by Juliette Wade
“Honey, I’m sorry to take this lovely space station from you.”
Linguist held a straight face as Military turned around, in the middle of the promenade, brows raised skeptically. Maybe it was stupid to flirt, since they hadn’t dated in more than twenty years.
But then she laughed. “Not that lovely, darling.”
“You’re calling me darling, now.” Linguist’s lip curled. “Shall I impute meaning?”
Military shrugged broad shoulders. “You will, no matter what I say. It’s your thing.”
“Don’t worry,” said Military, “we’ve cleaned the place out.”
Now Linguist frowned. “What does that mean?”
“Everything. You can guess what kind of crap we had lying around. And we pulled out the core servers for you.”
“You don’t want our guests finding anything.”
“Look,” said Military. “These are aliens. We’re not going to trust them with sensitive equipment or data.”
“So now the station has no core servers?” Linguist looked up at one of the public address broadcasters. “Is that why I’ve been hearing static from every broadcaster we pass?”
“Mikkel, make a note: fix the broadcaster static problem before this place fills with hordes of aliens.”
The station’s virtual operations assistant had a cool male voice. It replied out of the nearest broadcaster, “Noted.”
“I’m getting a vibe that you don’t like what we’re doing here,” Linguist said. “You think the Inter-Species Exchange Center is worthwhile, don’t you? I realize the slogan’s stupid. . . .”
“Together, we can be more? Ha!”
“Look, I didn’t write it.” She frowned. “You didn’t agree to work with us just to give me a hard time?”
Military brayed a laugh. “You’re the reason I thought this would be tolerable.”
“And I figure I can keep six alien species under control if anyone can.”
Linguist studied her. “You might actually be right about that. You did hear that we’re going to have to install art, and use Cochee-coco surveillance pendants? They wouldn’t agree to participate otherwise.”
Military shrugged. “I like art. I’ll leave technical integration to the technicians. It won’t be hard to set the bulkheads to keep each species’ zone separated from the others, and we’ll use surveillance to track what’s happening in the common areas.”
“Cochee-coco, or ours?”
“A bit of both, maybe. One thing about the Friendly Otter-Twins, they like to share.”
“Don’t call them that. It’s not nice.”
“Being nice is your job, darling. My job is taking what you learn here and turning it into a strategic advantage against other new species we make contact with.” Military turned away toward a soldier who came running at them, but called back over her shoulder, “Keep me updated on your progress, and I’ll keep you updated on mine.”
* * *
* * *
—Check in with Cochee-coco team on surveillance integration.
• Human eyes must be included in security team.
* * *
—Schedule meeting to discuss route of Hnnwan and Aurrel running track because stir-crazy without it. 2km minimum—5k if possible—
• MUST fit within dog-physiology zone!!!
* * *
—Flowing water. Public water should be included for Cochee-coco, Gariniki, Buyenggli
* * *
—Buyenggli PERCH STRUCTURES. Also, source nesting material? Or only for mature adults?
• Air purifiers?
• Dietary accommodations?
* * *
• I got this one.
• Offer public spaces for interaction.
* * *
—Heat/sunning zones for Gariniki. Live plants.
by J.M. Swenson
Vivian 2698 cleaves into the stem of a forty-foot mushroom that sprouted too close to the perimeter of the HREP Node. Synced with her own systems, the servomotors in her exosuit steady the plasma saw, which hums with violent energy in her hands. She makes a slight adjustment to the angle of her cut and instantly the quantum processor fused to the inside of her skull stimulates her visual neurons with a blossoming array of projections and real-time analyses—lines of force, structural integrity of the stem, wind speed, and other variables she could never have considered on her own, all coalescing into an image of how the fungus will fall safely away from the perimeter fencing, calculated with 98.65 percent accuracy.
Her auditory neurons are directly stimulated with a familiar, matronly voice: “Reallocating drones to attach guide cables.”
It’s more than a voice, it’s a compulsion—like a hook in her brain that tugs relentlessly at her thoughts, dragging her toward more efficient decisions. Vivian 2698 has been at war with that voice since it was put inside her head as a little girl, back at the Bunker. “It’s fine.” Vivian grinds down on her back teeth, redoubles her concentration. “I can handle it.”
“With 82.37 percent likelihood, a Vivian would consider drone support at this critical juncture.” The tugging in her mind strengthens to a forceful, sustained pull.
“No, I got this.” Vivian fires off a swift mental command that seems to repress the compulsion, and silences the gentle voice. She shoves through a sinewy cluster of fungal matter.
The sizzling blade swipes clear of the stem in an awkward, unexpected motion, and Vivian wavers, momentarily unbalanced by the sudden force. The massive fungus teeters, tilts to the side, then toward her.
“Shit, shit, shit—” She reels back, just as the intelligence living inside her head makes a hundred-thousand micro-adjustments to the exosuit, to the muscles in her own arms and legs, to restrain her frantic motions, to get her quickly out of the way and simultaneously deactivate the still-burning saw before it severs one of her limbs.
For a moment, it seems the mushroom will fall disastrously the wrong direction, right into the perimeter fencing, but then it shifts on a whim. It teeters back again, toward the fungal forest. It crashes to the ground, sending up a cloud of spores and toxic dust.
“Novel Solution recorded.” The sound of herself as an old woman rings in her ears. Vivian has lost count of how many times she’s heard that phrase on this mission alone. With just a thought she could check the repositories for the official number, but why bother? That would just be reinforcing her begrudging reliance. While most of her clonal contemporaries would be content to trust the time-tested, algorithmic wisdom of the Collective Intelligence, Vivian 2698 prefers to use its compulsions as suggestions of what not to do. She wears her “Novel Solutions” as badges of honor, even when they might have just killed her.
As Vivian 2698 picks herself up off the ground and fetches the plasma saw, which had been flung away from her body, a communication request comes through her system’s protocols. The corners of her mouth tug up into a giddy smile, and there’s a bright fluttering in her chest. Vivian accepts.
“What’s going on out there, Nate?” The disembodied head of Esme 1331 materializes in the upper-left corner of Vivian’s visual field. “The Lab’s reporting seismic activity. And I . . . heard a loud noise. You okay?”
With a crackle of energy, Vivian 2698 powers up the saw again and, against the CI’s matronly insistence that such menial tasks be left to the drones, sets to work hacking the fungal stem into manageable chunks. “All good, Ree-Won. It’s nice to know someone cares,” she says. “How you doing? Any new hypotheses today?”
The image of Esme 1331 furrows its brow and squints up from whatever data-set or climatological simulation had just been occupying its attention. “Are you sure? I thought I felt the ground shake.”
“All systems fully functional. Just doing my job, protecting the Node from giant mushrooms and such.”
Esme 1331 purses her lips in that adorable look of strained concentration, of a mind flying in a hundred directions at once and considering whether to pursue this line of inquiry or abandon it in favor of other, more-fruitful ones—which makes Vivian think of how long it’s been since she’s held the warm body of her own Esme back at the Bunker. “All right, well, stay safe.”
“Thanks Ree-Won. You too,” she says. “Careful you don’t get stuck in any closed-loop problem sets or anything like that—”
The connection drops sometime before Vivian finishes the awkward flirtatious remark, and the head of the woman who looks just like the woman she loves fades from her visual field. She sighs, feeling guilty just for appreciating her colleague’s mousey features, fighting down the attraction surging in her breast. Five more Nodes, she thinks. Five more Nodes after her crew finishes up at this one, and they’ll head home, back to the Bunker and its cramped community of cloned women, back to Esme 1346. She knew it would be rough heading out into the field with another Esme—out of comms range with the Bunker—but that’s what Vivians were for. This is why she was made.
Vivian has chopped up half the stem before another exosuited figure emerges from a dense tangle in the fungal forest. Chantal 1073 is followed by a rolling cadre of collection units and a small flock of field drones, hovering in tight formation just over her shoulders. She halts her march as she comes into the defensible space surrounding the perimeter, and abruptly changes direction. She heads straight for Vivian while her drones and collection units maintain their course toward the northeastern gate. An urgent communication request comes through Vivian’s protocols and she hurriedly accepts.
“Vivian 2698, what is going on here?” The voice is harsh and commanding. She’s the only one who ever calls a woman by her serial number instead of a nickname abbreviated from her last two digits.
“Oh hi, Venthry. I, uh, was just clearing the perimeter.”
Chantal 1073 wanders with incisive purpose around the huge, red-speckled cap. Through her visor Vivian can make out Chantal’s eyes tracing from the gills up into the sky. “This task seems more appropriate for the drones,” she says with finality. “Inefficient.”
“Well, sure, but if I had let the drones take care of it, then I wouldn’t have been able to test out this cool little toy.” Vivian gives a nervous chuckle as she flourishes the plasma saw in the air.