ve been in there by yourself for days, with no contact of any sort. I understand.”
He was shivering in my grip, but I kept patting his back. I urged him to feel the press of contact between us. And reassurance. Calm.
Eventually he calmed down, and then slowly let go of me.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Welcome aboard, Beck,” I said, looking over his shoulder at the scientists who looked visibly relieved.
First things first.
Beck got to the communications room. Back and forth verification on an uplink, and he leaned back against the chair in relief.
“There’s an uplink to the Hive,” he said. “An hour of lag time to get as far back as the home system, but I’m patched in.”
He tapped metal inserts on the back of his neck. His mind plugged in to the communications network, talking all the way back to the asteroid belt in the mother system, where the Compact’s Hive thrived. Back there, Beck would always be in contact with it without a delay. In instant symbiosis with a universe of information that the Compact offered.
A hive-mind of people, your core self subjugated to the greater whole.
Beck never moved more than half a foot away from me. Always close enough to touch. He kept reaching out to make sure I was there, even though he could see me.
After walking around the research station for half an hour, we returned to our shared room.
He sat on his bed, suddenly apprehensive. “You’re the Friend, correct?”
“I’m lonely over here. Can you sleep by me?”
I walked over and sat next to him. “I won’t have sex with you. That’s not why I’m here.”
“I’m chemically neutered,” Beck said as we curled up on the bed. “I’m a drone.”
As we lay there, I imagined thousands of Becks sleeping in rows in Hive dorms, body heat keeping the rooms warm.
Half an hour later he suddenly sighed, like a drug addict getting a hit. “They hear me,” he whispered. “I’m not alone.”
The Compact had replied to him.
The room filled with a pleasant lavender scent. Was it something he’d splashed on earlier? Or something a Compact drone released to indicate comfort?
“That,” Kepler said, leaning back in a couch before a series of displays, “is one of our remote-operated vehicles. We call them urchins.”
In the upper right hand screen before her, a small sphere with hundreds of wriggling legs rotated around. Then it scrabbled off down what looked like a dirt path.
Cruzie swung into a similar couch. “We sterilize them in orbit, then drop them down encased in a heatshield. It burns away, then they drop down out of the sky with a little burst of a rocket to slow down enough.”
I frowned at one of the screens. Everything was shades of green and gray and black. “Is that night vision?”
Oslo laughed. “It’s Ve. The atmosphere is chlorinated. Green mists. Grey shadows. And black plants.”
The trees had giant, black leaves hanging low to the ground. Tubular trunks sprouted globes that spouted mist randomly as the urchin brushed past.
“Ve’s a small planet,” Kepler said. “Low gravity, but with air similar to what you would have seen on the mother world.”
“Earth,” Oslo corrected.
“But unlike the mother world,” Kepler continued, “Ve has high levels of chlorine. Somewhere in its history, a battle launched among the plants. Instead of specializing in oxygen to kill off the competition, and adapting to it over time, plant life here turned to chlorine as a weapon. It created plastics out of the organic compounds available to it, which is doable in a chlorine-heavy base atmosphere, though remarkable. And the organic plastics also handle photosynthesis. A handy trick. If we can patent it.”
On the screen the urchin rolled to a slow stop. Cruzie leaned forward. “Now if we can just figure out if those bastards are really building a civilization, or just random dirt mounds . . . ”
Paused at the top of a ridge, the urchin looked at a clearing in the black-leafed forest. Five pyramids thrust above the foliage around the clearing.
“Can you get closer?” Beck asked, and I jumped slightly. He’d been so silent, watching all this by my side.
“Not from here,” Kepler said. “There’s a big dip in altitude between here and the clearing.”
“And?” Beck stared at the pyramids on the screen.
“Our first couple weeks here we kept driving the urchins into low lying areas, valleys, that sort of thing. They kept dying on us. We figure the chlorine and acids sink low into the valleys. Our equipment can’t handle it.”
Beck sat down on the nearest couch to Kepler, and looked over the interface. “Take the long way around then, I’ll look at your archives while you do so. Wait!”
I saw it too. A movement through the black, spiky bushes. I saw my first alien creature scuttle around, antennae twisting as it moved along what looked like a path.
“They look like ants,” I blurted out.
“We call them Vesians. But yes, ants the size of a small dog,” Oslo said. “And not really ants at all. Just exoskeletons, black plastic, in a similar structure. The handiwork of parallel evolution.”
More Vesians appeared carrying leaves and sticks on their backs.
“Now that’s interesting,” Beck said.
“It doesn’t mean they’re intelligent,” Beck said later, lying in the bunk with me next to him. We both stared up at the ceiling. He rolled over and looked at me. “The gourds grow on trees. They use them to store liquids. Inside those pyramids.”
We were face to face, breathing each other’s air. Beck had no personal space, and I had to fight my impulse to pull back away from him.
My job was now to facilitate. Make Beck feel at home.
Insect hives had drones that could exist away from the hive. A hive needed foragers, and defenders. But the human Compact only existed in the asteroid belt of the mother system.
Beck was a long way from home.
With the lag, he would be feeling cut off and distant. And for a mind that had always been in the embrace of the hive, this had to be hard for him.
But Beck offered the freelance scientists a link into the massive computational capacity of the entire Compact. They’d contracted it to handle the issue they couldn’t figure out quickly: were the aliens intelligent or not?
Beck was pumping information back all the way back to the mother system, so that the Compact could devote some fraction of a fraction of its massed computing ability to the issue. The minds of all its connected citizenry. Its supercomputers. Maybe even, it was rumored, artificial intelligences.
“But if they are intelligent?” I asked. “How do you prove it?”
Beck cocked his head. “The Compact is working on it. Has been ever since the individuals here signed the contract.”
“Then why are you out here?”
“Yes . . . ” He was suddenly curious in me now, remembering I was a distinct individual, lying next to him. I wasn’t of the Compact. I wasn’t another drone.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It was good you asked.” He flopped over to stare at the ceiling again. “You’re right, I’m not entirely needed. But the Compact felt it was necessary.”
I wanted to know why. But I could feel Beck hesitate. I held my breath.
“You are a Friend. You’ve never broken contract. The Compact ranks you very highly.” Beck turned back to face me. “We understand that what I tell you will never leave this room, and since I debugged it, it’s a safe room. What do you think it takes to become a freelance scientist in this hostile universe?”
I’d been around enough negotiating tables. A good Friend, with the neural modifications and adaptive circuitry laced into me from birth, I could read body posture, micro-expressions, skin flush, heart rate, in a blink of the eye. I made a hell of a negotiating tool. Which was usually exactly what Gheda wanted: a read on their human counterparts.
And I had learned the ins and outs of my clients businesses quick as well. I knew what the wider universe was like while doing my job.
“Oslo has pent-up rage,” I whispered. “His family is obsessed with the Earth as it used to be. Before the Gheda land purchases. He wants wealth, but that’s not all, I think. Cruzie holds herself like she has military bearing, though she hides it. Kepler, I don’t know. I’m guessing you will tell me they have all worked as weapons manufacturers or researchers of some sort?”
Beck nodded. “Oslo and his sister London are linked to a weaponized virus that was released on a Gheda station. Cruzie fought with separatists in Columbia. Kepler is a false identity. We haven’t cracked her yet.”
I looked at the drone. There was no deceit in him. He stated these things as facts. He was a drone. He didn’t need to question the information given to him.
“Why are you telling me all this?”
He gestured at the bunk. “You’re a professional Friend. You’re safe. You’re here. And I’m just a drone. We’re just a piece of all this.”
And then he moved to spoon against the inside of my stomach. Two meaningless, tiny lives inside a cold station, far away from where they belonged.
“And because,” he added in a soft voice, “I think that these scientists are desperate enough to fix a problem if it occurs.”
“Fix a problem?” I asked, wrapping my arms around him.
“I think the Vesians are intelligent, and I think Kepler and Oslo plan to do something to them if, or when, it’s confirmed, so that they can keep patent rights.”
I could suddenly hear every creak, whisper, and whistle in the station as I tensed up.
“I will protect you if I can. Right now we’re just delaying as long as we can. Mainly I’m trying to stop Cruzie from figuring out the obvious, because if she confirms they’re really intelligent, then Oslo and Kepler will make their move and do something to the Vesians. We’re not sure what.”
“You said delaying. Delaying until what?” I asked, a slight quaver in my voice that I found I couldn’t control.
“Until the Gheda get here,” Beck said with a last yawn. “That’s when it all gets really complicated.” His voice trailed off as he said that, and he fell asleep.
I lay there, awake and wide-eyed.
I finally reached up to my neck and scratched at the band of skin where the air monitor patch had once been stuck.
Points on nothing was still just . . . nothing.
But could I rat out my contract? My role as a Friend? Could I help Oslo and Kepler kill an alien race?
Things had gotten very muddy in just a few minutes. I felt trapped between the hell of an old life and the hell of a horrible new one.
“What’s a human being?” I asked Beck over lunch.
“Definitions vary,” he replied.
“You’re a drone: bred to act, react, and move within a shared neural environment. You serve the Compact. There’s no queen, like a classic anthill or with bees. Your shared mental overmind makes the calls. So you have a say. A tiny say. You are human . . . -ish. Our ancestors would have questioned whether you were human.”
Beck cocked his head and smiled. “And you?”
“Modified from birth to read human faces. Under contract for most of my life to Gheda, working to tell the aliens or other humans what humans are really thinking . . . they wouldn’t have thought highly of me either.”
“The Compact knows you reread your contract last night, after I fell asleep, and you used some rather complicated algorithms to game some scenarios.”
I frowned. “So you’re spying on us now.”
“Of course. You’re struggling with a gray moral situation.”
“The nature of your contract says you need to work with me and support my needs. But you’re hired by the freelancers that I’m now in opposition to. As a Friend, a role and purpose burned into you just like being a drone is burned into me, do you warn them? Or do you stick by me? The contract allows for interpretations either way. And if you stick with me, it’s doing so while knowing that I’m just a drone. A pawn that the Compact will use as it sees fit, for its own game.”
“You left something out,” I said.
“Neither you, nor I, are bred to care about Vesians,” Beck said.
I got up and walked over to the large porthole. “I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for them?”
“Whatever Kepler and Oslo want to do to them. Better to die now than to meet the Gheda. I can’t imagine they’d ever want to become us.”
Beck stood up. There was caution in his stance, as if he’d thought I had been figured out, but now wasn’t sure. “I’ve got work to do. Stay here and finish your meal, Friend.”
I looked down at the green world beneath, and jumped when a hand grabbed my shoulder. I could see gray words tattooed in the skin. “Cruzie?”
Her large brown eyes were filled with anger. “That son of a bitch has been lying to us,” she said, pointing in the direction Beck had gone. “Come with me.”
“The gourds,” Cruzie said, pointing at a screen, and then looking at Beck. “Tell us about the gourds.”
And Oslo grabbed my shoulder. “Watch the drone, sharp now. I want you to tell us what you see when he replies to us.”
My contract would be clear there. I couldn’t lie. The scientists owned the contract, and now that they’d asked directly for my services, I couldn’t evade.
Points on the package, I thought in the far back of my mind.
I wasn’t really human, was I? Not if I found the lure of eternal riches to be so great as to consider helping the freelancers.
“The Vesians have farms,” Cruzie said. “But so do ants: they grow fungus. The Vesians have roads, but so do animals in a forest. They just keep walking over the same spots. Old Earth roads used to follow old animal paths. The Vesians have buildings, but birds build nests, ants build colonies, bees build hives. But language, that’s so much rarer in the animal kingdom, isn’t it, Beck?”
“Not really,” the drone said calmly. “Primitive communication exists in animals. Including bees, which dance information. Dolphins squeak and whales sing.”
“But none of them write it down,” Cruzie grinned.
Oslo’s squeezed my shoulder, hard. “The drone is mildly annoyed,” I said. “And more than a little surprised.”
Cruzie tapped on a screen. The inside of one of the pyramids appeared. It was a storehouse of some sort, filled with hundreds, maybe thousands, of the gourds I’d seen earlier that the Vesian had been transporting.
“Nonverbal creatures use scent. Just like ants on the mother planet. The Vesians use scents to mark territories their queens manage. And one of the things I started to wonder about, were these storage areas. What were they for? So I broke in, and I started breaking the gourds.”
Beck stiffened. “He’s not happy with this line of thought,” I murmured.
“Thought so,” Oslo said back, and nodded at Cruzie, who kept going.
“And whenever I broke a gourd, I found them empty. Not full of liquid, as Beck told us was likely. We originally thought they were for storage. An adaptive behavior. Or a sign of intelligence. Hard to say. Until I broke them all.”
“They could have been empty, waiting to be sealed,” Beck said tonelessly.
I sighed. “I’m sorry, Beck. I have to do this. He’s telling the truth, Oslo. But misdirecting.”
“I know he is,” Cruzie said. “Because the Vesians swarmed the location with fresh gourds. There were chemical scents, traces laid down in the gourds before they were sealed. The Vesians examined the broken gourds, then filled the new ones with scents. I started examining the chemical traces, and found that each gourd replaced had the same chemical sequences sprayed on and stored as the ones I broke.”
Beck’s muscles tensed. Any human could see the stress now. I didn’t need to say anything.
“They were like monks, copying manuscripts. Right, Beck?” Cruzie asked.
“Yes,” Beck said.
“And the chemical markers, it’s a language, right?” Kepler asked. I could feel the tension in her voice. It wasn’t just disappointment building, but rage.
“It is.” Beck stood up slowly.
“It took me days to realize it,” Cruzie said. “And that, after the weeks I’ve been out here. The Compact spotted it right away, didn’t it?”
Beck looked over at me, then back at Cruzie. “Yes. The Compact knows.”
“Then what the hell is it planning to do?” Kepler moved in front of Beck, lips drawn back in a snarl.
“I’m just a drone,” Beck said. “I don’t know. But I can give you an answer in an hour.”
For a second, everyone stood frozen. Oslo, brimming with hurt rage, staring at Beck. Kepler, moving from anger toward some sort of decision. Cruzie looked . . . triumphant. Oblivious to the real breaking developments in the air.
And I observed.
Like any good Friend.
Then a loud ‘whooop whooop’ startled us all out of our poses.
“What’s that?” Cruzie asked, looking around.
“The Gheda are here,” Oslo, Kepler, and Beck said at the same time.
The Path Less Traveled
“Call the vote,” Oslo snapped.
Cruzie swallowed. I saw micro beads of sweat on the side of her neck. “Right now?”
“Gheda are inbound,” Kepler said, her artificial eyes dark. I imagined she had them patched into the computers, looking at information from the station’s sensors. “They’ll be decelerating and matching orbit in hours. There’s no time for debate, Cruzie.”
“What we’re about to do is something that requires debate. They’re intelligent. We’re proposing ripping that away over the next day with Kepler’s tailored virus. They’ll end up with a viral lobotomy, just smart enough we can claim their artifacts come from natural hive mind behavior. But we’ll have stolen their culture. Their minds. Their history.” Cruzie shook her head. “I know we said they’re going to lose most of that when the Gheda arrive. But if we do this, we’re worse than Gheda.”
“Fucking hell, Cruzie!” Oslo snapped. “You’re changing your mind now?”
“Oslo!” Cruzie held up her hands as if trying to ward off the angry words.
“You saw our mother planet,” Oslo said. “The slums. The starvation. Gheda combat patrols. They owned everyone. If you didn’t provide value, you were nothing. You fought the Sahara campaign, you attacked Abbuj station. How the fuck can you turn your back to all that?”
“I didn’t turn my back, I wanted a different path,” Cruzie said. “That’s why we’re here. With the money on the patents, we could change things . . . but what are we changing here if we’re not all that better than the Gheda?”
“It’s us or the fucking ants,” Kepler said, voice suddenly level. “It’s really that simple. Where are your allegiances?”
I bit my lip when I heard that.
“Cruzie . . . ” I started to say.
She held a hand up and walked over to the console, her thumb held out. “It takes a unanimous vote to unleash the virus. This was why I insisted.”
“You’re right,” Kepler said. I flinched. I could hear the hatred in her voice. She nodded at Oslo.
He raised his walking stick. The tiny grains inside rattled around, and then a jagged finger of energy leapt out and struck Cruzie in the small of her back.
Cruzie jerked around, arms flopping as she danced, then dropped to the ground. Oslo pressed the stick to her head and fired it again. Blood gushed from Cruzie’s eye sockets as something inside her skull went ‘pop.’
A wisp of smoke curled from her open mouth.
Oslo and Kepler put thumbs to the screens. “We have a unanimous vote now.”
But a red warning sign flashed back at them. Beck relaxed slightly, a tiny curl of a smile briefly appearing.
Oslo raised his walking stick and pointed it at Beck. “Our communications are blocked.”
“Yes,” Beck said. “The Compact is voting against preemptive genocide.”
For a split second, I saw the decision to kill Beck flit across Kepler’s face. “If you kill him,” I spoke up, “the Compact will spend resources hunting you two down. You can’t enjoy your riches if you’re dead.”
Kepler nodded. “You’re right.” But she looked at me, a question on her face.
I shrugged. “If you’re all dead, I don’t have points on the package.”
“Trigger them manually,” Oslo said. “We’ll bring the drone. We won’t leave him up here to cause more trouble. Bring him, or her, or whatever the Friend calls itself as well. Your contract, Alex, is now to watch Beck.”
We burned our way through the green atmosphere of Ve, the lander bucking and groaning, skin cracking as it weathered the heat of our reentry fireball.
From the tiny cramped cockpit I watched us part the clouds and spiral slowly down out of the sky as the wings unfurled from slots in the tear-drop sized vehicle’s side. They started beating a complicated figure-eight motion.
Oslo aimed his walking stick at us when the lander touched down. “Put on your helmet, get out. Both of you.”
We did so.
Heavy chlorine-rich mists swirled around, disturbed by our landing. Large puffball flowers spurted acid whenever touched by a piece of stray stirred-up debris, and the black, plastic leaves all around us bobbed gently in a low breeze.
Oslo and Kepler pulled a large pack out of the lander’s cargo area. Long pieces of tubing. They set to building a freestanding antenna, piece by piece. I watched Beck. I couldn’t see his face, but I could see his posture.
He was about to run. Which made no sense. Run where? On this world?
Within a few minutes Oslo and Kepler had snapped together a thirty-foot tall tower. I swallowed, and remained silent. It was a choice, a deliberate path. I broke my contract.
Oslo snapped a clip to the top of the tower, then unrolled a length of cable. He and Kepler used it to pull the super light structure up.
That was the moment Beck ran, as it hung halfway up to standing.
“Shit,” Oslo cursed over the tiny speakers in our helmets, but he didn’t drop the structure. “You’ve only got a couple hours of air you moron!”
The only response was Beck’s heavy breathing.
When the antenna stood upright, Oslo approached me, the walking stick out. “You didn’t warn us.”
“He was wearing a spacesuit,” I said calmly.
But I could see Oslo didn’t believe me. His eyes creased and his fingers tightened. A bright explosion of pain ripped into me.
My vision cleared.
I was on my hands and feet, shaking with pain from the electrical discharge. A whirlwind of debris whipped around me. I looked up to see the lander lifting into the sky.
So that was it. I’d made my choice: to try and not be a monster.
And it had been in vain. The Vesians would be lobotomized by Kepler’s virus. Beck would die. I would die.
I watched the lander beginning a wide spiral upward away from me. In a few seconds it would fire its rockets and climb for orbit.
In a couple hours, I would run out of air.
Four large gourds arced high over the black forest and slapped into the side of the lander. I frowned. At first, it looked like they had no effect. The lander kept spiraling up.
But then, it faltered.
The lander shook, and smoke spilled out of a crack in the side somewhere.
It exploded, the fireball hanging in the sky.
“Get away from the antenna,” Beck suddenly said. “It’s next.”
I ran without a second thought, and even as I got free of the clearing, gourds of acid hit the structure. The metal sizzled, foamed, and then began to melt.
A few seconds later, I broke out onto a dirt path where the catapults firing the gourds of acid had been towed into place.
Beck waited for me, surrounded by a crowd of Vesians. He wore only his helmet, he’d ripped his suit off. His skin bubbled from bad chemical burn blisters.
“The Vesians destroyed all the remote-operating vehicles with the virus in it,” he said. “The queens have quarantined any Vesians near any area that had an ROV. The species will survive.”
“You’ve been talking to them,” I said. And then I thought back to the comforting smell in my room the first night Beck spent with me. “You’re communicating with them. You warned them.”
Beck held up his suit. “Yes. The Compact altered me to be an ambassador to them.”
“Beck, how long can you survive in this environment?” I stared at his blistered skin.
“A year. Maybe. There will be another ready by then. Maybe a structure to live in. The Gheda will be here soon to bring air. The Compact has reached an agreement with them. The Vesian queens are agreeing to join the Compact. The Compact gets to extend out of the mother system, but only to Ve. In exchange, the Gheda get rights to all patentable discoveries made in the new ecosystem. They’re particularly interested in plastic-based organic photosynthesis.”
I collapsed to the ground, realizing that I would live. Beck sat next to me. A small Vesian, approached, a gourd in its mandibles. It set the organic, plastic bottle at my legs. “What’s that?”
“A jar of goodwill,” Beck said. “The Vesian queen of this area is thanking you.”
I was still just staring at it two hours later as my air faded out, my vision blurred, and the Gheda lander finally reached us.
The harbormaster cocked his head. “You’re back.”
“I’m back,” I said. Someone was unpacking my two bags. one of them carefully holding the Vesian ‘gift.’
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” the harbormaster said. “Not with a contract like that.”
“It didn’t work out.” I looked out into the vacuum of space beyond us. “Certainly not for the people who hired me. Or me.”
“You have a peripheral contract with the Compact. An all-you-can-breath line of credit on the station. You’re not a citizen, but on perpetual retainer as the Compact’s primary professional Friend for all dealings in this system. You did well enough.”
I grinned. “Points on a package like what they offered me was a fairy tale. A fairy tale you’d have to be soulless to want to have come true.”
“I’m surprised that you did not choose to join the Compact,” the harbormaster said, looking closely at me. “It is a safe place for humans in this universe. Even as a peripheral for them, you could still be in danger during patent negotiations with Gheda.”
“I know. But this is home. My home. I’m not a drone, I don’t want to be one.”
The harbormaster sighed. “You understand the station is my only love. I don’t have a social circle. There is only the ebb and flow of this structure’s health for me.”
I smiled. “That’s why I like you, harbormaster. You have few emotions. You are a fair dealer. You’re the closest thing I have to family. You may even be the closest thing I have to a friend, friend with a lowercase ‘f.’”
“You follow your contracts to the letter. I like that about you,” the harbormaster said. “I’m glad you will continue on here.”
Together we watched the needle-like ship that had brought me back home silently fall away from the station.
“The Compact purchased me a ten-by-ten room with a porthole,” I said. “I don’t have to come up here to sneak a look at the stars anymore.”
The harbormaster sighed happily. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they? I think, we’ve always loved them, haven’t we? Even before we were forced to leave the mother world.”
“That’s what the history books say,” I said quietly over the sound of ducts and creaking station. “We dreamed of getting out here, to live among them. Dreamed of the wonders we’d see.”
“The Gheda don’t see the stars,” the harbormaster said. “They have few portholes. Before I let the Gheda turn me into a harbormaster, I demanded the contract include this room.”
“They don’t see them the way we do,” I agreed.
“They’re not human,” the harbormaster said.
“No, they’re not.” I looked out at the distant stars. “But then, few things are anymore.”
The Gheda ship disappeared in a blinding flash of light, whipping through space toward its next destination.
Called "Violent, poetic and compulsively readable" by Maclean's, science fiction author Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling writer born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, and the islands he lived on influence much of his work.
His Xenowealth series begins with Crystal Rain. Along with other stand-alone novels and his over fifty stories, his works have been translated into eighteen different languages. He has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. His latest novel is Hurricane Fever, a follow up to the successful Arctic Rising that NPR says will "give you the shivers."
He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife, twin daughters, and a pair of dogs.