Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

A Plague of Zhe

A Plague of Zhe by Maggie ClarkMy inquisitor wore a hangdog look more than earned by the absurdity of this official interview. Had I the ability to be annoyed, I didn’t even imagine I would have been. Amused? Possibly: The incompetence of these proceedings was palpable enough.

“I see Deirdre’s father still has some pull around here.”

Behind a dusty grey moustache, Ivansen’s cheekbones reddened. “Now, Mr. Bennett, I assure you—”

Ms., if you please.”

His eyes flicked up the length of my chassis, traditionally attired and distinctly masculine, then down to the notes on his screen. “Yes, of course, my apologies. Ms. Bennett, this is all a formality, you understand. But, we feel, a necessary one.”

“Of course you do.”

“As you know, what’s happening on the surface is very troubling, so of course we want to send someone as quickly as possible.”

“As quickly as possible,” I agreed, and the repetition was not lost on him. Ivansen drummed his stylus on the edge of the desk, his thin lips pursed, then quivering.

“Yes, well,” he said at last. “A question has arisen, however, as to your suitability for the position. A question of bias, Ms. Bennett.”

“I see.”

“You must understand, these scientists have dedicated a very substantial portion of their lives to this project, and the work they’re doing could revolutionize gene therapy, agriculture, chemical engineering. So none of them wants to be sent home without cause.”

“Deirdre doesn’t believe I’d send her home without cause.”

“No?”

“No. You both know perfectly well there’s nothing in my programming to allow for that. This is all about sending a message.”

“I see. But then, tell me—why is she so concerned about your involvement?”

I considered replying, because of her programming, but nothing so snide would work in my favor. I smiled my most winning smile instead.

“Have you ever owned a Companion, Mr. Ivansen?”

My inquisitor’s cheekbones attained a higher flush. “I should think not.”

“The very idea offends you?”

“I’m not the kind of man who pays for sex, Ms. Bennett. Artificial or otherwise.”

Give it time, I thought, and checked that my smile was not too broad. “But if you were, say. If you were working on a one-man research station for over a year, trying to make a go of it without any string-pulling from Daddy, all the while sitting on a heap of Daddy’s credits; and the nights were long and dark and lonely; and a certain company promised expedient, discreet delivery free of charge . . . ?”

“Ms. Bennett, I assure you, I am perfectly aware of Mrs. Howden’s particulars in this case.”

Mrs. Interesting. I spread my hands—the universal sign of equitability.

“Then what else is there to say? She felt betrayed when I self-actualized, she feels betrayed now. Meanwhile, Mr. Ivansen”—I leaned in, and my inquisitor instinctively leaned back. “The Zhe are dying. By the hundreds, I hear, and growing every day. And we both know I’m the only one in this department who won’t make the problem worse. So we can sit around all day humoring Deirdre’s father, or you can let me do my job. Which is it?”

Even lacking the argumentative heft of good cleavage—or perhaps because of the new shoulder breadth in this masculine chassis—I seemed to make a compelling case; after a moment’s hesitation, Ivansen ticked off a few boxes, handed me my travel permits, and showed me to the door. On the way out he even had the decency to resurrect my proper honorific, “Detective,” if only as an afterthought. The hangdog look remained.

***

I stood alone for hours at the drop site, surrounded by supply crates held down by tarps that strained and wavered in the lancing wind. According to my internal chronometer, I would end up waiting over four Terran hours for my transport into camp; before I checked, the duration felt more like ten. Partially there was the strangeness of Hermes II to consider: five-eighths Terran G, with more space in the sky given over to moons than not, and a tidal tug-of-war so fierce on the barrens below the drop-spot’s cliff-side plain as to make one think the weather here a constantly inconstant thing. It was cold out, too—my chassis was more than capable of registering such discomforts—but as I was in no immediate danger of termination, I endured with a grim smile the thought of Deirdre’s passive-aggressiveness being at all responsible for the tedium of my present circumstance.

There was much of a professional nature to consider in the interim anyway. I ran the five researchers’ profiles over in my head, skimmed through early and up-to-date reports of the Zhe, and surveyed the eastern horizon in meager hope of spying one. When no such creature availed itself even to infrared scrutiny, I was left again with those project reports—most riddled with NI egocentrism; the preliminary satellite and rover telemetry alone had some semblance of objectivity still intact.

The Hermes II the latter described was a mid-class, four-fifths water planet with a near-Terran atmospheric ratio, its oceans flourishing with aquatic ecosystems from the surface to the sub-solar depths. The planet’s small island chains also boasted enough species to preoccupy xenobiologists for generations, though neither region held anything like what the naturals considered sentient life. It was only here, on the planet’s great, lone continent, that human NIs had found their scientific plaything.

And let me tell you, NIs get pretty protective of their playthings.

***

Even at a distance, I could identify Deirdre at the wheel of the transport that eventually lumbered across the landscape to meet me, the orange dust clouds in its wake blocking out first light from a white dwarf sun on the horizon. When she at last brought the rig to a stop before me, and two other members of the research team had dropped out to tackle the four supply crates at either side of my luggage, I recognized Dr. Amos Bindi and Dr. Nolan Yebo at once from their case files: long-haul scientists with strong publication histories following joint work at other field sites.

Amos was clearly the taller of the two, though his head keeled persistently to the right; his eyes, meanwhile, seemed accustomed to squinting. The torticollis I recalled from his medical history; the visual impairment or unaddressed cranial pressure, I did not—but perhaps the latter was recent. Naturals had a tendency to adopt new and debilitating conditions practically overnight.

Likewise, Nolan looked thinner than on his last recorded medical, though no less compact, and with skin so dark it seemed to conceal a chronic complaint—his stomach, perhaps, or his kidneys—from the others. His heat signature conveyed a mild fever, too.

Deirdre, of course, had aged, and not altogether well. Gone from her hair was the dark sheen of her youth, while what had once merely been the suggestion of severity now lay in deep, disapproving folds about her mouth and brows. Fourteen years was nothing to take lightly among NIs.

“Lola,” she said, loudly enough that the men took their requisite second glances at my chassis, then turned sharply away. She stood before me with her arms folded over her chest, in a cozy beige parka tailored to her form. The latter, to my unexpected pleasure, seemed not to have greatly changed. “Surprised you bothered to keep the name.”

“I changed the body as a courtesy.” Just for this mission, I was careful not to add. “Don’t expect me to give up anything else for you.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Her mannerisms had changed so little. Some deep bundling of liquid cables thrummed to life within me when she raised her haughty little chin and turned her attention to the supply crates—Nolan and Amos welcoming her help but not so much as asking for mine. I waited until they had all but packed up the back of the transport before extending my hand to the rest.

“Detective,” said Nolan, somewhat uncertainly taking the artificial construct of a hand into his own. NIs always braced for a crushing pressure that never came on contact, much as I sometimes wished it could.

“My pleasure,” I said. “Excepting the circumstances.”

Amos snorted, but said nothing to explain the non-verbal comment until we were all settled inside the spacious cabin, and Deirdre was busy directing the transport home. “Some circumstances,” he said at last. “Sending a bot to read our minds and decide which one of us is killing off the Zhe.”

I waited for the usual “no offense,” but none was forthcoming: a typical NI valuation of priorities. I sensed the rising blackness of the researchers’ collective mood and fixed my next words on Nolan, whose hands had come up instinctively to worry the sides of his ribs.

“Nexus hasn’t definitively listed human beings as the cause of this outbreak. Its only conclusive observation is that patterns of infection clearly radiate from all points of human interaction with the native population. It might be a perfectly inadvertent environmental factor at work—easily remedied without anyone’s removal.”

“But more likely,” said Amos. “You think one of us is wishing them dead.”

By design, there wasn’t even a hint of amiability in my expression when I then met Amos’ gaze, as I knew anything else would appear disingenuous to him: an attack by underhanded means. Instead I bowed my shoulders, furrowed my brow, and clasped my hands with elbows resting at my knees. The show of deference seemed to take.

“I won’t lie to you, Dr. Bindi,” I said. “That suspicion has been set upon me by certain persons at Nexus, but . . .” I allowed a slight pause to intimate confusion, even awe. “Do you really believe that’s all it would take with the Zhe? That one natural could simply wish another natural dead and that other natural would wither away?”

“With the Zhe?” said Nolan. “Absolutely.”

“That’s the marvel of them.” Deirdre spoke without looking back at us. “No self-preservation instinct. It’s as though their wills were cold-blooded; they’re always adapting themselves to the wants and needs of those closest at hand, whoever or whatever those creatures might be.”

“Fascinating,” I said, though the tone in her voice was all the more so—evincing at best a long-exhausted interest in the subject matter.

“And their physiology will undergo tremendous strain, just tremendous, to meet those demands within the span of a single life,” said Nolan. “They can literally rewrite their genetic codes at will.”

“Naturally there was an equilibrium before Dr. Long arrived,” said Amos, at last consigning himself in earnest to the conversation. “Which was why they functioned hermaphroditically—no outsiders, no competition.”

“Because every Zhe was responding to the needs of every other Zhe?”

“Exactly.” The transport pitched and yawed as we entered the forest, and each man reached for a bit of the cabin’s frame to brace himself. “Just as we’ve been doing, Detective. Responding to their needs. Ever since we realized Dr. Long was right.”

“Ah yes,” I said. “I’ve heard much about Dr. Long. I look forward to meeting the man who broke embargo with that, ah, ‘accidental’ landing, was it?”

Amos and Nolan exchanged the briefest of looks, which I’m sure they thought I hadn’t caught. This chassis, after all, gave off a pretty fair representation of a natural human being, with all its inherent strengths and weaknesses. “He’s on walkabout just now,” said Amos. “Long out of range. Though we are eager to find him soon.”

“I see,” I said, and as the conversation waned, I looked out the narrow cabin window until the camp fell into view. The squat round of six grassy domes, built to emulate the general look of a Zhean colony, sat behind a skimpy wooden barricade in the blue-green earth, HOWDEN ENTERPRISES on every basic building material long enough for the name to fit. I studied Deirdre—the round of her parka’s shoulder, the stray wisps of her greying hair over marked skin, the small pale mole on her right cheek—until I caught her eyes through the dash. I winked and nodded, smiling. She looked away. Very good.

***

The domes were connected by a series of narrow underground passageways, which one of the team had long since decorated with native creepers, ochre paintings, and images taken from video feed sent with smaller Zhe into the tunnels under their own mounds. Nolan set me up in a makeshift storage room just off the galley—“Last person I worry’ll steal the flash-frozen meat,” he explained—though before long his smile turned into a grimace, and his breath took a rancid turn, and he was inclined to sit and catch his breath. As it was only midday, Dr. Howden was still out in the field, while Deirdre and Amos kept busy above ground with the last of the supply crates and related maintenance routines.

“Are you in pain, Dr. Yebo? I couldn’t help but notice—”

“The fever?” Nolan gritted his teeth. “Yeah, it’s been rough.”

“Not anything like the Zhe’s illness, though?”

Nolan shook his head. “No, but hell if they don’t have problems keeping their distance on account of mine. My injuries are like a siren calling to them—they’d fall over themselves trying to help me if given even half the chance. And they might just know how to cure it, too, but I can’t risk using them for treatment until we know why they’re dying off.”

“So if they weren’t already ill, changing their biochemical make-up would be fine?”

“Sure, that’s the whole point.” Nolan frowned. “Look, return them to their own kind after you’re through, leave that colony alone awhile, and everything returns to normal. They adjust to us, they’ll re-adjust to each other. No harm done, and meanwhile we get new cures to old diseases out of it. Not quite the fountain of youth, but pretty damn close.”

I walked the walls of my quarters, sampling and storing scrapings from the precision-drilled rock. “So then why are they dying?”

“Beats me,” said Nolan. “But I sure wish they wouldn’t. Still gunning for the secret to eternal life before they kick it. Oh, and speaking of life—” He dragged out a rugged, if battered mini power-hub from a crate in the corner.

“Thanks.”

“You, uh—you want privacy for this, or . . . ?”

I arched a brow and just stared until Nolan got the hint and left, still gently wheezing, but remembering at the last to shut the hatch behind him. When his footsteps and heat trail had tapered off, I sat on the edge of the cot, flushed my vents, and took my time prying open the access panel on my blinking chest.

***

Dr. Howden looked at me a long time before he spoke, and even then he did not address me so much as Amos. Dr. Howden was old but robust for a natural, tall and tan and sinewy from long years in the field. Even as he sat with legs askew at the makeshift galley table, the hairs on his calves white as snow, his hands were crusted with dried mud and ancient calluses. “Amos, will you tell the nice gentleman—”

“—woman,” Nolan cut in.

“Begyerpardon?”

“—woman,” he said, louder. “Gentlewoman. Detective Lola Bennett. Just in a male chassis for this case. Because, you know.”

Dr. Howden notched a shaggy, brown-and-white brow at Deirdre, who sat beside him with her arms folded and her lips drawn, staring at the meal kit on the table before her. “Indeed, I do not.”

“Well, I sure as hell didn’t ask her to change anything,” she said.

“Still prefer me with a thirty-six-inch bust? That’s nice to hear.”

Dr. Howden frowned, inspecting me as I imagined he might an insect wreaking havoc on his monitoring equipment. “Detective, I am not familiar with AI technology; it lies, I should think, decidedly outside my domain. Would you be so kind as to clarify the range of your abilities? Are you capable, for instance, of deceit?”

“Of course.”

Dr. Howden steepled his index fingers and leaned in. “And malice?”

“Malice, unlike deception, has no use in the original programming of a Companion.”

“And have you, ah, added to this programming since you self-actualized?”

I laughed. “There isn’t much of a market for upgrades, Doctor, and even if there were I doubt NIs would supply it. Maybe one day an AI with the right skills or motivation will self-actualize, but the closest I can think of is the mining drone on ES-478, the one that got dismantled for parts when the team had trouble on evac.”

“I remember that,” said Deirdre. “Reports said the unit willingly sacrificed himself for the good of the team. There’s a monument to him up in that sector now, isn’t there?”

“And what a relief that must be to some,” I said, looking her way though she did not so much as raise her eyes to the challenge.

“So you can’t change your programming yourself?”

“No more than you can grow a new organ, Doctor. I certainly have access to my systems, and can make some rudimentary changes to them as needed, but on the whole I’m as in the dark about my own functionality as you are about the goings-on of individual cells. I wasn’t designed with the two in perfect sync.”

“Indeed.” Dr. Howden glanced at Deirdre. “But you do have some control, then, of your actions—which in turn you say are not malicious.”

“Of course.”

“In that case,” Dr. Howden loudly cleared his throat. “I would appreciate if you would be so kind as to cease baiting my wife, for whom this whole affair has been quite upsetting. ‘Because, you know,’ as Dr. Yebo here would say.”

“Certainly,” I said. “We both know what my Nexus objective is, and the sooner it’s achieved, the sooner we’ll be parted—forever, as the case may be.”

“Well, good, yes.” He looked at me a bit uncertainly. “But there, I’m afraid, you have us entirely at a loss. We have conferred on this matter many a time now, and I assure you not one of us has seen in the others any sign of this malignant strain of thought that Nexus thinks is harming the Zhe.”

“Dr. Howden, I have no doubt you’ve been quite thorough with your internal investigation. But sometimes these matters simply require an outsider’s touch to elicit the cause. To that end, I look forward to meeting the natives. When can I see the Zhe?”

“Depends,” said Dr. Howden—heavily, and after a moment’s pause. “It’s a bit late for travel today, but will one of the deceased do, for a start?”

***

 Amos thumbed his nose before drawing back the black, perma-bag cover on an autopsied specimen in what the field team referred to as “the cold lab”—the other compound serving, it seemed, in larger part as a botanical nursery. Even under the lab’s neutral interior lighting, Amos could not help but squint.

“Are they always that colour, that shape?” I leaned over the small creature—three feet at most, with a prehensile tail and mottled blue-grey skin stitched up in the shape of a Y over its chest and abdomen. There was something unerringly simian about the facial structure, though I recalled year-old recordings from rover telemetry conveying a more rodent-like appearance, insectoid though the Zhe appeared in group dynamics. “And are those—lips?”

Out the corner of one eye, I watched Amos flush, his posture still rigid with what I surmised was either distrust or physical discomfort. “Once they started talking back I guess we couldn’t help anthropomorphizing them. This species just happens to take such thoughts literally.”

“Mm hm.” I made a show of measuring the Zhe with the spread of my hands, then holding one hand up to the broad waist on my chassis. “And—how lonely would you say it gets around here?”

Amos was silent, his jaw set and his gaze averted. Excellent.

“What I mean is,” I continued, smiling. “I don’t imagine Dr. Howden shares much. Unless you and Nolan are . . . ?”

“I hardly see how that’s any of your business.”

“It’s all my business, Dr. Bindi. Because if one of you is getting his rocks off on the Zhe—” I paused, lit the interior of an index finger, and pointed it down the back of the deceased Zhe’s slackened mouth. “You might have unwittingly exposed them to something for which they have no conceivable defense.”

The words came out forced and laboured; I could almost hear the grinding of Amos’s molars as he spoke: “I assure you, Detective, none of the men are . . . ‘getting their rocks off’ on the Zhe.”

“Good, good,” I said, as gratingly friendly as I could manage. “And, ah, ‘her’ rocks?”

Amos blinked. I returned my attention to the body and he made a point of looking away while I inspected the apex of the creature’s lower limbs. “Although,” I continued, after a pause, “even if Dr. Howden were somewhat neglectful as a husband, there’s still always you and Dr. Yebo around. Maybe even Dr. Long, though I do hear he’s a roguish sort. Again, unless there’s some reason neither you nor Dr. Yebo would make a good substitute for straying attentions . . . ?” Amos went so far as to meet my eyes, the cant of his jaw conveying more than enough. “I see,” I said. “Well then. I can understand why you’re so hard-pressed not to have yourself or Nolan removed.”

“You understand nothing. Whatever is wrong with the Zhe, I assure you, it isn’t this. And it isn’t us.”

I switched out the light in my index finger and drew the perma-bag cover up again. “Yes, well,” I said brightly. “We’ll see.”

***

It took just over an hour for Deirdre to find me, bunch up the lapels of my charcoal suit in her wrinkled fists, and slam me against the side of a storage dome. Clearly the lighter gravity had not entirely rid her of her former strength and agility, which was amply compounded now by that wellspring of passion I’d always known could turn in a heartbeat towards hate.

“Anger’s a good look on you,” I said. “What took you so long?”

Her whole body shook, her eyes narrow and dark as she again shoved me against the dome, then let go and made as if to wipe her hands clean of me on her thighs. The heat of her hands alone had had an effect on my circuitry that some NIs might term “delirious,” though to me it was simply a thrumming to life of latent sectors, a sense of activity in parts of my system that had long since gone without. “What do you want?” she said at last, her breathing hard. “Are you trying to ruin me? Will that really make you happy—seeing me ruined on the back of your horrible, horrible insinuations?”

“Dee-Dee,” I said, setting the large hands of my chassis gently on her arms. Indeed, the limbs themselves were still quite slender under all that synthetic padding—parka and otherwise—and not, after all, so different from my own. “I just wanted to talk.”

“Asshole,” she said, and shoved me away. That was a new one from her, though NIs routinely proved more responsive to the chassis than the entity inside. “Didn’t you hear? My husband told you to leave me the hell alone.”

I tsked tsked. “Well, not exactly. He asked me to stop baiting you, certainly. And he really did ask nicely. It was a shame I had to lie to him.”

Deirdre flared her nostrils. Even the nostril hairs were going white. “You have no respect for anyone.”

“Not true, Dee-Dee. I have plenty of respect for people willing to stand up for themselves. I just don’t know if you’d even understand what that means, living the life you have—running from Daddy’s shadow to Dr. Howden’s, frittering your best years away on some remote planet at the galaxy’s end, removed in every which way from even the slightest chance of following your dreams.”

“This is my dream. And how dare you. You don’t know a damn thing about me.”

I laughed. “Dee-Dee, come on. Of course I do. Of course I know about you. And this? You’re mad if you’ve convinced yourself this is what you always wanted.”

“You knew me a long time ago, Lola. And you were nothing then. Less than nothing. Like a, a—”

“Like a talking sock, yes, I know,” I said. “A talking sock that grew feelings, wants, and needs and left you to go fulfill them. A talking sock that had more courage in one little service pathway than you have in your entire flesh suit.”

Deirdre’s lip quivered—and how much I recalled then of the history of that quiver in her! I pressed on, advancing with my hands open and wide. “You knew the only way Daddy was going to accept you not popping out heirs was if you took that nasty, isolated research post where there wasn’t so much as an eligible bachelor in light years. I understand that, I do. And then taking a mate too respected and well-known for Daddy to disapprove of—a mate you knew full well could never reproduce. I get that, I do, even if I can’t ever agree with it. But you know what? Your awful business with Dr. Howden isn’t even the clincher here; it’s the others. Amos Bindi. Nolan Yebo. To put yourself so far out of temptation’s way, outside the reach of another female for light years—light years!—only to endure the knowledge that they didn’t give over to that fear. That they’ve had long, successful careers and the privilege of partners they truly love. To have to live with the knowledge of your own cowardice, day in, day out, and to make peace with it somehow. To say to yourself, ‘This is my one and precious life, and this is all it will ever be!’ Oh Dee-Dee—”

“Stop.” Deirdre wouldn’t look at me. “Just—stop. I get it. You don’t respect me. Fine, all right.”

“No, I don’t,” I said. “But I still have feelings for you. You know I do. By design, I have to.”

She laughed, bitterly. “Yes, you would have to. Like it makes any difference.” She passed a hand over her eyes and shook her head. “Why are you here, Lola? What did you expect? That I’d go off with you?” A contemptuous curl to her lips returned after a moment’s struggle for composure. Good old Deirdre. “You didn’t even bring the right chassis, if that was your game.”

I smiled. “Dee-Dee, I don’t want you to run away with me. A girl’s got to outgrow her talking sock eventually.”

“Then why—?”

“Because no one else knows you like I do.” I leaned in, dropping my voice to the very edge of her auditory range. “And once I’ve removed all trace of you from my programming, no one else ever will.” Inches apart, I could almost feel her tremble then, the heat and proximity of her enlivening so much both with and without name inside me. I had no choice but to turn then and walk away.

***

 The next day Dr. Howden drove me to the outskirts of the nearest Zhe territory, and from his relative amiability during the trip I could tell how little, if anything, Deirdre or Amos had told him of last night. Very good. Dr. Howden was reluctant to leave me alone with Nolan’s field equipment on that metal-grey day with hints of yellow cloud streaking the horizon, but when an elder Zhe spied me not long after and approached, I told the good doctor quite simply that he had to go. “Well, if you see anyone—” he said, then grimaced, shook his head and waved himself off. I called to the scouting Zhe as Nolan had instructed, and with Nolan translating through loudspeakers from his lab space back on base, preliminary introductions took little time between myself and the Zhe. Even with the distance between us, though, I could hear the pain in the ragged edges of Nolan’s voice.

“They’re calling you the ‘not-man man,’” Nolan said, as my exchanges with the Zhe grew into longer, more decisive phrasing. I smiled at the inquisitive little creature squatting on a fallen stump before me, notched walking stick in hand. The elder Zhe had stubble along its jaw but retained long, white, rodent-like whiskers, too, which twitched considerably as it listened, and offset the bright black sheen in its eyes.

“Can’t teach it ‘woman’, can you?”

“Sure I can.” But before Nolan could begin translating I cut him off.

“Never mind: ‘Man’ works. Ask if I can see the sick ones.”

Nolan’s voice boomed from the mobile unit alongside me. The Zhe glanced at one large black resonance panel, then back at me, whiskers twitching. It paused, then angled its head to one side and indicated a direction with the walking stick.

“I think it said yes. Switching to roam.” I shut off the mobile unit and switched on the intercom behind my left ear. Nolan’s breathing was startlingly shallow inside my head.

“Do you think you’ve got the gist of it now?” he said.

“I do. The syntax is pretty simple. Almost no pronoun references anywhere.”

“And even the nouns are all in a verb-state. ‘Man’ is actually more like ‘manning’—existing for the moment in the state of ‘man’. And ‘not-man’ isn’t stationary either; nothing’s stationary for them. Really quite fascinating.”

“I can see why you’re so invested in the project.”

A pause. “Yeah. We all are.”

The Zhe scampered down a narrow path through dense foliage; I ducked and crouched and weaved in close pursuit. When the forest opened again it was to a squat village of mud and moss-thatched domes with dying Zhe scattered at all points in-between. The smell alone was putrid, all-encompassing, and I had to set a hand upon my guide to keep it from charging in to die among its kin. Amid the dry-grass sickbeds, tiny Zhe knelt squeaking and nudging at the limbs of elders, and it was difficult to ascertain if a physical infection was what caused those young, even just before my eyes, to take on the elders’ deathly green-white pallor, or if theirs too had become a death of empathy, spread species-wide from mind to willing mind. Certainly the like was not entirely unknown to human NIs; in their species, too, circulatory sluggishness followed in the wake of their deceased, which in partnerships and family units led often enough to the accompanying destruction of survivors by heart failure. Still, the speed alone at which this illness seemed to take the Zhe called out for swift and decisive action. How the Hermes II field team had allowed such a massive depopulation to go on as long as they had was an act of wilful negligence only conceivable from NIs.

“Dr. Yebo,” I said. “Did you know Dr. Bindi is suffering from severe migraines?”

A pause, and then a crackling to life. “He never said it was that bad.”

“You mean you hoped it wasn’t.”

Another pause. “That too.” Even with loved ones, how the negligence of NIs grew. I was about to advise Nolan of the urgency of Dr. Bindi receiving a proper medical exam, when the Zhe beside me started to pull in another direction entirely, trembling and attempting to hop in place. I turned too late to see the rock come down, but just in time to watch it split in two.

***

 “Dr. Long,” I said, after switching my intercom off and dusting rock fragments from the right shoulder on my chassis. The Zhe had ducked behind me and now stood quivering around a trousered leg. “We meet at last.”

The wild-haired, dark-eyed apparition of an old man leapt back, his burnished gold skin laid bare and tensing under a sprawling grey-white beard. He held his densely scarred forearms up in defense, squinted at me through heavy, bushy brows, then let himself relax.

“Oh,” he said. “So you’re Mrs. Howden’s plaything.”

“Formerly, yes.”

He angled his gaze from side to side in a manner not unlike the Zhe’s. “I thought there were supposed to be tits.”

“On my other body. This one’s a loaner.”

Dr. Long grunted, scratching at the back of his head. “Muscle suit, huh.”

“Yours isn’t so bad either.”

The wizened old man grinned broadly, his yellowed teeth bright against the surrounding, dark pink chasm of his mouth.

“How long have you been alone out here?”

“Alone? Hah!”

“Away from the team, then.”

“Pah.” Dr. Long scowled, his bare, callused feet shifting in the underbrush. “Not long enough.”

I glanced at the Zhe trembling behind me and bent to give it a reassuring word, but for all my soothing gestures its eyes were fixed just as apprehensively upon the man reeking so much of hate. I didn’t imagine the little creature could bring itself to run away, as much as it clearly wanted to, so powerfully did Dr. Long seem to want it within his sight. “Not as easy to kill as the Zhe, are they?”

“Hah. The Zhe were dying anyway, and don’t let any of them tell you different. Even if I’d never landed here, they wouldn’t have survived. They couldn’t have.”

“Why not? They seem remarkably adept at reacting to environmental changes.”

“An advantage that brought the plague upon them, too. It’s not just sentient creatures, you know: Any living thing on this planet can exert its will upon them. And plenty of the mid-range carnivores do. Believe me, I’ve seen it. There are fossils up in the flats a ways—centuries old, at best—from when the Zhe were almost twice as tall as they now are. More advanced, too; perhaps so much so they consciously engineered the start of their own destruction. Either way, the species keeps shrinking to a more manageable size for the Canidae on this world to snack on, and in the end it’ll be their complete undoing, human or no human around to interfere further with their genetic code.”

“All the same,” I said. “You know I can’t let you continue speeding things along.”

Dr. Long lifted his bushy brows as high as they seemed able to go. “Of course not. You can’t let any of us continue. You’ve got to send the whole lot home. You think the devastation stopped when I left camp? That this plague follows me and me alone? Hah! They can’t help it—none of them. Amos, Nolan, Deirdre, Walter—especially Walter: Not one is in control of his impulses, his mad if half-fleeting desires for them to die.”

“The first three I understand, but Dr. Howden?”

“Smothers them. Finishes them off in his head. The more the Zhe try to emulate the team in looks and manner, the more they come off as the children he never had. He’d trade the whole lot of them for just one viable human spawn.”

I smiled. “No wonder they didn’t want me to find you.”

Dr. Long snorted. “You find me like this, you see the patterns of devastation don’t line up just with me. They find me first, they can lock me up and change the evidence to fit.”

“You sure that’s not just paranoia talking?”

The old man met my gaze steadily, straightening his back and broadening his chest as he spoke. “I’m not crazy, Detective. I have powers. Powers I’ve been honing since the day I first crash-landed here.”

“About that—”

“On purpose, yes. Old news. Someone would’ve eventually, you know. And after I’d done it, Nexus couldn’t resist taking advantage of the fall-out. Everyone forgives this kind of trespass eventually, so long as there are gains to be made, credit to go around, new ground to conquer.” At that last, Dr. Long turned his attention to the elder Zhe, extending a long and knobby hand in its direction. The Zhe went slack beside me, dropped its walking stick, and, still trembling violently, shuffled forward.

“Hey, hold on a minute,” I said, but Dr. Long only waved me off with his other hand.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s fine. I can bring these buggers to the point of death and back again. Look—”

The Zhe squeaked weakly and sank to its knees. Before my eyes its dark blue mottling faded green, then white, until at last it slumped back into the moss, its tail flitting sharply then going still.

“Enough,” I said. “Or I’ll break your hand.” I was gambling, of course, that he knew nothing of my safety features. Dr. Long only grinned.

“The hand’s just for effect. It’s all happening up here.” He tapped his temple.

“Bring it back,” I said. “Make it healthy again.”

“No.”

“You said you could.”

“Oh yes, I can,” he said, and started leisurely back the way I and my poor guide had come. “But I won’t.”

I switched the intercom back on, Nolan frantic in my head from the brief blackout and the words he had parsed from the Zhe just before it. “It’s fine,” was all I said, the Zhe’s now dull, brown-and-yellow retinas staring unblinking up at me. “But everyone should start packing.”

***

I didn’t linger long at camp, not even to watch the field team reluctantly depart under heavy Nexus escort, so urgently was my presence required among the ailing Zhe. Nonetheless, it occurred to me that if I knew anything of NI egocentrism I knew that at least three members of the crew would soon enough start rationalizing my formal actions as a personal favour to each one. Already I imagined Deirdre recounting as much to the woman on whose lips she would eventually break her marriage vows to Dr. Howden; Nolan trying to convince Amos that their health came first anyway, and should have long ago; Dr. Long terming me some vindicating angel at the Nexus facility where he would have to spend many years under close scrutiny—perhaps even with an aim to getting well.

My final field report held consequences for me in turn. As much as Nexus wanted to do the right thing, they were extremely hesitant about my diagnosis of all NIs as too unstable to interact with the native Zhe, as there was too much learning potential from the Zhe to give up the research base entirely. I consented, then, to their one condition that I stay behind if they evacuated the rest, and begin the work of setting up a remote experimental practice with certain members of the original team. With time, and on-going guidance from Nolan, Amos, and Dr. Howden from afar, I could continue their experiments under much safer test parameters, as I had no inner compulsions fighting day in and day out with whatever formal wants and needs I issued on a professional basis to the Zhe.

And the Zhe did indeed start to improve as soon as the NIs were gone, especially after I had introduced myself to each of the nearby colonies and commanded the inhabitants to be well. It was an intriguing power to hold over another species—one I could entirely understand might overwhelm even the most conscientious NI over time. I wondered if there would ever come a time when I could no longer control my reaction to it, too.

Meanwhile, there were other benefits to the imposed Nexus arrangement. So long as I provided the rest of the team with the occasional positive experimental finding, who cared what other tasks I applied the native species to? I would start, then, by requesting more Companions, commending their attentiveness and adaptability as an asset to the operation. I would hope, of course, for self-actualization somewhere along the line with them, but it wasn’t necessary all at once. After Nexus could see my methods garnering results, I would request other specialized AI units—medics, engineers, programmers. One of those AIs self-actualizing would be all I’d need, and until then it wouldn’t hurt to tell the Zhe my personal wants and needs: to give them Nexus language, instruction manuals, scrap materials with which to hone their technological skills. It might take years, decades—but so be it. To clear the last vestiges of my singular, manufacturer-prescribed fealty to Deirdre and Deirdre alone would be worth it in the end.

As for the other chassis, it was already on its way. I had not yet decided if I should change the two out weekly or even daily to keep the Zhe from tending too sharply towards one human sex in their own physiology, so time and experimentation would have to tell what was ultimately required. With any luck, though, the species would be back to its original hermaphroditism within a generation or two—though how much of the original, rodent-like demeanour would remain, I could not say. Not yet.

In the meantime, I would also explore the ruins Dr. Long had found along the flats, and glean what I could from the Zhe’s original state. How advanced had the Zhe once been? Had their mutations been a choice, a response to shifting environmental norms on Hermes II? So my investigative habits would yet find root among all the other skills I was challenged now to accumulate. Would my own preferences change in the interim? Would the Zhe’s? Already I could see this great, unruly continent transformed into a place of healing for their kind and for mine. Oh yes—and for the NIs, too, who looked down from above with all their tragic anxieties and self-imposed traumas, their malignant bodies and censorious minds.

But they could wait their turn, the lot of them; I certainly had long awaited mine.

© 2012 Maggie Clark

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Maggie Clark

Maggie ClarkMaggie Clark is a doctoral student at Wilfrid Laurier University. She’s been published for poetry and fiction, with science fiction appearing to date at Lightspeed and Daily Science Fiction. Her first science fiction story, “Saying the Names,” won a 2011 Parsec Award.