Story Excerpt

Opportunity Space

by Nathan Hillstrom

Kova floated in darkness. She dragged webbed fingers through the water, settling into the human-standard morphology of her new body. Her limbs hung off her torso like ballast. She hoisted her arms and pivoted, slipping around an unfamiliar center of gravity. Vertigo twisted her core, and she thrashed, directionless.

A hundred tiny feelers found and steadied her. Light seeped in as she established vision. A wall of brown, opaque mucus, centimeters from her nose: a Washe, up close. The alien wheeled her upright with rough, cilia-like feelers, and let go. She’d lobbied the Fiscality for this opportunity, trained for it—and now, an actual Washe floated centimeters away. It had even touched her.

They hung in the center of a water-filled, oblong chamber. Ambient light radiated from mother-of-pearl walls and diffused a halo around the amorphous alien. Kova took a breath to calm herself, cool water flooding her lungs.

The Washe’s skin resembled a rumpled plastic bag, undulating in the water. Its body was translucent around the edges, opaque as it deepened. Within its murk, flat planes of cartilage intersected at haphazard angles, an architecture of squashed geometries. Discrete bundles of black eyes coated its insides, each sac trailing a clutch of entrails. The collection of eyebundles made up the creature’s mind, a neural distribution closer to the arm-spanning intelligence of a cephalopod than the tidy contents of a human cranium.

Kova could scarcely believe she’d traveled the sunspan to unaffiliated space, trusted by the Fiscality to help prospect a new species. Save a new species, even: a blight swarm was devouring the Washe’s system. But through their desperate attempts to harness additional energy, the Washe had discovered something valuable—a rare infection seethed within their sun, a stellar virus entangled with the stars of the sunspan. The Washe figured out how to broadcast a plea over this network of infected suns, and the Fiscality, Kova’s employer, responded with blueprints: a depot to interact with the sunspan, containers for agents to transit into, and defensive hardware to defeat the blight. Proposed contract terms followed, and the Washe began to build.

Now Kova was here. She’d assisted with blight cleanup before, had transited into new bodies before, but only in controlled volumes—all of it commodity work. The Washe orbited a new sunspan node, unaffiliated and unencumbered. A much higher-margin opportunity. She met the creature’s sea of eyes and smiled.

Two Washe squirmed against each other at the end of the aquatic chamber, ten meters distant, where it tapered to a hatch. Outside, more water: an aquatic planet three times the mass of Earth. But Kova didn’t see any Fiscality technology—no rows of fab banks, no churning magnetohydrodynamic displays, no suspended scan cages. This did not look like a sunspan depot. Tubes and mechanicals coiled over the sheen of the chamber’s walls, but none of those had assembled her present body. And Tulevuus, where was he?

Lights scrolled along the edges of the nearby Washe’s cartilage, a colorful sequence flickering beneath its skin. The creature was talking. Kova let the image fade from her conscious mind and focused on meaning, engaging her embedded translator’s pre-processing. A cacophony of words and ideas spilled into her, an overlap of meanings she couldn’t parse.

Slower, please, she responded. A corresponding light sequence burst around her torso as the translator interpreted her thoughts. Simpler. I don’t understand.

The Washe’s message shortened and repeated on every length of its cartilage: Hurry, it flashed. Hurry.

Kova reporting. She offered a wave. Who are you?

I am [colorful flicker], the Washe signaled.

She assigned “Profit” as the creature’s name in her translator. Perhaps a fancy, natural-built human could identify aliens as light sequences, chemical signatures, syntactic operations, or whatever else, but Kova needed words. And the creature did mean profit: her pay rate for this trip was the highest grade she’d been offered by the Fiscality—plus, an opportunity for a massive bonus.

Hello, Profit. Where is Tulevuus?

Your director is aboard a different spacecraft. Its external feelers flailed. You must activate the hardware in this one.

A different spacecraft. Her mind reeled as she reframed the outside from water planet to the vacuum of space. The weight tugging at her limbs wasn’t gravity—it was acceleration. If they weren’t on-planet, that meant she’d been transferred from the depot to the central water chamber of a Washe ship, dragged unactivated and unaware during the critical start of the mission. Her synthetic skin prickled.

Why aren’t we at the sunspan depot? The depot was her lifeline back to affiliated space, her only way home. She didn’t even know how far they’d traveled. What happened to mission prep?

The cartilaginous panels inside the Washe shifted and folded, disappearing into murk and reappearing. They carried additional eyebundles forward like paddles. Later. An eater is engaging now. Hurry.

Crap, Kova flashed, unintentionally. The translator was a miracle of the Standard Mind, but when communicating non-verbally, she found it too easy to trip from thinking into speaking.

The hatch at the end of the chamber rolled open, and the three Washe flitted through on jets of water. Kova followed, acclimating to the body—a sexless, hydrodynamic approximation of her Earth form—as she kicked. It had good proprioception and an overall neutral buoyancy. She thrust herself through the water, energized by whatever passed for adrenaline in this new implementation of her mind.

Kova squeezed into a cylindrical waterlock with the three aliens. Profit pushed into another Washe, who shimmied back. Their masses embraced, lipping over one another. The eyebundles on Profit’s backside stared blankly at Kova as the two rippled. She averted her gaze, but dismissed the taste of voyeurism and turned back. She hadn’t come this far to look away. The aliens produced a sucking sound and rent apart, trailing a rivulet of ocher.

How close is the blight? Kova flashed.

Tenth of a light-second, Profit responded, unrolling a diaphanous suit from the wall. We are evading fire.

She cursed to herself. To established sunspan nodes, the self-replicating swarms were only a nuisance: as a defense specialist, she’d mopped up countless blight patches herself. But species outside the sunspan’s influence fell to the relentless swarms—as would the Washe, without her help. Every blight strain differed, each the ever-expanding gift of some forgotten species, but she’d encountered none that could match Fiscality technology. According to mission intelligence, this instance didn’t even have beam weapons.

Until she activated her defenses, though, low-tech projectiles could still destroy this Washe ship, and her with it.

Let’s move, she flashed.

The Washe hurriedly donned their suits. A few centimeters of water surrounded each inside a clear casing, and tiny hooked legs studded the exteriors.

Pores puckered along the walls, suctioning out water. Only the heart of a Washe ship was aquatic. The Washe slumped onto the floor as the waterlock drained, encased in their suits’ protective bubbles. Kova’s vacuum-resistant skin had a flocked, almost velvety texture, and the water beaded easily off. A thin gas atmosphere remained after the pores closed, a whiff of charcoal and mineral salt.

The dry waterlock opened with a whistle of pressure equalization, revealing an empty corridor ahead. The Washe skittered out on the suits’ hooked legs, hundreds of feelers manipulating the mechanisms by touch from inside their wet bubbles. Kova crawled after. Holds peppered the walls, sized for the hooks of the Washe suits: she used the tips of her toes and fingers for purchase.

Profit clattered up a rise in the corridor. You are naturalized? it asked as it climbed.

I am, she responded, following the Washe upward.

By choice?

Beneath her unease at the blight engagement, a hunger stirred. This could lead to her bonus.

I sought it out, she flashed. Being naturalized rather than natural-built meant Kova hadn’t received missions in unaffiliated space before, despite her frequent requests—she’d been crowded out by natural-builts designed for these tricky assignments. But not being a natural-built was precisely why she’d been hired this time. Although the Washe faced imminent extinction, none would convert to Standard Mind; having naturalized herself made Kova the perfect ambassador to the reluctant species. A stretch role, beyond her defense expertise.

The passage leveled, and the Washe spread three abreast.

The process killed your original? Profit flashed, hook-legs blurring as it raced ahead.

Kova blew out thin air. You can’t think about it that way. Born humans obsessed over physical brains. They uselessly debated mind-body paradox, philosophy of self, epistemological dualism, mind versus matter, copy versus original—whatever—but really, having three pounds of grey matter deliquesced by a million microscopic tendrils felt like dying, so they feared it. A fear of death that was actually a misapprehension of life. Kova’s own family treated her as though she’d died and gone.

That’s not how consciousness works, she flashed. At core, we’re all just interfering vibrations, helical paths in microtubule lattices—

No. Profit burst with light. Tell us nothing foundational.

What? Kova slowed.

Our course has not led us to that discovery. The Washe pulled ahead. Hurry.

Kova scrambled to catch up. If she didn’t focus, she’d be dead and gone for real. Still, knowledge was the Fiscality’s main trading commodity, especially for a new contact—sunspan communication was instant, but physical matter would take centuries to arrive through cold space. Was the Washe’s resistance to information why they wouldn’t naturalize and accept the Fiscality’s help? Left alone, they’d soon be blight-fuel, spreading through the galaxy as parts and propulsion of the consuming swarm.

Still, the Washe had built her new body and her defensive hardware. They could be persuaded.

The direction of acceleration reversed, and Kova hung from what had become the ceiling. Her fingers slipped and she slammed onto the opposite side of the crawlspace.

Evasive reversal, Profit flashed, dropping beside her.

Kova rolled over and held the floor. This mission would make her rich, make her matter. Profit, she flashed, I’m not like the others, I know what it’s like to naturalize. I’ve grappled with the same questions. We’ll find a way for you to connect to the universe on your own terms. Water dribbled along the walls, seeking the new down.

A wave rippled across Profit’s feelers, a current winding inside its suit-bubble, and Kova’s translator decoded it as a positive gesture. She grinned. This was going to work.

Kova followed the Washe through an airlock lined with kaleidoscopic shielding and into a spacious bay. Hydraulics wound around the ceiling’s edges, and a seam split its center. Beneath, her Fiscality-designed and Washe-built defense system waited. Field scoops, disrupter arrays, and pulse batteries crowded the floor, each striped with bands of primary color.

Kova winced at the primitive technology—no magneto-hydraulic suspension cages of strange matter here, no loop-reactors to excite coiled dimensions into gravitational singularities—nothing remotely threatening to an investor species. Of course, the Washe had been limited by what they could learn to fabricate quickly. The sunspan carried only information: viral entanglements might collapse galactic communication timescales to an instant, but someone still had to listen and act, had to actually piece matter together.

Acceleration drove upward relative to the floor. Kova stood and approached a control pod, its sensory interface advertising to her Standard Mind specifications. She initiated a handshake: the synchronization tickled the underside of her skin, then went dead. No connection.

Did you activate it? Profit asked, the hooks of its suit brushing her leg.

The floor tilted with a course correction, and the chill of the bay’s air rolled around her. Connections only failed if the weaponry belonged to someone else, and this should have been keyed to her alone. Maybe the Washe had screwed up. The Fiscality’s blueprints contained logic so obfuscated, pathways so circuitous, that they were impossible to reverse engineer. Her management ensured licenses at galactic distances. If there’d been a fabrication error, if the Washe had bungled quality assurance, they were all dead.

Kova tried another handshake. The underside of her skin bristled, and the machinery’s senses gauzed over her own. She sighed relief, instructing the field-sensors to wake.

It’s starting, she flashed.

An annotated globe of local space, half-visual and half-imaginary, unfolded inside Kova. She settled into mental controls she’d operated across a dozen star systems, assignments won through relentless training. While her naturalized cohort had fraternized, giddy on the entry-level Fiscality paychecks they mistook for lavish, she’d maximized her value in one simulation after another. None of them would ever score a job like this. Another weapon-array pinned itself to her map: the mission director, Tulevuus. A reminder that natural-built weren’t as impressive as she’d once imagined.

“The hell’s going on here?” Kova transmitted to him, a light-minute away. “Why’d you leave me unactivated?”

The blight drone registered on her instruments. It was an ungainly thing, all projectile barrels and thrusters grafted onto a jagged shim of asteroid, sensors and antennae embedded along trenches like scars.

Her connection with the hardware would sustain over a short distance, and they needed to get behind shielding before activating the weapons. Clear the bay, she flashed.

The three Washe skittered toward the airlock. Squashed by acceleration, the suited creatures rose to her waist: rippling packages of dark broth, eyebundles, and cartilage, two meters in diameter. She followed them out, pleased by how easily she outpaced them on two legs. The airlock rolled shut.

Kova closed her eyes and sank into the second-sight of the machinery. The ground hummed as the bay’s hydraulics split the ceiling open, gasping wisps of air into space. Her hardware’s optics swept across a black night, pinpricked with stars. Volleys of high-speed projectiles blipped onto her sensors’ map.

“I don’t appreciate your tone, Kova,” Tulevuus responded. “There were stability concerns with our implementations, and you were left down out of caution. If you weren’t so close to that stray drone, you’d still be out. Easy money for you, sleeping through the trip.”

Bullshit. Any concern Tulevuus claimed for her was bullshit. His team was all natural-built, their aptitude and knowledge cherry-picked from dozens of other human minds and synthesized, modeled into the Standard Mind and able to travel the sunspan from the start. They’d been constructed as skilled, confident adults, aware of their purpose at inception. Kova had been born biological and chosen to naturalize to Standard Mind. Tulevuus hadn’t wanted her on the expedition, complaining she’d never even been to unaffiliated space, but their Fiscality superiors had hired her directly—it wasn’t Tulevuus’s call. He’d retaliated by excluding her from mission prep, and now, by leaving her down en route.

“Easy money? You’d cheat me of my bonus,” she transmitted back.

Tulevuus’s eighteen-million-kilometer distance meant a communication delay of over a minute. She focused back on the local volume of space. A thousand projectiles raced across her field.

Their primary mission was to install the weapons on a strategically located planetoid, to prove the technology and to buy the Washe extra time to negotiate. Washe ships had been retrofitted for the trip, their defenses stripped and replaced with the superior Fiscality matériel. The hardware also provided protection en route, but required restrained use while shipboard. She wished she could just launch an energy net to dissolve the blight drone, but the backwash would destroy her ship, too.

Kova discharged a low-power kinetic cloud to shove the projectiles out of their way.

“Your bonus is not my problem,” Tulevuus transmitted back. “With questions of safety, directors have full authority over activation. I know you weren’t made for missions in unaffiliated space, Kova, but plans always get adjusted out here.”

Tulevuus knew, of course, that Kova wasn’t made for anything. The kinetic cloud billowed out from the ship’s bay, stirring her optical view of stars.

“Anyway,” his transmission continued, “Now you’re up, you need to flatter our hosts. The Jhor expect a dialogue. Keep me updated.”

Kova rolled her eyes. So, he’d activated her because their management—the Jhor, humanity’s investor species within the Fiscality, now prospecting the Washe and their sunspan node—wanted updates, and he couldn’t get away with leaving her down.

“The Washe and I are already talking,” she sent back. “They have . . . unusual incentive responses, but I’m up to the challenge. I’ll send the Jhor a note.”

She targeted the drone’s handful of powered missiles as the message relayed, anything with heat signatures. Her neutral-particle lances ground them off the field of stars, one by one, leaving the rest for the oncoming kinetic cloud.

“Kova, you are absolutely not to communicate with the Jhor,” Tulevuus replied. “Everything goes through me. Standard procedure. You are not here to negotiate. Your job is to earn the Washe’s rapport, and only that.”

She ground her ceramic teeth. The Jhor had hired her directly, but she couldn’t talk to them? Kova used to idolize the natural-built. She’d thought, after naturalizing, that she would shed her old life and rise into their elite, star-hopping camaraderie. But beneath their unearned skillsets, she’d found them crassly human. The Jhor represented the real transcendence: investors woven into the fabric of galactic civilization.

Outside, her kinetic cloud thumped through waves of projectiles. Junk careened away at oblique angles. The force slammed into the drone itself, tumbling the weaponized rock into a multi-axis spin. Its thrusters flared and sputtered.

“Again, everything goes through me,” Tulevuus transmitted. “Please confirm your understanding.”

The drone reoriented itself in fits, then ignited a burn so fierce its bristling weaponry sagged under the white heat. Molten rock blobbed off in its wake. Kova targeted the drone, but it skipped, erratic, as it accelerated.

It’s closing in to detonate, she flashed at Profit. Don’t let it near.

“I need you to confirm your understanding,” Tulevuus sent. His pin pulsed for attention in her mental map.

“Busy here,” she snapped.

Kova’s weight evaporated as their acceleration ceased, and she floated beside the closed airlock. She locked the beam in a scatter pattern, lowering energy to maximize burst speed without melting their ship.

“You shouldn’t be in unaffiliated space if you can’t multitask,” Tulevuus transmitted.

She clenched her teeth: “Everything goes through you. Build rapport. Standard procedure.”

Her beam struck the weaponized asteroid, vaporizing a chunk. A second strike exposed an interior woven with mechanicals.

Get ready for an explosion, she flashed at the Washe. They clung to the ground in their suits, each a wall of eyebundles pushed in her direction.

She lanced an electrical matrix inside the overbuilt rock, and the whole asteroid immolated in a brilliant white smear. The temperature readings from her hardware spiked as the light of the detonation drained away.

“Keep me 100 percent informed,” Tulevuus sent, and his signal cut.

Your weapons represent a focused process of discovery, Profit flashed, its internal geometries folding.

Uh, thank you, Kova replied.

The hydraulics wound the bay doors shut, and she settled to the floor as acceleration returned. The Washe clicked down the crawlway. Kova lay flat for a moment, palms on her forehead. Beneath her, the ship thrummed quietly away. Natural-built politics didn’t matter. Impressing the Jhor mattered. Her bonus, that mattered. She dismissed her connection to the weaponry, and its sheath peeled away from her senses. The mental map dissipated like a dream on waking.

*   *   *

Kova’s family sat around the dining table, their seat assignments unchanged since the day her brother’s highchair had arrived. He was full-grown now, and a head taller than her. Every groove in the walnut slab felt familiar.

Her mom wiped damp eyes. “But what’s so wrong with the life you have now, Kovie?”

Always the same question. She wished her mom would understand it wasn’t about anything wrong; trauma didn’t drive her ambition. How could she stay limited to Earth after an offer to travel the sunspan, to truly compete? She tried to explain, but the family tableau rippled and blurred, the smell of sweet potatoes thick in her nose.

Instead, she heard herself say, “What’s wrong with your life, Mom? I was just on Luna. Earth hangs in the same position all day, you watch it turn.” The Fiscality had brought her up as a candidate. They’d put her through batteries of tests. Finally, offer in hand, she’d been entertained by natural-built, drinking and dancing as the Earth rotated above. She’d felt a freedom then, a fellowship with this new class of humans. She’d even met a Jhor, fresh from Andromeda, the gas tendrils of its capsule-suit pressurized to hundreds of Earth atmospheres.

“So a trip to the Moon.” Her brother rolled his eyes. “Hoo boy, and now you believe everything they say?”

“What you make in a year wouldn’t cover a week’s rent there,” her voice responded. She missed her dad’s sweet potato casserole, its crunch of pecan. But her plate was clean, and she couldn’t reach for more.

Her brother squinted at her. “Why’re you always so impressed by money?”

He considered wealth with the petulant envy of someone who didn’t understand the unflinching allocation of scarcity it enabled. Economic regimes varied, but money drove everything from noodle shops to national economies. Humanity had blossomed as an industrial, technological, and astronautical civilization thanks to money. From inside its capsule-suit, the Jhor had explained that gold-lust was practically an evolutionary constant, that similar mechanisms undergirded the civilized universe. Of course money impressed her.

Her father drove his palms into the table. “How can you do this to us? You’re not just yourself, you’re part of a family.” His face sagged as he sat back. “You’ll break your mother’s heart.”

Kova wanted to shake sense into them, wanted them to understand how the universe really worked—but they only saw their little girl, their sister, agreeing to let a machine tear her brain apart. Let it be: she had the aptitude to transcend her mundane Earth existence and join an unthinkably more sophisticated family.

She crossed her arms. “I’ve confirmed my naturalization.”

“They kill you, Kova. They replace you with a thing.” Her brother kneaded his fingers together. “Please. It’s death.”

“My appointment’s tomorrow.” She shrugged, forcing a smile. “If that’s death, now’s the time to say your goodbyes.”

They shut down: Her father looked away. Her mother stifled sobs, shoulders quavering. Her brother started to speak, one last plea, but choked on the words. None returned her gaze.

“Fine,” she said. “I get it.” Her fingers shrank to cilia and multiplied across her body, feelers coating her skin, bristling out from under clothing. She shoved away from the table and floated out of the house, forever.



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Copyright © 2020. Opportunity Space by Nathan Hillstrom

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