Issue 193 – October 2022

13280 words, novelette

Lost and Found


The uniform’s design was out of date by the time Essen made orbit over Drasti Prime—but then, so was Essen, so she kept it as is, fiddling in sequence with the pocket flaps and interface protector while the autofeed caught her up on twenty-three years of Partnership intel: personal, professional, interplanetary, and puerile. The inner worlds had kept themselves busy with major and minor crises of moral authority, and there was a loudness to the rhetoric on alTspeaK forums that startled her after so much time in cryo. It was like returning to a shouting match after stepping out just as an edge had begun creeping into the conversation. But surely it wasn’t all inane bickering between planetary forces now? In the great Partnership? In the story that for centuries had carried a rich amalgam of alien species together into a better run of exploratory missions across the stars?

Essen listened closely to the chronology of key political events, but her heart only grew uneasy as she tried to wrap her head around incidents recounted as if their causal chains should be self-evident, when many most certainly were not. Like, how a group of insurrectionists had destroyed a Supreme Council facility on one inner world and . . . somehow prompted the retaliatory conquest of an Alliance of Friendship colony on the Partnership’s frontier? Or how a feline ghost haunting Partnership dreams had spawned a horror franchise, then a spoof series, the latter of which quickly became . . . breeding grounds for human supremacists?

Essen rubbed her temples while trying to keep up. History, she knew, was more probabilistic scatterplot than straight line. This was why long-range Partnership officers were expected to study the psychology of mass social constructs, along with the ethics of terraforming and solar siphoning, and meaning-modeling in mid- to high-sentient group species, and other such specialized topics in supra-generational civics engineering. When taken all at once, twenty-three years could feel like an entirely different beat in the pulse of the Partnership’s lifespan: one exhilarating LUB! of technological progress sometimes followed by a decades-long stagnant dub. And no, this wasn’t Essen’s first jump, but it was the first in which the cosmos she’d woken to felt regressive. Like a culture on the decline. A moment of mourning was called for—and not just for everyone whose lives she’d left behind.

Essen switched from the autofeed to internals, to review the ship’s manifest and manually confirm systems readouts for the fourth time since waking. Was she still safe? Was the ship still running optimally? Was the onboard AI absolutely certain that nothing in storage had been lost along the way? All good, grounding rituals in theory, but the view from the console distracted her as she ran through her checklist. In her post-cryo hangover, the myriad unknowns on the planet below reorganized themselves in her mind to present vague “proofs” of a deeply unhopeful future. When she finished her tasks here, on a world with a rescue beacon broadcasting from its mysterious depths, would her next bout of stasis bring her to a Partnership renewed? Or to an even deeper backslide into paranoia, tribalism, and decay?

Impossible to say, but something about the neighborhood didn’t instill much confidence. On ship’s monitors, the husk of an old way station, CEB-21, could still be seen cleaving to the massive construct encircling the system’s sun. The locals clearly hadn’t done much tidying after politely (but firmly) requesting the egress of all their system’s guests.

“The Makers are coming,” was all that the Spinners had told Partnership base-camp, almost a standard century ago. But—when? And why, after all this time, after eons upon eons of silence? And even if the planet’s original inhabitants were returning, why did that require everyone else’s departure? Why couldn’t these ancient Makers be bothered to meet with all the diplomats from four very different collectives on the surface of that most curious world, filled as it was with biotechnical wonders too dangerous to try to replicate elsewhere?

No answers. Only that same advisory, repeated without variation by those massive arachnoid bio-computers: “All guests must leave.” It was a notice that the Feru had answered first, gathering up every last fungal growth and spore before departing for its far-flung corner of the cosmos; and that the Esh had complied with next, after reaching a most turbulent consensus and reintegrating every rogue puff on the surface; and that the Saludons had accepted in turn—delayed only by bureaucratic clearance, not reluctance in the ranks; and which only the local humans, in their most obnoxious of ways, had resisted to the tedious last. Like a child dawdling at the door, always coming up with new excuses to linger there.

Well . . . not our research station too, surely?

But yes, the Partnership and all of its through traffic had also been asked to evacuate the way station, even though CEB-21’s continued operation would have made rescue missions such as this one so much easier—no long-term slumber required to reach the system again.

Out! the Spinners had made perfectly clear, their massive eight-legged frames tic-tic-tic-ticking two-by-two with what an officer at the time interpreted as impatience (pure anthropomorphization, Essen amended, while reading the report), until the last of the Partnership’s shuttles had taken off, leaving almost no trace of human presence behind.

Did the Spinners still wear their Uranian-blue courtesy masks over those dozens of bright, unsettling red eyes, now that no one remained whom they might not wish to alarm?

And did they still mirror the mannerisms of all their past guests, even if only in secret Spinner games among themselves, now that all their guests had gone home?

All Essen could hazard to guess, as she squinted at the vast jungle zone on the planet’s largest continent, was that whatever bio-material the Partnership had left behind would have been converted by now into local flora and fauna—at least, if the past still predicted future action anywhere in the cosmos. The Spinners were caretakers of the Makers’ ancient tech, including nanobots that went about adjusting foreign bio-signatures to match the native wildlife. Once-humans might even roam there still, in the animal forms that some from base-camp had fully embraced becoming, after being bitten by a chigger while out on a stroll.

Or if not them, exactly, then their descendants. Some born-human officer’s great-great-great-great Drasti grandscorpion. Some local miner’s great-great-great-great Drasti grandslug.

The thought left Essen preemptively itchy. While the ship’s computer weighed her mission plan against official action parameters—a quick bit of probabilistic mapping to ensure optimal end results—and ran through shuttle bay start-up rituals, she popped an upper arm and lower calf into med-sleeves for a battery of her own tests. Just a quick triple-check. Any lingering toxins from cryo? Microclotting? Advanced neuronal decay? Radioactivity above and beyond acceptable parameters for deep-space travel for her trip’s duration?

The all-clears didn’t fully assuage her, though, so she lingered in the ’sleeves, running the tests again, even after the ship pinged that the rescue shuttle was ready for loading. Why had all those past Partnership officers allowed the chigger transformation to consume them, when deconversion tech could have healed their genetics back at base? Eyewitness reports said it was all part of a spiritual belief-set, a fetishization of the promise of equilibrium that Drasti Prime represented. Nothing atypical, then, if true—just the usual sacred rites and mythologies that pattern-seeking organisms build around any environment they linger in too long. Although that conclusion raised questions of its own: Had this fetishism died with the end of the Partnership’s local presence? Or did others in the galaxy still preach, say, The Good Word of the Little Bite? Had Drasti Prime’s version of equilibrium been distorted on other worlds to fit their lesser technological means? Were secret societies even now trying to replicate the chiggers’ mechanisms—some for good, and others for violence?

A quick key-thought scan of alTspeaK culture forums offered no clear answers, but Essen retained a hunch that she was on to something. More scatterplot histories in the making. More far-flung threads in the messiest of cosmic webs. The Partnership, after all, was nothing if not always hungry for a new and “better” story. Maybe by the next time she woke from cryo these Little Biters would have a whole new religious sect on offer, some radical and reclusive group established on a frontier world that they’d settled and renamed New Drasti Prime: a place where every casual visitor was turned into a bug unless they could prove their worth to the colony’s greater cause. (And probably a human-supremacist cause at that, if cultural trendlines for the current Partnership were any indication.)

Okay, cranky, that’s enough. You think it’s bad up here?

Essen grumbled at the interruption of her thoughts, by her thoughts—by the nuisance part of her, that is, which wouldn’t let the rest of her wallow in the hard-won cynicism of post-cryo hangover. But that tedious go-getter in her also had a point. If she found it difficult to process her disappointment with the Partnership she’d woken up to—in the security of a familiar Partnership vessel, while wearing the old standard Partnership uniform—just think how much more disorienting all this new intel would be for the survivors below (if indeed any remained) after spending at least twice as long out of contact with all their old families, communities, and homes. If anyone was alive down there, and if they hadn’t been turned into local flora and fauna, would they even want to be rescued by the Partnership, when Essen told them how many of their old worlds and cultures were now in decline?

Well. It wasn’t like they’d have a choice, either way.

It would be the bite or the boot.

The Spinners, after all, had stopped jamming the planet from outside observers not long after the arrival of the civilian junker Kir-Anin. They must have, for its distress call to have reached interstellar space, and eventually a Partnership outpost. The Spinners had not expressly asked the Partnership to come collect its cast-offs—but then, those massive arachnoid bio-computers were more or less confined to initial algorithms. Whatever deviations from original programming that past Partnership officers had noted in individuals were just that—clever workarounds within limited parameters. Probably the Spinners, as stewards in waiting for a long-absent species, had no protocol for going out of their way to contact another, and to inform them of such a situation on the ground. Probably the only variable they could modify, when trying to take action to prevent another tragedy involving advanced foreign lifeforms, was the on/off state for the protective grid around Drasti Prime. Which made them . . . pretty clever critters, Essen had to admit, if this had in fact been their design.

She unhooked the med-sleeves and headed for storage, drumming on all the bulkheads, monitors, and hatches she passed to fill a silence she sensed beneath the ship’s ever-present hum. Her first view of the planet’s surface had felt similar—full of both life and . . . absence. As if lacking some essential core. If Drasti Prime’s “Masters” had indeed come back in the many decades since the Partnership’s expulsion, the world below her showed no sign of their return. Nor did the massive artifact around Drasti’s sun appear to have been active in all this time. All she could see beyond her ship, through a porthole by the storage hatch, was deep, dense foliage, sprawling plains and winding canyons, and the rich riverways of a world in ecological equilibrium, unlike any the rest of the system had ever sustained. Air and land and water all self-correcting: each biome a place that neither lost nor gained a single species, nor endured perilous gaps in even a single environmental niche.

It should have been so easy, Essen thought, to sight the disruption of a crashed civilian vessel amid so much immaculate planetary beauty. But even with the Kir-Anin’s location flashing on the main console, nothing leapt out to the naked eye at this distance. Like so much of the culture-rot that had blossomed in the Partnership during Essen’s slumber, the seed of disrepair here wasn’t going to make itself known right away.

She could only hope that she wasn’t too late to stop this one’s spread.

Storage lights flickered on as Essen passed basic inventory stacks to trace the black-brown buffers protecting the outer edges of her crew: three midsize all-terrain rover-bots, all of a high enough sentience that it was fair to say that each had a personality, despite the same basic programming. She’d named them after classmates she missed, Partnership officers whose work had taken them lifetimes in other directions of the galaxy. Yes, of course, there were always opportunities to send notes to old acquaintances upon waking, but the slumber- and wake-cycles of those who’d sacrificed the comforts of the way station to reach “slower” realms for the Partnership were always out of sync. The last message she’d sent would reach the furthest out in, oh, maybe forty-three standard years. It was a game of catch-up like no other—and a gap in the ecosystem of her thoughts that had to be filled some other way, somehow.

The first bot, she’d called Merken, because it was industrious and process-oriented in a way that made it grouchy (as much as a mid-sentient AI could be) if interrupted in the middle of a task. The original Merken had been much the same on campus, but he’d at least found a way to adapt to the chaos of dorm life, by posting to the minute how long he expected his experiments or calculations to take—in other words, how long he expected to be left alone, without interruption, even if the most amazing meal was being served, or a sudden orbital-debris collision called everyone else out to the quad to take a look.

Bot-Merken had not yet found its own coping mechanism. Essen once had to stop it from using its blowtorch on another bot for trundling right through its dig site and pinging it with an entirely helpful Need fix? query for one of its exposed panels. It had needed a fix, yes—but that wasn’t the point. Task reprioritization wasn’t Bot-Merken’s strong suit, although its total fixation on one queue-item at a time had certain benefits, too.

The second rover was La. Like its namesake, the bot was often found wandering. Technically on task, but never one to optimize workflow. Once, Essen could have sworn the bot had even stopped in the middle of a basic delivery run simply to idle by a waterway, and to roll its treads back and forth in one spot on the shore. As if it were trying to take in the sound, or the slight lurching effect, from all the smooth beach-stones grinding underneath.

Pure biological romanticization, surely. And yet, the bot’s service records backed up Essen’s suspicion that it was actively selecting what a human might call “scenic routes,” even though a few of La’s choices (a radioactive dump site, the interior of a raw-metals storage facility, a pile of mulch containing animal remains) were not at all to most humans’ tastes.

The original La had been one for strange wanders, too, and spent most of their time in their head: observing, humming, and carrying around a whole world within, wherever they might roam. This behavior was part of what had made them an ideal candidate for the length and isolation of frontier work—although La’s service record also spoke for itself, where their utility in first-contact scenarios for the Partnership was concerned.

As for Bot-La . . . well. It had no grand diplomatic triumphs to show for all its idling in putrid waste sites. But then, its service record for the Partnership was still young.

Meanwhile the last of Essen’s rover-bots, all of which she’d expressly requested from shipyard inventory after observing their performance in the training dome, was Burl to a tee. Bot-Burl had to be the saddest mid-sentient AI that Essen had ever encountered—and not in the sense that it was pathetic to look at, but inasmuch as it never seemed satisfied with its output: never beeped a single note of triumph at the completion of a work order, let alone at the receipt of Essen’s praise. Was it malfunctioning? Not exactly. All its audio-visual response pathways were in working order. It simply seemed dissatisfied with the quality of its output. As if it didn’t believe it had done its job well enough to be praised. As if it were wearily resigning itself to a given task now being out of its hands, rather than effectively completed.

Living with the original Burl had not been easy for Essen—or anyone else in their cohort. Officers-in-training were usually “all about those accolades,” the metrics of success and advancement that fleshed out a distinguished Partnership officer’s file. Few had Burl’s interest in reflecting on whether a given award had only been achieved on the most technical of grounds, and not actually in the spirit of the thing. Burl, meanwhile, kept a private version of what he felt his actual service record and award sheets should be, and—to no one’s surprise—almost none of his formal achievements sat upon them.

Nevertheless, Essen’s cohort found it difficult to write him off entirely. Burl never extended his harsh personal judgment to others, and never hesitated to congratulate a fellow trainee, or acknowledge what their achievement clearly meant to them. Still, even with this generosity of outward spirit, the sheer weight of his higher personal standard sat uneasily on the whole dorm and campus. A suggestion always radiated from him—unspoken, but always there—that maybe something was wrong with this award-system that everyone was trying their best to excel within. That maybe, one day, the thrill of every other Partnership officer’s achievements would also come crashing down, and they’d be left with nothing but a sense of futility and irrelevance when looking back on all they’d done.

Bot-Burl, granted, was easier to tolerate, but only because Essen realized that she enjoyed its seeming dissatisfaction with every task it carried out for her. There was something harmlessly flattering about its Burl-ish behavior in this context. And maybe it pleased her, too, to think she was atoning for her own past wrongdoing by letting this Burl be what it was, without reproach? Every now and then, when Essen watched it work, she recalled a cruel joke she’d made about Burl once: an unkind suggestion about the quality of his love life, if he approached it with anything like his views on professional achievement. To the best of her knowledge, Burl had never learned of this ugly comment; and now he was on the other side of the Partnership, doing field research on a frontier world; and they’d probably never see each other again, but still—Sorry, Burl, she’d always think next, while watching the bot-version of her old school friend at work. I didn’t mean it. I was just chattering into the void.

The trio of bots turned on smoothly and aced their prelim operations tests, so soon enough Essen had Merken, La, and Burl loaded on the landing craft before locking in her first set of descent coordinates. Not the jungle crash site, not yet, but rather, a stretch of canyon-side plateau that had once been home to the Partnership base-camp. Landing there, she hoped, would signal her respect for the Spinners’ territory, and ideally grant her a warmer reception when she finally met them and explained what she hoped they already knew—that she’d come in peace, as a result of the beacon, and was here to take any survivors home.

Drasti Prime’s surface was spongier than her last world’s, and the air had a distinct tang, yet finished sweetly on the tongue. Essen kept her visor down against the possibility of chiggers as she exited the shuttle with La trundling beside her, and Merken and Burl pinging routinely to her forearm interface and La’s receiver from high on the inner platform. Standing guard, sort of—though neither carried tools whose primary uses could be considered violent. More realistically, they were at the ready to rescue the rescue party, if anything about Essen’s first foray into the wilds here went terribly wrong.

None of the species that had visited this planet in recent centuries had needed significant atmospheric modifications to thrive—but then, the Partnership had only ever sent human officers here for a reason. There were members in its intergalactic compact for whom this eerie paradise would have been a deathtrap even before the chiggers were factored in.

Essen scratched on instinct at the mere thought of them, but her suit was robust enough that it should keep any roving nanobot at bay. She scanned the shuttle’s proximity with disappointment all the same. No arrival party. No indication that her ship’s presence in orbit had triggered anything in the Spinners’ programming. Nothing but dirt and small copses of nearby plant-cover, which stretched to the edge of this slice of plateau, and the Partnership’s old territorial cutoff: a literal cliff dropping into a massive valley floor.

“Well, La, what do you think? We should check out the canyon, right?”

La hummed and beeped and rolled ahead, weaving this way and that at its seeming leisure. Essen followed more linearly, but with her gaze casting back and forth along the horizon as the pair approached the plateau’s edge. Partnership records held that the Spinners were an impressive sight when they leapt shrieking off these cliffsides to feed: their giant bodies hanging briefly in the air before descending on hapless prey below. The cloaks that usually covered their long, hairy legs like monastic garb turned briefly in those mealtime frenzies into billowing capes that pocked the skyline, and cast long shadows over the valley’s rich buffet. More than one Partnership officer had written about being thankful that the humans in base-camp were all far bigger than the Spinners’ preferred snacks—and had wondered how many transformed humans soon after ended up as just such an easy meal. Would a Spinner even notice if it ate what had once been an esteemed alien guest?

But when Essen reached the edge with La beside her, she peered over and saw . . . only more absence. A lot of it. Mist drifted over the rare desert plant—but nothing skittered, nothing flew, and there were no signs of recent fauna anywhere. Likewise, nothing—not a single arachnoid bio-computer—crested the other, distant cliffsides, as if readying to soar.

“So what’s all this then?” she muttered, while crouching to scratch at the dirt. Not for any technical reason. Simply to remind herself that some of what she was seeing was real. Drasti Prime was not supposed to be, in any sense of the term, a barren world.

More importantly, though—So much for getting permission first.

Okay, so maybe a meeting with the Spinners was not on offer. Perhaps it never had been. Had Essen misread their actions with the unjammed planetary airwaves? It wouldn’t have been the first time a Partnership officer had miscommunicated with their kind. Perhaps these stewards of their Masters’ world had expected her to go straight to the source of the distress call, bypassing all such formalities, and simply take the survivors and move on?

This seemed a reasonable working hypothesis. And an actionable one, too.

Essen dredged up a handful of dirt and, while standing, flicked it over the edge. A silly compulsion—something satisfying about hearing, from the way small objects fall, the sheer depth and breadth of any steep drop before her.

But the dirt didn’t fall. Not all the way.

La noticed this, too, and made a long beep as if crooning. An Ohhh, in bot-speak.

Essen squinted and flipped up her visor, to make sure she wasn’t getting a screen-reading error. The dirt had come to a halt midair, on the same plane as the cliff but extending out from the ledge. Invisibility tech? A defense grid of some kind? Either the canyon was an illusion, or something was blocking access to part of it. But to what extent—and why?

Essen looked around and found a large stone. She considered hucking it, but it was big enough to cause damage in a full-on toss from the top of any cliff. She took it to the edge instead, and gently pushed it past the cusp. Then a little more. And more. Until the rock, like the scattered handful of dirt, was soon “floating” well past the limits of solid ground.

“Huh,” said Essen. La hummed with greater intensity. “Yeah, you said it.”

The next step involved her left boot. She extended it carefully, tapping at the space beyond the plateau’s edge. There was definitely something there. But what, exactly?

Not a buzzy sensation. Not a jolt.

Essen frowned while tap-tap-tapping at the solid air, trying to figure out what this form of resistance best resembled. Metal? Synthetics? A concentrated force?

Then something popped up—and out—from the seemingly barren canyon. And Essen, startled, tripped and stumbled back, landing hard on both elbows and her back. La, getting theatrical, bolted twice as far as Essen from the edge, its beep now closer to an Eeeeee!

“Oh, yeah, very brave,” Essen grunted, before shouting back at the bot: “Should’ve brought Merken instead, right? Let it burn the whole place down?”

But Bot-La would not be shamed. It beeped low and long in turn.

Essen turned to focus on the little critter that had startled her—for it was just a little bundle of furry blackness after all. Well, mostly black. And mostly furry. But then . . . then there were those eyes. Dozens of them, flame-red and peeking through a tiny silken face mask.

Essen blinked repeatedly, then activated her forearm interface to check the records. To the best of her knowledge, Partnership teams had never mentioned the possibility of little Spinners. What were these—Spinner babies? Did arachnoid bio-computers have to grow up?

To the first fuzzy little round appearing from beyond the cliff was then added another, and another, then two dozen more, and another dozen for good measure. Soon enough, the whole lip of the plateau looked as if it had been overrun by a highly toxic (red-eyed) black mold. And each of these Spinner-copies was so small. Yet, together, also so many.

Essen hesitated, then waved at the first of them, which was twitching distinctly at the front of this arachnoid mass. “Er, ah. Hello.”

None of the little Spinners answered, but many of their little leg-pairs started to do the species’ famed tic-tic-tic-ticking—except, in far less unsettling miniature. They sounded like a whole sea of handcrafted music boxes, none quite wound up in sync with all the rest.

Then the mass assembled. As one, into one. Some of the little Spinners grouped up to form a giant black bowl before her, turning their bright red eyes and glowing blue masks inward to give the effect of perfect darkness. Others formed up at one of eight starting points, four on either side, and scurried over and up each other to develop the fore- and back-sections of eight giant legs, which then attached to the main bowl—now spheroid—of the body. From this site, another group of little Spinners scrambled up and out to form a face, and that’s when their little legs and mandibles started to pass around their tiny, Uranian-blue masks, too—each sticking their own to the preceding bundle with adhesive webbing before passing it on to the next—until a rough mosaic of a far larger courtesy mask stood ready to cover all the clusters of small red eyes organized to give the impression of much bigger ones.

Essen’s jaw wasn’t hanging open, exactly, but her mouth certainly parted in surprise as this structure came into being before her—wobbling, weaving, and unsteady, but also . . . functional, somehow? Enough that, when a group of little Spinners around the mouth started to speak as one, she could pick out the unsettling chorus of dozens of separate organisms—but there was also no denying the impressive gravitas of the whole.

“All guests must leave,” said this superstructure of little Spinners.

Essen allowed herself some inward relief. Okay, the use of “guest” was reassuring.

“My apologies, ah—I’m sorry, I don’t know what to call you.”

But the superstructure gave no reply. It just wobbled, waiting.

Right. That wasn’t a question.

Essen got slowly to her feet, watching the superstructure for signs of threat as she moved. No change, no reaction. Another good sign? “I’m Essen of Trexly, of the Partnership,” she continued. “I was sent by the Partnership because we received a beacon from one of our civilian ships, here on Drasti Prime. I’ve come to remove any survivors, and to extend my compact’s apologies for any harm done by their accidental presence here.”


Essen felt a thrill to recognize the sound so often mentioned in Partnership records, and to witness those massive legs move up and down in pairs as the whole of the structure processed her remarks. And yet, this version of the sound, made up of so many unsteady constituent Spinner parts, still felt a great deal more fragile. Like an instrument out of tune.

The Uranian-blue mosaic of a mask, she noticed, was also a poor facsimile of the original design used for humans in previous generations. The face it depicted looked haunted, or maybe haggard. Either way, Essen found that she had to focus on its edges—anywhere but its sunken eyes and long, drawn mouth—to avoid incorrectly interpreting the Spinner-structure’s mood from that heavily fractured, pseudo-human countenance.

“Accepted,” said the mouth-cluster of little Spinners. And then again, after a beat—“All guests must leave.”

The structure twitched as if about to turn and go, but Essen, emboldened by the promising tenor of this response, took an urgent step forward, hands outstretched.

“Wait—please. Your name? For my reports? Could you tell me what to call you?”

The structure returned its full attention to her. Silence reigned—no more twitching legs in pairs—and the air grew pungent with that distinct, chitinous stench, and then . . . the mouth-cluster of Spinners dropped wide, and a long shriek came out of the gap.

A hunting cry? Essen’s flash-panicking mind supplied.

But the superstructure only shuddered on all sides—legs, head, body—and collapsed into a giant wave, then erratic splash of little Spinners, each scurrying out every which way along the plateau before they regrouped at its cliff, and disappeared in droves behind the illusion of absence that apparently covered everything beyond the canyon’s edge.

Only the giant mask remained—a distorted, thousand-piece version of a human face that stared not so much at Essen as beyond her: up and out at the rest of a planet that she now realized she understood even less about than before. A great big look out! in its expression.

“You said it,” she said to the Spinner relic on the ground.

Then, mustering the rest of her voice, she called back to her scaredy-bot.

“Come on, La,” she said. “Best we get going.”

She needn’t have bothered, though. The rover-bot had already processed the whole strange cliffside scene, and decided to wander on.

Essen and Merken rode up front while La and Burl were secured in the cargo hold, where any survivors were also supposed to go. Essen had picked Merken to sit by her because she needed something with unwavering constancy to counteract her growing doubts. But in the absence of clear task-prompts, Merken was proving altogether too quiet to be of any help.

“You and the Spinners have a lot in common, you know,” she said. “If I don’t ask properly—if I ask an implied question instead of a direct one—I’m not going to get anything useful out of them. But even when I asked them directly, it was like . . . they were too busy to answer, you know? Or maybe my question didn’t compute. Maybe it was silly to ask if it had a collective name, when it was clearly made up of many others. But what was I supposed to do? It startled me, you know? Why turn itself back into a big Spinner instead of just having one of the little Spinners talk to me instead? I don’t think it was trying to intimidate us. Do you?”

Merken had one light flashing by its front lensing equipment. A waiting signal. Obviously her question hadn’t risen to the status of a task. No matter.

“Either way, I did my part,” Essen added. “I told the Spinners why I was here. If they’ve got any problem with it, well, I gave them the chance to tell me.”

But even as she said this aloud, a new doubt seized her. Had she? She hadn’t actually asked for their permission. She’d simply said why she was here, and taken their generic reply as a kind of tacit consent to her plan.

“Trexly, you fool.” She flattened both palms nervously on the flight console as the craft brought them into the jungle—flying low through towering tree-forms that had created massive arches of leafy canopy, and which were interspersed as much by gold-tinted rivers as by anything resembling solid ground. In those interwoven waterways, bright coral-pink fishes glistened in schools that leapt as one from perfectly see-through waters, then hung in the air awhile before returning, their little fins pumping furiously above the surface as if attempting to bypass evolution on land and take entirely to wing. The sight of these and other tiny native wonders calmed her. This was a world of equilibrium. The Spinners, or Spinnerettes, would have seen that she’d simply been startled by their transformation, and they would understand that her poor attempt at communication hadn’t been intended as a demand.

Merken beeped low, and one of its lenses zoomed attentively. Essen followed its focus and smiled: at the end of a long riverway, a huge upsurge of tangled roots formed the base for an island in the middle of the wetlands ecosystem. And on that dirt-packed outcropping, that twisty islet of life and death? There sat a construct of most emphatically off-world design. The Kir-Anin. A patchwork vessel, blocky and rhomboid with two repeatedly welded propulsion wings, a number of decals and graffitied in memoriam statements, and a cockpit that made the whole of the craft look like a child’s first attempt at a spaceship, the small see-through dome dropped almost as an afterthought atop the rest.

But for all that the Kir-Anin looked “well-traveled,” it was also in remarkably good shape—at least, from the exterior: no creeping vines having engulfed its siding, no metallic decay in sight for all the decades since its crash landing, and no indications of dismantlement for parts. At a distance, Essen couldn’t tell if this was a good sign. In some cases, stranded crews refused to cannibalize their ships, because they sustained the hope that they’d be leaving soon. But in other cases—in most, really—the name of the game was survival. A ship that couldn’t fly would be put to use in other ways. If the Kir-Anin had been spared that fate, either the crew was decades into denial about its options, or they had found some other way to survive.

Essen brought the shuttle to land gently in the water, the belly of the vessel disturbing the silt at the bottom of the jungle-river floor, and setting a whole nest of dapple-grey water snakes slither-swimming for safety elsewhere. She breathed out slowly, doing a quick visual scan from the main view screen while the ship filled her peripherals with a range of helpful details: heat signatures, radioactivity checks, background audio, and signs of recent disturbance.

There were no other signs of Partnership presence in any of them. The civilian crew, she knew, numbered twelve humans, seven retets, a gremshu, and six fen. All were compatible with this environment—the primates, the rodent-adjacent, the bison-like, and the log-forms. In fact, the fen in particular should have thrived here—unless something about their mossy symbiotes ran antithetical to the local vines, molds, mosses, and lichens? But there were no signs of campfire, let alone of more elaborate suprastructures around the craft. Certainly nothing to suggest that the crew had set up homes in their surroundings.

Essen’s heart ached as she studied the vessel in a new light: Had they never been allowed to leave it? In all these years? Had the Spinners truly been so unwelcoming?

“Time to shine,” she said, pat-drumming Merken all along her way to the cargo hold, and triple-checking her pocket flaps and interface protector as she went. She selected Burl to leave with her—the only crewmate as hard to please as she suspected she’d be, if the local environment continued to offer up so few clues about the crew’s current whereabouts.

“Something’s not right, Burl,” she said as the pair splashed down at the end of the exit ramp. “You keep telling me what seems out of place, okay?”

Burl beeped confirmation, but in the most neutral way possible: without Merken’s volume, or La’s little quiver-wobble in place. Good enough.

The pair came around the shuttle and approached a gnarled, steep bank of roots and detritus that buffered the islet from surrounding waters. Burl needed no direction to plant itself as close to the base as possible. Essen set one boot atop it and boosted herself up the incline. Once up top, she waited for Burl to shoot her a guide-rope, which she affixed to a knot in the mass of wood-root there before whistling the all-clear. Burl and the other bots could climb even messy, 90+ degree inclines on their own, but sometimes their center of gravity shifted too much, and they tumbled back to start all over. More efficient to have a safety line in play.

(Plus, Partnership studies showed that the performance of added care by biological officers for artificial sentients increased the latter’s bonding coefficients and likelihood of them calculating in favor of preventative intervention in turn, even in situations where a more neutral action-set would also have been within acceptable operating parameters. Altruism always had its strategic edge, as any good Partnership officer knew.)

Burl shook water and mud off its chassis and treads once it had reached the top and retracted its guide-rope. Essen went ahead, but cautiously, surveying the ground around the Kir-Anin. No signs of recent foot traffic—or really, of any foot traffic at all. The earth was rich with grasses, flowers, pollinating insects, little skittering reptilian and arthropod creatures in the shade—but no signs of larger fauna. Nothing to indicate that the stranded crew was or had ever been an active presence on this world.

Something between fear and grief seized Essen. What if she was too late? What if the Spinners had unjammed the planet but still proceeded with their usual genetic revisionism?

And yet, it seemed unlikely that they would have transformed all their biological matter without also repurposing the Kir-Anin, so Essen fiddled with her pocket flaps one last time before flattening her palms against her thighs, taking a deep breath, and approaching the ship’s nearest porthole. Covered. She moved on to the next, and the next. All shaded over. She pressed an ear against them, listening, but neither this nor a quick scan with her visor, feeding into her forearm interface, yielded anything remotely resembling human chatter.

“Burl, scan for heat signatures. Biological lifeforms, the original crew?”

Burl wheeled beside her with another neutral beep, and began to gather readouts. The process shouldn’t have taken long, but Burl’s front lensing kept flickering with a waiting signal long after what seemed reasonable. Essen knelt beside the bot, watching carefully. Caught in a loop? That was more of Merken’s thing, but not impossible for the rest.

“What is it, Burl? Are there heat signatures or aren’t there?”

Burl was unresponsive a beat longer, then pinged Essen’s interface with its findings. Essen let the holo-image pop up before them both—and frowned. She was struggling to make sense of voids of radioactive activity in the shape of various crew members—sitting, standing, crouching, and lying down all over the interior of the junker. Around them, every other object gave off at least some kind of heat signature, but it was as if nothing at all were active within those profiles in the shapes of the Kir-Anin’s crew. Right down to the cellular level—and the quantum—there was only a uniform vacancy, neither drawing nor emitting any heat.

“Well,” she said, hearing the nervousness in her voice. “At least we know that they’re there. Sort of. Right?”

Burl issued a hum that Essen took for a Well . . .

She came around the side of the ship and stopped at the outer airlock. The access panel showed no power to external systems, but manual override worked just fine—if requiring a bit more force than it would have in zero-g. The hatch cracked open, then relented to be pulled the rest of the way. Essen entered, with Burl waiting on the grasses behind her, and set about overriding the second lock. She hesitated only at the last, just long enough to drop her visor and flick on a mesh seal against airborne dangers, before the inner hatch released inward. She pushed slowly, listening to the lack of a creak—nothing so far worn down or decayed—then slipped into the ship’s mains and flicked on her searchlight.

And again—she started, stumbling back, but this time into the secure brace of a nearby wall. “What the . . . ?” She ported vid-data to Burl and the other two back on the shuttle. “Are you seeing this? Cross-reference, please.”

What had spooked Essen was . . . nothing. Or more precisely, sheer nothingness, in the outlines of what she presumed to be two of the crew. A human and a retet, by their shapes and sizes. Their outlines were frozen in a moment that found them standing by an open conduit—making a repair, perhaps?—but Essen’s mind had no point of comparison with which to process the contents of the outlines themselves. A lensing effect brought aspects of the objects behind them into her purview, and yet, still she would hesitate to call the outlines themselves “see-through.” They were absences. Voids where nothing was. And yet . . .

She loosened a glove enough for a tip to protrude without risking a finger, and brushed the edge of the profile. Solid. She pressed again, enough to nudge her flesh against its surface through the glove, and still the firmness held.

“Anything?” she called to the bots, through her forearm interface and the visor.

Burl was still working on it, another waiting signal flashing. Merken sent back live feed of its processors working through reams of alTspeaK content: the bot’s way of hinting at how even answering a query about task-status was a disruption to the task itself.

But La . . . La sent back the canyon. Video of Essen throwing dirt, then the rock.

“Oh, La. Well done.” Essen looked at the taller retet outline with renewed wonder. “It might just be. It might indeed. Hold on, you lot. I’m going to do a head count with the rest.”

She moved carefully around the two outlines of absence, and proceeded through the entrance corridor into a wider mess and rec space, the living quarters, storage, the cockpit, and the split-use engineering room and med-lab. Some outlines were sitting, some crouching, some resting in hammocks, some standing or walking, and one busy on the waste-suction unit. But almost all of them were there. Almost every hand, every paw, every hoof, every tail. And yet . . . not there. Like someone had cut each element out of the backdrop of reality, and placed a three-dimensional sheen of emptiness in their stead.

Essen shivered, and flexed all the fingers in her hands as she approached the last. “Okay, here goes nothing.”

She set both hands gently around the half-crouched statue of a retet and braced to try to move it. Even a nudge would do. But to her great surprise, for all the firmness of its surface, the object was light—massless, even—to a more concerted touch. It was as if she were handling an object in the depths of outer space—although, when she let go, it still obeyed the laws of gravity and fell without a sound, landing on its side.


This time, she was answered by a trio of pings, all of which she anthropomorphized out of habit: fear-response (La), impatience-response (Merken), and despair-response (Burl).

“Oh, come on, it’s not that bad,” she said into her visor, while her forearm interface flooded with visual representations of each bot’s idea of a worst-case scenario if she stayed too long in the junker. “They should be easy to load into the ship, right?”

Merken pinged back first, as if eager for a new task. Order?

Essen considered, her searchlight sweeping the common area and finding most of the crew within it. If she stacked them in the airlock, La could easily port them to the edge of the gnarled-root islet, and Merken could run them to the ship, then store them with its usual fastidious precision in no time flat. And Burl? Well, someone still needed to sift through the Kir-Anin’s flight data, to try to figure out what had happened just before and after the crash, and to see if any onboard systems were salvageable—not always a guarantee with these civilian-maintained models, where staying up to code and respecting core-program integrity often went straight out the porthole. And Burl was easily the ideal middle of the trio, when it came to workflow: not too easily distracted, but not too narrowly focused, either.

Essen punched in the work plan. “Orders given,” she added aloud, if only for herself. The bots’ tendency toward extraneous beeping (well, La and Merken’s) was maybe rubbing off on her.

The outlined absences of twelve humans, seven retets, a gremshu, and four fen were easy to locate and extract to the airlock. Essen had the vast majority lying in wait before La showed up to retrieve even the first one, while Merken flashed a series of waiting signals from the base of the steep incline: the closest these units came to passive-aggression. But the last two fen were nowhere to be found. Strange things, the fen. Towering mossy logs, more or less—and not exactly known for their speed or dexterity. The idea that this unusual condition could have struck all the humans and retets and even the mighty, stout-hooved gremshu, but missed two of the fen? Doubtful, unless with conscious cause.

Essen pinged Burl, who had slipped in and made its way to the engineering lab to sync up with the Kir-Anin’s main processor, redundancies, and dedicated memory silos. You good?

Bot-Burl gave no response. Fair enough. It had been a lousy, all-too-human question.

I’m going out to look for the other two crewmates. If you require assistance—

No assistance required.

“Oh.” Essen glanced across the commons to the engineering hatch. “Well, all right then. All good.”

She stepped out and did another careful tour of the Kir-Anin’s perimeter. None of the escape pods had been activated. All the emergency suits were accounted for. She pursed her lips in thought, then eyed the recessed slats serving as a kind of ladder all up the side of the craft, leading to the inelegantly placed cockpit dome. A quick look back at her assembly line showed that La, confined to so limited a space upon the islet, had not yet found an excuse to wander far from work parameters. Meanwhile, Merken could’ve been mistaken for a biological, taking great pleasure in kicking up the local waters wherever it rolled—so intensely driven was the bot when wheeling each extracted object from the islet’s base into the shuttle’s cargo hold.

Oh, they’ll be fine.

Essen made the climb—not with the same ease as in zero-g, but adequately. Atop the ship, she peered down the see-through dome, hoping that another vantage point might help her figure out what she’d missed. But there was nothing. Real nothing. Her frown deepened. She straightened up and cast about at her higher altitude, while triple-checking her pocket flaps and interface protector in puzzled, fretful sequence.

Then she froze, looking down upon the islet.

At this height, it was still a mass of roots and detritus—but now, with a clear dividing line down the middle.

A tangled unity of two.

Essen wanted to cry out—in discovery, or bewilderment—but La beat her to it, whistle-shrieking while it bolted as far from the outer airlock as possible. Essen crouched and gripped the edge of the Kir-Anin to peer over. She made it just in time to see Bot-La wheeling past—and from the airlock hatch, dozens of fuzzy little red-eyed Spinners pouring up and out.

The little Spinners had almost finished assembling their larger, collected form by the time Essen had clambered down the side of the ship, shouting at La to chill already and for Merken to make sure that all the statue-versions of the Kir-Anin’s crew were securely aboard.

This time, the little Spinners had not cobbled together a silken blue face mask. The array of patchwork red eyes had an uneven, shifting quality, as uncanny as some forms of “AI primitivist” art trending on the inner worlds when Essen had last been back. As this mass of little Spinners wobbled together, towering before her, she realized it was as if they were gesturing at the idea of the original, more than trying to emulate it with perfect accuracy. Did these little Spinners have any idea how they were “supposed” to be seen by their alien guests? The algorithms that prompted mask design for each new visiting species were automatic and simplistic—done once, based on the first encounter, and never touched up again, so maybe not. Would a Spinner pass the mirror test? Did Spinners ever study their own reflections?

“Ah, hello—again,” said Essen, waving. “I see you came out of the ship. But I didn’t see you inside.” She paused, self-correcting. “How did you get here just now?”

The little Spinners around the maw of this giant Spinner-form shifted: an affectation of natural movement to accompany their united speech. A courtesy, of sorts.

“Through the leaving,” they—it—said.

Essen nodded as if this were a perfectly understandable reply. “The—the statues, right? The shapes of all these crewmates? Humans, retets, fen . . . You can move through their material, can’t you? Is that what happened back at the canyon, too? Someone knocked too hard—I knocked too hard—and you came to the door to see who was there?”

Tic-tic-tic-tic. At least the giant Spinner-form was growing predictable. Familiar. Essen was starting to understand how Partnership officers had overcome their initial fears of these large arachnoids, despite all those salivating mandibles, immense shadows, and large, beady eyes. Routine exposure to their patient, formal, bio-computing nature, as much as to their heady chitinous stench, gave them the feel of little more than amusement park animatronics. Although, granted, these ones still fed, and their feeding was apparently quite the sight . . .

“There is no door,” said the Spinner-form, eventually.

“Oh. Okay, my mistake. Just a metaphor. A portal. A passageway. It doesn’t matter. But you came from inside one of those constructs we’ve been carrying out, right?”


“Mm hm. Mm hm. And what’s on the other side? Is the crew still alive in there? Are these objects placeholders for them, until they come back? Or did you kill the crew?” Essen’s last question surprised her, as did its edge of desperation. What a poor, dramatic choice. But then, Spinners had allowed other aliens to die on this world before—and hadn’t even recognized their deaths in the way off-worlders like the humans did, at least until it was pointed out to them. Nor had they ever commented on the practice of Partnership officers walking off to be transformed by chigger bites, for instance—even when the transformation turned all those humans into species of the types the Spinners liked to eat. Did they notice? Did any moral qualms register, if they did? Could any moral qualms register for their kind?

The giant Spinner-form processed Essen’s latest question for longer than her first. “There is no other side,” it said at last. “Those who have not left yet are in the leaving.”

Essen squinted at the giant, wobbly, arachnoid mass. She didn’t get the impression that it was offering a tautology to be coy. “The leaving” seemed an actual place, or state of being.

“Can they return?” she tried instead. “Into their biological forms, the way they were when they first arrived on your planet?”

The Spinner-form tic’d quietly. Essen noted out the corner of her eye that Burl was waiting nearby, on the islet, and Merken was on hand in the water next to it. As for La . . . well, Essen would ping it when she could. Who knew what got into that bot some days?

“Do they wish this? The returning?”

Essen hesitated. The way this last word had been spoken reminded her of trick questions from Partnership fables: just-so stories that explained how imprecise requests could yield all sorts of unexpected consequences. The Spinners weren’t tricksters, though. They simply had to be dealt with delicately, and precisely. They were semi-sentient beings who wielded great power, as stewards of extraordinary technology, but whose program parameters were limited: certainly not prepared for a whole host of new scenarios with all sorts of messy alien species such as hers. Essen wished that their Masters had come back in the last few decades—that there were at least signs of their presence on the surface even now—so that she could talk to a more dynamic intelligence in the Spinners’ stead. (At least, unless her human notions of intelligence were steering her wrong, and the Spinners were in fact perfect reflections of their creators’ linguistic rigidity. But why add new problems to the mix?)

“The Partnership sent me to secure the safe return of our citizens, if possible. And yes, in the forms they had when they first arrived.” Essen hoped that was precise enough. Even if the Spinners could only return the bodies of the deceased to her, that would suffice—and be a lot less alarming than trying to parade those outlines of absence through the inner worlds instead. What she truly dreaded, though, was that the Spinners might misconstrue her request, and send their chiggers to create something closer to zombified versions of the original crew. Essen . . . would have to check Partnership procedures before deciding what to do with any reanimated, mindless corpses, in that case.

“Acknowledged,” said the large, wobbly form. “We must Spin on this.”

“Thank you,” said Essen. The term seemed promising. Partnership records equated the species’ “spinning” with thinking, though the process involved the Spinners returning to their private cave systems—which no guest had ever been allowed to visit—and working through some deeper computational magic together in its depths.

“I guess we’ll wait in the landing craft until you’ve made your determination, if that’s okay? Or would you rather we removed ourselves to orbit for now?”

To Essen’s surprise, the answer came at once: “Await determination here.”

“Oh. Okay. Will do.” She gave the mass a cheerful salute—easier to do this time, since she hadn’t accidentally set off any unnerving shrieks—and the giant Spinner-form wobbled violently, then fell apart: a great crash, then bouncy splash, of fuzzy black eight-legged, red-eyed critters skittering this way and that—but mostly into the water, where they formed a makeshift raft, and rowed themselves off.

Essen inhaled sharply and turned to Merken and Burl. “Well, Merken? All secure? All but those two missing fen, at least?”

Merken pinged confirmation, and beelined without needing to be ordered back to the landing craft. Essen drummed a soothing (to her, at least) sequence atop Burl’s casing. “Did you get it all? The ship’s data? Mission logs? Crew manifests?”

Burl beeped in its usual, neutral way.

“Good,” said Essen. “Anything stand out in the logs?”

Burl began to fill her forearm interface with specs from the initial crash and current onboard reports, but Essen quickly cut them off. The word logs had sent her thoughts spiraling.

“No, wait—let’s try something else first. Show me everything on the two missing fen while we head back.”

Burl dutifully switched data streams and began sifting through crew manifest details in real time (well, downscaled real time, to accommodate Essen’s far more sluggish human processing speed), while the pair made their careful way down the steep edge of the islet. She stopped up short only once, knee-deep in the waters of this tranquil ecosystem, to take in the whole of the terrain with a 360-degree spin.

“I suppose we should look for La, too, huh?”

Burl made a vague sound—either a lukewarm affirmative or an Eh—as it reoriented itself in the waters beside her. Fair enough. Essen had been thinking about getting La back in sight, but why? Bots were never difficult to find once their tracers had been activated.

Thinking like a human again, Trexly. Now where’s that going to get you?

The pair pressed and sifted on.

Unum-Umee and Kurroo-Kurrack. Two solid, sensible fennish names. Only one was Partnership by birth, though. The other, an import from the Alliance of Friendship. Not surprising, really. The two intergalactic compacts had made first contact with the fen around the same time, and then that already-sprawling, spacefaring species had split its allegiances along the usual inner- versus frontier-world political lines. Plenty of fen from the Alliance still worked with the Partnership on science missions, though, and defection was not unheard of. There was nothing in the Kir-Anin’s records to suggest that this pair had been formally root-bonded, but some sort of choice to merge mosses probably underpinned this Alliance-fen’s presence on a fairly innocuous Partnership junker—because it wasn’t a science vessel. Just a motley civilian crew wandering the compact’s most distant stars, and then some.

Once secure inside the landing craft, Essen sank heavily into her main-console chair and flicked the two fen holograms from her forearm interface to the console’s 3D array. She took up adjusting her pocket flaps in sequence while studying their rotating images for further clues. Why were just these two missing—and not the other fen, or all the rest?

The idea in the back of her head was so silly it refused to be forgotten. What if, somehow, the chiggers of Drasti Prime had turned this duo into that whole islet. After all, the two distinct masses of gnarled root systems that made up the little oasis stood well apart from surrounding tree structures. Once expanded a hundredfold apiece and packed with native detritus, grasses, and mosses, would the pair not have created a worthy resting place for the ship? And kept the ship from further troubling its local environment in the process?

Granted, the sheer size of the transformation was impressive—easily the most drastic of any in Partnership records—but that didn’t make it impossible. Humans were turned into bugs here, mainly, but why wouldn’t a chigger bite turn log-forms into log-islands instead? What arbitrary line in the sand was Essen trying to draw upon Drasti Prime?

Sunset reached the view screen while she worked: pink and burnt-sienna light catching the evening mist as it rolled along the water, and gilding the air in tiny, glittering specks. White and dapple-grey water snakes skimmed the surface. Occasional dark things fluttered from tree to massive tree, as if also on the hunt. Various insect-forms were bedding down.

Finally, Essen flicked on the tracer for La. To her surprise, the answering ping came from overhead. What was the bot doing on the shuttle’s roof? Canopy-gazing?

Everything all right up there? she sent out.

Bot-La pinged back pictures of the stars—as much as it could see them through the density of tree-cover in the jungle. Then it sent images of their ship in upper orbit. And the solar system as a whole. And a flight path to well beyond its heliosphere. Ah. Essen smiled.

We’ll leave once we know we’ve done everything we can. If there’s a chance that the Spinners can give us back the crew in their biological forms, you know we have to take it.

Then, feeling playful, Essen added, Didn’t realize you were scared of spiders.

The bot did not reply at once. Not as easy to send a petulant Oooooo at a distance, was it? But then La sent a bundle of images and vids from the Kir-Anin, from the files that Burl had uploaded since their return. These were from soon after the junker’s landing: the crew still alive and well, and laughing as they peered out their portholes, to first look upon the waters outside their settled craft. Essen blew up the replay on her main console, and leaned forward to inspect every angle of the ship’s imagery that she could.

The crew was indeed on the waters. Not perched on an islet. As far as Essen could tell, no islet even existed. Not yet.

A local creature appeared. Giant, dark, and cloaked and masked. A Spinner. A proper, full-sized, intact, and singular Spinner, with a silken Uranian-blue mask and everything.

The humans and retets cried out from within the ship. The gremshu’s multitude of voices, all coiled together in the thick shag of its fur, even roared as one. And the fen creaked and swayed and exuded distinctly excited odors, until one of them took charge.

“This is it, my friends,” said a fen—Unum Umee. “Our voyage is to be ending. Here, we will all to be finding our healing at last, at last!”

“It’s one of the Servants,” said one of the humans, still peering out a porthole, his tone reverential. “The Healers are surely here, too. They live!”

“We are to be going ahead, and to be greeting it on behalf of the all,” said another fen, Kurroo-Kurrack. “If all is to be going well, there is to be placings here for all of you. So do, do! Marvel at our new home! Take comfort! The pain is to be ending soon enough!”

Essen felt an icy prickle all up and down her arms. She stopped the recording and flattened her hands against her legs to quiet the usual sequence of pocket-flap and interface-protector flipping while she processed what she’d seen. The civilian junker had not crashed. Not accidentally, at least. The Kir-Anin’s crew had chosen to break with the Partnership-wide blockade on visiting this world—and its system. Essen had a strong desire to swear in other languages, but didn’t know any good ones for the occasion. So much for waiting another cryo-sleep to encounter fanatics born of past Drasti Prime mythology.

But . . . they’d still sent a distress call, hadn’t they?

Probably out of panic, when they realized what a terrible mistake they’d made.

Essen nodded grimly at the crankiest part of her headspace giving answer. Well, that would certainly have served them right, wouldn’t it? She played the rest of the recording. There wasn’t much left on it. Ship’s sensors saw the two missing fen go out to greet the giant Spinner, while the rest of the crew went about their work and waited. The ship didn’t follow the two fen out into the rest of Drasti Prime (perhaps couldn’t), but it did catch the moment—the exact moment—when the humans, retets, gremshu, and remaining fen onboard suddenly stilled, almost crystalline in place, before gaining that new texture which was also somehow no texture at all. Those outlines of absence that had replaced their living, breathing selves.

Essen sped up the recording—hours to days to weeks without change. Mostly. She froze the playback the first time a flicker of activity emerged. Little dark fuzzy blotches, poking out from the outlines of absence and scurrying about the rest of the Kir-Anin—scattering this way and that, as if attempting to reach every nook and cranny—before doubling back through the outlines to . . . somewhere else. “The leaving,” the Spinner-form had called it. Was it less an actual place and more of a transport network, though? A series of conduits for travel?

Essen’s uneasiness grew. She switched off the display.

I get it, she messaged up to La. Meet me in the cargo bay.

La’s answering confirmation lacked enthusiasm. Essen didn’t blame the bot one bit.

The story of the feline ghost who now haunted Partnership dreams came to mind as Essen gathered with Merken, Burl, and La at the edge of cargo hold.

“We still don’t know much,” Essen told them. “We have no idea what’s going on in the canyon, or with these . . . oh, I don’t know, these gaps where Partnership civilians should be. But also, I don’t think we’re supposed to know. We aren’t supposed to be here, after all, are we? And they aren’t supposed to be here. Whatever’s happening on Drasti Prime, whether or not the Masters have actually returned, it’s a private event, and we’ve crashed it. So now we can’t go around demanding answers. We can only try to mitigate the damage we’ve done, and get back to our own disasters, in the rest of the Partnership, ASAP, okay?”

Burl—to everyone’s surprise—gave the first and most emphatic beep of agreement.

“Well, all right then,” Essen laughed, relieved by this show of solidarity among her own, strange crew. “Let’s check it out, shall we?”

They rolled or walked into the cargo hold, where Merken had excellently stored all the statue-versions of these trespassing civilians. It was uncanny to see all the shuttle’s mesh restraints strapped around what the mind continued to tell Essen was nothing, sheer nothingness, even though each instance of nothingness retained clear borders that also changed in keeping with the viewer’s position, suggesting three-dimensionality despite the illusion of flatness.

“I suppose it doesn’t matter which one we knock on, huh?”

Merken revealed and offered up its blowtorch.

“Oh, stop that. Not necessary.”

Merken put it away, but with a disgruntled two-toned beep.

“La, stay with us this time, okay?”

La Ooo-eee-d with what Essen had to hope was acknowledgement. It could also have been something closer to Fine, but push me and I’m out of here.

“Burl, with me.”

Burl rolled up alongside her as Essen approached and surveyed the nearest outline. Essen suspected that she didn’t need her gloves, that this substance wasn’t infectious and couldn’t really hurt her, but she put them on anyway (no need to compound one bit of foolishness with another) before knocking. Repeatedly. Then she shook the outline a little in its harness, the object still disconcertingly weightless when held, and stepped back.

“That was all it took last time, right, La? Just a little nudge at the canyon, a little jostle when you were retrieving these things from the junker?”

La whistle-beeped a more definitive confirmation.

Essen turned back to the outline of absence and waited. It did not take long. One tiny set of fuzzy black legs curled over the lip of that nothingness, a set of bright red eyes peeped out, and then it crawled out to meet her—followed by the usual swarm, in pairs, then dozens, then more. Soon enough, a massive Spinner-form had assembled itself before her and Burl, with Merken and La still hanging back by the corridor—and it was larger, far larger, than the one she’d seen either at the canyon or on the islet. This one looked ready to fill up the whole of the cargo hold—and because it was also made up of so many smaller arachnoids, it also had no trouble adjusting shape to engulf anything in storage in its way.

Essen’s heart beat loudly, but she remained calm where it counted. No Spinner had ever been directly violent to any Partnership officer, or to any other visitor that she’d seen on record. Whatever happened to the crew of the Kir-Anin had probably been done by the chiggers, so the real menace didn’t lie in the size of this creature before her. There was nothing to fear in its eyes, its mandibles, its chitinous stench, its tic-tic-tic-ticking legs . . . only, perhaps, in its verdict. The summation of its “spinning” with the other stewards of Drasti Prime.

And now that she knew the Kir-Anin’s crew bore the fault of intentional trespass . . . well. Her role was clear. A transgression to be restored by her, no matter how confusing all the peripheral details. They were not her business. Not Partnership business. Only restoration was.

“Greetings, Spinners,” she said. “My thanks for your attendance here. I have just been made aware that this crew of ours did not land by accident on your world. On behalf of the Partnership, I extend my apologies for my people’s disruption of your planetary affairs. There was a clear ban on entering your system. They broke it. The responsibility lies with us.”

Within the confined space of the landing craft, the tic-tic-tic-tic of the Spinner-form’s wobbly legs echoed differently—and occasionally even bumped against the shuttle’s ceiling and walls. Still, she was glad to hear it. Consideration before speech seemed a good sign.

“There is no returning for the ones who have not left,” said the Spinner-form. “We have accepted their requests. The ones unable to enter the leaving have found their rest on this world instead. The ones who could travel are already in the leaving. They are gone.”

Essen squinted at the giant mass of arachnoid bio-computing struggling to hold itself together in her shuttle’s cargo hold. “The ones . . . unable to enter the leaving. Do you mean the two fen who greeted you? Did your nanobots turn them into the island outside this vessel? Are they now to be found in all the roots holding up the Kir-Anin?”

“Confirmed. The biologicals were all in transition. Some more transitioned than the others. The two who greeted us were tired. In search of rest. They asked it of us, even as they asked that we allow the others a chance to continue to explore.”

“In transition?” Even as she echoed these words, though, Essen recognized the other meaning they contained. The Spinners saw death differently, after all. They’d never interfered when Partnership officers chose to transform into native creatures through the chiggers. They had even run afoul of Partnership notions of justice once, by failing to see the termination of a whole species as quite as stark an affair as the officer on the case—but had also readily offset the loss, once made aware of it, by transitioning themselves to fill the ecological niche.

Had the crew of the Kir-Anin been dying? All sick of some disease or another that could not be easily repaired? Oh, but that would have been a convenient explanation, wouldn’t it? An act of medical desperation to excuse their breach of the Partnership embargo? And yet, Essen had seen enough of her fellow biological beings in action to harbor doubts about this excuse. Okay, sure, perhaps the two fen leading the mission had indeed been ill—the Spinner-form had confirmed as much by honoring their request—but plenty of people in Essen’s experience liked to bandwagon around exciting causes: to don the mask of suffering, that is, once someone else had done the hard work of making it a more desirable mask to wear.

So maybe the others hadn’t been dying, exactly, or in any pain that couldn’t have been managed in some other way—but did they need to be, to want to reach the mythic land of Drasti Prime, and be willing to do whatever it took to get there? No, of course not. All most of them needed was the hope that, by leaning into this story of suffering, they could rationalize breaking the Partnership’s ban and embark on a grand new adventure in fetishized lands.

If any of the original crew could still be interviewed, Essen didn’t doubt that each member would show perfect belief in their stories, too—I was sick! There was no other way! This was it! Just as Essen couldn’t follow all the narrative leaps in the Partnership’s recent history, after sleeping through a full two decades’ worth of system drama, neither could individuals in the middle of such a fray always see that they’d had other choices—or that they’d made a choice at all. That nothing had to have happened the way it did.

And yet . . . delusion or not . . . choice or not . . . that was all neither here nor there now.

Whatever the self-justification for their actions, the crew of the Kir-Anin had set out for this world, and landed successfully, and petitioned the Spinners for aid. And all had come to pass just as it had. As messily and ruinously as it had.

“In transition,” Essen repeated, with emphasis. “As in, they were dying, or at least they thought they were. And even though they were not welcome here, even though you had asked us all to leave, still you honored their requests when they came to you.”

The Spinner-form waited, wobbling.

Not a question, Trexly.

“Thank you,” Essen added. “That was a very kind and gracious thing to do.”

The Spinner-form shivered more decisively, but did not fall apart.

“Their leavings must not leave,” it said. “Their leavings are part of a different returning now.”

“Of course,” said Essen—again, feigning a fuller comprehension than she actually had about any of this. “We will return these items to the surface, to the ship, and be on our way.”


Essen paused.


The Spinner-form’s clusters of tiny red eyes shifted focus to Burl, then to Merken and La in the backdrop. “One did not request. One remains a guest. All guests must leave.”

A symphony of bot-beeps rose up in answer. Dawning recognition from all quarters. Even La seemed suddenly happier in its contribution to the overall chorus.

“Oh, blazes! Obviously,” said Essen. “The Kir-Anin. You preserved the ship because there’s still a lifeform on it.” She’d been about to add, “A little like your own, no?” but thought better of it—though curious about the Spinners’ answer. “The Kir-Anin would have a mid-sentient operating system—did you ask it if it wanted to go on with the others?”

“Confirmed. It did not wish to enter the leaving.”

Essen felt a wave of conflicting feelings for the onboard AI: to have been abandoned by its crew. But then, to have been fortunate enough to meet a host species that recognized it as conscious enough to have merited a choice. Had the little Spinners been visiting the Kir-Anin every now and then to check in? To keep it company in the interim?

“So, the Kir-Anin sent the distress signal? It’s been waiting for us for all this time?”


And now she felt foolish for having made the original crew’s error herself, while distracted by the mystery of their absence, and the literal monuments to their absence that now existed in their stead. She had walked through their craft without so much as checking in on the ship’s internals. And she, with a three-bot crew herself!

“We’ll extract the AI. Can you make use of the rest of the Kir-Anin’s materials to continue to build your world?”

Behind the silken mask, the mass of little Spinners making up the maw moved almost as if to smile—though, no, that was mere romanticization on Essen’s part.

“We will,” said the Spinner-form—with amusement, or not.

Essen nodded. “And then I’ll make sure the Partnership adds more security around your system, so that no one else ventures this way, or takes advantage of your hospitality. Again, I do apologize. The Partnership looks forward to meeting whatever it is you are, ah, ‘returning’ . . . on your terms, when you’re ready.”


“You will,” said the Spinner-form, at last. “You will.”

Then a splash of tiny Spinners scattered everywhere, and poured back through every outline of absence in the cargo area. Within seconds, only their stench lingered in the air . . . and the work of returning the outlines of absence to Drasti Prime commenced.

Soon after the landing craft had returned to the ship in orbit above Drasti Prime, Essen was kneeling beside a nearly assembled rover kit and holding her breath.

“Right, gang. Did we forget anything?”

Merken whistle-beeped in a way that Essen was happy to take as indignation at the question even needing to be asked.

“Fair enough. Burl? All systems go? Official broadcasts sent out?”

Burl was less enthusiastic in its response. If Essen didn’t know better, she could’ve sworn the bot would bolt upright halfway through her next cryo-sleep, waking in whatever the robotic equivalent of a cold sweat was, at the thought of having left a task here undone.

“I’m sure it’s fine,” she told it. “Remember, there’s a limit to how much we can control in transit. All we can do is toss these warnings out to others, and hope for the best.”

La hummed melodically, and Essen squinted at it—suspecting the bot of preening.

“I know, I sound positively optimistic, don’t I? Don’t worry, the next round of cryo-sleep will knock that right out of me again. And who knows? The next time we wake up, half the universe could be a radioactive wasteland. So, there’s that, right?”

La whistle-beeped in rapid, excited sequence. Essen laughed.

“Right, I almost forgot—you might actually enjoy the universe more that way. Well, good for you.” For Essen’s part, it was with a twinge of regret that she thought about Drasti Prime now—how much she would never know, never understand, about all its mysteries underway. What the Spinners were up to. What the leaving—and the returning—actually entailed. How pristine its wonders would remain, if the embargo stood, even well after her next mission was underway. But—so went the job, did it not?

“Ready, team?”

A trio of confirmations. Two bots held the fourth rover-shell steady while the third installed the power cell, and Essen watched by its front lensing equipment as the bot switched on. It went through a typical processing cycle while adjusting to the huge downgrade in size and capacities—and then another full cycle, as if not believing the results from its first. And then a third. But Essen, recognizing the behavior as not unlike her own, simply waited until the bot had finished as many iterations as it needed, before catching its focus and smiling directly at it.

“Welcome aboard, Kir-Anin. You might’ve noticed a few changes, huh? Well. Not to worry. Far as I can tell, they’re all still well within probabilistic norms. We’ll figure them out together, for as long as we all press on.”

And with that, before returning to the rest of her pre-cryo checklist, Essen knocked gently on the new bot’s forward plating: half out of her own compulsive habit, and half just to be sure that nothing new . . . for now . . . was thinking of crawling out.

Author profile

M. L. Clark, Canadian by birth, is based in Medellín, Colombia. Along with stories in Clarkesworld, Clark is the published author of speculative and science fiction in magazines including Analog, F&SF, and Lightspeed, and the occasional year’s best anthology. Clark also writes global humanist articles twice-weekly at OnlySky.

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