Brokering Trust – Hetero Edition

Cover art by Exobelos:

© 2023 Snekguy. All rights reserved.

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Disclaimer: This story features sexual content and is intended for adults only.


His head ringing like a bell, David threw off his harness and lurched out of his seat, cradling his temples as he took a few stumbling steps into the passenger bay. It took him a few moments to remember where he was and to get his bearings again.

He glanced around, taking in his surroundings as he shook off the lethargy in his muscles. The deck beneath his feet was made up of a simple metal grate, and the exposed hull material of the walls was lined with crash couches – reinforced seats with straps to keep their occupants secure during superlight jumps. The space was as cramped as a coffin and sorely lacked any comforts or amenities.

Coursers were the fastest ships in the UNN fleet – designed to be a perfect balance between mass and energy output. They could cross interstellar distances remarkably quickly, ferrying VIPs, cargo, or important information wherever expediency was a factor. They were built for speed, not for pleasure cruises. The vessel resembled a skeletal jib like the arm of a crane that connected the cockpit and cargo area with the reactor and engines at the rear.

As he stumbled his way towards the door at the cockpit end of the bay, it slid open, and a man wearing Navy blues and a crew cut stepped through. His jaw was as square as his shoulders, a pair of steely, grey eyes peering out from beneath a weathered brow. David was a civilian, but even he had to fight the urge to snap his heels and pop a prim salute.

“Doctor O’Shea,” the man began. “How are you feeling after the jump?”

David recognized him now, the memories slowly flooding back to him. This was Lieutenant Shearer – his military liaison. They had met back on Earth before he had been whisked away on this interstellar road trip.

“Like someone hit me in the head with a rock,” he grumbled, blinking against the harsh light strips on the ceiling above. “I think I feel a migraine coming on.”

“Do enough jumps, and you’ll hardly notice,” Shearer replied.

“If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d be better served by avoiding jumps as much as possible,” David grumbled. “Have we arrived, or is this yet another temporary stay of execution until my brains can be scrambled by interdimensional travel again?”

“No, that was the last leg of the journey,” the Lieutenant replied. “We’ve arrived in the Trappist system – thirty-nine LY from Earth.”

“Thirty-nine point five-eight was the last accurate measurement, I believe,” David sighed. As his brain fog cleared, a fresh excitement began to overpower his usual skepticism.

The Trappist system was a very unusual one, with four terrestrial planets squarely within the star’s habitable zone and another three skirting its periphery. The entire solar system was dense and compact enough to fit well within Mercury’s orbit, but Trappist-1 was a red dwarf and was thus much cooler and dimmer than Sol. As interesting as Trappist was to astronomers and explorers, it had been off-limits since first contact, belonging to the Broker sphere of influence. The technologically advanced aliens were as enigmatic as they were uncooperative, and they had never allowed any outsiders to set foot in their territory. Until now…

“The pilot tells me that it’s quite a sight,” Shearer continued, nodding to the compartment behind him. “Care to take a look?”

David followed him through the automatic door, walking along a corridor that was lined with more compartments that housed the crew quarters and the pokey mess hall. Behind another sliding panel was the bridge – a similarly compact space taken up mostly by a single bank of consoles behind which the pilot was sitting. He was surrounded by the glow of holographic displays, information scrolling across their shimmering readouts as he swiped at touch panels and hit switches.

He turned in his seat as the pair entered, but David didn’t even hear his greeting. His eyes locked onto the view beyond the frost-encrusted bridge windows that looked out into space, widening in awe.

They had landed on the outskirts of the solar system, as was customary to avoid collisions with other ships and stellar bodies, superlight calculations being inherently imprecise. He could see the faint red glow of the star in the distance, its color and apparent luminosity reminding him of a sunset, but that wasn’t all that he could see.

There were planets.

In most solar systems, planets were spaced millions of kilometers apart, even the closest ones only visible as bright stars from the vantage points of their neighbors. Here, David could see them with the naked eye. Not only that, but he could see all of them, and they were large enough for him to make out details. There was 1h – the outermost planet – so close to the ship that it appeared as large as a softball. It was visible out of the right cockpit window, and a glance was all it took to give David a wealth of information about its properties. It was highly reflective, making it shine a dull orange in the star’s dim light, its surface crisscrossed with cracks.

“My God,” David muttered, noticing the towering geysers that were spewing up into its thin atmosphere from the icy surface. They must have been hundreds of kilometers tall, forming glittering ice crystals that rained back down to the surface. “Are those cryovolcanoes – like the water-vapor plumes on Enceladus? That suggests an ice sheet with a subsurface ocean, warmed by tidal heating, perhaps!”

“Getting readings of about a hundred and seventy Kelvins from the surface,” the pilot added as he checked his display. “Hell, that’s barely colder than Earth’s poles. You could walk around down there with a thick coat.”

“Incredible,” David mused, walking over to the window as though it might give him a closer look. “Even so far from the system’s star, it’s just straddling the frost line. The orbital period is, what…nineteen days?”

“Know a lot about planets?” Shearer asked. The Lieutenant was considerably less excited than his two traveling companions.

“My PhD isn’t in the study of extrasolar planets, but yes,” David replied dismissively. “Are you not fascinated by this? Do you understand how floored you should be right now?”

“I’ll leave the gawking to you two,” he chuckled.

As David tore his gaze from 1h, he turned his eyes to the other planets, the balls of rock seeming to hang there in the velvet darkness like colorful yuletide decorations. At this distance, he could make out enough surface features to get a read on their environments, each one more surprising than the last. He could see terrestrial, Earth-like planets with oceans and continents, a body completely covered in water that looked like a perfect azure marble, and even a Venus-like planet that was enveloped in swirling clouds.

“I’m actually kind of angry that the Brokers kept this from us,” he said. “This system is a playground for astronomers and planetary surveyors. Just think of what we could learn if they gave us free rein to explore all of these bodies. Look at 1f!” he added, gesturing to it enthusiastically. “That’s a planet-spanning ocean! Do you understand what that means?”

“Maybe that’s their homeworld?” the pilot suggested.

“Possible,” David replied. “I’d hedge my bets on one of the terrestrial planets – 1e, perhaps. From what we’ve been able to gather from long-range observation, it appears to have conditions very close to that of Earth.”

“This is all very fascinating, but have you received any communications from our gracious hosts yet?” Shearer asked. “I’d expect them to-”

He was interrupted as an object emerged from superlight ahead of the ship, creating a vibrant gas cloud that began to expand in its wake, smearing across space like running watercolor paints. It was what remained of the interstellar medium that had been captured by the vessel’s superlight manifold – a bubble that enveloped the ship – its properties altered by the interdimensional jaunt.

“Speak of the devil,” the pilot muttered, angling the microphone on his headset towards his mouth.

“Broker vessel, this is the UNN Courser Paul Revere. I’m transmitting our identification codes to you now – please stand by.”

“Interesting response time,” David mused, crossing his arms as he watched the ship through the main viewport.

“What do you mean?” Shearer inquired

“We’re right on time, but there’s a degree of uncertainty involved in long-range jump calculations,” the doctor explained. “They couldn’t have known exactly where we would land – they’d only have a radius of decreasing probability from our stated target coordinates. That means they likely detected the gravitational wave that was created when we emerged, and since that wave travels at light speed, I’ll bet they have a presence on 1h. That’s the only planet close enough to explain how quickly they reacted. Any satellites in the outer system would have taken much longer to transmit the data to the inner planets.”

“An early warning system, then,” the Marine replied with an understanding nod. “They don’t like uninvited guests.”

“Judging by their history, that seems a likely explanation.”

The Broker vessel was another source of fascination for David. It looked like the classical depiction of a UFO – a cigar-shaped object covered in a silver coating that almost resembled cooking foil. It was flat and featureless, with no visible panels or windows, gliding through space with no obvious form of propulsion. The Brokers were hundreds of years more advanced than any other Coalition species, including humans, so there was no telling what kind of technology they had been hoarding. Asking them to share hadn’t exactly worked out thus far.

A reply came through from the alien ship – just a tinny, synthetic voice with no video to accompany it.

“Human vessel, this is Broker system authority. Prepare your passenger for transport.”

“Not very talkative,” the pilot muttered, covering his mic.

“That’s you,” Shearer said, giving David a nudge. “Pack up your gear and report to the cargo hold as soon as you’re ready. Don’t leave anything behind. I suspect they’re not gonna let us come back for a while.”

“If you say so,” David replied, feeling a twinge of anxiety.

When he had been offered the opportunity to travel to Trappist and become the first human to set foot on a Broker world, he had agreed without much thought. Whatever dangers he might face paled in comparison to the wealth of information he might glean and the renown that he would earn in the scientific community. Only now was it truly dawning on him that he might be left completely alone with these mysterious creatures – wholly at their mercy. They were not hostile, and they were an advanced species, but he couldn’t exactly call a taxi to take him home if something went wrong.

“Looking a little pale in the face there, Doc,” Shearer said.

David shook his head as if to dispel the intrusive thoughts, then headed for his quarters. It didn’t take him long to pack up his equipment – he hadn’t needed to unpack any of it during the trip, and he hadn’t been allowed to bring very much to begin with. All he carried was a rucksack and a pair of hard cases the size of duffel bags that protected his more sensitive gear.

He made his way to the cargo bay, wondering why he wasn’t being taken to the docking umbilical, finding Shearer waiting there for him beside an open storage crate.

“Got a present for you,” the Lieutenant said, gesturing to its contents. “Courtesy of the Marine Corps.”

David set down his two cases and leaned over to get a better look. Nestled in protective foam packaging was a folded suit and some kind of helmet.

“What is it?” he asked.

“This is the latest version of standard-issue UNN pressure armor,” Shearer declared proudly. “This is actually just the environment element without the supplemental ceramic plating that secures over the top of it. This baby is rated for hard vacuum, it has Kevlar woven into the lining that will protect you from breaches and even shrapnel, and it has heating and cooling elements that will regulate your body temperature in a wide variety of extreme environments. You could go for a walk on Europa and be perfectly toasty, and you wouldn’t even break a sweat on Borealis. It’s also equipped with dozens of electronic monitoring systems that will make sure you’re kept safe and sound.”

“Am I expecting shrapnel?” David demanded, cocking an eyebrow skeptically.

“Not unless you really piss off the Brokers,” Shearer replied. “They didn’t tell us much about what you should expect when you get…wherever they’re taking you, but they did say that you needed a suit rated for some very specific conditions.”

“And what conditions were those?”

“Barometric pressure, oxygen filtering, thermo-regulation. You’re going underwater.”

“Thank you so much for telling me this now, ten minutes before I step off the ship,” David grumbled. “Fortunately, I can swim.”

“I’m sure you have all the certificates,” the Lieutenant added with a smirk. “Before you leave, you need to learn how to operate this suit and how to get in and out of it on your own, because there won’t be anybody to help you down there.”

“Very well,” David sighed, shrugging off his pack in resignation. “You’ve been waiting to spring this on me, haven’t you? You didn’t bat an eye when we saw one of the most amazing sights ever witnessed by a human, but this suit has you as excited as a kid in a candy store.”

“I’m a military man, Doc,” he replied as he lifted the helmet from the crate. “They pay me to point XMRs at things that the Admiralty would prefer weren’t there anymore. Take those off,” he added, nodding to the doctor’s clothes. “Underwear only inside these things – it needs to be in contact with your skin.”

“Great, great,” David muttered as he began to shed his jacket. “Being allowed to wear comfortable shoes was too much of an ask, clearly.”

“Think of it this way – you want to go check out the cool planets, you gotta wear the funny suit.”

“Don’t patronize me,” he grumbled.



Shearer helped get him dressed and ran him through the functions of the suit, explaining how its various systems interfaced. It would connect to the helmet to create an air-tight seal, and it had been fitted with an optional module that attached at the hip, filtering breathable oxygen from the water while cycling out waste gasses. There was no danger of him getting the bends, as the suit was pressurized and would maintain the appropriate conditions whether he was floating in space or walking along the ocean floor.

It was a marvel of modern science, really, and he came to appreciate it a little more as the Lieutenant ran him through its maintenance procedures. He slid on the helmet, the opaque visor becoming transparent at a press of the integrated touch panel on the left wrist.

“That should be everything you need,” Shearer said as he stepped back to appraise the doctor’s new attire.

“It’s a little tight,” David complained, the visor sliding up into the helmet as he flipped it open. “Couldn’t they have found something a little less…restrictive?”

“These aren’t made to order, and remember – this is on loan from the UNN. You break it, you buy it.”

“And how much does one buy one of these for?” David asked as he lifted a gloved hand to flex his fingers experimentally.

“More than you can afford,” Shearer replied. “There’s one more thing,” he added, his tone becoming more serious. “Loaded onto your onboard computer is a special briefing. I want you to watch it, then delete the file. Multiple passes – don’t leave it recoverable.”

“I’ve been briefed,” David said.

“Well, you’re being briefed again,” Shearer insisted. “It’s eyes-only, so let me give you some privacy.”

The Lieutenant left, leaving David standing alone in the empty cargo hold. He glanced down at his wrist display, navigating through the files for a moment before finding two videos that were saved in the device’s memory. He opened the first one with a press of his capacitive glove, seeing a face pop up on the screen, the voice piping through his helmet.

It was a woman with blonde hair that had been trimmed into a bob, and she was wearing a white lab coat. To his surprise, he realized that he recognized her. It was Dr. Lena Webber. She was a celebrated linguist and the inventor of the Webber translator – a revolutionary device that interpreted the obscure Krell language. The last he’d heard of her, she was operating a research outpost on the planet of the same name. They had met several times at conferences, though they had never become very close. In fact, he had gotten the distinct impression that she disliked him.

“If you’re watching this recording, then you’ve arrived in the Trappist system,” she began. Her face filled most of the frame, and it was hard to make out anything behind her. “I’m sure the Admiralty and Naval Intelligence have their own message prepared for you, but I wanted you to see this first.”

Curious, David lifted the display a little closer, listening intently. What could a linguist have to tell him that superseded a briefing from the Admiralty?

“I know that you’d never turn down an opportunity like this one, Doctor O’Shea,” she continued with a knowing smile. Apparently, she remembered him quite well. “As the foremost expert on neural networks and artificial intelligence research, you no doubt have some idea of why you’ve been selected to undertake this expedition. The Brokers will explain whatever they feel you need to know to accomplish your task, but there is much that they will try to conceal. You see, I have what you might call leverage over the Brokers, and I recommended you for this position. I insisted, in fact. I am one of few people alive who have interacted directly with the Brokers – or at least their proxies – and you need to know what you’re walking into.”

There was something she wanted desperately to tell him, but couldn’t. That much was obvious from her tone alone.

“Do not trust the Brokers,” she continued, leaning in conspiratorially. “They have secrets, and they will go to some lengths to keep them. You are a brilliant scientist, but you are stubborn and abrasive. Use that to your advantage, but be cautious. Social graces were never your forte, David, but you have to know when to challenge your hosts and when it’s more expedient to play stupid. Always remember – they think they’re smarter than you. They are mistaken. Good luck.”

The video ended, David feeling a lump growing in his throat. What dirt could a specialist in alien languages operating out of a remote research base have on the Brokers that she could dictate who they could pick for an expedition? As if he wasn’t worried enough already, now he had some kind of conspiracy to deal with.

He moved his finger to the next file, and the video opened to show a man seen from the shoulders up. It was a UNN Admiral, his white uniform adorned with colorful ribbons and medals, the cap on his head emblazoned with the organization’s logo – a nautical star straddling the symbol for Earth with a crossed sword and an anchor. His face was leathery beyond his years, but his eyes were like shards of cold, blue ice.

“Doctor O’Shea,” he began. “I am Admiral Vos. In coordination with UNNI, I am overseeing this operation.”

Operation? David had been told that he was undertaking a scientific expedition…

“As you undoubtedly know, Doctor, the Brokers are a reclusive species who have made a point of withholding their advanced technology from the UNN and their Coalition allies – technology that could save lives and turn tides. This is the first time that they have ever contacted the United Nations to request assistance, and we can only assume that they did so because they had no other choice. No human has ever seen a Broker in the flesh, let alone set foot in their home system, and this represents an opportunity that Naval Intelligence cannot ignore.”

“Damned Ninnies,” David muttered under his breath. The United Nations Naval Intelligence division was renowned throughout human space and beyond for their incessant meddling and their covert activities. It didn’t take a PhD to figure out where the Admiral was going with this.

“From this moment on, you will be operating under the purview of UNNI. Think of it as being deputized. You are to gather whatever information you can on the Brokers and their technology by any means available to you, and you will strive to return that data to us. This is a matter of interstellar security of the utmost importance, doctor. Officially, I cannot compel you to do anything against your will outside the bounds of the law. You are a civilian, after all. However, my unique position affords me the ear of a lot of very influential individuals – people who make it their business to know people. I have connections in your field of study, including contractors and officials who hold sway over where grants and funding are allocated. Returning to us empty-handed would not benefit your professional career, but do as I ask, and you may find the results favorable. I trust that you’ll act in the interests of your government.”

Fuck,” David hissed. There was no way this Vos character wasn’t breaking the law, but what was he supposed to do, call the cops? UNNI were the cops. They had their fingers in every pie from Sol to Jarilo, and with how many of his research grants were funded through UN programs, it would probably be trivial for someone with connections to shut him down. He could be frozen out of the scientific community for the rest of his career – what little would be left of it.

“Contained within the lining of your suit is a data storage device. It’s a solid-state system, and I’m told that it emits no traceable signals or radiation. It’s very old and very outdated, but it can handle several terabytes of data. We dare not give you any more sophisticated equipment, as it might blow your cover, but you will be able to insert the drive into your portable workstation in order to record your thoughts and transfer files. The Brokers are shrewd and secretive – that much we know about them. Assume that you are always being observed. Run a secure deletion pass on this file before leaving the Courser, and good luck to you.”

David did as he was asked, scowling as he ran a thirty-pass scramble on both video files. He had half a mind to put his foot down and demand that Shearer turn the goddamned Courser right back around, but the Admiral had his balls in a vise. His only option now was to cooperate and hopefully come away with something that would satisfy UNNI. What if he couldn’t find anything useful? What if the Brokers found out?

“You ready?” he heard the Lieutenant call from the other side of the bay. “The Brokers are getting pretty impatient.”

David cursed under his breath again, lifting his cases.

“I’m coming,” he sighed, following the sound of Shearer’s voice. After a short walk, he was back in the passenger bay, surrounded by rows of empty seats. The Courser was too small to house a shuttle bay, so the only way on and off the ship was the umbilical – a flimsy gantry that extended from the flank of the vessel. It was already unfolding, David watching it reach out to the strange, cigar-shaped vessel through the narrow airlock window.

Could the two ships even dock? Would a Broker vessel have a compatible airlock? Before his eyes, the silver metal on the near side of the cigar began to shift, flowing like liquid mercury until it formed a compatible seal. There was a thud as it mated with the gantry, Shearer tapping a few buttons on a control panel beside the door.

“Have fun, Doc,” the burly Marine said with a grin. The door slid open, and David stepped forward, clutching the handles of his cases a little tighter. As he walked past the Lieutenant, he felt a slap on his shoulder. He turned his head to see a red Canadian flag on his bicep. “Almost forgot your patch,” Shearer added.

“I don’t think the Brokers will even know what that means,” David replied.

“Call it a parting gift,” Shearer said, giving him an encouraging push forward.

David stepped onto the gantry, feeling the metal grating shudder beneath his feet with every step. Its naked frame was enclosed within something that looked suspiciously like a white tarp, and while he knew that it was a far tougher and more resilient material, it didn’t inspire confidence. Swallowing the lump that lingered in his throat, he tried to focus more on his immediate problems than on the implied threats made by the Admiral, making his way to the alien ship.

He stepped into a small compartment that must be the airlock, the flimsy metal beneath his feet giving way to something firmer, and he looked down to see a matte white material with no discernible features. The walls and ceiling were the same, curving subtly where they met to give them a soft, rounded look. The silver skin of the vessel seemed to transition to this paper-white substance on the inside.

There was no door, the hull behind him simply closing up like an organic orifice to seal him off from the gantry. He felt a stab of claustrophobia, then willed himself to calm down. There was a soft, diffuse glow coming from the ceiling, but there was no visible light source. He waited a few moments, surmising that the vessel was equalizing pressure, then the wall ahead of him molded open. Warily, he stepped into a cabin that was maybe four meters by four meters. It had that same rounded appearance, the same warm light seeming to emanate from everywhere and nowhere. There was a chair in the middle of the room – seemingly intended for him to sit on. It looked bizarrely out of place, and it was made from some kind of white resin-like material. Not knowing what else to do, and having nobody to greet him, he set down his luggage beside it and took a seat.

“Welcome aboard, Doctor David O’Shea,” someone said. It was that same disembodied, tinny voice, David turning his head reflexively as he searched for the source of the sound. Like the lights, it seemed to emanate from the very walls. Hidden speakers, maybe?

“Uh, hello,” he replied sheepishly.

“We are beginning jump preparations and will arrive at our final destination shortly,” the synthetic voice announced. “Please stand by.”

“Jump prep?” David demanded. “Wait, wait. I need a harness or a seatbelt – something!”

“That will not be necessary – the suspension field will keep you immobilized.”

“Suspension field?” David asked, but there was no further answer. “Hell of a reception,” he added, no longer willing to conceal his irritation.

“Five, four, three…”

David braced himself, gripping the edge of his seat – as there was nothing else to hang onto. The effects of superlight played merry hell with living nervous systems and could cause a person to injure themselves by seizing or biting their own tongue. On UNN ships, people were strapped in securely and often given bits to bite down on before a jump. He had to trust that the Brokers knew what they were doing.

The arcane energies made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and a moment prior to blacking out, he felt the very air around his body become so thick and soupy that he couldn’t even inflate his chest to take a breath.



David came to, realizing that he couldn’t move a muscle. All he could move were his eyes, and they darted around the featureless room in alarm, panic gripping him as he tried and failed to take in a gulp of air. It felt like he’d been buried in molasses – like an elephant was standing on his chest, but he could see nothing restraining him. There was only a faint shimmer in the air around his chair.

Finally, the sensation abated, and he took in a sharp gasp. As the memories came rushing back and his muddled mind caught up, he remembered the disembodied voice mentioning a suspension field. Instead of strapping their passengers down, the Brokers must alter the properties of the atmosphere in some way, or perhaps they had ways to manipulate artificial gravity fields far more precisely than humans could. It had been frightening, but a superlight jump lasted mere moments, and he had been in no danger of suffocation. Of course, they could have told him that beforehand.

Hopefully, this wasn’t a prelude to what was to come…

He stood, rolling his shoulders and stretching his limbs, waiting for the tingling in his extremities to abate.

“Can I get a window, maybe?” he asked as he glanced at the ceiling. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“Your destination is the planetary body that you know as Trappist-1e,” the voice explained.

“I guessed right,” he added smugly.

“This vessel has no windows or viewports, but if you desire it, you may view a holographic representation from the ship’s exterior sensors.”

“A video feed?” he clarified. “That’s better than standing here staring at a blank wall…”

The white material of his surroundings began to shimmer, then it melted away, David feeling his stomach turn as a wave of vertigo overcame him. In an instant, he was floating in open space, surrounded by twinkling stars. Reminding himself that his feet were still grounded on the deck, and that this was just a very convincing hologram, he willed his heart to stop racing.

It was like the ship wasn’t even there anymore, David staring out at the incredible vista before him. They had jumped in remarkably close to 1e’s orbit – the Brokers must have more accurate drives, go figure – and he could see the terrestrial planet’s curvature ahead. Just like the observations had predicted, it was remarkably Earth-like in appearance. He could see scattered land masses and island chains broken up by azure oceans, as though the entire surface was one interconnected coastline, and it seemed to have no continents as large as those of Earth. The separation between land and sea was much less marked. It was shrouded in clouds and haze, hinting at a thick, humid atmosphere.

There was foliage, a dull brown color dominating most of the land masses – likely an adaptation to capture more of Trappist-1’s infrared light. It resulted in a far less lush and verdant appearance than one might have expected from what was obviously a tropical world, and the crimson glow of the star cast everything in sunset hues. Despite being so much smaller and fainter than Sol, the planet orbited so close that the star appeared three or four times larger.

David had researched the system extensively before setting out, and he had memorized many of its planets’ properties. If he remembered correctly – and he always did – 1e had a surface gravity and temperature within ten percent of Earth’s. It was tidally locked, as was 1d, meaning that one side of the planet always faced its star. Like a crescent moon, he could see the separation point between the light and dark sides, along with the beginnings of an ice cap directly opposite the sun. The effect seemed less pronounced than he would anticipate, however. Perhaps the thick atmosphere helped to mitigate the temperature differential between the two sides if it contained enough greenhouse gasses.

The planet wasn’t the only thing there was to gawk at, however.

A thin, thread-like ring encircled the entire globe like a halo, its white hull material shining bright in the sunlight. It was a monumental space station, he realized, connected to the ground at intervals with long strands that resembled the orbital tethers seen on so many human worlds. It was a megastructure – a project far in excess of anything that he had encountered before in its scale and scope. Rather than ringing the equator, it ran vertical to the planet’s axis, crossing over where the poles would have been on Earth. To call it a marvel of engineering was an understatement.

Of course – 1e was tidally locked, which meant that there was no rotational energy to harness as a counterbalance. Without that spin, any traditional space elevators would simply collapse in on themselves. There must be something keeping it stable – perhaps some kind of spinning bearing.

Torus-shaped orbital stations drifted around the planet, their pristine, white hulls reflecting the glow of the star. There were dozens that he could see, and probably far more that he couldn’t. It was hard to gauge their scale with no frame of reference. A swarm of smaller vessels moved between them – some like the cigar he was riding, and others like he had never seen before.

One of them in particular stood out – a colossus of a ship that had to be close in size to a UNN jump carrier. Just like the cigars, its shape was paradoxically simple, like a slightly flattened tube that looked as if it had been molded from a single piece of silver metal. It was hollow, giving it the appearance of a baleen whale or a basking shark with its mouth splayed wide. As he watched, a trio of smaller vessels emerged from the opening, jetting away towards the planet below. Was it some kind of transport? The equivalent to a carrier or a freighter, maybe?

They began their approach, but David felt no acceleration and no sensation of movement. There was only a dull thrumming in the background, barely audible to his ears. Despite being aboard the vessel, he still had no idea of what propulsion methods it might use, and that fact frustrated him. He didn’t like unsolved puzzles.

The planet ballooned up ahead of him, and the ship soon hit atmo, only the subtlest of vibrations indicating that they were experiencing any turbulence during reentry. Flames licked at the hull, surrounding David in an inferno, but they soon cleared to reveal a dense cloud layer. Droplets of moisture clung to the external cameras as they dove through it, emerging to a vista of the planet’s surface.

The terrain that he had glimpsed from a distance was now on full display, chains of islands and jagged coastlines extending to the horizon in every direction, dominated by mountainous terrain that was shrouded in dense mist. Tall, willowy trees that resembled palms and dragonbloods formed a dense canopy as they fought over the limited sunlight, their leaves painted in varying shades of brown. He was surprised to see a few specks of blue and violet, too. Perhaps the competition had caused some of the plants to branch out into different methods of photosynthesis.

The foliage gave way to pristine, white beaches that would have been right at home in a tropical resort, the sand reflecting the sun in shades of pink and orange. Trappist was somewhat obscured by the clouds, but it was still larger than the full moon, its red glare painting the sky in a perpetual sunset. It was beautiful, like Sol when it was just dipping below the horizon. It wasn’t directly overhead, so they must have come down a little nearer to the terminator – the border between the light and dark sides.

As they neared the ocean, he began to pick out structures on the island that were nestled among the trees, their silver metal and white facades standing out against the rusty foliage. Some were little more than small domes that were interconnected by transparent tubes, while others were somewhat larger, rising above the treeline with disk-like upper levels that made them look like giant parasols. The architectural style was strange. The off-white structures almost looked as though they had been cast from a mold, like liquid metal or plastic, their pocked texture reminiscent of concrete. The metallic elements were a shining chrome, somewhat like their ships, nondescript machinery visible in a few places.

There was a landing pad ahead that was just large enough for the cigar. It was right on the edge of a beach, next to something that might be a control tower. As they slowed and began to descend, he noticed that there were roads linking some of the larger structures on the island, and there were a few scattered vehicles driving along them. They were flat, squat buggies with a dozen fat tires, and there was no visible cab or really any space where a pilot might sit. They carried what must be cargo crates on their flatbeds, slowly weaving their way along the winding paths under the shadow of the trees. Perhaps they were autonomous drones.

As the vessel set down, the camera feeds faded away, leaving David standing in the featureless compartment once again. He checked the seal on his suit as Shearer had taught him – not knowing what conditions he might be exposed to – then lifted his cases and his pack.

“We have arrived at our destination,” the voice announced. He still had no idea whether the ship was being piloted by a Broker or if he had been interacting with a drone for the entire flight. “Please step out of the vessel. Your handler is preparing your orientation.”

“Handler?” he muttered, waiting for the door to open. The hull split apart like liquid metal, forming a ramp that reached down to the pad, growing from the very skin of the ship. His analytical mind was still racing as he tried to figure out how they were performing such feats. Shape-memory alloy, maybe?

As he stepped down the ramp, his visor immediately began to mist up, droplets of water clinging to the glass. The environment here was incredibly humid and soupy. The suit reacted, changing its internal temperature to clear his vision. He noted that there was a spring in his step – the slightly lower surface gravity of 0.93Gs shaving off a few pounds.

The island’s mountainous terrain was to his right now, shrouded in a thick carpet of trees and rolling mist. In front of him was the building that he had assumed to be a control tower, rising maybe four stories, its trunk-like structure transitioning into a thick disk that was ringed by windows. There were a few other small buildings scattered about its footprint – maybe some kind of small terminal? This was clearly no spaceport – it was more like a private landing strip. A few hundred meters to his left was the beach, and beyond that, the ocean. It was hard to make out much with such limited visibility, but there was the shadow of something on the horizon, great structures rising from the water like skyscrapers.

The moment that he had cleared the ramp, it sucked back up into the hull, the near side of the vessel becoming featureless. When he turned to examine the ship, he realized that it wasn’t even sitting on landing gear. It was just hovering a meter or so off the pad, the air beneath it shimmering slightly, like it was sitting atop an invisible cushion. Before he could investigate any further, he heard a mechanical sound, turning to see something trudging its way over to him from the direction of the tower.

The first impression that he got was that of a fridge balanced on a pair of robotic legs. It stood around eight feet tall, with a blocky body that had rounded edges, giving it a somewhat softer and more organic appearance than a simple cube. Like the rest of their technology, it was matte white, while its mechanical components were the same shining silver as the hulls of their vessels. The main body was featureless, save for a collection of cameras and sensors mounted on its front face, the lenses shifting and focusing as it examined him. From the sides of its chassis protruded four hose-like tentacles made from segmented, silver metal. Each one was tipped with some kind of grasping claw or strange tool, the appendages seeming to hang in the air, more frozen in place than at rest. It was supported by two skeletal limbs made up of shining rods and pistons, exposed machinery visible in the spaces between their protective coverings. Its backwards-facing knees gave it the gait of a chicken, its cup-like feet sinking into the muddy ground.

Even though David had seen images and recordings of these things before, it was still difficult to mask his surprise. These were proxies used by the Brokers to interact with other species, and thus far, this was the only face the aliens had ever shown humanity. Whether they were autonomous robots or remotely controlled drones, nobody knew.

It stopped at the base of the landing pad, peering at him with its shining cameras, a couple of jutting antennae waving like those of a curious insect. He waited for it to make the first move.

“Doctor David O’Shea,” it began in that same tinny, synthetic voice. “Allow me to extend my welcome to you. I am to be your handler during your visit. You will remain with me at all times, and you will follow any instructions that I give. If you have any questions or requirements, you are to address them to me.”

“Thank you,” David replied, still unsure of whether he was talking to a person or a machine. He might already look foolish to the Brokers, like a primitive trying to have a conversation with a self-driving taxi. “On behalf of the UN and its scientific community, I’d like to thank your people for affording us such a rare and valuable opportunity to share knowledge and further our relations.”

He had rehearsed that line in front of a mirror several times throughout his journey, but the robot didn’t seem impressed. It watched him in silence, the only indication of life coming from its sensors as they zoomed and focused.

“Please follow me,” it replied after a few moments. Surmising that it was another drone, he made his way down another short ramp and set his two hard cases down in front of it. After another few moments of waiting, it seemed to understand what he expected of it, two of those flexible tentacles snaking down to grip their handles with three-fingered claws. It lifted the two cases off the ground with ease, suspending them in the air gingerly as though not quite sure what to do with them. That done, it began to march, David feeling wet earth beneath his boots as he followed beside it.

They turned left – towards the beach – walking along a muddy track that led away from the little cluster of structures. Everything seemed to be wet here. Even the robot’s hull was misted with water droplets. It must be a nightmare trying to keep circuitry insulated from moisture on this planet, even above the water. In this kind of environment, rust would eat clean through most metals in a matter of years.

He raised his wrist display, wiping away some of the moisture with his glove and checking the atmospheric readout. The oxygen content was higher than on Earth, and there were large concentrations of greenhouse gasses that lent credence to his theory about the planet’s high habitability, but the air was otherwise perfectly breathable. Not that he was at all inclined to raise his visor – this place gave Florida a run for its money. David was perfectly content to stay in his little air-conditioned bubble.

“How far is it, exactly?” he asked as they transitioned onto one of the roads. It was flat and straight, made from a porous material that resembled concrete, but it had the color of white plastic or resin. It seemed to extend all the way to the pale sand in the distance. “I only ask because these are new boots, in a sense,” he added. “Haven’t quite broken them in yet. There would be nothing more annoying than being stranded on an alien planet with blisters on your feet, right? Assuming you have feet…”

“It is not far,” the robot replied.

Unsatisfied with the answer, David cleared his throat.

“I must ask – am I speaking to an autonomous machine right now, or is this unit intelligently controlled? Am I communicating with a person?”

“You are,” it replied in that synthetic voice. It was indistinguishable from the one that he had heard on the ship, as though they were using the same synthesizer.

“Okay, we’re making some progress,” he grumbled. At least he knew that he wasn’t talking to a wall now. These proxies must be controlled remotely. “What should I call you? Do you have a name?”

“Your species lacks the necessary vocal apparatus to reproduce our speech.”

“That’s a mouthful,” he joked, but the proxy seemed to ignore him. “Sure you’re not a robot?” he muttered into his helmet, choosing not to broadcast the comment via the external speakers.

David faltered as he saw one of the cargo vehicles approaching them from the opposite direction, trundling down the road on its chunky wheels at some speed. It must have been going thirty-K, at least. Its bed was loaded with a cargo container the size of a truck trailer, and like the Broker proxy, it had a front face that was covered in cameras and sensors. The proxy made no effort to get out of its way, so neither did David, the truck slowing before making a wide arc around them. As it passed by, he noted that there were alien markings on the containers – text or symbols that took the form of colored squares arranged in vertical rows. Curious.

They left the shadow of the dense canopy and made their way onto the beach, David noting that the road went all the way to the ocean, where it vanished into the surf. Were the trucks amphibious? There were transparent tubes filled with water and other enclosed pipelines that ran from the edge of the forest to the sea, too. Those might be utility lines or some element of Broker infrastructure. Perhaps they were also an amphibious species. Was he about to meet a race of giant salamanders?

He paused to take in his surroundings, turning to look back at the mountains that rose up behind him. They weren’t the Himalayas by any means, and there was no exposed rock or snow at their peaks, but the comparatively low gravity allowed them to reach an impressive size nonetheless.

Only now that he was perpendicular to the trees did he realize that many of them were leaning in his direction, angling their fronds towards the sea. They were pointing at the star like sunflowers, but on a tidally-locked planet, the sun would always remain in the same position. Despite Trappist only reaching about sixty percent of Sol’s luminosity, the plants on 1e might actually get a little more sunlight without a night cycle to worry about. As it was, the trees all looked like they had been the recent victims of a hurricane.

Movement caught his eye, one of the trees some distance away shaking as a dark shape rose from its branches. It was some kind of bird – the creature flapping powerful, feathery wings as it lifted itself into the sky, too distant for him to make out much in the way of details. It had two wings where one would have expected them to be, and two more that jutted out beneath it almost like rudders. They were smaller, perhaps legs that had been adapted to assist with flight. Without an intuitive understanding of how tall these trees were, it was hard to get an accurate gauge of its size, but he could tell that it was large just from the laborious way that it moved. The combination of the lower gravity and warm, dense air was a match made in heaven for the evolution of flight.

Too late, he remembered that the helmet he was wearing had various zoom functions, cursing under his breath as the bird vanished into the mist. It had drawn his eyes to something just as magnificent, however, and he craned his neck as he lifted his gaze to the sky. Even through the clouds, he could make out the glow of the megastructure that encircled the planet, its white hull material catching the sunlight. It was a faint, thin strand shrouded in atmospheric haze, but it was clear enough to resemble planetary rings. David had ridden plenty of tethers, but a structure of that size just boggled the mind. He was seeing something with his own eyes that had existed only in theory for centuries, and something about looking at it from the ground made its scale all the more tangible.

“Please follow me,” the proxy said, snapping him out of his stupor.

“Just…looking around,” he said as he returned to the robot’s side. “Hey, how are you keeping that orbital structure stable? On planets with a spin, that centrifugal force can be harnessed to keep space elevators standing, but why isn’t that ring collapsing under 1e’s gravitational pull?”

The proxy didn’t reply, David scowling behind his visor. How much of this marvelous technology did they intend to withhold from him, and where did they draw the line concerning what was considered sensitive?

“Why did you invite me here?” David asked as they made their way to the lapping surf. “I don’t mean you literally – why do your superiors need my help? It has to be something relating to neural networks.”

“All will be explained soon,” the machine replied, David rolling his eyes.

He hesitated as they reached the shore, the waves rolling up the beach and washing over his boots. The robot marched on, so he followed, the frothy water rising to his knees. It was tangibly cool through the lining of his suit, but not enough to be uncomfortable, his insulation and heating elements maintaining a pleasant internal temperature. As much as he could rationalize that the suit would keep him safe, instinct that still lingered after millions of years spiked his blood pressure and plucked at his limbic system, insisting that he return to dry land. Ignoring the archaic impulses – and trying not to hold his breath – he marched beneath the waves.

The water level rose up above his visor, buoyancy making him move like he was in microgravity, the tide jostling him gently. He could see the shimmering reflection of the sun on the surface above him, only a couple of meters above his head, and before him was an expanse of white sand that faded into a blue haze. The water was remarkably clear, and he could see far enough to make out a forest of kelp-like water weeds. To his surprise, the browns and oranges that he had seen on land were giving way to some blues and greens here. Of course – infrared light didn’t penetrate very far through water, so the deeper they went, the more the aquatic plants would resemble those of Earth in color. Below maybe forty meters, no UV light or any wavelengths above about six hundred nanometers would be usable for photosynthesis.

The road was still beneath his feet, the white, glossy material snaking off into the distance. How it wasn’t covered in silt and colonized by sea life searching for a hard surface, he had no idea. As they walked deeper – David bounding along like he was walking on Luna – the kelp forest began to enclose them. The stalks were as tall as trees, waving gently in the waves, reaching towards shallower water in search of light. They had mustard-colored leaves, growing dense enough that they blocked the sun, limiting visibility and creating dappled pools of light on the ground. There were smaller grasses clinging to the sediment, creating a lush, thick carpet like a meadow.

David lurched as a little fish darted out from between two nearby stalks, its colorful scales glinting in the light shafts before it vanished again. A few more followed – a whole school of them racing through the kelp, pausing to take cover within their shadowy leaves. He managed to get a better look at one of them as it peeked out at him. It had no fins and no tail, only a single skirt-like frill that ran down its tapering length. The frill created a mesmerizing wave pattern to propel it through the water, David admiring its tropical coloration of orange and blue stripes as it flitted away.

Surrounded by so much strange beauty, his anxiety about being so deep below the waves began to fade, academic curiosity distracting him from the sound of his own labored breathing inside his helmet.

As they made their way along the road, he spotted yet another animal – some kind of crustacean lazily walking through the sea grass on a set of long, spindly legs. There was no better way to describe it than as a crab, the creature bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Earth animal. It was picking through the detritus with a pair of dexterous claws as it searched for food. Like the fish, its rounded carapace was colored primarily orange with some hints of brown, likely to camouflage it.

Before long, they came upon another strange sight. The grass and kelp began to give way to more rocky terrain that rose up from the sediment, the boulders and outcrops covered with corals and sponges. Their shapes and colors were uncountable, David’s head on a swivel as he followed his robotic handler between the formations. Some were shaped like fans or sails that grew a good two meters in height, colored a vibrant blood red with violet fringes, vein-like structures crisscrossing their surfaces. Some almost looked like brains or honeycombs covered in complex grooves, while others reached up with spindly arms, branching out in fractal patterns. There were great shelves in azure blue that clung to the vertical sides of the rock faces almost like mushrooms. He could see trees with thick, trunk-like stalks that formed parasols high above him, and bowl-shaped growths that were filled with little waving tentacles reminiscent of sea anemones.

The only constant was that every available surface had been colonized, down to the smallest pebble, tube-shaped sponges and filter feeders clustering wherever there was space. There was more animal life here, too – shoals of almost obnoxiously colorful fish moving through the open water. More were hiding in the safe nooks and crannies afforded by the sprawling reef, crabs and shrimps crawling across the corals. It was like an undersea botanical garden.

Indifferent to his wonder, his companion marched on, scarcely giving him a few moments to stop and admire the scenery. The road wound between the reefs, still paradoxically clean of the life that surrounded it. Perhaps the material was treated with some kind of chemical to prevent the polyps from taking root, or maybe there was some mechanical aspect of its construction that made it undesirable.

As they rounded a bend, David stopped in his tracks. Not ten meters away, sifting through the sediment between two mounds of corals, was an animal. It was a crustacean – larger than any that he had encountered so far at about the size of a sheep. It resembled a lobster with no tail, its back covered in a hard, segmented shell that gave it a hunched appearance. Instead of the spindly legs that he would have expected, it had thicker, trunk-like limbs to support what must be some considerable weight. They were positioned beneath it, more like a land animal than the splayed legs of an arthropod, with maybe eight or ten on each side. It had a long, tapered head like a shrimp, clusters of antennae and what might be feeding tendrils sifting through the silt and throwing up clouds of dust into the water. Its complex compound eyes were mounted on stalks, reminding him of a hermit crab, waving back and forth as it scanned its surroundings. There were small corals and carpets of furry algae growing on its back, forming a camouflaging carpet.

“It is not dangerous,” his ward said, as though the sight should be as mundane to him as a cow grazing in a field.

“What the hell is that?” he demanded, watching the walking reef march along.

“They graze in the silt,” the tinny voice replied. It was coming through his helmet – he realized. The proxy had tapped into his suit’s radio. “They feed only on microorganisms.”

Knowing that he wasn’t going to get a more satisfying answer, he moved on. The geography of this place was becoming clearer now. After leaving the island, they had entered a lagoon, and they were now coming upon a barrier reef that separated it from the ocean proper. It formed a small, shallow expanse of water where photosynthesis was still a very viable source of energy, and life abounded.

Finally, the end of the road came into view. The terrain ahead rose up almost like a small seamount, David spotting structures nestled in the corals and rocks. They were buildings not unlike the ones that he had seen on the island above, most shaped like domes that were linked by transparent tubes. There were a handful of towers rising from the clusters, reaching to the surface some ten meters above, where their disk-like upper levels breached the water. They might be observation decks for the inhabitants or maybe a place where boats could dock – if the Brokers used boats. There were maybe a dozen structures, giving the impression of a small settlement akin to an underwater village.

Unlike the road, the corals and sponges had been allowed to take root here, the buildings doubling as natural habitats. Some were so covered that they were practically swallowed by the ever-expanding reefs, schools of tropical fish swimming past their porthole-like windows.

The road led to what almost looked like a warehouse – a square structure with rounded corners that seemed to extend deeper into the seamount. There was a large door on its facade that was clean of corals, suggesting that it would open up for the trucks. As they approached, he saw the shadow of something pass through one of the glass tubes that linked the dome-shaped buildings above, cursing to himself as it slid out of view again. Something was swimming around inside those structures…

The door slid open at their approach, splitting into two halves, revealing a parking garage for trucks. The road continued through the middle of the building, terminating in yet another door, the space to either side of it packed with more of the drone vehicles. A shallow ramp on the right side of the room led to a raised platform, and a little further behind it was a door large enough for the hulking proxy.

It led him inside, the door sliding open with a whoosh, closing behind them again as they stepped through. Just like the interior of the cigar vessel, the walls were a matte white, the corners of the room rounded to give it a soft look. Light emanated from all around him, and the water was clear enough that he could see as well as if he was standing on the shore. There was a window that looked out on the trucks in the garage, a few computers mounted on consoles beneath it.

It was the first time that he had seen a Broker computer, and he made a beeline for it before his ward could object. They were touch panels – as there were no visible buttons or interface devices – more of those square symbols displayed on them. It must indeed be their alphabet. They had different colors, and there were complex symbols contained within the squares, David watching curiously as some of them merged to form new characters. There was some kind of graphical interface, too, a stylized representation of one of the trucks standing out to him. Like humans, they must be visual creatures.

“Please do not touch that,” the proxy said, David turning to see the robot backing up against one of the walls. There were a couple more of the machines nestled in skeletal cradles, apparently inactive. They looked like charging stations.

The proxy set down David’s cases on the floor, then a similar cradle made from a hexagonal lattice structure closed around its chassis to hold it upright, the lenses on its front face ceasing their incessant movement. The damned thing had switched off, its arms going limp. Was this as far as it was intending to take him?

Before he could voice his complaint, the proxy’s matte white hull began to split open. It swung ajar like a clamshell, exposing a padded compartment within, something wet and lustrous slithering around inside it.

Struck by a sudden wave of fear, David took a few steps back, his eyes unable to make sense of what he was seeing. It looked like a nest of eels, coiling and winding as they spilled forth from within the confines of the compartment, reaching down towards the floor. They were a rich burgundy in color at their tapered tips, shifting into a lighter rust-red along their length, slightly mottled in appearance. They had an almost speckled texture, glistening in the diffuse light as though covered in tiny scales.

Only when he noticed the bright blue suckers was his mind able to form a picture of what he was looking at. They were tentacles, maybe a dozen of them piling onto the floor like spilled spaghetti, the main body of the creature following behind it. The alien stood upright, using the mass of tentacles as legs, the rubbery limbs joining to its comparatively narrow torso to form a kind of skirt.

It had something comparable to a pronounced waist that was about as narrow as his thigh, tapering into a chest and shoulders that also appeared small and dainty. Its torso was smooth and featureless, save for a subtle indent that ran down what he could only describe as its belly. Instead of arms, it had four more tentacles that were different from those it was resting upon, each one ending in a leaf-like shape that reminded him of a squid. Were those its hands? The limbs curled through the water like rubber hoses, seeming to lack any bones or supporting structures.

Higher still was a slender neck that supported a large, bulbous head. Like the mantle of an octopus, it was longer than a human skull, the light reflecting off smooth skin that was patterned with more burgundy mottling. Wrapping around its head was a thin frill of skin that resembled the wings of a cuttlefish, a gentle wave passing through the structure, its surface patterned with vibrant blue and orange tiger stripes.

It was a mesmerizing display that drew his gaze to its face, where he was met with a pair of large, expressive eyes that were ringed with little frills resembling lashes. Black pupils stood out against the white sclera, horizontal in shape and larger at either end – clearly eyes evolved to see through water. It had a pair of prominent lips where a human’s mouth would have been, and the way that its mantle tapered down between its eyes gave the appearance of a nose. Maybe it was simple pareidolia talking – his mind searching for familiar shapes – but there was something about it that put him more at ease. The thing was cute – almost ethereal.

As it turned in the water to face him, limbs floating behind it serenely, he saw more strange appendages. It had another six smaller tentacles arranged around its face, coming down from beneath its mantle almost like dreadlocks, and they were tipped with little suckers. A thin membrane of skin was stretched between them – one on each side – trailing behind the alien like two halves of a cape that reached almost to the ground. When it raised those face-tentacles, the blanket flared out, revealing breathtaking colors and patterning as it billowed in the water. The colors faded from a rich orange near the creature’s face to a cold blue, flowing stripes running along the length of the structures. Like a monarch butterfly, they were dominated by a pair of massive, orange eye spots.

It spoke, its lips moving, a clicking sound like two pieces of flint being struck together emanating from it. It was joined by high-pitched whistles and low, thudding pulses, the sound reminding him of dolphin song. There was more clicking, like it was trying to communicate in Morse code, then the alien paused.

Using one of its leaf-shaped hands, it reached for its neck, where it wore a thin band that looked like a choker. There was some kind of device enclosed in a small, white capsule attached to it, the alien giving it a tap.

“Do you understand me now?” it asked. He could still hear the clicking, whistling song in the background, but a distinctly feminine voice now filled his helmet. This wasn’t the cold, robotic synthesis of the proxy suit and the ship’s pilot – it was flowing and natural, with all of the right inflections. It…she, sounded like a young woman. Did Brokers even have genders? Was the voice a deliberate choice or merely coincidental?

“Y-yes,” he replied, still dumbfounded by the bizarre sight before him.

All this time, those robotic proxies had been housing living, breathing Brokers. Every time they had left their system – every Security Council meeting attended by one of their representatives on the Pinwheel, they had been separated by only a few inches of metal. This alien stood a head shorter than he was – at least in this posture – and she had a diminutive build small enough to cram herself inside the proxy. Like an octopus squeezing itself into a bottle, perhaps they enjoyed confined spaces.

The other species of the Coalition were alien, but they were at least humanoid. Borealans, Valbarans, Krell – even the insectoid Jarilans had an ostensibly human body plan if one was willing to discount the extra pair of arms. This was…something else.

“You must carry your luggage from here,” she added, gesturing to his cases with one of her tentacle arms. “It is too heavy for me without my exoskeleton.”

“The suit, you mean?” David asked. “Is that the only way you can venture onto land? Is that what they’re for?”

“No,” she replied, not elaborating further. “Come – you are expected.”

“Whoa, whoa,” David said as he raised his hands to stop her. “This is a historic moment. A human has never seen a Broker face to face before – don’t you want to…I don’t know, say something? Are we really just going to rush past this like it’s nothing?”

“You are not a novelty to me,” she replied. Her tone was neutral – matter-of-fact, as though she was just going through the motions. “I have studied your species extensively as part of my assignment.”

“I can’t say the same!” he protested, unwilling to mask his annoyance. “I’m supposed to be making history here – this is the first meeting between our species without one of those robots acting as an intermediary. Will you at least tell me more about yourself and your species?”

David balked as the tone of her skin suddenly shifted – her burgundy coloration darkening and her tiger stripes taking on a yellow hue, enhancing their contrast. Those shimmering speckles that he had seen weren’t scales, they were chromatophores – pigmented cells that could be controlled using muscle groups to change their color and reflectivity. The texture of her glistening skin changed along with it, taking on a rougher, almost prickly appearance. Like a cuttlefish or an octopus, she must have some level of conscious control over them, or perhaps this was a form of alien body language used to signal emotion.

“There will be ample time for that later,” she replied tersely. “Please follow me, or we will be late.”

She turned, those incredible blankets fanning out behind her, and she made her way over to a nearby door. Her gait was that of an octopus walking on the sea floor, a dozen tentacles all working in tandem to make her glide along the floor, their coordination fascinating him. The suckers seemed to give her more purchase, the little cups sticking to the flat deck beneath them. Her upper body remained paradoxically still, the two colorful membranes trailing behind her.

Now that her back was to him, he could make out some subtle musculature and something that almost looked like shoulder blades. Maybe the Brokers weren’t completely boneless? There were also two vents beneath her mantle – about where the ears on a human would have been – the orifices expanding and contracting as they appeared to cycle water. Was that how she breathed?

There was a control panel beside the door, and she lay her leaf-shaped hand over it, using her suckers to interact with it in the way that a human would have used their fingers. The door slid open, and beyond, David saw a long tube made from a transparent material. It curved down and out of view, leading into deeper water beyond the shelf created by the reefs.

He lifted his cases, and seeing that he was cooperating, the Broker’s coloration returned to its usual shade of burgundy. Perhaps she wasn’t being forthcoming, but others might be, and he got the feeling that he’d be staying on the planet for a good while. Her task might just be to bring him to whoever was going to brief him.

She scuttled into the tube, and he followed after her, the panel sliding shut to seal them inside. Now, he could see the path ahead curving down into the darkness below, going straight off an underwater cliff like some kind of nightmarish water park attraction. It was too murky for him to make out any details beyond a hundred meters or so.

“Figured we might be taking one of the trucks,” he muttered. “I wasn’t joking about these new boots, you know…”


A sudden rush of water lifted him off his feet, David flailing reflexively, the Broker having to lean away to avoid being clocked by one of his cases.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, her hue darkening again. “Be still and let the current carry you.”

She splayed out her tentacles to stabilize herself in the water as the flow began to carry her away. David only had four limbs, and he settled on an awkward reclining posture that at least prevented him from being turned end over end. He expected to shoot down the tube like a bullet, but the current was relatively gentle, pushing them along at a little more than walking speed. The curving tunnel carried them down, the rate and pressure such that there was little chance of him being dashed against the glass. The Broker turned in place, looking back at him with an expression that he could only interpret as disapproval as he floundered.

His limbic system blared more protests as he coasted deeper, the dappled light that reflected on the ocean’s surface diminishing as twilight enveloped the pipe. The instinctual fear of dark, open water was hard to suppress, but he kept reminding himself that he was protected behind the glass. Like falling off a cliff in slow motion, the sheer rock face scrolled past behind him, the corals and sponges thinning out as less light was able to reach them. They must be in the mesopelagic zone now – some four or five hundred meters below the surface.

As the pipe began to level out somewhat, the slope becoming less pronounced, he concluded that they weren’t heading to the ocean floor proper just yet. It was more likely that they were still on the raised shelf surrounding the island chain – the foothills, if one was to imagine that the islands were the peaks of an underwater mountain range.

While the visibility was only getting worse the deeper they went, he found that he could make out more features now. The tube had support rings that were spaced out at intervals, and they emitted a soft glow, providing enough light to illuminate their immediate surroundings. Across the barren, rocky terrain, David could make out more such tubes some distance away. They emitted a similar glow, snaking their way up and down the slope like an underwater highway system. There were other opaque tubes and insulated cables that were likely carrying power and other resources to and from the island, the Broker civilization spanning from the shore to the seabed.

As they coasted along, he spotted some kind of bulky ROV hovering over an adjacent pipe, a set of extensible manipulator arms reaching out to repair the structure. It looked something like one of the crabs he had seen in the reefs above, its white hull rounded and streamlined, and there was a cluster of cameras on its front face. It was clinging to the pipe with a set of six mechanical legs, bright blue flashes lighting it up as it operated a welding tool. It must be another drone. He watched as it lifted off, its spindly arms and legs folding neatly into compartments beneath its belly, coasting away with no visible form of propulsion.

More lights appeared in the distance, their glow cutting through the gloom, and David was treated to yet another breathtaking vista.

Ahead of them was an underwater city – not merely a collection of small structures and domes, but towering buildings that rose a hundred stories from the sediment. They were cylindrical in shape with flat tops reminiscent of giant vases, and they were covered in innumerable windows. In a way, they somewhat resembled some of the tubular corals that he had seen in shallower water, as they appeared to have a hollow aperture at their apex like a chimney. Though, there was nothing about their texture or color that suggested the resemblance was intentional. They were made from the same white, porous material as everything else, and they were too deep to serve as habitats for corals.

There must have been a dozen of them, and that was just what he could make out, the light that bled from the windows of each one illuminating its immediate neighbors. They were linked by tubes that formed walkways between them, tying them all together into a single dense, contiguous network. It wasn’t too unlike the kilometer-tall skyscrapers of Earth’s cities, where it was more convenient to link buildings above street level using bridges and maglev systems rather than taking a trip to street level and back.

David had seen sunken cities off the coast of the United States, where rising sea levels had swallowed entire neighborhoods, the husks of buildings now playing host to sea life. There were underwater museums there now, where tourists could walk along the sea floor and view the ruins, and the sight dredged up old memories of past visits. The sheer scale of everything was a little intimidating when coupled with the limited visibility of the dark water, making the cityscape look like a pod of sleeping sperm whales. There was more infrastructure occupying the sea floor between them – a carpet of machinery and cables dense enough that it resembled the tangled roots of a forest floor.

The Broker didn’t even react – this was as normal to her as seeing the Toronto skyline was to him, and she seemed to show no interest in how he was reacting. If she was supposed to be his guide, then she was doing a poor job of it.

Following the contours of the sea bed, the pipe carried them down towards the city, one of the towers looming larger and larger as they neared. While it wasn’t as tall and lacked the enormous footprint of some human structures, it still looked big enough to have housed tens of thousands of people, if indeed it was intended to be some kind of apartment block. David craned his neck as they approached, seeing the building’s facade rise up above him, then the pair coasted inside.

The flow of water slowed as they emerged into a kind of terminal, the tube branching off in several places to allow the passengers to exit, while the main pipe continued deeper into the structure. Apparently, getting off at the correct stop was done manually, the Broker swimming through the water with a push from her tentacles. She had neglected to inform David of that fact, and he coasted past, completely oblivious. The alien noticed in time, and he felt one of her four arms reach out to grab him, the rubbery appendage coiling around his wrist. For something that looked so flexible and gelatinous, it was surprisingly strong, firm muscle flowing beneath the colorful skin like a liquid. He could feel the suckers latching onto his suit, the Broker pulling him back out through the correct tube, the water flowing slowly enough that it wasn’t much of a struggle.

He was deposited on the floor outside, glancing around the terminal. Just like every other structure he’d been inside, the walls were matte white, and all of the edges were rounded. He’d only been on the planet for about an hour, and he was already starved of visual stimulation. A potted plant, a piece of wall art – anything to break up the monotonous white. He noted that there was a gentle current, not nearly as strong as the one that had carried them down here, but enough to ruffle the Broker’s blankets. It was noticeably warmer here than it had been in the pipe, too. Maybe it was some kind of filtration and heating system – like the Broker equivalent of A/C. They would have to cycle in clean oxygenated water in a closed environment like this one.

“Where are we?” David asked, walking in slow motion. The room was about as large as a subway station, but it was deserted. There wasn’t another soul in sight. Lining the far wall were several doors that must lead deeper into the building, each one marked with Broker text.

“Administration,” the Broker replied. “You have an appointment.”

“I do? Good to know!”

The alien’s chromatophores darkened again, providing further evidence that it was a sign of displeasure, her stripes standing out prominently against her skin.

“You know, I was kind of expecting more fanfare,” he added as he followed behind her. “Maybe not a red carpet, but a little media attention, maybe an entourage waiting to welcome me to the city. Shouldn’t this be a bigger deal? After all, am I not the first human to ever set foot on a Broker planet?”

“You will soon be meeting with the administrator and the head staff,” she replied, lifting a hand to interact with one of the door panels.

“Are they…important?” David inquired. “They sound important.”

The door slid open, and they proceeded through another corridor. This one finally had a little visual interest rather than just sterile white metal. The entire length of the left wall was taken up by a long fish tank filled with colorful corals, a UV light bathing the artificial reef to give it a violet hue. There were schools of fish swimming along, their bodies making an odd, undulating pattern as they used their frills to propel themselves through the water. It struck him as odd that they would need aquariums underwater, but he surmised that the conditions within the tank were very different from those in the building. Not only that, but polyps, spores, and escaped fish could make a hell of a mess in an inhabited area. They’d have tube worms growing in the ventilation system within a week.

The right wall was covered in more Broker text, square symbols of various colors and sizes adorning what looked like a map of the building, or maybe of the tube system. It bore a close resemblance to a subway map – something familiar enough to be recognizable.

They emerged into some kind of reception area – a crescent-shaped room that hugged another large fish tank, something akin to moon jellies floating serenely up and down its tubular length. There was a desk in front of it that extended from the floor, and sitting behind the glowing displays was something that gave David pause. It was some kind of robot with a long, rounded head that seemed to be a facsimile of a Broker’s mantle, a pair of large, dark eyes peering back at the pair. Its chassis was completely smooth, with no other facial features, made from the white material that he had come to expect. Like the exoskeleton that his guide had ridden in, it had four hose-like arms made from segments of chrome metal, each one tipped with a leaf-shaped hand.

His companion made her way over to the desk and had a short exchange with it in her clicking, whistling language, only one side of which was translated for his benefit. It was a secretary of some kind, clearly automated, the machine checking its displays briefly before directing her to a side door.

David marveled at the fluidity of its movements. If it was operating on some kind of program or neural net, then it was an advanced one. It couldn’t be AI, surely. Humanity had not yet succeeded in creating a sentient machine, and he doubted very much whether the Brokers had either. As far as he knew, their drones were simply running on algorithms – albeit complex ones. What could a people who had achieved so much need of him? He might be an expert in his field, but he must be one or two centuries behind the Brokers, at least.

His guide did as the mechanical secretary directed, David hurrying a little to catch up as she led him through yet another corridor.

“What was that?” he demanded. “That was another drone, right? Like the trucks and the repair bot we saw on the way in?”

“It is an interface device intended to relay messages and orient visitors,” she explained, keeping her eyes ahead. “Yes, it is automated.”

“A robot secretary,” he marveled. “So, it’s like a virtual assistant, but more advanced? Tell me – why give it a physical body? Why not a simple kiosk with a map? Why not just have a computer with a speech synthesizer? You seem to be in no shortage of those.”

“The interactions are more pleasant,” she replied.

“If that’s the goal, then why not just hire a real person?”

“You would find that preferable?” she scoffed, sparing him a sideways glance as he bobbed along beside her. “I had read that humans were…sociable…but I find that hard to believe.”

Not sure how to interpret her comment, he continued on. Perhaps the task was seen as a menial one to the Brokers, and they automated all such positions. In a society so advanced, perhaps there was no longer any need for such jobs, and it would be like asking why there were no lamplighters or elevator operators.

Through another door, they emerged into a much more impressive space. Before him was a circular room that was maybe three or four stories tall, dominated by a truly enormous aquarium that rose up through its center. It must have contained millions of liters, and it was playing host to a whole ecosystem. A pillar of jagged rock ran up its center, which was home to vibrant corals and sponges, innumerable shoals of tropical fish slowly circling it as they swam up and down its length.

There were larger fish, too, something about the size of a tiger shark slowly drifting past the glass on the near side. Like the smaller fish, it had no fins, but a frill-like membrane ran down the length of its tapering body. It reminded him of a cuttlefish or something like the extinct Anomalocaris in the way that it moved, a ripple spreading along the structure. Its mouthparts were far more familiar, the creature sporting a set of powerful jaws with an exposed beak that looked sharp enough to shear through sheet metal. It was patterned with faded stripes, suggesting that it hunted fairly close to the surface.

In his awe, it took David a few moments to take in the rest of the room. There were more small fish tanks arranged around the circular space at intervals – the Brokers seemed to be using them in the same way that a human building might use potted plants – and there were odd chairs that were little more than netting suspended within a frame. They looked like small hammocks. He could see more lettering on the walls, as well as the prevalence of a strange symbol that resembled an elongated brain, its creases stylized to resemble circuits.

Movement caught his eye, and he saw several other Brokers from across the room. They were sitting in some of the strange seats, their long tentacles coiled up beneath themselves, the strangers rising as his companion announced herself with a whistle.

There were three of them, and each one was a little different from the others. No two had exactly the same coloration, one sporting a resting skin tone that was more of a rusty red, while another was closer to a coral orange. They had physiological differences, too. One of them had a frill around its head, just like his guide, while another had an arrow-shaped membrane atop its mantle like the fins of a squid. The third had what almost looked like floppy ears, two large, fan-shaped structures rising from atop its head. Each one sported a bright orange eye spot. All three were otherwise similar, with the same number of limbs and the same trailing blankets, their skin lighting up in mesmerizing patterns as they approached. Their hues grew noticeably lighter, bordering on beige, more blues dominating their stripes and mottling.

The one with a squid fin reached up to activate a translation device that was strapped around its neck, David hearing a male voice fill his helmet. If they had any sexual dimorphism, it wasn’t obvious at a glance.

“Doctor O’Shea,” he began warmly, scuttling to a stop a few paces away. David noted that the other two were keeping their distance – from him as well as from each other – remaining at arm’s length. “What a momentous occasion this is. Welcome to our city, and thank you for responding to our request for assistance. Your reputation precedes you, and I must say that we are all very excited to have you here.”

David could still hear their odd clicking, whistling language in the background, but it was easy to focus on the more immediate translation that was piping through his earpieces.

“Thank you!” David replied, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. It seemed that his guide was just unusually surly, and the rest of the city’s inhabitants were perfectly cordial. “On behalf of the UN and its scientific community, I’d like to thank your people for affording us such a rare and valuable opportunity to share knowledge and further our relations. I’m still processing everything that I saw on my way down, but I have to say – I’m beyond impressed. For an academic such as myself, this place is like a smorgasbord of scientific and technological knowledge. It’s hard to know where to start.”

They exchanged glances, perhaps confused by the term smorgasbord, but decided to press on.

“Yes, I am sure that this is all very overwhelming,” the male with the squid fin continued. “I am sure you are also wondering why we extended the invitation in the first place. We asked for your government’s discretion in the matter to avoid having any sensitive information escape secure channels. It is a matter of some…delicacy.”

“I have some idea,” he replied, glancing at the brain graphic on the wall. “I am a multi-disciplinarian, naturally, but my chief area of expertise is the study of neural networks and synthetic intelligence. I’ve primarily worked with machine learning technologies associated with surgical robots, power management systems, auto-pilot programs – that kind of thing. My research into theoretical neural models is at the cutting edge of the field. However, based on what I saw during my journey, I fail to imagine what precisely you need my help with. If the ship that I rode in on was automated, then you’re already decades ahead of UN researchers.”

“We are having a problem at one of our research and development facilities,” the Broker replied, remaining evasive. “The team there was developing new control software for combat drones, and there has been…an unexpected development. Our researchers were unable to deal with the situation to the Board’s satisfaction,” he added, glancing pointedly at the guide. She was standing off to one side, conspicuously distant from the rest of the group, her coloration darkening again as she averted her eyes. “The Board feels that an outside perspective might be beneficial.”

“You need me to think outside the box,” David replied with an understanding nod. “Different techniques, a different background, different cultural concepts. It’s a smart decision, if I may say so. An alien might think of solutions that wouldn’t even occur to you.”

“You will of course receive a full briefing on the situation in short order,” the male replied. “However, you must be tired after such a long journey, and the issue is not so pressing that it cannot wait a rest cycle. We have arranged special accommodations for you in the city that we hope will meet your requirements, and we have assigned the leader of the project in question to be your guide during your stay with us. She will attend to your needs and help familiarize you with our society and her project to help prepare you for the task ahead.”

“I appreciate the hospitality,” David added. “It’s hard to accurately convey what an adventure this is for me. You seem to have me at a disadvantage, though. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“I am afraid that our names are quite unintelligible to a human,” he replied, his synthesized voice conveying an amused chuckle that was reflected in his pastel coloration. “Being adapted for an aquatic lifestyle, we simply lack the vocal apparatus required to produce speech as you would understand it – something to do with the properties of sound as it travels through water. While the translation devices that we use are advanced, a name is not something that can be interpreted so readily. If it does not violate some human custom that I am not aware of, you may refer to me by my title of Administrator. The research facility in question belongs to me, and I oversee all of its operations.”

“That would be fine, Administrator,” David replied.

“These are my colleagues – the operator of my drone fleet and the head of the R&D division. They will also be at your disposal should you require anything.”

His choice of possessive pronouns was interesting. Was it a quirk of the translation, or did he mean that the facility and the drone fleet literally belonged to him? There wasn’t enough context to make an educated guess yet. It seemed that there was some kind of board above him, so perhaps he answered to someone higher up the food chain.

“If there are no further questions, you will be shown to your accommodations,” the Administrator continued. “I trust that you will find them comfortable. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ask your handler. She can forward any messages or inquiries to my staff and me on your behalf. I am afraid that I must cut our meeting short, as my schedule is quite packed.”

“Well, I couldn’t have hoped for a warmer reception,” David replied. “I’m very much looking forward to working alongside your people.”

With that, the Administrator and his two colleagues excused themselves, leaving through a door on the far side of the aquarium.

“Well, that was more like it,” David said as he turned to face his guide. “You’re the head of the research program that’s causing all the trouble, then?”

Suddenly, her sour attitude was starting to make a little more sense. This whole situation was at least partially her fault, and whatever she had screwed up, nobody had been able to fix it yet. Now, they had resorted to calling in an alien to help – a choice that could not have been made lightly when their xenophobic history was taken into account. As friendly as the Administrator had been, it didn’t take a genius to guess that calling in David had been their last resort. This woman had drawn the ire of her superiors, and babysitting him was her punishment.

“The program is my responsibility,” she replied, her coloration still dark. It looked like she was standing in the shadow of her own personal storm cloud. “The problem has confounded our team so far, and the Board decided that outside help was required.”

“But you disagree,” he added, remembering what Dr. Webber had said during her recorded message. They think they’re smarter than you. They are mistaken.

“I believe that, given enough time and resources, my team and I would have been able to resolve the issue,” she replied tersely. “Bringing in an alien represents an unacceptable security risk.”

David felt a flash of apprehension, the data drive that was concealed within his suit suddenly weighing him down like a lead ingot. Her suspicions were well-placed, even if it wasn’t his choice to become a spy for UNNI. Just what were they working on that was so sensitive?

“I understand that you’re not thrilled about some outsider muscling in on your pet project,” he began, picking up his cases. “I’ve had that happen before, and it’s never fun. But I’m here to help you, and the more you cooperate, the easier both of our jobs are going to be.”

She looked like she wanted to argue, but as stubborn as she might be, she understood that they had to make the best of the situation. The only path forward now was to help him help her.

“I shall take you to your accommodations,” she said, her translator doing a remarkable job of conveying the resignation in her voice.

The two went back the way they had come, David taking the opportunity to get another look at the secretary robot. He leaned over its desk, seeing that it was rooted to the floor of the building. It made a comment, its speech indistinguishable from that of the Brokers, but he didn’t know what it was saying.

When they arrived back at the tube station, they boarded another pipe, which sent them coasting out of the building and into the open water between the structures. David’s head was on a swivel, the sights never ceasing to amaze him. The skyscrapers towered above him, and below, the network of pipes and cables that linked the city’s infrastructure trailed across the sediment. There was something pleasing about the way that they had been arranged, like the neatly-managed cables in a server rack, more of those submersible drones crawling over them like ants tending to their nest. It didn’t matter what those cables were made of – it must take a lot of maintenance to keep everything running smoothly in corrosive saltwater.

As they drifted along their tube, following its gentle curve, David noticed something strange. They were absolutely surrounded by a complex network of transport tubes that made the place look like a giant water park, yet there seemed to be few other passengers. Every so often, he’d spot the shadow of another Broker moving through a distant pipe, lit by the glowing rings that were spaced along its length at regular intervals. If this was intended to be a highway for a whole city, then where were all the citizens?

“Where is everyone?” David asked as he floated a couple of meters behind his guide. “Are they sleeping? Is this a rest cycle like the Administrator mentioned?”

It stood to reason that on a planet with no day and night cycle, they would have to set designated periods of time for sleeping.

“You will find that our culture differs much from yours,” she replied. “We are coming upon a junction,” she added. David could see it nearing – a place where the pipe split into two different routes. There was glowing holographic lettering floating above it, somewhat like a street sign. “You will need to swim left.”

“Thanks for warning me this time,” he said. The flow wasn’t so strong that he had to fight it, David pushing off the glass with one foot to send him floating down the correct opening.

“The transportation system is so mundane, it slipped my mind that you might not understand how it works,” she explained.

“Yeah, I can see that,” he conceded. “Saw a Borealan try to use an escalator in a spaceport once – that was an interesting experience.”

“I have seen footage of your cities,” she continued. “Millions of humans are densely packed into small areas, living tens of thousands to a building, rubbing shoulders as they walk the streets. Your population centers are overcrowded and inefficient.”

“Not all of them,” he protested as they rounded another bend. “Sure, Earth has a pretty large population, and most major cities have buildings that can house a whole town’s worth of tenants, but that’s not always true on our colonies.”

“I have seen Mars also,” the Broker replied. “Millions crammed beneath glass domes where a square meter is more precious than osmium, breathing the same recycled air and drinking the same processed wastewater. Living one’s life inside a tiny cube in such close proximity that one’s neighbors can be heard through the very walls is anathema to my kind.”

“There are nicer places to live,” David added. “Franklin or Jarilo, for example. You can build a homestead there and have enough land that you’d have to walk for a day to see another soul.”

“Either way, we cannot abide such things,” she said, her skin seeming to grow prickly at the mere suggestion. “We have different requirements.”

“You like your space – I can respect that. So, how many people actually live in this city?”

“Fewer than you would probably imagine, but our society is heavily automated, meaning that there are fewer reasons to leave one’s property.”

“You don’t have to leave to get groceries or commute to work?” David asked skeptically. “This is a highly technological society, and even with all the drones I’ve seen, you’d need an army of technicians and programmers to keep them operating. Even if all of your factories and resource extraction operations are automated, there has to be someone to oversee them and keep everything running smoothly, right?”

“We do not reward idleness, if that is what you imply,” she replied as they passed beneath a repair bot that was gliding through the water above their tube.

“You’re not post-scarcity, then,” he added. It was a relief, in a way. If the Brokers had truly advanced to that level of development, then they would be so far ahead of humanity that there might be no cultural touchstones left.

“Few are content to have merely their basic needs met,” she replied.

“You didn’t really answer my question,” he added. “Give me a ballpark figure of how many people live here. That’s not a secret, is it?”

Ballpark?” she asked, waiting for her translator to elaborate. “A stadium in which competitive sports are played?”

“Just give me an estimate,” he explained. Perhaps the device was loaded with a whole human dictionary that would help provide context for words that had no direct interpretation.

“Perhaps two thousand per building,” she replied.

Two thousand?” David repeated in disbelief. “These are large enough to house five times that! Are you telling me that this entire city has less than fifty thousand inhabitants? I haven’t seen more than two dozen buildings, though the visibility is admittedly poor.”

“As I said, your crowded dwellings would be unacceptable to us. Ah, we have arrived.”

Ahead of them, another identical tower rose up from the sea floor, the light from its rows of round windows spilling out into the dingy ocean. It was high enough to fade out of view from this perspective, giving him another little twinge of thalassophobia.

“Take the first exit on your right,” the Broker said as they slid into another identical tube station. This time, he was ready for it, David pushing off the curving wall of the pipe and exiting onto solid ground. Now that he understood how the system worked, it was rather convenient and intuitive. It reminded him of the moving walkways in spaceport terminals. It wasn’t especially fast, but all of that swimming would probably tire out even a Broker, considering the distance they had traveled.

“Are you ever going to tell me your name?” David asked as he waded through the water beside his guide. “If we’re going to be working together, I can’t just call you handler. I’d call you Project Lead, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.”

“I told you – you cannot reproduce our speech.”

“So? I could give you a nickname.”

“Please do not,” she grumbled, her skin turning an irritated shade of blotchy maroon.

“Just tell me what your name is, and I’ll see what I can make of it.”

Perhaps realizing that it was the only way to shut him up, she let out a series of clicks, plosives, and resonating pulses that weren’t picked up by her translator.

“Say that again,” David insisted.

With another irritated darkening of her chromatophores, she repeated it.

“So, your name is something like…Ti-Ap-Wi-Og.”

“Not even close,” she grumbled, activating a panel by one of the exit doors. “I doubt that you can even hear in the correct frequencies. Your people have many honorifics – Ma’am or Doctor, for example. Any will suffice.”

They proceeded into another corridor, but this one was different. The walls and ceiling of the hallway were made from curving glass, and beyond the transparent material was another aquarium that spanned its length, David finding himself surrounded by glowing jellies. They floated through the dark water ethereally, the ghostly blue glow of their bioluminescence combining with their translucent tissues to make them look like living line drawings. There were enough of them drifting around in dense clouds to bathe the corridor in their soft light.

“This is…beautiful!” David exclaimed as he turned on the spot. “I was starting to think that you guys had no sense of style, but I’m being proven wrong. On Earth, these kinds of places usually have an entrance fee.”

He noted that her coloration had lightened somewhat, her skin taking on a more pastel quality, almost like the saturation was draining from it. Judging by his interaction with the Administrator, it signaled that her mood was improving. Perhaps his sense of wonder amused her. While the circumstances of their meeting could not have been any less favorable, it must be hard not to crack the Broker equivalent of a smile watching someone experience all of this for the first time. She was actually talking now, so he was making progress.

“This way,” she said, her flowing blankets flaring out behind her as she whirled around. Beyond the jellies, the floor ended abruptly, something that looked like an empty elevator shaft shooting straight up into the ceiling. It was so long that he couldn’t see the top – the haze created by the water masking it from view, like it was fading into a blue mist. She turned to glance at him as he hesitated.

“Your accommodations are on a higher level,” she explained.

“I get it,” he replied, craning his neck. “No stairs, no elevators, no ladders. There’s no need when you’re in a microgravity environment and you can just…swim up.”

The problem was, David wasn’t quite as buoyant as the Broker – especially not with both hard cases clutched in his hands. The tube system had a current that whisked him along, but he’d have to swim up to the appropriate floor under his own power.

The Broker quickly realized the issue, extending a couple of her tentacle arms, the leaf-like hands uncurling to expose her bright blue suckers.

“I can carry one of your bags,” she said. “I know that humans are capable of swimming, but you are clearly…not designed for it.”

“I mean, in theory there are humans who are incredible divers and swimmers,” he replied as he handed off one of the cases to her. “The issue is, I work in a laboratory, and I do cardio on a treadmill. I don’t think I even own a swimsuit anymore…”

She coiled one of her arms around the handle, her suckers gluing two more of her hands to its case, giving her a pretty solid grip.

“Sorry about making you carry my luggage before, by the way,” he added. “I thought you were a robot…”

The Broker began to swim up the shaft, her leg-tentacles working in tandem to create a wave motion that propelled her along in bursts. David took a moment to consider how he was going to proceed, lamenting that the Navy hadn’t thought to include flippers with his suit. He wasn’t that experienced of a swimmer on the best of days, let alone wearing boots and carrying a case full of heavy scientific equipment. He jumped on the spot experimentally, floating maybe a meter into the air before slowly descending again, not buoyant enough to float. He tried once more, kicking his legs to no avail. His guide paused some ten meters above him, her tentacles waving to keep her level as she waited for him to follow.

A new idea came to mind, and he leapt into the air again, coasting over to the far wall of the shaft this time. When he reached it, he kicked off, aiming for the opposite wall. Like a free diver, he could push off the surfaces, slowly bouncing his way up the shaft. More than a little pleased with himself, he tucked the case under one arm, using the other to help control his movement.

The Broker gave him a look of bemusement, then continued on, swimming ahead of him. These towers had looked to be a hundred stories tall from the outside, so for all he knew, they had some ways to travel. Looking down at the sheer drop below made his stomach turn, but he reminded himself that his descent would be a slow one if he were to lose his footing and fall.

There were doors lining the shaft, and he surmised that they led into apartments or living spaces for the Brokers. They must be pretty spacious if there were only a couple of thousand Brokers per tower. The walls were covered in more alien markings, perhaps some kind of stylized map with apartment numbers or something.

It was hard to know how high they were when his guide stopped at one of the doors. All David knew what that his thighs were on fire. She lay her hand over a touch display, and the panel slid open to grant her access. David had to angle his next jump correctly to reach the door, hooking his free hand around its lip and pulling himself inside.

When he climbed to his feet, he found himself standing inside a space that would have passed for a luxury penthouse on any human world. It seemed that he had two entire stories all to himself, and the ceilings were fairly high, considering the stature of the Brokers. The suite was open-plan, arranged around the central shaft, which formed a kind of pillar that rose up through the center of the room. The space seemed to span the entire floor of the tower. The second level skirted the periphery of the main area, somewhat like a large balcony, the aquatic environment meaning that no stairs were necessary to reach it. Everything had a flowing, curving, almost organic design that reminded David of some kind of art gallery or upscale office complex.

The walls and floor were coated in slabs of cream-colored stone that had been polished to a sheen like marble. It was coral stone, he realized – its surface pocked with little indents and impressions left by a fossilized reef. He could see cross-sections of branching tubes and imprints left by some of the brain-like specimens, along with spiraling shells that had been preserved in the sediment. There were no corners, all of the walls blending together into a seamless, curving surface.

As he walked deeper into the room, he turned his visor to the ceiling, seeing that it was covered by a massive aquarium. There were shoals of colorful fish swimming through the tank, making him feel like there was open water above him. Maybe that was the point. There were more tanks around the spacious room – some helping to support the second level like cylindrical pillars, while others were recessed deep into the wall to break up the beige stone in places. They contained living corals and sponges, giving them the appearance of potted plants.

All of the light in the room filtered through the ceiling, creating a dappled effect on the floor reminiscent of sunlight reflected through shallow water. It made the already cavernous space feel all the larger.

“I’m going to be bunking here?” David asked in disbelief, turning on the spot as he took in the lavish environment. “Holy shit. Do you have any clue what a place like this would cost on Earth?”

“This is considered modest by our standards,” she replied as she set his case down on the floor.

“Well, I guess you guys must have space to spare with such a low population count. It’s like if you took five Toronto penthouses and just knocked all the dividing walls out.”

“I think you misunderstand,” she continued, her hue darkening again. “This is my property. It was the Administrator’s decision that you should stay with me – in the city.”


David would have tugged at his collar nervously if his suit had been equipped with one, settling on fiddling with one of his gloves instead. So, the Administrator wasn’t only taking away control of her project and bringing in outside help, but he was forcing her to host an alien in her home. Based on what little he had learned about their culture so far, they weren’t the most social creatures, so it was no wonder she was so pissed off. What had she done to draw such ire that her boss would go out of his way to torment her like this?

“Uh, listen,” he began hesitantly. “Not that I don’t appreciate your hospitality, but I could always go stay at an embassy.”

“There are no embassies. No alien governments have a presence in Trappist.”

“Oh, of course,” he muttered. “How about a hotel? You guys have hotels, right? Hey, two stars, an unheated pool, no room service – I’ve had worse.”

“I suggested that they fabricate a temporary dwelling for you on the island, where you would be more comfortable,” she explained. “It was determined that you would need to be supervised during your stay, however.”

And, building David a little tropical getaway on the beach wouldn’t have the added effect of getting under her skin, she neglected to add. It was obvious enough that she had argued against this arrangement fervently, and it didn’t make him feel the most welcome. There was also the fact that she had clearly been instructed to keep an eye on him by her superiors. They certainly were a suspicious people.

Mi casa es su casa,” he muttered to himself, glancing around the suite. “Not to nitpick – I’m sure you have a lovely home – but I can’t live in this space suit twenty-four seven. I have to take off the helmet to eat and drink, I have to go to the bathroom, I have to sleep.”

“I have researched humans enough to understand your physiological needs,” she replied, a ripple of texture spreading across her skin. Was that irritation? Anger? It almost looked like the fur puffing up on a cat. “Our engineers have arranged an appropriate habitat for you.”

Habitat,” he mumbled. “I’ll give it a look over, but if you start feeding me fish flakes, I’m out of here.”

She gave him a quizzical look, those large eyes oddly expressive, but she wasn’t invested enough in their conversation to ask him to elaborate. He picked up the other case, then followed her across the apartment, her suckers sticking to the polished floor as she scuttled along. It was such an odd, complex gait, and he couldn’t tear his eyes away from it. The way that her tentacles formed a bell shape when they reached her waist made it look like she had hips, though he doubted whether there was any bone or cartilage in that part of her body. Not if she could squish herself into that exoskeleton.

They passed a glass coffee table that was supported by a piece of petrified coral. There were two chairs nearby, both of a similar design to the ones he had seen in the other building. They looked like they were made using 3D printing or some equivalent process, creating strange, branch-like structures filled with holes and empty cavities. Perhaps they were designed to use as little material as possible. Netting was strung between their frames like little hammocks.

His guide swam up to the second level, and he followed her, pushing off the floor like he was jumping in lunar gravity. It was actually kind of fun in this more familiar environment. The décor up here was much the same as the lower level, with coral stone lining the walls and floor, broken up by the occasional fish tank or piece of exotic alien furniture.

At the far end of the room, sitting on the balcony-like overhang, was a transparent bubble. It looked like an igloo made of plastic, brushing the five-meter-high ceiling at its apex and maybe six meters wide. There was a door that jutted from its near face, bringing to mind images of airlocks on clean rooms. As David approached, he could make out distorted furnishings through the material – a desk and a more familiar chair, along with a bed and some storage lockers.

“Yep, I’d call that a habitat,” he said as he appraised his new room. “You’ve erected some kind of rigid tent and pressurized it – one bar with Earth-norm environmental conditions, I’m assuming? Very impressive.”

“Our engineers tried to approximate a comfortable human environment,” she explained, hitting a panel in the door frame. “I assisted with the furnishings. Based on my research, you should find it adequate.”

The door swung open on a hinge, and instead of the two-way airlock that he had been anticipating, David saw a shimmering barrier of blue light. He reached out to brush his fingers against it warily, watching them slide through.

“I know what this is!” he marveled. “It’s not so different from the molecular force fields that we use to keep in the atmosphere on carrier hangar decks. They allow physical objects to pass through, but the lattice of energized particles is fine enough to prevent air molecules from escaping. This field has to be holding back an enormous amount of pressure, though,” he added as he waved his hand through it experimentally. “The force of the atmosphere within the habitat trying to escape, and the force of the water trying to flood in. You know, a bell design with a moon pool would have been a hell of a lot simpler.”

She ignored his comment, shuffling through the barrier, David watching another ripple of displeasure pass across her smooth skin like a shiver. Like an octopus trying to camouflage itself in the rocks, her papillae rose to form pointy peaks, creating a spiky wave that flowed from her head to her extremities. The control that she exerted over the texture and color of her skin never ceased to amaze him.

“So, they can go on land,” he muttered into his helmet as he followed after her.

He stepped through, feeling the barrier pull the very moisture from the surface of his suit to leave him bone dry – a strange sensation indeed. The same didn’t seem to be true for his companion, who was still glistening wet. The field must be very carefully calibrated. There were many back in UN space who would kill for the chance to develop a clean room or an airlock that could remove contaminants in such a manner, but he was getting ahead of himself. One thing at a time…

He did a lap around the little room, examining the desk, the chair, and the bed. These, too, looked like they had been printed. They were very close approximations of basic furniture that one might find at any store, but oddly sterile, like their designers hadn’t been entirely sure how they were supposed to be used. The chair had no padding and looked more like something one might find on a patio, while the lockers were similar to those he might expect to see in a gym. They’d serve their purpose just fine, but it was amusing nonetheless. At the back of the room was an enclosed compartment that looked like it was made of metal, which was most likely where the bathroom and shower were.

“It’s a little cramped,” he said, appraising the bed. “More like a prison cell than a hotel room, really, but it’ll do just fine.”

“I am glad you approve,” she replied, the tone of her synthesized voice betraying her insincerity.

“You can breathe on land?” he asked, turning to face her. “You can stand upright without the buoyancy of water supporting you, too. Interesting.”

“We breathe through our vents,” she explained, gesturing to the holes beneath her mantle with a tentacle arm. Her clicking and whistling sounded even stranger without the medium of water, though her translator had no trouble picking it up. “Much like the capillaries in your lungs, we draw in oxygenated water that passes over our gills, and waste gasses are then expelled. We are capable of absorbing oxygen through our skin as long as it remains moist enough for the gas exchange to occur.”

“So, you can survive out of the water for a while, but you suffocate if you dry out?”

“Correct,” she replied. “Our distant ancestors ventured onto land in search of prey, where they hunted crustaceans in shallow rock pools. They gradually evolved more mobility and more efficient gas exchange to prolong their excursions.”

“I’d been wondering how you managed to do any real metallurgy or chemistry underwater,” he said with a grin. “You didn’t, did you? Nobody was smelting ore over hydrothermal vents. Once you could spend enough time on dry land, that’s where you really started making advancements.”

“Perceptive,” she replied, her chromatophores lightening somewhat. “We also developed a rigid internal support structure somewhat akin to an endoskeleton – a vestige of our ancestral shells. The structure anchors the muscles in our torso to give our limbs leverage and helps pull us upright on land. It also forms a protective barrier around some of our vital organs. It is composed primarily of a carbonate mineral known as aragonite.”

“Cuttlebones!” David exclaimed, the Broker’s skin prickling in alarm. “We have a cephalopod species on Earth known as a Cuttlefish, and they have an internal shell called a cuttlebone. It’s primarily used to regulate buoyancy, but it sounds like it could have evolved in much the same way – a mollusk’s protective shell becoming an internal support structure.”

“Indeed,” she replied.

The more he got her talking about subjects that interested her, the less surly she seemed to be. She was a fellow scientist, after all. Perhaps there was a chance that working together might not be so exhausting if she shared his enthusiasm on the job.

He began to stow his belongings, setting the two hard cases down on top of the table. The Broker observed from a safe distance as he flipped one of them open to reveal a rugged laptop, the device humming to life when he hit the power switch, the screen lighting up. It was starkly different from the slick touch panel controls that he had seen throughout the city, designed for fieldwork in a variety of harsh conditions, and it was equipped with a tactile keyboard that was clicky in the way that he liked. He tried to type in his password with the gloves but found them too cumbersome. After checking that the pressure between his suit and the habitat was equalized, he broke the seals at the wrists with a hermetic hiss.

As his fingers danced across the keys, the sound of their clicking filling the habitat, curiosity got the better of the Broker. She dared to inch a little closer, those expressive eyes with their horizontal pupils following his digits intently. To a creature whose equivalent of hands were the leaf-shaped tips of tentacles covered in suckers, the sight of individual fingers filled with bones and tendons must be a strange one indeed. The basic way that the two species interacted with their interface devices was completely different.

“You press physical buttons?” she asked. She must have learned enough about human anatomy to know about hands, but seeing them in motion was a different story.

“We do have touch devices more like yours,” he replied, a pair of holographic displays flaring to life to float in the air beside the physical one as the device booted. “I just work better with a tactile interface – it’s what I’m used to. How do your…hands…work, anyway?”

She lifted one of her arm-tentacles to demonstrate in the same way a human might raise their hand, giving him a view of its flat underside. There were six round suckers, their light blue hue contrasting with her rusty coloration, the fleshy appendage remarkably flexible as it curled in on itself like a fist. It wasn’t hard to imagine how it might function as a hand, its gripping ability and its sticky suckers serving as a suitable stand-in for opposable thumbs.

He reached out to touch it, surmising that she might want to do the same, but she pulled away reflexively.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Guess I’m still running on human social conventions.”

“You have done no harm,” she replied, scooting back a little.

“Why are you still wet, by the way?” he asked, noting that her skin was still glistening. “My suit was as dry as a bone after I came through that field.”

“The field is calibrated to leave my mucous layer intact,” she explained. “It helps to trap moisture and prolong the time I can spend above water.”

“So, you’re slimy?”

“For lack of a better word,” she grumbled, her coloration shifting hue into a blotchy maroon. She almost seemed more at ease when she was annoyed.

He reached up to pop off his helmet and set it on the desk, running a hand through his dark hair.

“I’ve been wearing that thing for hours,” he sighed, taking a relieved breath. The habitat smelled like recycled air, along with something synthetic and vaguely reminiscent of polymer. He could also smell the distinct scent of seawater, which was probably coming from the Broker. It wasn’t unpleasant or overpowering – more like the breeze that blew in from the ocean. “I don’t know how the Marines can march all day in those damned things.”

David realized that he was being examined again, turning to meet his guide’s inquisitive gaze. He had to remember that while he was the first human to see a Broker in the flesh, it was very unlikely that she would have ever seen a human with her own eyes. There was a big difference between watching videos and images from archive footage or the cameras of her exoskeleton, and standing in the same room as one.

“I did not expect so much fur,” she mused. The synthetic voice was coming from a speaker on the collar itself now that he wasn’t wearing his helmet. “My research material often described you as being furless. We have few mammals on this planet.”

“It’s hair, not fur,” he protested. “Maybe a little beard stubble, too. Haven’t shaved in a couple of days…”

She giggled suddenly, a series of pastel ripples spreading across her skin, almost like light bleeding through slats in a window. It was an odd clicking sound, almost like chattering teeth, and her full lips curled into a surprisingly human smile for the first time.

“Apologies,” she said, quickly composing herself. “It is just that…”

“What?” he demanded, his brow furrowing.

“The pale tone of your skin makes you look…amusingly happy.”

“Oh, so I’m just wearing a great big Broker smile?” he grumbled. “Great.”

“My intention was not to anger you,” she added swiftly, noticing that his cheeks were warming. The flush of embarrassment must bear an outward resemblance to the way that her people’s chromatophores darkened when they were mad.

“I’m not angry – that’s just blood rising to the surface of my skin,” he explained, failing to elaborate further.

“If you say so.”

“Okay, changing the subject!” he said with a clap of his hands. “The last thing I ate was a ham sandwich from the Courser’s mess that tasted like freezer burn, and that was before we jumped. I don’t know how often Brokers eat, but we mammals need calories to maintain our body temperature. What’s for dinner?”

“Yes, I read that humans need to eat at roughly five-hour intervals,” she replied. “Rest cycles are eight hours on average.”

“We also need to drink regularly,” he added. “Desalinated water, preferably. Unless you want this partnership to become very interesting very quickly.”

“Our engineers took that into consideration,” she replied. “In the restroom, you will find a fountain that dispenses fresh water.”

“Well, it’s nice to see that I’m being afforded the same considerations as a hamster,” he replied. “Perhaps we could install a giant wheel for me to run around in while we’re at it.”

“For exercise?” she asked, but he waved his hand dismissively.

“Let’s focus on the immediate issue of food. I didn’t bring any supplies with me from the ship – thank merciful God – so I’m guessing that means you’re going to be providing me with meals. I must admit, I’m curious to find out what Broker cuisine tastes like. You’ve taken into account my nutritional requirements, I take it?”

“We have synthesized food supplements based on proteins and nutrients that-”

“No, no,” David said, interrupting her with a shake of his head. “I’m not going to spend weeks eating nutrient paste and food cubes like I’ve ended up on some Jovian penal colony, as much as the diet would complement the accommodations.”

“You will refuse the food that we have prepared for you?” she asked, her expression darkening along with her skin. “That will pose problems. We have no means of acquiring human food for you. It is not a product that we import to this system.”

“You misunderstand,” he continued. “I don’t want synthesized proteins – I want to see what you eat. The suit has a food scanner, so I can check if it contains any poisonous compounds or anything that I can’t digest. It should be perfectly safe.”


“Listen, I’m only here because I was invited, and because you need my help. I’m not asking you to go out of your way or to prepare me any special meals. I only want to eat what you eat – within reason. Trust me when I say that I’m not going to function well if all of my meals consist of the same fish-flavored tofu. We humans need variety and stimulation to remain mentally healthy. I may need some supplements depending on the nutritional content of your diet, but I’m willing to bet that I can eat most of what you eat.”

“Very well,” she conceded, the frill on her mantle fluttering. “You will have to afford me some time to make the necessary arrangements. Wait here, and I shall return shortly.”

She turned and left through the shimmering field, her coloration noticeably lightening as though she was relieved to be back in the water – or perhaps away from him. David turned his attention back to his equipment, opening his rucksack and starting to pack away the spare clothes that he had brought with him. He was still amused by the gym lockers, but they served their purpose. When he was done, he opened the cubicle to check out the bathroom, seeing a shower with a fold-down toilet similar to the ones he had seen on smaller spacecraft. To the right was a tiny sink with a faucet that presumably dispensed clean water. Shearer had given him a military canteen along with the suit that could be used with a straw that extended from his helmet, allowing him to drink even in space or other hazardous environments. It should work underwater, too.

He filled it up and holstered it on his hip, then moved over to the bed, sitting down on it experimentally. There hadn’t been any cushions in the Broker’s apartment – they seemed to favor netting instead, perhaps because stuffing would just get waterlogged. He couldn’t even begin to imagine all of the everyday things he took for granted that just wouldn’t work underwater. His stomach growling, he sat down at the desk and started messing with his computer to distract himself.

The first thing he did was scan the local area for radio signals, finding a pretty powerful field inside the apartment. Radio waves didn’t travel very far in water, but they should propagate rather well in the enclosed space with a few repeaters. Perhaps it was some kind of ad-hoc network for the city’s intranet. The aliens must be well-connected with their reliance on technology and their propensity for solitude. Over longer distances, perhaps they used tight-beam lasers similar to those used on spacecraft. He couldn’t connect to it, as his device had no protocols that were compatible, but he might be able to do something about that later.


Before long, he saw the distorted shape of the Broker returning through the translucent walls of his habitat, and she made her way through the force field. Wrapped in her tentacles was some kind of foil bag about the size and shape of a baguette.

She placed it on the end of the table and began to unwrap it, using all four arms in tandem. Inside were several sealed plastic containers, almost like takeout boxes, and she began to separate them into two piles with the same finesse. It was mesmerizing just watching her handle objects, her flexible tentacles moving with such fluidity.

David reached over to pick one of them up, waiting for permission before trying to pop open the lid. He struggled to find purchase, as it was completely flush, and there wasn’t even room for him to get his fingernails into the seam. Frustrated, he passed it back to his guide. She placed the flat of her hand on the lid, then simply popped it off, using her suckers to grip it. It wasn’t designed to be levered open with a finger – it was made for Brokers. Fascinating. Even Borealans and Valbarans had hands with fingers and thumbs, and their tools were familiar enough to be intuitive, but not so for the Brokers.

She passed the open container back to him, and he glanced inside it. He had expected a strong seafood smell, but there was nothing but a sealed bag. It was transparent, and inside was something about the size of a sub sandwich wrapped in what looked like seaweed. When he picked it up, he realized that the bag was filled with fluid. Of course – it would usually be eaten underwater, and perhaps their lunch would float away like a birthday balloon if it wasn’t weighed down with something.

“How do you cook this stuff underwater?” he asked, weighing the sloshing bag suspiciously.

“We have many means of cooking our food,” she replied, opening one of her containers. “Some food is eaten raw.”

Sashimi,” he added with a nod. “Sliced raw fish is considered a delicacy in some Earth cultures. Oysters, too.”

“We sterilize some food with microwave radiation. Others, we boil in a sealed vessel that insulates it from the surrounding water, though that is a rather archaic method. This particular dish was prepared by sealing it inside that pouch along with its seasonings, then cooking it for a comparatively long period of time at a low temperature.”

“You’re telling me that this is sous vide?” he chuckled. “We use that method on Earth, usually for meat. I guess it makes sense – that would be a practical way to prepare something underwater. The low temperature would prevent the water outside the container from scalding the cook.”

“We also do some cooking on land,” she explained, watching as he searched for a way to open the bag. “Food prepared at the surface is considered a delicacy. Sun-baked dishes and those charred over an open flame are traditionally reserved for those of high status and cannot be transported below water easily.”

“So, your idea of a fancy restaurant is having a barbecue on the beach?” he asked. “Does that mean that eating above the water is a special occasion for you?”

“We do have some restaurants with rooms similar to this one,” she explained, gesturing to the habitat. “Albeit, the customer is usually partially submerged, while the dining table is above water.”

David chuckled to himself, imagining a group of Brokers sitting around a table in a moon pool, passing around grilled meat.

“Well, you’re welcome to eat with me if you want the authentic restaurant experience,” he added as he succeeded in splitting the bag. He cursed, moving it over the container, watching it fill with fish-scented fluid. When he picked out the food, he was surprised to find that it didn’t feel waterlogged, and it was still tangibly warm. As he began to peel away the dark green, seaweed-like wrap, the Broker clicked her beak in disapproval.

“It is to be eaten with the water weed,” she chided.

“I guess this protects whatever’s inside if you open it underwater?”

“Indeed,” she replied.

He took a moment to scan the food with the sensor that was built into his wrist device, the computer checking that there were no dangerous compounds, and it came back clean. With a shrug, he dove in, holding it like a sandwich as he took a large bite. The wrap had a nice crunch to it, along with a briny umami flavor. His teeth sank into something soft and fleshy, the distinct taste of lobster or maybe king crab filling his mouth. When he looked down, he saw that the wrap was filled with pale meat – likely from some form of crustacean. It was the size of a steak, so maybe it had come from something akin to the sheep-sized lobster that he had seen in the reef.

“Holy shit, that’s actually really good,” he exclaimed as he took another eager bite. “It’s a little salty for my taste, but you could serve this in a seafood restaurant, and nobody would bat an eye. And you were gonna have me eating nutrient paste,” he added as he chewed. “Why’re you looking at me like that?”

“I have never seen a human…eat,” she muttered, her coloration hard to read. “You have so many teeth.”

“Thirty-two, to be exact,” he replied. “Well, I have thirty because I had two wisdom teeth removed. How do you eat?” he asked as he turned in his seat to watch her. “Come on – let’s have it.”

“You wish to watch me eat?”

“Don’t throw stones in glass habitats,” he said, the Broker merely flashing confused patterns.

She popped open one of the containers – perhaps she had simply doubled the order – and lifted out the bag, holding it with the suckers on one tentacle. With another, she sliced it open, David recoiling in alarm. Like a cat unsheathing its claws, a black hook rose from within one of the suckers on her hand, cutting through the plastic like a blade. She cocked her head at him when she noticed his reaction, lifting the hand in question and extending all of her claws, transforming the gentle appendage into a wicked medieval weapon.

“Oh, that is just wrong,” he hissed as he shrank back into his chair. “Why didn’t you tell me you were packing fish hooks?”

“They are retractable,” she explained, the pattern of pastel colors that swept across her skin suggesting that she was amused. “They are for gripping prey and other slippery objects.”

“You could flay someone alive with those things,” he said, keeping his eyes on them warily. “Remind me to be more polite in the future.”

She wrapped the meat in two of her hands, bringing it to her mouth, David watching curiously as her full lips parted to reveal a beak. It was as black as onyx and shiny like lacquer, with upper and lower halves that overlapped to form scything blades. She cut off a mouthful of the lobster meat like someone punching a hole in a piece of paper, giving David a vivid example of how her species dealt with hard-shelled crabs. There was an alarming amount of power in those jaws. At least that explained why she had such prominent lips to begin with – they must protect her beak in the same way that his protected his teeth.

“Now that I’ve been suitably horrified, we can continue our meal,” he said cheerfully as he took another bite. “What do we have in the way of sides?”

“Traditionally, we should have started with the raw meat dish,” she explained. “That container there,” she added, gesturing with one of her free tentacles.

He set the wrap down on the table, using the lid of its container as an impromptu plate, fumbling with another of the tupperwares. His cheeks warming again, he passed it to the Broker, who made an impressive show of multitasking as she opened it for him. This one was filled with tightly-packed slices of raw fish, the pink, salmon-like meat so tender that it was almost translucent.

“My kingdom for a lemon slice,” he said, popping one of them into his mouth. “Man, that just melts on the tongue. You know, I get the feeling I’m going to enjoy my stay here a lot more than I thought. Sushi and lobster bechamel on tap suits me just fine.”

“Many of these words are not in my translator’s library,” she complained, but David waved his hand dismissively.

“Let’s just say that I’m as happy as a clam right now.”

“You are doing this on purpose,” she grumbled, taking another bite of her meat as she glared at him. Remembering her vicious beak, he straightened in his chair a little, turning his attention back to his meal.

“It’s nice to share dinner with you,” he said, nodding to the food containers that were strewn across the left side of the table. “Humans like to bond over food – it’s just something that we do.”

“We are not so…social,” she added.

“Aren’t we having fun?” he asked, leaning back in his seat as he lowered another piece of raw fish into his mouth. “Speaking of which – I think I’ve come up with a suitable name for you.”

“Must you?” she groaned with a disapproving click of her beak.

“I promise it’s not demeaning,” he added quickly. “Especially now that I’ve discovered how, uh…armed you are. Selkie. Has a nice ring to it, right?”

“What does it mean?” she asked suspiciously, her coloration darkening. “There is no such term in my database.”

“It’s a sea creature from ancient Earth mythology,” he explained, popping something that looked like a shelled shrimp into his mouth. “Celtic, to be precise. They wore animal pelts to disguise themselves, kind of like you and your exosuit.”

“Very well,” she sighed. “You may call me Selkie if it puts the discussion to rest.”

“And you can call me David,” he replied. “I’ve noticed that you guys have a tendency to refer to me by my full name and title. Although, Doctor is also good,” he added with a shrug. “I didn’t get that PhD just because I think the certificate looks nice on my wall.”

“Do you always talk so incessantly when you eat?” she asked.

“I’m just enjoying the cultural exchange,” he replied, popping another juicy shrimp into his mouth. “I wanted to ask you something,” he continued, his tone becoming more serious. “I get the impression that you and the Administrator don’t exactly see eye to eye, and it hasn’t escaped my attention that this whole scenario seems to have been set up as an elaborate means to punish you. I know that you don’t want me here in your apartment, nor do you want me getting my grubby mammalian fingers anywhere near your project. So, what happened? What did you do that’s made him so vindictive?”

Selkie took another bite of her lobster meat, crunching the seaweed wrap in her beak as she pondered the question, her coloration turning a blotchy maroon.

“I suppose that you will find out soon enough,” she began, the skin on her mantle wrinkling almost like a frown. “My team was working on classified military technology under the supervision of the Administrator – a software upgrade for his drone fleet. It was to be a secret, and something that would help propel his company to the forefront of the industry, giving him an advantage over his rivals. When the situation was no longer under control and I could not resolve the problem, he was forced to go to the Board for help. In doing so, he exposed the project and drew their ire in the process.”

“I see,” David mused, sampling another piece of fish. “That must have put a damper on his plans. He blames you, and now he’s making it his mission to make your life hell. Sorry that I have to be a part of it,” he added.

“You did not know,” she sighed, though he didn’t get the impression that she was any happier about her new living situation. “He has no legal grounds to demand restitution, as I did nothing that was beyond the scope of my contract, but he still seeks a means to punish me for my perceived transgression.”

“Kind of like your boss taking away your corner office and making you stare at a brick wall,” David said with a nod. “Well, hopefully we can get the situation resolved quickly, and you can put it behind you.”

“I very much doubt that,” she replied, looking him up and down disdainfully. Clearly, she had no confidence in his abilities. He was curious about the drone software and what exactly had gone so awry, but he would be getting a full briefing tomorrow, according to the Administrator.

“Why not just quit your job if you’re being mistreated?” he asked, polishing off the last of the sashimi. “Man, this stuff is good.”

“As I said, I am under contract,” she replied as though that was an explanation unto itself.

“What else do we have here?” he continued, sifting through the remaining boxes. “Anything for dessert?”

“You might enjoy these seagrass seedlings,” she said, cracking open another container. This one was filled with a small sachet of green, vaguely almond-shaped fruits.

He opened the little bag and plucked one out, finding that it was squishy like a grape or a prune. When he bit into it gingerly, he discovered that it was surprisingly salty, with a sweet aftertaste that reminded him of salted caramel. Each one had a nut inside that must be the seed, which was like the hard pit of a peach. Perhaps the species sent these fruits floating into the ocean to be carried away by the current or eaten by animals.

“Not bad at all,” he mused.

She popped one of the seeds into her mouth, David wincing as he heard her beak crack the nut. He was surprised to see the six tentacles that were spaced around her face grip a second seed as she turned her attention to one of the containers, holding it in place as she began to eat. So, not only did they control the spread of her veil-like blankets, but they could be used to manipulate food. It wasn’t hard to imagine her holding a struggling crab in her face-tentacles as she cracked open its shell.

“Isn’t it nicer to share a meal with someone rather than eating alone?” he asked. “This apartment is enormous – it must get lonely here.”

“We do not experience loneliness as you do,” she replied. “And this living space may be lavish by your standards, but not by ours. It is sufficient, but not what any Broker aspires to.”

“And, what do you aspire to?” he pressed as he dropped one of the pits back into the box of fruit. “A little cottage by the beach, perhaps?”

“Homes closer to the surface, such as in the reefs or lagoons, belong to those of great means and high status. We do not necessarily choose to live in the depths so far from natural light and in such…dense urban centers, but there is no room for towers and cities amongst the corals.”

“You said that you evolved in that environment,” he continued, finishing off the last morsels of his meal. “You hunted crabs in rock pools, so you must have lived close to the surface. It follows that living so far down must be unnatural for you.”

“You should rest,” she added, starting to collect the empty containers with her four arms. “We are expected at the facility in seven of your hours, and you have not yet begun your rest cycle. I am also…drying out,” she added as she turned to the door. “I will wake you shortly before we are scheduled to leave.”

He watched her scuttle through the force field, then closed his laptop, appraising the bed once more. It would be hard to sleep with all of the day’s excitement still fresh in his mind, but he wanted to be rested and ready for what he assumed was going to be a tour of the research facility tomorrow. It was time to find out what had gone so wrong that the Brokers had called the UN for help…



David woke to his alarm, deactivating it with a voice command. The lights outside his little dome were just as bright as when he had gone to sleep. Living on a planet with no day and night cycle was going to take some getting used to.

He slid out of bed, stretching as he yawned, then walked over to his lockers to retrieve his suit. As he opened one of the doors, movement caught his eye, and he glanced up to see something clinging to the outside of the habitat. It looked like the belly of a slug – the creature hard to make out through the distortion, but it was almost the length of his forearm. It suddenly lifted off the dome, flitting away through the water, a shiver crawling down his spine.

“You are awake?”

David almost jumped out of his skin, turning to see Selkie standing by the force field.

“Y-yeah, I set my alarm,” he replied. Realizing that he was only wearing a tank top and his shorts, he made a rather futile attempt to cover himself, the Broker watching him curiously. “Maybe knock next time?”

“My apologies,” she replied, keeping her eyes on him all the same. “My people have no need of clothing, and modesty is not a concern of ours.”

“Yeah, I noticed that you were all nude,” he added as he began to pull on the suit. “By the way, I think one of your fish got out of its tank. There was some…horrible thing crawling on the habitat a moment ago.”

“That is merely my slug,” Selkie replied.

“Your…slug?” he asked, zipping up.

“Yes, I believe that slug is the most accurate translation. My people have domesticated several species of mollusk that act as companion animals. There is nothing to fear – she was merely curious about the new addition to her environment.”

“Pet sea slugs,” David muttered as he slid on his helmet. “Why not? Maybe we can ride to the research station on dolphins and wear jellyfish as hats.”

“Your disapproval confuses me,” she said, her chromatophores creating a wave of dark bands that spread across her skin. “She is not venomous if that is your concern.”

“Just keep it away from me,” he replied, checking the pressure reading on his display. “Right, I’m ready to leave. Should I bring my equipment with me?”

“Your computer, perhaps,” she replied. “You will be provided with whatever else you require on-site.”

He locked the clasps on the hard case and lifted it off the table, pausing behind Selkie as she slid through the wavering barrier. As soon as she was through the door, the slug reappeared, darting through the water with surprising speed. Its long, winding body was a vibrant azure in color, tapering into electric blue at the tips of its long feelers and its stubby tail. Its back was covered in long, delicate, almost feather-like structures that fluttered as it moved. They were a rich orange in color, giving the creature a furry appearance. If they were anything like the nudibranchs of Earth’s oceans, those structures could be gills or stingers. Like many of the animals that he had seen on 1e, there was a frill-like structure that ran along the flanks of its body, creating undulating waves to propel it through the water.

It circled Selkie, its color brightening in hue to become a pastel blue – apparently, it also had chromatophores. For the first time, David saw her break out into a bright smile, her lips curling and her skin taking on a desaturated cream color that accentuated her blue stripes. She looked vibrant, almost literally glowing, her leg-tentacles flaring out like a skirt as she spun on the spot to follow its movements. Her delicate blankets wrapped around her, their vibrant eyespots all the more prominent, the slug nuzzling its fleshy antennae against her hand as she reached out to it. She had a better relationship with this mollusk than any of the people he had seen her interact with so far…

“Surely you are not so afraid of her?” the Broker asked, giving him a smirk as the slug perched on her outstretched hand.

“I’m not afraid of it,” he grumbled, reminding himself that he was protected from direct contact with any slimy critters by his suit. He stepped through the barrier, feeling the weight of the water bear down on him, his gait changing along with his buoyancy. He approached Selkie, and she gently waved her tentacle, encouraging the slug to swim towards him. David stood rooted to the spot as it swam around him, flashing colors as though trying to communicate.

“Do these patterns mean anything to you?” he asked.

“They have been domesticated for generations, and they have learned to mimic some of our displays,” Selkie replied. “It allows them to communicate their mood.”

“Like a dog wagging its tail,” he mused.

The brightly-colored creature extended its antennae, brushing them against his suit, trying to map out the shape of this new enigma that had entered its environment. Selkie laughed as he remained as still as a statue, the sound of her clicking beak resonating through the water. When he raised an arm, the slug landed on it, David feeling its fleshy body through his suit. It wasn’t as fragile or as squishy as he had imagined – it was actually quite robust and muscular. It was covered in a layer of mucus, leaving a trail behind it as it slithered into his hand. It nuzzled his palm, and he brushed his fingers against the fluffy, feather-like filaments that rose from its back.

“She likes you,” Selkie giggled.

“Does it…she have a name?” David asked.

“You could not pronounce it, but a rough translation would be…water flower.”

“Maybe I’ll just call her Flower,” he mused, watching as the animal launched off his hand to weave through the water. “Are they intelligent?”

“Reasonably so for a domestic animal,” she explained as she let herself drop down from the balcony, floating towards the coral stone floor below. “They are bred primarily for emotional support.”

“We have a similar creature called a cat,” he explained, slowly falling behind her. “They’re bred as companion animals, and they don’t do much other than be adorable and cause property damage.”

She led him back to the door to her apartment, and after placing her hand over the control panel, it slid open to expose the empty shaft beyond. As much as it turned his stomach, David stepped into the void, letting gravity slowly carry him down its length.

“Are we taking a tube again?” he asked as they made their way through the corridors.

“No,” she replied, leading him beneath the ethereal glow of another tank filled with bioluminescent jellies. “The research facility is outside the city limits, and it is only accessible by transport shuttle.”

“Oh, are we riding in another of those spacecraft?”

“A submersible,” she explained. “The docking bay is this way.”

They exited the tower proper and emerged onto a large platform that was suspended from the side of the building, jutting out into the open water. It looked like a small train station to David, with raised boarding platforms and recessed bays where bullet-shaped craft were docked. They were the usual white and silver, with sleek, streamlined hulls clearly designed for cutting through the water. The platform was open to the ocean, but there was a massive glass awning above their heads, David glancing up at the towering effigies and the network of transport tubes above.

For the first time, he saw another civilian – a Broker who was standing on a platform on the far side of the station staring at him in confusion. When he raised a hand in tentative greeting, the alien’s skin flushed a deep maroon, and it quickly boarded one of the shuttles through a door in the vehicle’s side. The sleek craft coasted out of its berth, leaving a trail of bubbles behind it as it slid out into the ocean beyond. Like the spacecraft, it had no visible engines or propellers to give any inkling of how it functioned.

“What was that guy’s deal?” David asked in bemusement.

“They would not have been expecting to meet an alien at the dock today,” she replied, leading him over to another of the shuttles. “They would have found your presence…alarming.”

She lifted a hand to a panel beside its hatch, and the door slid aside to grant them access, the two stepping inside. It was oddly cramped, David having to duck to avoid clocking his head on the low roof, the interior barely large enough to fit three Brokers. It was about the size of a minivan from the outside, so there must be some machinery taking up that space. Strangely, there were no seats for the passengers, but maybe standing for long periods was less of an issue for a species that wasn’t constantly fighting the pull of gravity. Mass transit to these aliens must just mean more shuttles – they weren’t going to be carpooling in these things. Like their cramped exoskeletons, there was barely enough space to stretch out, reinforcing the idea that Selkie’s people had no aversion to tight spaces. Claustrophobia wasn’t in their vocabulary.

Selkie waved her hand over a control console towards the nose of the vessel, then spoke their destination, David feeling a subtle rumble as the craft left its bay. A moment later, the hull around them melted away to reveal what he now knew to be camera feeds showing the shuttle’s surroundings – the same thing that had happened on the cigar ship during his descent.

He watched the dock diminish behind them, little more than a glass blister on the facade of the massive building, their craft starting to rise above the tangled network of tubes.

“We’re going up?” he asked.

“Shuttle routes usually take us above the transit system,” Selkie explained.

It was like flying through a city in a private aircraft, David glancing down as the tangle of infrastructure and sediment on the sea floor below faded into the blue haze. They were still rising as they drifted between the buildings, giving him a snapshot of the underwater cityscape, the way that the ocean limited his visibility making everything feel all the larger as his imagination filled in the blanks. As they rose two or three hundred meters – some sunlight starting to penetrate the water – he got a glimpse of the roof of one of the nearby towers.

As he had posited, it was constructed like a hollow tube, with a large opening at its apex that was jetting a stream of water. This rapid flow was visibly hotter than the surrounding ocean, creating a shimmering, superheated plume that billowed up towards the surface like vapor from a cooling stack. To his surprise, there was something growing around these boiling torrents. It looked like minerals had built up in layers to form rocky, uneven spires around their lips, some rising a considerable height. They were covered in clusters of colorful growths, and as they drew closer, he saw that they were teeming with animal life. They were still far too deep for photosynthesis to be viable, meaning that these couldn’t be reefs.

“What’s growing on the buildings?” he asked as they drew nearer, pressing up closer to the hull of the ship to get a better look. The shuttle was only twenty meters away now, skirting around the building’s periphery. “Is that water as hot as it looks?”

“That is the building’s exhaust,” Selkie explained, as though it was the most normal thing in the world. “It is where hot wastewater from the structure is vented into the ocean.”

“How hot is that water? Those aren’t corals, are they?”

“Minerals and other waste products build up around the exhaust,” she continued. “This creates habitats for chemosynthetic bacteria, in turn forming the basis of a localized ecosystem that supports a range of animals. Extremophiles such as tube worms and crustaceans feed on the bacterial mats, and they also capture particles of organic matter that are expelled through the stream.”

“You’re talking about artificial hydrothermal vents,” David marveled, tearing his eyes away from the sight to glance back at her. “Where does the wastewater come from?”

“Each of the towers has a fusion reactor in its deepest levels,” she explained. “This powers the building’s systems, such as water filtration and circulation, electricity, and environmental regulation. The warm water is heated by the reactor, then it rises up through the structure, carrying away contaminants from the filtration system along with it.”

“So, the current carries away all of the gunk that ends up in the filters as it moves up through the building, then all of that hot water and detritus is expelled out of the roof?”

“We allow the ecosystems that grow around the vents to thrive, and even introduce additives to the water at varying stages to encourage their health, as these communities act as a natural filter that helps purify the water before it is released back into the ocean.”

“Incredible,” David muttered, turning his eyes back to the plume as they coasted past it. Even from a distance, he could see the forests of pink tube worms slowly drifting with the current, waving like grass in the wind with their mouths agape in search of food particles. There were shrimp-like animals crawling between them, covered in masses of bacterial growth that made them appear furry. There were even a few fish that must have adapted to the harsh environment darting between the rock-like formations created by decades of mineral buildup.

“You should share this tech with the Valbarans,” he added. “They’d love this.”

“I find their protection of their planet’s ecology commendable, but they are an…unambitious people.”

“I suppose they’re not exactly ruthless industrialists,” David scoffed. “They’ve been doing pretty well since they joined the Coalition, though. They have their own fleet now.”

“The idea that your government simply gave them blueprints to build weapons still confounds me,” she added, keeping her eyes on the murky waters ahead.

“If I recall, that was when a single UNN carrier group organized the defense of Valbara and defeated a hive fleet that was poised to wipe out the species. Extenuating circumstances, I’d call those. Do you think they should have held out for a better deal?”

“Giving away technology and manufacturing methods decades in advance of anything the native population had access to?” she asked, giving him a sideways glance. “That is worth securing some exclusive mineral extraction rights, at least.”

“Somehow, the idea that a Broker would object to sharing technology doesn’t come as a jaw-dropping shock to me,” he replied with a scowl.

“Many agree that the Coalition is no longer facing an existential threat from the hives,” Selkie argued, her coloration shifting to a darker hue as the conversation wore on her.

“It’s true that we’ve been doing just fine without your help, yes.”

“We provide more help than you realize,” she shot back, her beak clicking angrily. “Just because we do not provide troops and ships does not mean that we float idly in the current. The Board invests heavily in the Coalition through providing funding and raw materials at considerable cost to our people. We help to subsidize your shipyards and provide tungsten carbides for those crude weapons you so enjoy.”

“And in return, our ships and our Marines protect Trappist. Sure, you might not have jump carriers posted on your doorstep, but you’re surrounded by human colonies, which is functionally the same thing. They act as a buffer that lets you turtle up here like a snail in its shell.”

“You did not strike me as especially political,” she added, lifting her lip to expose her shiny beak in the way that a human might sneer.

“I watch the newscasts,” he replied, folding his arms as he leaned back against the hull. “Maybe it amuses you to see me oooh and aaah at fish tanks and submarines, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to speak my mind. I don’t require your government’s approval – they didn’t want me here to begin with. I have nothing to gain by stroking egos and stepping on eggshells.”

“On that, my government and I are in agreement,” she muttered.

They rode the shuttle in silence for a while longer, leaving the city behind as they descended into the darkness. They were coasting towards the ocean floor now, further away from the island and far deeper than the city, the sediment here practically devoid of life. There was little more than a few lazy fish drifting along close to the bottom, as well as the odd crab and plant-like filter feeder anchored to stray rocks.

A cluster of buildings started to fade into view in the distance, sitting there in the middle of the featureless plain like an outpost in a desert. They were far squatter than the tall towers of the city, more like the domes and low spires that he had seen on the island and in the shallows. There was at least one cooling tower for a reactor that spewed shimmering wastewater, the rest of the structures forming a complex web that sprawled out in its footprint. It would have been right at home on the surface of the moon. It was hard to guess at its size, but it was easily as large as any college campus on Earth. As they neared, David noticed that there were several raised towers spaced out around the complex, the domes on their tops splitting open to reveal turrets that tracked their approach.

“Uh…what are those?” he asked warily, glancing down at the long barrel of one of the weapons through the floor as they passed over it.

“Defensive guns,” Selkie replied. “They are plasma emplacements intended to destroy any unauthorized craft that enter the restricted area. Or that attempt to leave it…”

“All this for a software upgrade?” David asked incredulously.

“You will be briefed when we arrive.”


The craft coasted down towards one of the larger dome-shaped structures, and they headed for another dock, this one protected by a force field that suggested it might be pressurized. They were a lot deeper now. The view from the external cameras faded as they slid inside, David feeling the submarine come to a stop. Her coloration still moody, Selkie scuttled past him and opened the door, slithering out onto a boarding platform. As he followed after her, David did a double-take, almost dropping his hard case.

Flanking a door that led out of the dock were a pair of towering creatures. It took him a moment to recognize them beneath the white armor plating that covered them, but they were Krell. Big ones, too. The Krell were one of the member species of the Coalition – alligator-like reptiles covered in bony scutes and thick scales that could easily reach fifteen feet from their noses to their long, oar-like tails. These examples stood nine feet tall, and they looked to be twice that length, their leathery hides taking on a darker hue that was indicative of their age. With their jutting teeth and their massive bipedal frames, they looked like dinosaurs.

They were wearing protective suits that were clearly of Broker design, all matte white plating that looked like molded plastic. It was the same style as all of their machines, with rounded corners and sleek lines, some silver metal visible here and there. They wore no helmets, but they had segmented cables in shining chrome trailing to masks that covered the nostrils on the ends of their crocodilian snouts. The species was amphibious, so maybe it was supplying them with what oxygen they needed.

In their hands were clutched alarmingly large rifles of similar design, with white casings and metallic rails that ran down their long barrels. They were so hefty that even a Borealan might have trouble wielding one.

“Are those Krell?” David hissed. “What the hell are they doing here?”

Lena Webber’s strange message came to mind, and he remembered that her claim to fame was the invention of a translator that could interpret the Krell language – albeit somewhat crudely. Like the Brokers, the Krell completely lacked the vocal apparatus necessary to reproduce human speech. More than that, their psyche was so alien that a direct translation of words and concepts was practically impossible. Even their perception of time was nigh incomprehensible to other species. What did Webber and the Krell have to do with the Brokers?

Before they could approach, the door between the two Krell slid open, and a Broker slithered through. David recognized the arrow-shaped fin on his mantle – it was the Administrator. He greeted them with a flush of pastel coloration, one that Selkie returned. Unable to change the color of his skin without holding his breath for a while, David settled for a wave. Standing between the two towering aliens, the diminutive Broker looked even smaller than usual, but he retained an undeniable air of authority.

“Welcome, Doctor O’Shea,” he began, a male voice filtering into David’s helmet. “You are right on time, and I am sure that you are eager to get started, so let us not delay any further. Please, come this way.”

Surmising that he had probably greeted Selkie in their own language without translating it, David bounded over to him, the Administrator maintaining his bright coloration as he watched the human approach. Maybe there was something amusing about his strange underwater gait.

“It’s nice to finally see your facility for myself,” David began, Selkie trailing behind as he took up position beside the Administrator. They walked deeper into the building, making their way down a sterile corridor. “I have to admit, it’s very impressive. It’s a much larger operation than I was anticipating.”

He noted that the two Krell had joined them, hanging back a little as they followed the group through the corridor. The walls and ceiling were oddly spacious – perhaps designed to allow the aliens to move more easily. Unlike the plodding human, they seemed to be more buoyant, pushing themselves along by kicking off the floor as though they were moving in zero-G. They were clearly very at home underwater.

“I trust that you are settled into your new quarters?” the Admin asked. “I apologize for the unusual living arrangements, but we thought it best that a member of our staff be on hand to supervise you.”

To spy on me, David neglected to reply.

“It’s understandable,” he said instead. “Your city is a very alien environment from my perspective. I’ll probably need a lot of help before I really grasp how everything works.”

“And I see that you are not afraid to ask for it,” the Broker replied, giving him an appreciative glance. “That is good. It bodes well for your work here.”

“I can’t wait to see what you’ve been hiding down here, if you’ll pardon the expression,” David added eagerly. “If you don’t mind my asking, why do you have Krell here? One of the few things we know about your people is that you use combat drones, and I saw the automated defense turrets on the way in. Also, the whole never letting aliens anywhere near your planets thing.”

“We have a long history of friendship with the Krell,” the Admin replied, flashing one of his hands in front of a panel to grant them access to the next room. “Before we had even made first contact with your species, we had formed an alliance with the Krell that had lasted hundreds of years. It was only through the establishment of the Coalition and the close cooperation between our species that we prevailed in our war against the hives.”

“I knew that the founding species of the Coalition were the Brokers and the Krell,” David added. “We humans were somewhat latecomers, as I understand it. What I meant was, why are they here, in this facility? Aren’t you developing drones here?”

“Our people have a saying,” the Admin replied. “The loyalty of a Krell cannot be bought. They are loyal and steadfast guardians, and unlike a drone, they cannot be hacked or otherwise compromised. In the event of a network intrusion, a power failure, or a hostile takeover, my Krell will remain unwavering in their duty.”

“You’re not worried they’ll leak information when they get back to the homeworld?” David asked.

“Our NDAs are quite ironclad,” the Admin replied. “Speaking of which…”

They arrived in something that looked like a decontamination chamber with a door at the far end, the one behind them closing as the two Krell drifted inside. On the right wall was a transparent window with another Broker sitting behind it, its four arms moving rapidly across a bank of consoles. There was a flash, a shimmering wall of blue light manifesting ahead of them, starting to sweep its way down the length of the room.

“Do not be alarmed,” the Admin explained. “This is merely a routine procedure to check for contraband and unauthorized data recording devices.”

Remembering the data drive that was hidden inside the lining of his suit, David stiffened, the presence of the two Krell becoming all the more concerning. If Admiral Vos had been wrong, and the Brokers had tech that could detect such a device, how might the Administrator react?

The blue beam swept over him, fizzling out as it reached the back of the chamber. David held his breath, watching the Broker behind the glass for any sign of confusion or alarm. After a few moments, the door ahead slid open, and David allowed himself to exhale.

“Just a formality, I am sure you understand,” the Admin said with cheerful pastel colors. “Now, before we proceed any further, there is the matter of your contract to attend to.”

My contract?” David asked, gesturing to himself as he glanced between Selkie and the Admin in confusion. “I wasn’t told anything about a contract.”

“You are about to enter a very sensitive facility that contains experimental technologies currently in active development by my company,” the Admin clarified. “Everything beyond this door is classified, and many of the patents have not even been filed yet. You understand my desire to protect my property from the dangers of industrial espionage, I am sure.”

“Very well,” David replied, surmising that he wouldn’t be allowed inside without signing his name on a dotted line. “It wouldn’t be the first NDA that I’ve agreed to.”

“Good, good,” the Admin chimed as he clasped his upper hands together. With the lower pair, he gestured to another Broker who was scuttling through the door ahead, a tablet computer clutched in its hand – its suckers stuck to the flat casing. Whether the alien was male or female, David couldn’t say. They didn’t have much in the way of secondary sexual characteristics, and he’d had to go by voice so far. “Please take some time to look over the contract. We have translated it into English for you.”

“I’m surprised to see so many Brokers in one place,” David mused as the employee handed the tablet to him gingerly, then retreated to a safe distance. “I was starting to think the city was empty.”

“Working in close proximity is an unfortunate necessity of a secure facility like this one,” the Admin replied, seeming almost apologetic. “We cannot allow our employees to work remotely or to take sensitive data onto their property, as the risk of a leak is simply too great. Do not fret – they are compensated appropriately for the toll this kind of work takes on them, and we do have dedicated break rooms where they can decompress between shifts.”

“Well, that’s…reassuring,” David replied, not sure how else to respond. It seemed that the Admin had interpreted his innocuous observation as genuine concern for the operation’s working conditions. Brokers must really hate being forced into a shared space like this.

How could a civilization even develop under these conditions? Some level of sociability and cooperation would be required, and it was hard to imagine the Brokers reproducing sexually with such an aversion to being within arm’s reach of each other. Maybe they didn’t. Perhaps they shipped their eggs to a different postcode to be fertilized. That would give the term long-distance relationship a whole new meaning…

He glanced down at the tablet, finding that a finger worked just as well as a sucker for scrolling through the text, growing more skeptical as he went.

“Excuse me, but there are dozens of pages here,” he said as he glanced up at the Admin. “I feel like I’d need a lawyer to proof this for me.”

“Lawyer?” the Admin asked, pausing to make a query. After a moment, his translator responded in the Broker language. “A legal expert?” he continued, a confused ripple of dark coloration spreading across his mantle like a shadow. “You do not possess the necessary legal knowledge to proceed? We went to some lengths to ensure that all of the terminology would be familiar to you.”

“A whole society of lawyers,” he muttered, shaking his head. “Don’t worry – that concept alone is incentive enough for me to behave. I’m guessing this is just an elaborate NDA swearing me to secrecy until my dying breath, but give me a moment.”

He took some minutes to read through the document, finding that it was indeed an NDA, but one that had been taken to an almost comical extreme. The Brokers had seemingly thought of every conceivable scenario where he might have divulged information about the project or the facility itself, and had prohibited each one in no uncertain terms. There was even a non-compete agreement that prevented him from working with other Broker corporations who might be developing similar technology in the future, which was admittedly a pretty unlikely possibility. They were thorough and meticulous, which led him to believe that this kind of thing might be routine in their society.

Still not completely sure if he was signing away his soul, he scrawled his name in the appropriate box, then handed the tablet to the Admin. The alien checked it briefly, then his coloration lightened again, perhaps an indication that he was satisfied.

“Very good. This way, Doctor O’Shea.”

He led their group through the door, the two Krell remaining behind, further bringing into question what might have happened had any step of that process gone awry. They made their way through yet more bland corridors, making David wish for a fish tank or even one of their colorful signs to break up the monotony.

“I am sure you have been wondering what exactly it is that we do here,” the Admin began. “Now that you are under contract, there is no longer any need for secrecy. This facility is a testing ground for experimental weapons. We develop technology both for export to other companies, and for our own private use, with a focus on combat drones and other automated systems.”

“I figured as much,” David replied as they turned a corner. “You work for the military, then?”

“We Brokers do things a little differently,” the Admin explained with a smile that exposed his black beak. “Based on what I have learned about the UNN, the various military forces of your nations and colonies are unified under a central command structure. Soldiers are paid wages by their governments, making them civil servants, in a sense. We have no unified military. The closest analog that you would understand is a private military company, or PMC. Our drone fleets and hazard teams are privately employed, and they fight for profit.”

“Your entire military is made up of PMCs?” David asked incredulously. “What happens when there’s a war?”

“Just like in any profession, the best rise to the top and command the highest price. Which company fights where and when is a balancing act between their fees and their expertise. In times of great need, the Board may use their funds to hire several companies to defend the collective Broker holdings.”

“I’m guessing that you own one of these PMCs?” David asked.

“My company is one of the most reputable and accomplished,” he replied as they stepped through another door. “Our drones are second to none.”

They entered a room that was more lavishly furnished than the rest, with a large window that took up the entire right wall and a fish tank that occupied the left. Shoals of colorful tropical fish caught the light as they flitted back and forth, the water creating a dappled effect on the otherwise featureless deck. There were a couple of the hammock chairs behind a low glass table that was held up by the same strange, branch-like style of support structure he had seen elsewhere in the city.

The Admin guided him over to the window, Selkie following behind, and he looked out over the factory floor of a vast manufacturing plant. It was hard to make visual sense of at a glance, appearing as little more than a tangle of white polymer and silver metal – cables, pipes, and support frames trailing back and forth. As he took it all in, he picked out long, snaking conveyors that wound their way through the jungle of unidentifiable machinery and electronics. Surrounding them were skeletal frames that served as anchor points for long robotic arms that were working an assembly line. Some had a familiar, mechanical appearance, while others were more like the segmented hoses of the exoskeletons. They moved incessantly with incredible poise and fluidity, attaching curving, white panels and silver components to partially-completed machines that were moving down the line.

“This is just one of our manufacturing plants,” the Admin explained with a wave of his tentacle. “It is where our latest model of combat drone is assembled. These are export models destined to be sold to some of our competitors, but we also produce our own in-house variants that use proprietary technology and have enhanced capabilities.”

“I don’t know who you’re expecting to fight other than the Bugs,” David replied. “Wouldn’t you want to give other companies the best possible chance to win? I don’t really understand the logic of selling worse versions of weapons to people who might end up fighting in defense of the planet you live on…”

“You are still thinking in human terms,” the Admin explained, seeming to find the notion quaint. “The export models are perfectly serviceable, and we stand behind their combat performance, but healthy competition is necessary for innovation. If the Board wants the best drones on the market, then they know where to come.”

“The plant isn’t underwater,” David mused, noticing a shower of sparks spew from one of the arms as it welded an armored plate onto a tubular frame. “I figured you wouldn’t be doing metallurgy and chemistry underwater, but I expected factories like this to be on the islands.”

“Many are,” the Admin replied. “We also have large deep-sea platforms with sections that sit above the water to take advantage of the planet’s atmosphere for various manufacturing and scientific purposes. In this facility, we use an artificial atmosphere comprised of a mixture of inert gasses including argon and other trace elements.”

“Interesting,” David said. “I suppose that if you’re pumping out all of the water anyway, you might as well go all the way and create the most favorable environment possible.”

It didn’t seem to bother the Brokers – he could see one of the exoskeletons that Selkie had used plodding down an aisle between the machines, presumably monitoring their progress. They seemed to hop in and out of the robotic suits just as easily as humans changed their clothes. They probably didn’t want to be anywhere near the machinery with all of those vulnerable tentacles anyway.

“Your host is in charge of the research project that was supposed to equip our drones with a new proprietary control system,” the Admin explained, David glancing at Selkie briefly before following behind him. The alien led them out of the observation lounge, continuing to talk as he scuttled along with that strange, tentacled gait. “As you have no doubt learned during your species’ own forays into the technology, controlling drones over any significant distance incurs a large degree of latency. Even with repeaters and control ships transmitting data at light-speed, coordinating across distances of light-seconds or minutes means that direct control becomes practically impossible. We simply lack the numbers to pilot swarms of drones on an individual basis, and as more drones are added to the network, the commands given by the operator become more like suggestions. The only solution is to make them fully autonomous.”

“That shouldn’t pose too large of a problem, though,” David added as they arrived at a transport tube terminal. “Especially for someone with such advanced capabilities as the Brokers. I’m assuming that the processing power of your computers is magnitudes larger than our own, and we would be quite capable of training a neural network to perform simple tasks like patrolling a solar system or handling a fire control system. If such a thing were legal, of course.”

“Yes, I have read that humans have very restrictive laws concerning the deployment of automated weapons,” the Admin replied as he stepped into the open tube. “It is not a concern that we share.”

The three of them lined up inside the pipe and were soon whisked away by a gentle current, sending them out of the dome-shaped building and across the barren sea floor, David glancing out at the sprawling complex beyond the glass. It looked even larger and more impressive from ground level.

“What’s the issue, then?” David asked as he spread his arms to help stabilize himself in the water.

“As you posited, the major threat that we face is that of the hive fleets,” the Admin continued. “As much as they might appear as biological machines to the uninitiated, the average Betelgeusian Drone is intelligent and adaptable – far moreso than even our most advanced control systems. Against any other enemy, the sheer quantity of combat drones would be overwhelming, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that the hives have perfected the very same concept. They can produce wholly sentient soldiers just as efficiently as we can mass-produce drones, and despite being just as expendable, their troops are far more intelligent and far more able to react to changing battlefield conditions. Even engaging the enemy on the ground in close quarters, a hazard team with a complement of drones just cannot react or give commands quickly enough to keep up.”

“This is why you founded the Coalition,” David marveled as they coasted into an adjacent building. “Your drones weren’t doing the job, so you formed an alliance with the Krell. They’re intelligent, loyal, and they’re a hell of a lot more effective than any Bug footsoldier.”

“Our two species worked together to beat back the hives during those dark times,” the Broker replied as he eased himself out of the flow with a quick stroke from his tentacles. It wasn’t yet so natural for David, and he had to kick off the opposite wall of the tube to change his course. “Krell armed with Broker technology and supported by our fleets were able to restore order, though it was a long and exhausting campaign. The Coalition has now been expanded to include many more species, and each addition improves our security situation. The addition of the United Nations with their expansive fleets and enormous manpower has been especially welcome.”

Remembering his conversation with Selkie about the subject, David held his tongue. Now wasn’t the appropriate time for his political insights.

“We were still faced with an issue, however,” the Admin said as he led them deeper into the building. There was another pair of intimidating Krell guarding the door, their strange weapons at the ready, and they stepped aside obediently to let the Broker pass. He scanned his hand across another sensor, the door sliding open. “Lacking a population anywhere near large enough to constitute an army such as yours, we had to continue the development of our drone program, and that required improving our neural models.”

“I would be very excited to take a look at them,” David added eagerly. “I’m assuming that’s why you brought me here?”

“Not exactly,” the Admin replied as they passed yet another security door. This place was like a fortress – it would be impossible for anyone without clearance to get inside, and woe betide anyone who tried to force their way past the Krell. “While our neural networks could be trained to perform many tasks, reaching the target of Betelgeusian-level intelligence proved impossible. No matter how efficient our simulations of neural pathways, they remained just that – simulations. The number of calculations that could be performed per cycle ran up against hard physical limits.”

“Moore’s Law,” David said with a nod. “We’ve encountered similar issues. We can only reduce the size of transistors down to an atomic level, and even then, we’re limited by the electrical conductivity of the materials we use. Room-temperature superconductors could theoretically cross that threshold, but we have no such materials. Neither do you, if I had to guess.”

“That was the case, until my colleague here made a breakthrough.”

Sensing that she might finally be allowed to give some input, Selkie hurried a little to match pace with them in the wide corridor, floating off the floor for a moment as she kicked her tentacles.

“Yes,” she began, her dark coloration suggesting that she was still unhappy. As a scientist, talking about an incredible advancement should have made her break out in pastel colors, but something about it had her more worried than excited. “For decades, we focused on reproducing the structure of a neural network as accurately as possible, but simulating tens of billions of neurons in real-time was beyond us, even using our most powerful computers.”

“Precisely,” the Admin added. “They performed only the tasks that they were trained for, and no matter how accurate the simulation or how thorough the training, they were never capable of innovation. Being truly reactive and autonomous on the battlefield remained beyond their scope.”

“That is, until one of our science ships made a discovery,” Selkie continued. “During superlight travel, a ship creates a manifold around itself, like a bubble of energy that extends from the vessel. Everything within that bubble gets carried with it. This is mostly the interstellar medium – gasses and particles. The drive punches a hole into a higher dimension of space where the laws of physics are very different, allowing it to traverse great distances in mere seconds. When it emerges, the interstellar medium that was carried with it creates a spreading cloud of colorful gas, its properties having been altered by the journey.”

“We have been experimenting with carrying various alloys and elements through superlight jumps in an attempt to alter their properties in much the same way,” the Admin added. “We have jokingly taken to referring to the process as alchemy.”

“Ironically, it was discovered through intentionally making the manifold weaker,” Selkie continued as they reached another empty elevator shaft. The two Brokers began to swim down, David letting himself slowly fall towards the bottom. They were heading beneath the sediment now – into the basement area of the facility. “By disrupting the shield that protects the vessel, it exposes the elements within to the energies of that alternate space.”

“It is very difficult, because we have no way of interacting with these alternate Universes,” the Admin said as he touched down on the floor at the bottom of the shaft. He also seemed amused by David’s method of descent, his beak clicking as he chuckled to himself. “As you know, the physical laws that govern these spaces are different from our own, meaning that fundamental principles no longer apply. No sensors can take readings because they no longer function, nor can we build a sensor in realspace that could function there, because we have no way to measure the environmental conditions.”

“Theoretical physics isn’t really my wheelhouse, but I understand the basics,” David replied. “It’s why organic nervous systems go haywire during a jump. The basic electrical interactions between nerves break down because electrical currents just don’t work the same way there.”

“Correct,” the Admin said as they proceeded deeper. “It is frankly a miracle that we can survive jumps, even with such a short window of exposure. By all rights, our cells should break down, and we should emerge as piles of goo. The manifold helps prevent that, theoretically. As I said, we have no way to measure the effects, so this is all guesswork on our end.”

They arrived at yet another door, this one opening into a control room or some kind of lab. Standing on a raised ramp that led down into the expansive room, David could see that the space had been split up into closed cubicles, somewhat like an office building. Each cubicle was filled with banks of computer consoles and scientific equipment, fat, insulated data cables trailing across the ceiling like the vines in a jungle canopy. There were Brokers in each isolated work area, each one sporting a subtly different coloration. The three styles of mantle fin that he had observed during his first meeting with the Admin were widely represented here. Some had the arrow-shaped squid fin, others had dumbo ears, and others had Selkie’s cuttlefish frill. They were hard at work, their tentacles moving across touch panels and manipulating tools, the hum of machinery and the water filtration systems audible even inside his helmet.

At the far end of the room was a window that looked out over a dome-shaped chamber, and inside was a complex network of cables that ran to a pedestal at its center. Sitting upon that raised platform was something that David couldn’t identify – a hexagonal container covered in a dense layer of tiny wires and probes. It looked like the core of a supercomputer or a superlight drive.

David wasn’t sure which sight to be more impressed by – the alien machine or the sheer number of Brokers who were occupying such a comparatively small space. There must have been two dozen of them.

“What you are looking at is the result of one of those experiments,” the Admin said with a proud wave of his tentacle. “Inside that containment unit is a unique element created when one of the alloys we sent through emerged with completely new properties.”

“It formed a nano-crystalline lattice structure,” Selkie added, her hue brightening as her enthusiasm rose. “Think of it – a metal crystal with naturally occurring, self-arranging lattices on a nanometer level. Well, as naturally occurring as something that gets sent through superlight can be. It looks like a…a bundle of wires under an electron microscope. The density and complexity is incredible.”

“More than that, it is a superconductor,” the Admin added with a pointed glance at David. “We have a nanometer-scale, superconductive crystalline alloy that is stable at normal temperatures and atmospheric pressures. However this element was created – and we have no real way to know – it formed under no conditions that would be possible using our Universe’s physical laws. Many such elements break down immediately upon entering our Universe. This one did not.”

“It was my idea to use the element as a basis for a new processor,” Selkie added hurriedly. “It has none of the limitations imposed by transistors and the speed of memory access, and with such a densely interconnected three-dimensional structure, it has a complexity that rivals that of an organic brain.”

“If it’s a superconductor, you can also pump as much juice as you want through it,” David marveled, the reality of what they were describing beginning to dawn on him. “Don’t tell me you got code running on this thing?”

“We split what little we were able to recover from the experiment into three-dimensional wafers,” Selkie explained. “We had to screen for the most desirable lattice with the fewest flaws, but one of those is currently running a program of my team’s design. We are still tweaking power input and refining the code, but it can perform calculations orders of magnitude faster than even our quantum computers.”

“This is the largest leap forward in computing since the invention of the logic gate!” David laughed, able to be as loud as he wanted inside his helmet. “Let me guess – you need my help to get a neural network running on this thing? It’s already like an artificial brain – it just needs the software.”

“We already passed that phase of development some weeks ago,” Selkie replied, her skin tone growing gloomy again. “We had the system running combat simulations to optimize and improve our drone software, and it was making great strides…before it shut down.”

“And I take it you didn’t shut it down?” David asked, her concern gradually starting to make more sense.

“The unit is no longer responding to our inputs, and based on the data from our monitoring systems, it is still extremely active.”

“As soon as we realized that there was a problem, we cut it off from the facility’s network and isolated it,” the Admin added. “Unfortunately, we have been unable to regain control,” he said as he glanced at Selkie, giving her a disapproving flash of dark bands. “We were forced to involve the Board, and when the situation could not be resolved, we had to seek outside help.”

“You built an artificial brain made from exotic matter that you’re now no longer in control of, and it’s doing something, but you don’t know what?” David crossed his arms, appraising the hexagonal containment device beyond the window. “Are you saying you think you may have created a true AI?”

“That is one of the things we want you to help us determine,” the Admin explained. “We have no way to know if this is merely a neural network operating far beyond its intended capabilities, or if it has gained some degree of self-awareness and is choosing not to respond to our commands.”

“Why didn’t you just pull the plug if you were so worried?” David asked with a shrug.

“I have invested a small fortune in this project,” the Admin replied, his usual cheerful pastels shifting to a dark mottling. “We were on the verge of patenting revolutionary new technologies, and I am not willing to potentially destroy all of that progress until I can be sure that it is unsalvageable.”

“It wasn’t out of concern that you might have created a sapient being?” David asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Just…figure out what is going on and try to find a way to get the project back under control,” he replied, grinding his beak. “The project lead will give you whatever resources and cooperation you require.”

He turned back to the door, his blankets whipping around like a cape, and slithered back to the elevator shaft.

“Well,” David began, turning to face Selkie. “You guys are just full of surprises, aren’t you? I have to ask – why did you need to bring in outside help? I may be the foremost expert in my field and the recipient of many lucrative grants, I might add, but what you’re dealing with here is clearly beyond the level of technology that I’m familiar with.”

“We had nowhere else to turn,” Selkie replied. “When we realized that we could not resolve the situation, we were forced to alert the Board. The Administrator was not happy about his secret project being revealed, to say the least. When the experts they sent in could not regain control of the machine, we had to seek a new perspective, and there are no other species in the Coalition with a comparable understanding of neural networks.”

“Other than us,” David added. “I’m still surprised that he got to this point rather than just shutting off the thing’s power supply and starting over.”

“We have precious little of the element, and who knows if the conditions that led to the runaway neural activity are reproducible,” she explained.

“You think this could be a one-in-a-million breakthrough,” David said with an understanding nod. “Too valuable to just whack with a sledgehammer.”

“Subjecting the containment device to any kinetic-”

“Yeah yeah, let’s take a look at this thing,” David said, rubbing his hands together as he took a step down the ramp. “Morning!” he said, waving at another Broker that crossed his path. Its papillae rose up to form spikes on its skin, spreading across its body in a wave like a shiver, the creature hurrying away as though he was infected with some kind of contagious disease.

Undeterred, he weaved through a couple of the cubicles, their occupants leaning out to get a look at the strange newcomer. Selkie hurried after him, her four arms hovering in the water as though she wanted to stop him but wasn’t sure how.

He arrived at the window, getting a closer view of the containment device in the isolation chamber beyond. It was a little larger than a basketball, made from interlocking hexagonal plates, its surface coated in a gold foil material that probably had something to do with cooling and signal insulation. It was covered in probes and tiny wires that formed a complex network across its surface, thick cables trailing from the pedestal it was sitting upon.

“Is it currently linked to any of the facility’s systems save for power delivery?” David asked.

“No,” Selkie replied, coming to a stop beside him. She glanced around at her colleagues apologetically, a few of them looking over the tops of the dividing walls to see what all the fuss was about. “We have severed all data lines save for the readouts from the probes, which are not directly connected to the crystal wafer within.”

“What exactly were you using it for?” he asked. “You weren’t intending to install these wafers directly into your drones?”

“We have far too little of the material, and making more is a difficult process,” she explained with a cautious glance down into the chamber. “We lost several drone ships during the experiments when the alloys that made up their hulls were similarly affected. We’ve been leveraging the incredible properties of this material to train neural networks in record time and with previously impossible complexity and variation.”

“Did you load the resulting software onto any of your drones?” David asked.

“For testing purposes, yes,” she replied. “They are located in a secure proving ground on the other side of the facility.”

“Destroy them.”

“But, the Administrator will not be-”

“If you’re not going to listen to my advice, then why am I here?” David asked. He stood there, staring at her as he waited for an answer.

“Very well,” she muttered with a flush of dark patterning. “I will see to it that any test frames loaded with the prototype software are decommissioned.”

“You have neural networks designing neural networks,” David added, turning his attention back to the golden device. “Who knows what kind of backdoors could be hidden in that code? If you have any copies of that data, it needs to be physically isolated from the network.”

“Why are you taking such aggressive measures?” Selkie asked. “We have not even determined whether there is a problem yet, and we never encountered any software-related issues during the tests.”

“For all we know, the thing is just caught in a boot loop,” David replied with a gesture to the chamber. “But until we’ve determined what’s going on, we need to minimize the potential damage that can be done to your systems. If this thing really has the complexity that you say it does, and it can perform as many calculations per second as an organic brain, then we need to treat it with the utmost respect until we know what we’re dealing with. The last thing we want it doing is writing software for combat drones that we can’t even read.”

“Do your people have such a fear of artificial intelligence?”

“Presumably, the only thing you’ve had this AI doing since it was first turned on is designing better ways to kill people,” David scoffed. “So, yes, I don’t want it getting into your network and flying armed drones around. I take it that this facility is running on its own intranet to prevent network intrusions?”

“Yes,” Selkie replied. “Industrial espionage is of great concern to the Administrator.”

“Good,” he added with a clap of his gloved hands – an odd sensation underwater. “I presume that you have a workstation set up for me where I can take a look at the readouts from those probes? Let’s try to figure out exactly what it’s doing. I’ll also need a full and detailed report on the experiment up to this point, including the results of all the tests and whatever observations were made about the device’s behavior. Even small details might be crucial.”

“Some of those materials are company secrets,” Selkie replied hesitantly, a flutter passing through the thin membrane of her frill. “I will have to get permission from the Administrator.”

“I already signed his damned contract, so if he has any problems, he can come to me,” David said with a roll of his eyes. “I want to nip this issue in the bud, because I get the impression that you guys are going to try to withhold important information from me and make my job harder in the process, which doesn’t help either of us. You want this problem resolved? Give me what I ask for.”

The vents beneath Selkie’s mantle flared as they ejected a puff of water – the equivalent of a sigh, perhaps.

“Very well,” she grumbled, sounding defeated. “We have prepared a work area for you. Come this way.”

She led him through the cubicles, David peering into each one as he passed, seeing Brokers hard at work hunched over their consoles. It was nice to know that they hadn’t developed neural networks that could replace their programmers and researchers yet – they still had to put butts in seats just the same as everyone else. Or butts in nets, in this case.

They arrived at a large cubicle that was lined with banks of consoles, and there were a couple of tables set up for scientific work, a few alien devices scattered across them. A Broker with the dumbo ears style of crest was working at one of the stations, lifting its head as the newcomers entered, the flush of dark coloration making the eyespots on the membranes even more apparent.

David made a beeline for one of the tables, slamming his hard case down on its surface and flipping open the clasps, the sound making the Broker recoil in alarm with a ripple of papillae.

“Alright, let’s get this thing hooked up,” he declared as he opened the case and hit the power button on the computer. “I’m going to need access to your network. I picked up some radio signals earlier that I’m assuming are for ad-hoc, so I’ll need some kind of security key if the protocols are even remotely compatible, or a patch cable for a hardline if they’re not.”

The Broker was wearing one of the translation devices, and it reached up to tap the collar with a tentacle, a male voice coming through.

“I do not think that the Administrator would allow you direct access to the company servers.”

“Don’t worry about it, Jeff,” David replied as the holographic displays flared to life beside the physical one. “We’ve had this conversation already, and we’ve determined that I’m going to get whatever I need to do my job.”

“My name is not Jeff,” the Broker replied, giving Selkie a pleading glance.

“Well, everyone around here keeps insisting that I can’t pronounce any of their names, and necessity is the mother of invention. Hop to it, Jeff.”

“Just give him what he wants,” Selkie said, exhaling another torrent of water from her vents. “I will take responsibility.”

“You know, the insane waterproof rating on this thing should have tipped me off,” David said as he typed in his password. “I just thought it was designed for doing fieldwork. I’m assuming that you took the liberty of creating a translation algorithm already?” he added, glancing between the two aliens. “I can’t read picture squares, and I don’t think dictating every input like I’m composing a telegram is going to be an efficient use of our time.”

“If you would allow me a moment to interject, we have already prepared the necessary tools,” Selkie replied as she turned an annoyed maroon.

Jeff fetched a blocky device with a white housing that looked about the size of a wireless antenna, a cable with a familiar connector dangling from one end. He passed it to David, who plugged it into the appropriate data port, watching as a program launched automatically and began writing files to the laptop’s drive.

“You must have known exactly what hardware I was bringing and what operating system it was running,” he mused as he watched it complete the process.

“Do you believe that the Administrator would allow you to bring any devices into the facility that he had not authorized beforehand?” Selkie asked. “The workstation and its software were cleared long before you set off on your journey, as was the onboard computer of your suit.”

“That explains why they wouldn’t let me bring my phone,” he muttered, his mind jumping to the hidden data drive. “Alright, this is set up, and…I’m connected to the local network. Pulling data from the servers now. Wow, that was fast.”

“You should be seeing a direct feed from the probes now,” Jeff said, using his four arms to interact with one of the touch displays.

“You weren’t kidding about the whole superconductor thing,” David marveled, watching the software start to draw a line graph across his main screen. “I can’t believe how much power you’re dumping into it. Based on these graphs, it looks like it’s pulling as much juice as the system can deliver. Is that right?”

“It has been operating at maximum capacity since shortly before we disconnected it from the network,” Selkie replied. “We know that it is using that energy to perform billions of calculations, but for what purpose, we cannot say. It ceased exporting data and began refusing all shutdown codes.”

“I mean, you designed it to write code for neural networks,” David said as he looked up from his display. “You loaded it up with all the knowledge it could ever want about its own systems. Theoretically, the only thing it needs from you that it can’t generate itself is power.”

“We are operating under the assumption that it has become self-aware?” Jeff asked, his skin taking on a worried hue as he turned to look back at the human.

“Until we prove otherwise, yes,” David replied as his fingers began to dance across his keyboard. “Damn these gloves,” he muttered to himself, fatfingering a key. “I don’t know how the Marines get anything done wearing these stupid things…”

“What do you propose we do first?” Selkie asked, the two Brokers pausing as they waited for his reply.

“Step one,” he began, raising a gloved finger into the air as he continued to type with the other hand. “Determine what the machine is doing. If we can establish that the machine isn’t just stuck in some kind of loop or malfunctioning, we move on to step two – determining whether it exhibits any intelligent behavior. Step three is the Chinese room experiment. If the machine outputs answers that appear to be intelligent, for example if we determine that it could pass a Turing test convincingly, then we need to determine whether it exhibits strong or weak AI. In other words, does it have true consciousness, or is it merely using a neural network to simulate consciousness?”

“I do not understand these terms,” Selkie replied, glancing to Jeff in confusion.

“It doesn’t matter,” David replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “That’s what I’m here for. Besides, I’m sure Broker AI researchers and philosophers have come up with similar concepts under different names – computationalism, functionalism, the theory of mind. The three laws of robotics?” he added, glancing between the pair of baffled aliens. “No? Well, I’ll have to get you a copy of Robot Visions. When’s your birthday? Every six days, I’d assume, according to the orbital period of 1e.”

“Please focus,” Selkie sighed, jetting water from her vents.

“I’m sorry, my mind is running at a thousand revolutions a minute,” he replied excitedly. “Do you have any idea how much I’ve studied the subject of strong AI without ever imagining that I’d actually get to interact with one?”

“We have not yet determined that,” Selkie chided, clicking her beak.

“I’m just scanning through the reports that I pulled from your servers,” he continued, watching as the translation algorithm converted the blocky Broker symbols into Latin characters. “It’s going to take me a while to go through it all in any detail, and I’ll certainly need some help translating some of the more complex themes, but a cursory glance at the specs for this machine is telling me a great deal.”

“Can you accomplish step one using the probes alone?” she asked.

“The probes haven’t given you any insight into what it’s been doing,” he replied with a shake of his helmeted head. “I think we need to hook the machine itself up to some kind of output if we’re going to make any progress – reestablish a few of those severed connections.”

“You just told us that it was too dangerous to be allowed to communicate with the network,” Selkie said.

“So we establish a hardline – a secure connection to an isolated terminal that allows two-way communication only.”

“Bring in a portable terminal with the appropriate port,” Selkie ordered. Jeff scuttled out of the cubicle, lifting himself off the deck with a kick of his tentacles in their equivalent of a brisk jog.

“And I don’t mean just switching off the wireless capabilities!” David called after him. “I want a console with any networking functionality completely disabled – physically.”

“We can remove the appropriate chips,” Selkie confirmed. “I will have the engineers run a data cable from the chamber.”

Wondering what she might mean by chips, he read through more of the reports as he waited for the engineers to complete their task. Before very long, Jeff returned with some kind of tablet computer clutched in his tentacles, setting it down on the table beside David’s laptop. It had a stand that unfolded from its housing, almost giving it the appearance of a computer monitor, but the only input device seemed to be a touch screen. The Broker immediately popped off a section of the device’s cover.

“Whoa,” David began, leaning over the table to get a better look. “Can you just expose the components to water like that? Won’t it short out?”

Wondering whether the individual circuit boards were waterproof, he peered inside the polymer housing, seeing rows of little chips small enough to fit comfortably in the palm of his hand. Jeff removed a couple of them deftly, setting them down on the table, and David reached over to pick one up. It wasn’t anything like the PCBs he was familiar with. It was rigid and surprisingly thick, made from some kind of hard, white enamel. Silver traces covered its surface, forming a dense network of circuits, and he could even see a couple of co-processors nestled among them.

“These are ceramic,” he said, holding the Poker chip-sized board between his thumb and forefinger as he examined it. “Let me guess – pulse laser cutting and sintered silver?”

“We use ceramics for our circuit boards,” Selkie explained as Jeff closed up the device’s case. “The material is very resistant to temperature and pressure changes, and it protects against the corrosive properties of saltwater.”

“I’d been wondering how the hell you guys produced electronics underwater,” he marveled as he set it back down. “Our PCBs would short out immediately if they were exposed to an environment like this, and over a slightly longer period of time, the seawater would eat away the copper. Waterproofing every device you manufacture would be feasible but not practical. You wouldn’t even be able to change the batteries in a household appliance.”

Another Broker soon appeared at the door to their cubicle, running a thick cable across the floor from a spool it was carrying in one of its tentacles. Everything in the facility was probably so closely integrated that the only way to truly isolate any of the systems from one another was to run a physical line. The newcomer passed it to Jeff, who then connected it to the terminal, turning a screw-like connector that reminded David of a garden hose. With what were presumably the networking cards removed, the Broker switched the device on, a graphical interface covered in colorful squares popping up.

“Selkie, you’re going to have to stand in for me until you can get that translation software running on this thing,” he said as he stepped aside. She shuffled over to take his place, one of her leaf-shaped hands poising over the display.

“We have a connection,” she said, tapping at a few of the icons to send colorful squares dancing across the display. “I am sending requests for the device to dump its logs, but I am receiving no responses. I cannot determine what programs it might be running.”

“Don’t do that,” David chided, Selkie pulling her hand away. “It hasn’t been responding to your commands so far, so why would it start now? Try just sending a simple message. How about hello?”

“You want me to send it a greeting?” she asked, blinking her alien eyes at him. “I believe we are skipping some of your steps.”

“Just give it a simple greeting,” he reiterated.

She did as he asked, the pair waiting a few moments for some kind of response, Jeff watching from a safe distance.

“Hold on,” David muttered, leaning down to check his laptop. “The probes are showing a change in activity. Look at that – some regions of the…uh…crystal have stopped producing so much heat. It’s stopped what it’s doing, at least partially.”

“Power consumption has dropped,” Jeff confirmed as he moved back over to his console.

A flashing symbol popped up on Selkie’s monitor, and she paused, her hand hanging in the water as though she was unsure of what to do next.

“It says hello,” she said, bright bands of excitement spreading across her skin.

“Okay, okay,” David mumbled. He tried to pace but found it inconvenient underwater, settling on drumming his fingers on the table instead. Selkie and Jeff seemed fascinated by the sight, watching the wave pattern that his digits created. “Let’s not lose our heads here – this isn’t an indication of intelligence. We’ve been able to interact with it, at least, so that’s something.”

“Power draw is spiking,” Jeff warned.

“Yeah, I’m seeing thermal probes returning to their previous baseline,” David added. “Still, it stopped whatever it was doing to talk to us, if only for a few seconds. Feels like we distracted it.”

“What now?” Selkie asked.

“Now that we’ve established a line of communication, we ask it a series of questions in an attempt to determine whether its replies show any indication of intelligence. To be clear, you never trained it to interact with people? You just had it running sims and writing code?”

“Correct,” Selkie replied. “We were interested only in leveraging its computational power.”

“So, any replies that it gives, it must have come up with on its own. Unless it managed to get access to the files for one of those secretary bots or something before you unplugged it, but I don’t see why it would go rooting around like that.”

“What should we ask it?”

“Let’s start off with something simple, then we can move on to more abstract and complicated questions. Start with…what are you?”

Selkie typed in the question, then waited. David watched his display intently, anticipating the telltale dips in power and temperature that would indicate a reaction.

“There!” he barked, Selkie flinching as he slammed a hand down on the table. “Probes are showing activity. I’m seeing temperature drops in several different regions of the lattice. It’s taking another break from whatever calculations it’s running to respond.”

“I have a reply,” Selkie announced. “It says – I am inside, you are outside.”

“Well, that’s an odd one,” David mused. He tried to scratch his chin pensively, but found that the helmet was in his way. “It’s not what I would expect from a system trying to simulate intelligence.”

“The integrated camera sensor just turned on,” Selkie said, starting to tap at the screen frantically.

“Wait, wait,” David said with a gesture for her to stop. “You didn’t do that?”

“If it sent a reply, it can send other files,” she replied hurriedly. “Code is being executed remotely on the terminal. The microphone is now online.”

A symbol appeared on the display, colored characters flashing.

“What was that?” David demanded.

“An error code. Something just tried to access the network chips that we removed.”

“It’s alright, don’t panic,” he said as he noted her mottled coloration. “Whatever it’s doing is still confined to this terminal.”

He stepped in behind her, leaning a little closer to the device, Selkie pulling away from him as her papillae rose like the fur of a frightened cat. He was invading her personal space, but he was too engrossed to pay her much mind.

“This thing was designed to write code for other machines,” he said, wondering where the camera might be on the flush frame. “It’s still too early to call it, but it sure feels like it’s trying to get a look at us, like a fish inside a tank…”

“It seems to have an awareness that it is confined, and we are not,” Selkie added with another worried flush of blotchy coloration.

“Send it another question – can you see us? Assuming that the Broker word for see has a strictly visual context.”

She hesitated, then complied, her deft tentacles hitting icons on the display in quick succession.

“Power output remains at diminished levels, relatively speaking,” Jeff added as he watched his console intently.

“We have its attention, it seems,” David mused.

“Receiving a response,” Selkie announced, another series of icons popping up on her screen. “It says – is this what it means to see?

“Okay, this is getting interesting,” David chuckled as he rubbed his hands together gleefully. “While it may be accessing the camera, it might have no program on the other end that can parse that raw data, or even any understanding of what visual information is. Send it this message – as closely as you can translate it.”

“Ready,” Selkie replied, her hands poised over the display.

“Do you know what you are?” David said. “And I mean that in an existential sense. I want to find out whether it has any inkling that it’s a machine, and that it’s different from us. That could shed some light on its level of self-awareness.”

Selkie did as he asked, and they waited a moment for a reply.

I am the weaver,” Selkie said as she read off the message, glancing at David in confusion.

“Does weaver have any special meaning in the Broker language?” he asked.

“Not that I am aware of,” she replied. “It means someone who weaves, referring to fabrics or other such materials. It carries no special meaning for me.”

“I wonder what it means by that,” David muttered, leaning his hands on the table as he watched the feed from the probes. “Where did it even get the word weaver if it’s been designing drone software since it was switched on? Either way, this is interesting.”

“Does this give you some insight into its nature?” Selkie asked.

“The fact that it’s not trying to emulate human…uh, sapient responses means that it’s probably not a chatbot running on some kind of language model. Either it’s spitting out nonsense data, or there’s a method to its madness…”

“Should we ask it if it wants anything?” Selkie suggested.

“Good idea,” David replied, nodding his permission.

She typed in the query, and they waited for a reply, the probes indicating that regions of its brain were focusing on this new task.

“Power,” she announced. “It says it wants power.”

“Does it want more power, or is it asking for the power not to be shut off?”

“It requests that we continue supplying power,” Selkie confirmed after asking for clarification.

“Perhaps it’s aware that its other systems have been cut off from the facility,” David suggested. “In a way, it’s like having all of your senses switched off one by one. Without a steady power supply, it can’t do whatever it’s doing, and an interruption is something it might experience as unconsciousness or worse. Ask it what it’s doing.”

“It says that it is weaving,” she replied after a short delay.

“Well, that’s unhelpful. It seems like we’re talking at crossed purposes, and without a better understanding of language on both sides, we probably won’t get much more out of it. I think we need to teach it, but that comes with several caveats.”

“The more it learns from us, the more we influence its behavior,” Selkie replied. “We may inadvertently train it to simply give the responses that we expect of it.”

“It’s a sanitation issue from here on,” he said, standing up straight. “We’re dealing with two problems. The first is the Hawthorne Effect, where a subject modifies their behavior in response to knowing that they’re being studied. The other is a form of the Observer Effect in particle physics, where the mere act of measuring something changes its properties. We can apply that same logic here because our observation and our interactions have likely already influenced its behavior. We need to be very careful about what we say to it and how we interact with it.”

“There is also an observer bias,” Selkie added. “We expect this weaver’s behavior to conform to our preconceptions, and we risk seeing traits that do not truly exist.”

“Yes, we want to be very careful not to anthropomorphize this thing,” David replied with a nod. “Or…cephalopomorphize. You know, I’m starting to realize how anthropocentric some of these terms are.”

“The translation software makes your meaning obvious enough,” she replied. “I shall give instructions that nobody be allowed to interact with the device save for us.”

“Let’s disconnect the terminal while we’re away, just as a precaution,” David added. “Tell our new friend what we’re doing first, and that we’ll be back soon. This is the first line to the outside that it’s had in a while, and we don’t want to alarm it – assuming it’s capable of experiencing alarm.”

“You wish to recess here, then?” Selkie asked as she typed.

“It’s a good start, but we need a concrete plan if we’re going to proceed. As much as I’m burning with the desire to sit here and interrogate it for hours, our approach has to be surgical and measured. I need time to go over the data from the experiment and devise a plan of action.”

“The Administrator will want a progress report. What should I tell him?”

“Tell him that we’ve made contact, and that while we don’t have confirmation that this is a strong AI, it’s definitely something unusual that warrants further investigation. For now, I’m going to familiarize myself with these reports.”



David lifted his arms above his head, stretching as he let out a yawn inside his helmet. He was lounging in one of the net chairs with his workstation sitting in his lap, a report from the Broker experiments open on the main display.

He was still in Jeff’s cubicle, though the Broker had left some time ago now that his expertise was no longer required. Selkie was nearby, checking the data feed from the probes and occasionally chipping in to answer questions and provide some context for the experiments.

The documentation was extensive, and he had been reading for some hours, dealing with the occasional translation quirk by the software as he went. Eventually, he’d been able to piece together a timeline of events.

Shortly after the superlight experiments – or alchemy as the Administrator liked to refer to them – the superconducting properties of the crystal had been discovered. Soon after, the complex lattice structure of the material had been identified, and Selkie’s research team had found a way to execute code on a wafer-sized slice of it. Without enough material to replace the CPUs of the mass-produced drones, they instead focused on leveraging its unique properties to write code for them. Selkie’s team iterated on the wafer’s software, and it iterated on the drone software in turn, each successive generation becoming more capable than the last. As much promise as the project was showing, it soon came to a screeching halt when the wafer stopped responding to commands, and they decided to lock it down.

One important piece of information that he had uncovered during his reading was how Selkie and her team had used the wafer itself as a way to accelerate their project. It had left even their most advanced computers in the dust, so they had sectioned off a portion of its lattice – kind of like creating a partition on a drive – and had used it to process their revisions. In doing so, they may have inadvertently given the AI control over its own source code, thus allowing it to make changes. It would never have been an issue under normal circumstances, but nobody had been expecting emergent self-awareness. It might help explain why its evolution had been so rapid.

Everything from sensor readings to power input had been monitored with meticulous care, but there was nothing out of the ordinary and nothing specific that seemed to have prompted a change. One day, power and activity had spiked, and the device had ceased responding to commands.

“Man, I’m starting to get hungry,” David muttered as he shifted his weight in the chair. It was a little low for a human, but otherwise not uncomfortable if one had a wall to use as a backrest. “I didn’t realize how long I’d be at this.”

“Your propensity to eat constantly remains as impressive as ever,” Selkie said as she glanced over at him from one of the consoles.

“Spoken like a true ectotherm,” he replied, closing his laptop. “Does this place have a cafeteria?”

“I can obtain food for you if you wish,” she replied.

“Then let us proceed henceforth to the food distribution area,” he replied in a mocking robot voice, the alien clicking her beak in disapproval. “So, any activity from our new friend?”

“By that, I assume you mean the AI?” Selkie asked as she led him out of the cubicle. “No, I saw no changes in the probe data. It continues to dedicate its resources to its project, whatever that may be.”

“We can’t keep referring to it in the third person,” David replied, another office worker staring at him as he passed its cubicle. “It’s inconvenient. Let’s just call it Weaver.”

“If you insist,” she said as the pair arrived at the elevator-less shaft.

“Well, we’re not naming it after your project,” he added, grunting as he launched himself off the ground to begin his laborious climb. “What was it called? Exotic crystalline lattice applications in remote drone neural networks? Damn, you could have spelled out ECLAIR if you had dropped a couple of letters.”

“It sounds better in the Broker language,” she grumbled, swimming ahead of him.

“I have a hard time believing that,” he said. He pushed off the wall, hooking his fingers around the lip of the door that led to the next floor and pulling himself up. “I’m gonna share an incredible new technology with your people – it’s called stairs.”

“The cafeteria is this way,” she replied, ignoring his comment as he bounded after her.

She led him through more featureless corridors, the colored markings on the walls the only way they stood any chance of navigating, eventually arriving in another room filled with cubicles. These contained only a table and a single chair, as though a solitary Broker was intended to occupy each one. They were lavishly furnished, however, with a fish tank that spanned the entire ceiling – possibly the largest that David had seen outside of the massive pillar when he had met the Administrator.

The more he saw the fish tank ceiling décor, the more he suspected that it was designed like a skylight, making the Brokers feel as though they were closer to the surface. They were not claustrophobic creatures by any means, but perhaps it put them more at ease. The Administrator had mentioned something about how his employees needed to decompress.

At the far end of the room was a long counter with a glass display case, and beneath it was a spread of prepackaged food. Rather than a Broker, there was another of the robots rooted to the floor behind it, the construct following them with its expressionless representation of eyes as they approached.

“Could you not make these things less creepy?” David asked as Selkie began to peruse the counter. “I feel like you have the technology to make a perfect replica of a Broker if you really wanted to.”

“That would defeat the purpose,” she replied, instructing the android to select a few of the dishes. They were packaged like something he might expect to see in a Japanese vending machine, with strange text and colorful, stylized representations of their contents printed on the plastic. For as alien as the Brokers were, they were visual creatures, much like humans. He was often reminded of that fact by their graphic design and their user interfaces.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

The robot turned and placed several of the packets onto trays with its four tubular arms, slotting them into the rack of something that looked like a large oven that was recessed into the wall behind it. There were several more such devices – likely different means of heating or sterilizing the food. It only took a moment, then the robot returned the trays to them, Selkie picking one up and leaving the other for David.

“It is not intended to be a realistic representation of a Broker,” she explained as she led him into an empty booth. There was only one chair, so he set his tray down on the little table and fetched one from a neighboring cubicle, Selkie clicking her beak in disapproval again.

“What?” he asked, spreading his arms. “You want me to sit on the floor? Now, what were you saying?”

“I was saying that the proxies are not intended to be realistic,” she continued, watching as he scooted a little closer. “They are intended to relieve the client of another pointless social interaction. It is especially necessary here – where people work in such close proximity.”

“Are you really going to have a panic attack because you have to ask a person to reheat your sushi instead of a robot?”

As the question left his lips, he realized that it wasn’t all that bizarre. He’d known some introverts for whom social interaction took a very real toll, and the idea of talking to a clerk after a long day at the office was a daunting prospect to them. Maybe it was even more extreme with the Brokers, but how could such a society function?

“Humans are unusually social creatures,” she replied, glancing down at his tray of food. “You become lonely and pine for company, you enjoy the proximity of others, and you even require physical contact to stay healthy. It is not so for us.”

“You’re clearly not completely antisocial,” he insisted, reaching for one of the food packets. “Solitary species don’t evolve to become cooperative, and cooperation is necessary for creating any kind of civilization. You need to coordinate crop harvests, you need members of the community who can make things that you can’t, and every person has to specialize and distribute labor.”

He paused as he lifted the food from the table, suddenly remembering that there was a face plate in his way. Selkie began to laugh, her winding tentacles wriggling in the netting of her seat as her beak chittered, bands of bright coloration sweeping up her mantle.

“Ha ha, very funny,” he muttered as he let his packet sink back to the tray.

“You are so single-minded,” she giggled, exposing her beak in a smile as he scowled at her. “Whenever you become engrossed in a topic, you forget everything else that is going on around you.”

“I’ve only been here for a day,” he protested. “I’m not exactly used to living in a completely alien environment where I can’t even eat a sandwich.”

“I have seen you attempt to scratch your face three times today,” she added with another flash of amused coloration.

“It’s nice to know that you do have a sense of humor, but you make a conscious effort to be boring,” he replied. “Is starving me part of the joke, or is there somewhere I can actually eat this?”

“This way,” she sighed, still smirking to herself as she rose from her seat. He picked up his tray, noting that Selkie had left hers on the table, and the Broker led him to another booth a short walk away. This one was over by the far wall, likely so that it could be patched into the building’s systems, another tent similar to the one in her apartment filling the booth as though it had been inflated inside it. There was an energy field over the door to keep the atmosphere in, and beyond it, he could see another of the 3D-printed deck chairs and a table.

“Nice to know they’re thinking of me,” he said, pausing by the entrance.

“You are expected to spend considerable time working in this facility, and I told them of your metabolic needs,” she explained. “They set up this habitat so that you might have a safe place to eat.”

“Aren’t you joining me?” he asked.

“Why?” she replied, tilting her head.

“Because I don’t want to eat alone, and I still have questions I want to ask you.”

“Very well,” she said, her patterning suggesting that she wasn’t exactly thrilled. “I will fetch my food.”

David stepped through the field, emerging into an oxygen environment, the soundscape changing abruptly. He flipped open his visor, grateful for a gulp of fresh air – as fresh as recycled air could be. There was a vent high on the wall that was likely filtering the atmosphere, the machine giving off a gentle hum. He set down his tray and pulled up his deck chair, waiting for Selkie to return.

As much as he got the impression that her social battery was rapidly draining, there was still much that he wanted to ask her about her people and her work, and he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to learn more.

She soon returned with her tray, stepping through into the little air pocket, the way that her smooth skin glistened with moisture even more apparent when she was out of the water. It didn’t seem to cause her any visible discomfort, at least over short periods of time. Noting that she had no chair, David sealed his helmet again and fetched one for her from an adjacent booth, dragging it into place opposite his.

“It is very strange to see a tank above my head without being underwater,” she muttered, glancing up at the shoals of fish that flitted about beyond the transparent tent.

“Sorry, but we humans like to have conversations while we eat,” he said as he struggled to tear open one of the packets with his gloves. “Damn it…”

Noticing that he needed help again, she held out her hand, and he reluctantly passed her the package. She sliced it open with one of her intimidating claws, then returned it to him, David peeling back the plastic to see more slices of raw fish. She helped him open more of the packets, and there was soon a spread of seafood dishes on his tray.

“So glad they didn’t send me to Valbara,” he said, popping a piece of pink fish wrapped in crunchy seaweed into his mouth. “All they eat out there is insect protein and salad.”

“You are eating crustacean flesh right now,” Selkie said, gesturing to a piece of pale meat in one of the containers.

“Sea bugs are much tastier than land bugs.”

“I will take your word for it,” she said, using her beak to snip off a mouthful of fish. She wasn’t eating much – this probably wasn’t her main meal of the day – but he was glad not to be dining alone.

“You were talking about how taxing social interactions can be for Brokers,” he began, pausing to chew another piece of crunchy ocean plant. “Is it really so bad that your colleagues can’t even share a meal at work?”

“We can tolerate social interactions for a time, if it is unavoidable,” she explained as she started on one of the seeds with the sweet fruit. “In this facility, the high level of security and the technical nature of the tasks requires people to work in close proximity. It is not desirable, but rather something that we tolerate because it is necessary.”

“That’s why you need a break room and isolated booths?”

“It helps to reduce stress,” she explained, the dark mottling that began to show on her skin a sign that she might be referring to present company. “As you posited, we are social to an extent, as no complex society could develop were it lacking such an element. We have a lower tolerance than your kind, however, and advances in technology have allowed us to live more solitary lives.”

“All of your food is delivered to your door, and it seems as though most people work out of their apartments based on how few commuters I’ve seen,” he said as he savored another mouthful of something that bore an uncanny resemblance to tuna. “Your factories are all automated, and even when you’re forced to go outside, it seems like most of your interactions are with proxies.”

“Do you find it so strange?” she asked, cracking a nut in her powerful beak.

“Not that strange,” he replied with a shrug. “These are all concepts that exist in my society in some capacity – shut-ins, hermits, introverts. There are people who work from home and have all of their goods delivered to their apartment, but the Brokers seem to take it to an extreme, and it’s the normal way of functioning for you. There are no robot clerks that exist solely to alleviate the stress of asking for a burger back on Earth. Well, we have kiosks where you can order food, but you get what I mean.”

“A Broker could not tolerate your cities as I have seen them in the database,” she added, her papillae rising in a shiver that spread across her body like a ripple. “Billions of people rubbing shoulders and breathing the same air…I cannot understand how you can live in such a way. Even your ships – so many people crammed together.”

“There’s anonymity in a crowd,” he replied, poking around the contents of another packet. “With so many people packed so tightly together, you become invisible, because nobody has the mental capacity to give a damn about you when they’ve seen a thousand faces that day.”

“My people have never had such a large population at any point in our history.”

“Yeah, I guess you must reproduce slowly if you can’t stand to share a room with someone for more than ten minutes.”

“I would prefer not to talk about reproduction while we are eating, if you do not mind.”

“Prudish aliens,” he muttered, turning his attention back to his meal. “That’s a first.”

He dug into his food for a few minutes, then spoke up again, changing the subject.

“What did the Administrator say about our progress?”

“He was not happy that you requested we destroy the test drones, but he will do as you suggest,” she replied. She reached for another packet, and once again, he marveled at how the little tentacles that were arranged around her face held the fruit that she was eating in place while her hands were occupied. “The Board has asked that he report your progress directly to them, so he will be consulting with them regularly to determine how to proceed.”

“I take it he’s still not exactly thrilled about the whole situation?”

“The Board now knows about his secret drone program and the existence of the exotic matter,” she sighed, taking another dispassionate bite of her fruit. “I will be lucky if he even considers renewing my contract after all this…”

“Even though you pioneered a revolutionary new technology and may have accidentally created the first true AI?” David pressed as he bit into a seaweed wrap. “Sounds like the kind of person I wouldn’t want to risk losing to another company if I was in his position.”

“You really think so?” she asked, her coloration brightening subtly as she perked up a little. “You would renew a contract with someone who exposed a secret project to the Board?”

“People keep mentioning this board,” he said, pausing to tear off a chunk from his wrap. Some Broker food could be pretty tough with the expectation that they’d be using their shearing beaks rather than teeth. “What is it, exactly?”

“The Board is one of the governing bodies of our civilization,” she explained. “They are placed just above the Council.”

“I have nothing but time,” David prompted, balancing his chair on its back legs as he continued to eat.

“Very well,” she replied, pausing as she considered her next words. “If you must know, our society is governed by the Board of Executives. They are roughly analogous to your Presidents, sitting at the top of the hierarchy and making important social and military decisions that impact the wider civilization. They are beholden to the Council of Shareholders who sit below them. The Council is made up of Brokers who own large stakes in the wealthiest and most influential companies. They vote on issues to bring before the Board, and they have the power to appoint or remove Board members based on their performance.”

“You run your whole society like a corporation?” he mused. “If the members of the Board are voted in, how do the members of the Council get their seats?”

“Their membership is based on their wealth and influence,” she replied.

“So, literal shareholders? What about you? Do you get to vote on what the Council does or which Executives they appoint?”

“Me? No. Employees have no such privileges.”

“It’s not a true democracy, then?” David asked. “You have no representatives in your government?”

“The Council members are shareholders in the companies that employ us,” she explained. “It is in their interest for those companies to be profitable because it benefits them financially. In the same sense, when those companies do well, so do their employees. Wealthier individuals and business owners who do not have seats might still lobby the Council members to influence their decisions.”

“That means your entire civilization is set up around your rulers looking out for their own interests and that benefiting society as a byproduct?”

“In a sense,” she replied, cracking another seed with her beak. “It can be assumed that those who rose to power through ingenuity, persistence, or cunning would make good decisions.”

“I suppose you don’t have any issues with corruption if bribery is completely legal,” he scoffed. “You accept that everyone is greedy and self-serving, and you try to channel that into a positive outcome. It’s not really what I was expecting.”.

“How so?” Selkie asked. “What I have read of your civilization paints a similar picture. Of all the species in the Coalition, your society is structured the most like ours. Your expansion has been driven by a thirst for territory and resources, and it is spearheaded by corporate and military interests.”

“When humans imagine a civilization that’s hundreds of years more advanced than our own, there’s always assumed to be a certain level of enlightenment, be it spiritual or otherwise. We imagine that great leaps in technology are accompanied by great philosophical advances.”

“And you do not believe that to be the case?” she prompted, her coloration darkening again. “Are you suggesting that we are unenlightened?”

“This approach has clearly benefited you technologically,” he said, gesturing to the little pressurized tent that surrounded them. “You possess scientific knowledge that’s decades ahead of ours. Even examining one of your ships, I couldn’t guess how it flies or what kind of power source it uses. Just saying, not many humans would accept that kind of governance.”

“Then, it is fortunate that we do not require that of you.”

“What I’m wondering is – why all the secrecy?” David continued as he finished off the last of his wrap, pausing to lick some of the salty residue off his fingers. “Not sharing your technology, I kind of get. Releasing your intellectual property into the void isn’t a very attractive prospect if your society is geared around making money, and it might narrow the technological lead that you enjoy. But hiding away in a star system nobody can enter and not even allowing your allies to see what you look like? That, I don’t get.”

“You are asking me to explain decisions to which I was not party,” she replied.

“Yeah, I suppose you wouldn’t be in a position to know,” he conceded.

“If you are finished, I am beginning to dry out,” she added. “I would like to resume our work.”

“Guess we’d better get back to it,” he sighed, pushing out his chair. “It’s not like I’m going to run out of reports to read any time soon…”




Selkie opened her mouth, exposing her sharp beak in a yawn, her vents flaring as the water was expelled through them. She turned to glance at David when he laughed at the sight, her skin darkening to a disapproving hue as her mantle furrowed in a frown.

“What is so amusing?”

“I just didn’t know Brokers could yawn,” he chuckled, returning his attention to the report that was open on his laptop.

“The third phase of Rain will be dawning soon, and I am growing tired,” she explained as she rose from her seat in front of the console. “We should return to my apartment and begin our rest cycle.”

Third phase of Rain?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It refers to how we keep time,” she explained, heading for the door to their cubicle. “It was an off-hand comment picked up by the translator – it is of no concern to you.”

“On the contrary, this is exactly the kind of thing that interests me,” he said as he closed his laptop. He returned it to its hard case, glancing at the wireless adapter for a moment before choosing to stow it inside, then followed after her. “I joked about you having a birthday every week, but I have no idea how you measure time on a tidally-locked planet with an orbital period of six days.”

They arrived at the empty elevator shaft, David starting to struggle his way up as she swam ahead of him.

“On Earth, we have seasons based on the tilt of the planet,” he continued as he pushed himself off a wall. “We have a moon to measure months, our orbital period takes three hundred and sixty-five of our days, and we know when to sleep because the rotation of the Earth makes it periodically dark. I don’t know how the hell you manage here.”

He caught the lip of the highest floor, struggling his way into the corridor beyond.

“I don’t think my legs have gotten this much exercise since I did track and field in college,” he grumbled, pausing to rub his burning thigh through his suit. He noticed that she wasn’t waiting, so he jogged for a few paces to catch up, bounding along in the water like he was walking on Luna. “So, how do you measure time?”

“We can discuss it during the trip back to the city,” she replied, leading him through the facility’s sterile corridors. They soon arrived at the tube terminal, riding the transparent pipe back across the ocean floor to the building where the docking bay was housed. They only encountered one other Broker during their journey – a specimen with a squid fin crest who gave them a wide berth as they passed in the hallway.

They exited into the shuttle bay, David glancing up at the two Krell guards as he passed between them, like two great statues flanking the mouth of a temple. Their sheer mass surprised him every time he saw them, as though his brain had somehow returned to a sensible baseline of what was considered large. The reptiles just stood there stoically, their buoyancy letting them float just off the deck, seeming perfectly happy to be doing nothing. David had always heard that the Krell were uncommonly kind and easygoing, but they looked like they could tear a rampaging buffalo in half if you upset them.

He and Selkie returned to their shuttle, the streamlined, bullet-shaped vessel slowly coasting out of its bay and through the force field into the open ocean. Once again, the hull melted away to show feeds from the external cameras, David watching as the cluster of buildings faded into the murky depths behind them, the intimidating plasma emplacements tracking them on their way out.

“You want to give me the rundown on these phases of Rain?” David asked as he leaned back against the curving bulkhead.

“Very well,” she replied, settling down onto the floor. He had never seen her sit in such a manner before, her tentacles piling up in a squishy mass, almost like a human crossing their legs. They never stayed still – they were always shifting, their tapered ends twitching and wriggling as though they had a life of their own. “How should I go about explaining this in a way you will understand…”

“Can’t be that hard,” he muttered.

“Consider how strange your system of timekeeping appears to me,” she said. “Measuring the shadow of your moon and dividing the inclination of your planet into four distinct phases. It was quite difficult to grasp when I first came across it.”

“Alright, shoot,” he replied as he crossed his arms. “It’s not like we have much else to do while we wait.”

“As you know, the planet that you call 1e orbits its star roughly every six of your days. Being tidally locked and having no moons or seasons, we measure time by the movements of the other planets.”

“Makes sense,” David said with a nod. “The planets in Trappist are so absurdly close together that a Broker looking up at the sky would see them easily with the naked eye. It’s still incredible to me. Humans tracked the phases of the moon and the cyclical seasons, but I imagine Brokers would track the movements of the planets.”

“Indeed,” she continued. “The closest equivalent that we have to your days are measured by the passage of 1b, the nearest planet to the star. It orbits four times for every orbit that 1e completes, making it roughly a thirty-six-hour interval.”

“So, your year has four days,” David mused. “Kind of equivalent to our week.”

“You could view it that way,” she replied. “Each of those days is split into six phases, each of which lasts for six hours. We have two phases of activity – twelve hours – and a phase of rest that lasts six. This cycle is repeated twice per Rain.”

“That’s how you decide when to sleep with no day and night cycle,” he marveled. He tried to snap his fingers reflexively but found that it didn’t work through his gloves, Selkie watching the gesture with a confused expression. “You have a twelve-hour day, followed by a six-hour night, and you repeat that twice because it’s based on the orbit of 1b. What’s with the rain business?”

“Obviously, we have not named our planets 1b through 1f,” she explained.

“Obviously,” he repeated with a sarcastic wave of his hand. “I would have asked about it, but you keep telling me that I can’t pronounce any of your words.”

“They were named after deities from our ancient mythology,” she continued. “We have long since abandoned such beliefs, but the names remain as part of our heritage.”

“We did the same thing, believe it or not,” David added. “Jupiter, Mars, Venus – all of the planets in our system were named after ancient pantheons of Gods from our classical era. Nobody is worshiping Zeus these days, but the names stuck. We’ve continued the tradition with our colonies, for example Jarilo or Hades.”

“1b was named after the deity of rain,” Selkie explained. “We refer to the name of the planet and its phase as a means of keeping time. My translator picked it up and conveyed the meaning as best it could.”

“So, when you said it was the third phase of rain, you were saying that it was the end of the workday. See? It’s not that hard.”

“The other planets are also used for timekeeping,” she continued. “1c and 1d have fallen out of common use, as we simply use hours in the era of digital clocks, but they are a staple of classical literature and sometimes still appear in poems and songs. For example, meet me on the first of Rain when Harvest is at its height would have been common parlance. Their orbits are fifty-eight and ninety-five hours respectively, with a little rounding.”

“You’re such a technologically advanced species that I never pictured you praying to Gods and writing poems about the movements of the planets,” he said, seeing her in a new light. “I know that you’re going to tell me I wouldn’t even be able to hear half of the notes, but I’d love to listen to a Broker song sometime.”

“Perhaps when we get back to the apartment,” she replied. “1h, named after the deity of mountains, is our largest measure of time as the furthest planet in the solar system. Its orbital period is four hundred and fifty hours, which is equivalent to a little over three orbits of 1e. 1f marks roughly half of its period, and 1g is another antiquated measure of time.”

“That means Mountain is about the equivalent of one of our fortnights,” David mused. “Hang on – if your year is equivalent to six of our days, how old are you? How do you measure that?”

“You mean to ask how we measure our lifespans?” she clarified. “By the orbits of Mountain. I saw my 449th Mountain only a few days ago.”

“I’m going to assume that sounds a lot older than it actually is,” David muttered, bringing up the display on his wrist. “Let me do a little math here. If there are 8760 hours in an Earth year, and a Mountain lasts 450 hours, that makes 19.5 Mountains per Earth year. Let’s see…449, divided by 19.5…that makes you…roughly 23 Earth years old. You’re young for someone working in such a prestigious position, at least by our standards.”

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Twenty-eight,” he replied. “That would be…546 Mountains.”

“Also young to be so accomplished,” she replied, looking him up and down. “Though, humans likely have lower standards of education than we do.”

“I’m sure,” he replied sarcastically. “Let’s not forget who came crying to who for help.”


David stepped into the apartment, bending over for a moment to catch his breath after the arduous climb. Almost as soon as she moved away from the pillar in the center of the room, Selkie was accosted by Flower, the slug weaving its way through the water as it made a beeline for her. Her coloration immediately lightened to a vibrant pastel cream, her blue stripes standing out against her skin, the eyespots on her veils seeming to glow. She laughed as the slug spiraled around her, those flowing veils flaring out, her tentacles swirling in the air. Flower landed in her open hand, nuzzling her suckers, the animal’s brightly-colored antennae dancing across her rubbery skin. Selkie brought up another of her hands, stroking her pet’s feathery back, the slug’s muscular body arching into her as though enjoying the sensation.

“Looks like she missed you,” David said, watching as the slug rose into the water again.

The creature left Selkie’s side, flashing bright blue patterns as it wormed its way towards him. He resisted the urge to bat it away as it floated up to his visor, those dexterous feelers mapping the glass, trying to figure out what he might be.

Selkie laughed again, the clicking of her beak filling the water, bright bands of color like sunlight bleeding through blinds passing up her mantle. Reluctantly, David held out a hand and let the slug perch there, the creature draping itself over his palm. It was thick enough that he wouldn’t have been able to close his fingers around it, and it was surprisingly weighty.

“She wants you to play with her,” Selkie explained, beaming at the pair.

“And how exactly does one play with a giant slug?” David asked, grimacing as the animal smeared mucous on his glove.

“They evolved from ambush predators,” Selkie explained, the slug returning to her when she presented it with a new perch. “They would conceal themselves in the corals and leap out to catch unsuspecting prey. Here.”

She moved over to a mound-shaped reef that was up against the far wall beneath the overhang of the second level, David following curiously. As he neared, he saw that it was purely decorative, filled with little holes and crevices between the colorful replica corals. It must be the equivalent of a dog house or a cat tree, because there were toys scattered on the floor around it. She searched for a moment, poking a hand into one of the holes and retrieving something that looked like a ping-pong ball.

Flower took notice immediately, doing laps around Selkie excitedly as she raised the ball, bright patterns flashing along the slug’s tapered length. The Broker released the toy, which was apparently very buoyant, the little white sphere climbing towards the glass ceiling like a rising air bubble. Flower darted after it with surprising speed, catching it before it reached the fish tank, then returning it to her master. David realized that the slug had a little beak situated on its underbelly beneath its head, the creature using it to grip the pocked surface of the ball.

She released the toy obediently, Selkie catching it with a cupped hand as it began to rise.

“You try,” she said, offering the ball to David.

“Alright,” he grumbled, his gloved fingers brushing her leaf-shaped hand as she passed it to him. She seemed fascinated by the way that he created a cage around it with his digits, holding it palm-up as the delighted slug bobbed in the water nearby.

He opened his hand, and the ball rose, Flower spiraling up into the water behind it. When she caught it, she brought it back to him like a dog playing fetch, releasing it near his hand.

“Curious,” he muttered as he caught it again. “It’s a much more intelligent species than I first assumed.”

“I could say the same of you,” Selkie replied with an amused click of her beak.

David released the ball again, and this time, the slug returned the toy to Selkie.

“I didn’t have an opportunity to look around when I first arrived,” David began, turning his attention to the apartment. “Mind if I have a poke about?”

“I suppose,” she said, her skin tone dimming a little. “Please do not touch anything.”

“Got it – I won’t touch your stuff,” he replied as he began his bounding walk over to the opposite end of the room. There was a porthole that looked out over the city – larger than it had appeared from outside, David peering out through the glass at the cityscape beyond. He could see a couple of neighboring towers through the murky water, joined by the intricate network of transportation tubes, the way that the visibility faded with distance masking the sea floor from view and making him feel even higher up than he actually was.

He glanced around the room, searching for items of interest, noticing a small table beside a nearby fish tank. Sitting atop it was a glass case that enclosed some kind of knife, David moving closer to get a better look. It was large – too large for a Broker, the leather-wrapped handle big enough that he could have gotten both fists around it. The long blade had a cruel gut hook, and the polished metal had been decorated with intricate, flowing inlays of gold damascene.

“Do you like it?” Selkie asked, shuffling over to his side. She still maintained arm’s length, leaning forward in an attempt to gauge the expression on his face.

“This doesn’t look like a Broker artifact,” he said, admiring the tiny hunting scene that had been engraved into the metal.

“This is a Royal Guard’s blade from Elysia,” she said.

“All the way from Borealis?” he marveled. “What use would a Broker have for a Borealan knife?”

“Art is an excellent investment that appreciates in value,” she explained, her eyes seeming to glitter as she looked over her prize. “I also enjoy just…owning rare things.”

“You have more stuff like this?” he asked.

“Of course!” she replied with a flush of bright color, perhaps excited by the prospect of showing off her collection to a visitor. “Come.”

With Flower still orbiting nearby, she led him over to a display case that was recessed into the curving wall, protected by a sheet of transparent material. On one of the shelves was a large necklace hanging from a jeweler’s bust, its hairy string adorned with colorful beads and shells. The centerpiece was a chunk of wood carved with a strange, alien symbol that he didn’t recognize. Beside it was another, much smaller dagger sitting on a display stand, this one decorated with intricate patterns that reminded him of Damascus steel. It was hard to tell whether it had been designed that way or if it was some natural element of the metal. It almost looked organic.

On the shelf below them was a piece of petrified coral decorated with inlaid pearls and shining seashells, perhaps a Broker artifact, and beside that was an abstract sculpture of unidentifiable origin – just meaningless curves and shapes carved from dark stone. Something more familiar caught his eye, but he held his tongue as Selkie began to list off her treasures like a museum curator.

“Here, I have a traditional Krell necklace woven on their homeworld. The arrangement of beads and shells carries special meaning in their culture, and the rune engraved upon the wooden pendant represents a wish or aspiration to the wearer. This is a blade forged by the hives, recovered from one of our lost colonies during the war. It was likely wielded in battle by one of their Drones. This is a decorative piece of coral made by our ancestors, and this is a contemporary piece – made by hand rather than machine printed.”

“That one looks human,” David said, pointing at another of the artifacts. It was a little porcelain box decorated with finely embossed silver, intricate representations of leaves and cherubs adorning it. It was encased in a little glass cube, likely to protect it from the water, and it was sitting on a velvet cushion.

“You know of this?” she asked, giving him a wide-eyed glance. “It is an Earth artifact, its design dating back over twelve-thousand Mountains – so the art dealer informed me. He said that it was an ancient human puzzle box.”

“Not exactly,” he began cryptically. “Want me to show you how it works?”

“It cannot be removed from its display case,” she explained, worried blotches appearing on her skin. “That would subject it to water damage.”

“We can bring it up to the habitat,” he replied, his tone reassuring. “Trust me – you’ll be glad that you did.”


Flower seemed to sense her emotional state, swimming over to her and giving her a nudge on the cheek, Selkie’s hue lightening again in response.

“Aren’t you just a little bit curious about what secrets it’s hiding?” David asked with a grin.

“Alright,” she conceded, reaching for a control panel beside the cabinet. A flickering force field appeared to protect it, allowing her to slide one of the glass doors open without exposing the treasures within to the water, one of her leaf-shaped hands reaching out to grasp the box’s display case with its suckers. She closed the door again, then swam up to the tent-like habitat on the second level, David following behind her.

They entered through the molecular force field, David pulling off his helmet and setting it down on his little desk, taking a breath of unrestricted air. As good a job as the suit did, wearing it for an entire day had him feeling more than a little claustrophobic. Selkie closed the door so that Flower could not follow, then set her prize down beside the helmet gingerly, gently prying open its case and setting the glass lid aside.

“Be very careful with it,” she stammered as he reached for the box, making him hesitate.

“Don’t worry,” he replied, hoping that he wasn’t about to ruin one of her treasures. He took off his gloves, disconnecting the seals at the wrist, then lifted the antique to expose a little silver key on its underside. He began to turn it, the unmistakable sound of a coiling spring filling the habitat.

“What is it doing?” Selkie asked, leaning in curiously.

“The dealer wouldn’t have been able to show you this underwater,” David began, releasing the key once it had been wound tightly. “Hell, if he was a Broker, he might not even have known what it really was.”

He set it back down on its cushion, then gently raised the silver lid, activating the clockwork mechanism within. A tiny sculpture of a pirouetting ballerina lifted from within the box, starting to turn slowly as a tune began to play, David seeing Selkie’s eyes light up in the lid’s mirrored coating. All of the red drained from her complexion, the maroon giving way to a pastel cream and rosy pink, the blues and yellows of her stripes more prominent than ever. Pulsing bands of bright color swept across her mantle, paced almost like the beating of a heart, as though the rays of the sun were reflecting off her glistening skin. It was a mesmerizing display, David finding himself transfixed by her just as she was transfixed by the toy.

“It’s a music box,” he explained. “There’s a little clockwork mechanism inside that turns a cylinder, which has these little pins that pluck the teeth of a comb, vibrating them to produce a musical note. It’s entirely mechanical – powered by the potential energy of a spring that coils when you turn the key.”

“I had no idea,” she whispered, watching the little ballerina turn in place. She remained enthralled as the tempo of the tinkling music gradually slowed, the tiny figure coming to a stop. She closed the lid gingerly, then lifted the device, trying to turn the key again. It was designed for human fingers, and she had no bones in her hands to create leverage, her slippery flesh failing to find purchase. She clicked her beak in frustration, then unsheathed two of her black hooks, using them to grip the device like a pair of forceps. Now, she had a strong enough grip to turn it, listening to the creaking of the mechanism as she wound up the spring. She set it back down, then lifted the lid, bright patterns sweeping up her mantle as music filled the habitat.

“Is that voluntary or reflexive?” David asked with a gesture to her patterning. “Those colors are incredible. I think I’m starting to get a feel for which patterns correspond to which emotions.”

“It is an involuntary reaction,” she explained, her horizontal pupils still tracking the little sculpture. “Our chromatophores respond to our emotional state, as do our papillae – the small muscle structures that give our skin its texture. In our prehistory, the system evolved to help camouflage us from predators and aid in hunting prey, but it became a means of communication as we became more advanced.”

“A social adaptation, like body language and facial expressions in humans,” he said with a nod. “Interesting. For such solitary and private people, your emotions are literally written on your skin for all to see. That has to complicate your interactions.”

“I find it strange not knowing what you are feeling,” she replied, glancing up at him. “Even when you are angry, you appear overjoyed. I have seen your face change color, however. My research material was vague on what it meant.”

“It can mean a lot of things,” he replied with a shrug. “It’s called blushing – it happens when the capillaries in my face flush with blood in response to an elevated emotional state. Depending on the situation, it can be embarrassment, anger, more positive things…”

“I still think you look funny,” she added, clicking her beak in amusement as his cheeks began to warm. “But, thank you for showing me this. I will treasure it.”

He felt something brush his leg, glancing down to see the tip of one of her tentacles exploring his suit. A shiver of spiky papillae passed along its length as he pulled away reflexively, the appendage following suit, Selkie seeming to draw it back.

“My apologies,” she stammered, maroon blotches darkening her creamy coloration. “Our tentacles are controlled subconsciously until we take manual control. They move reflexively and have a tendency to explore their immediate environment when left to their own devices.”

“No need to apologize,” he replied, watching the tips of her eight legs wriggle and twitch as she stood beside the desk. “It’s not all that surprising. I imagine that exerting conscious control over so many limbs with so much range of motion would put the brain under intense strain. If they have a limited level of autonomy, they can map out their environment and handle locomotion without taxing the rest of the nervous system. It’s kind of like breathing in humans, I imagine. All of the muscles and mechanisms associated with breathing are handled involuntarily by the autonomic nervous system until we choose to take conscious control, for example, when holding our breath.”

“That sounds similar,” she replied, some of the blotches fading. A sign of relief, perhaps. “Our tentacles are important tools for understanding our surroundings. They are very sensitive to touch, and they have taste buds in their suckers.”

“Now I understand why everything is so sterile,” David muttered. “If I had to taste the floor and open every doorknob with my tongue, I’d probably want a pretty clean house too.”

“Earlier, you asked me if I would show you Broker music,” she began with a flutter of her frill. “You will have to come back outside, but I will show you if you still wish it.”

“Sure!” he replied, starting to put his gloves back on. He lifted his helmet, sealing it at the neck, watching as she carefully replaced the lid on her music box. They left the little habitat, finding Flower waiting for them, the slug floating about happily as they made their way back down to the first floor. Selkie returned the display case to its shelf, then showed him to a nook beneath the overhang of the second level. There was a disk on the ceiling formed by the floor above, maybe three meters wide, and he could see a ring of embedded lenses – maybe projectors?

“You will have to stand close,” she warned, David stepping beneath the circle. She gave a voice command that wasn’t picked up by the translator, her whistling and clicking activating the lenses, making them flicker for a moment before a colorful cylinder appeared around the pair. David reached out to pass his hand through the wavering field, quickly deducing that it was a hologram, albeit one far more cohesive than was possible with familiar technology. It felt as though the room around them had melted away, sealing them in a little island of slowly spinning color.

Some kind of graphical interface appeared to hover in front of Selkie, and she manipulated it with one hand, swiping through what looked like a file structure. When she found what she wanted, the swirling colors faded to a deep black, David realizing that the lights in the rest of the room had dimmed to help accentuate the effect.

“Is this some kind of personal hologram booth?” David asked, turning on the spot as he looked up at the device. “An entertainment center, perhaps?”

She didn’t answer, instead watching his reaction as a splash of color appeared, scattering like an exploding firework or a shower of sparks. It was joined by a thrum of strange music, a rising crescendo like an orchestra made up of instruments that he had never heard before. It was joined by more flashes, and he soon deduced that it was a visualizer – the images matching the building music. There were sharp notes punctuated by vibrant splashes of color, like splatters of paint on a canvas, the throbbing bass that resonated through the water portrayed by long streaks like the strokes of a brush. As the music became more tonally complex, the colors followed suit, swirling patterns and mesmerizing bursts of rainbow hues dazzling him from all sides.

Selkie had been right – he couldn’t hear all of the notes. Some were too high for his ears, and others were so low that he felt them in his bones more than he heard them, and it was all somewhat muffled by his helmet. Still, there was an ethereal, alien beauty to it that was not lost on him. It had so many complex layers that all flowed together and into one another, as though half a dozen orchestras were all contributing to the same sinuous melody, somehow playing in perfect sync while being at odds with one another. It wasn’t something that could be parsed or decoded – it could only be experienced.

As the fireworks display erupted around him, he turned his eyes to Selkie, seeing that her chromatophores were pulsing to the beat of the music. The colors of the visualization were not arbitrary – each one had an emotional element, the patterns and hues similar to those that he had seen her exhibit. Now, her skin was going haywire, almost as though it was part of the display. When the music was bright and lively, her skin took on a pastel hue, her stripes standing out vibrantly. When the melody dipped into more somber tones – perhaps a more dour section of the piece – her skin became dark and blotchy to match.

Humans were touched by music in ways that science still didn’t fully understand, the notes and tunes somehow influencing their emotions. A sad song could move one to tears, and an upbeat tempo could fill one with motivation. For Selkie, her emotions were displayed on her very skin, and he could watch her mood morph and change in response to the stimuli in real-time. He had never had such a clear window into what another person was feeling, watching as she rose from the floor to slowly spin on the spot, her eyes glittering as she followed the patterns.

For once, David was left speechless. He felt like he was lost in some psychedelic dream, the world around them ceasing to exist, the flashing colors and pulsing music as thick as the liquid that surrounded him. A sudden sense of disconnect overcame him – an urge to remove his helmet and listen to the music with his own ears – to shed his gloves and reach out with his own hands. As much as he wanted to be a part of what was happening here, all he could do was observe through the glass visor, always separated from the hostile environment by his suit. He was at once so close, yet so far.

As the music faded, the waves of colorful patterning on Selkie’s skin followed suit, returning to a happy beige and pink. The alien turned to face him again, slowing her pirouette.

“Like the music box, remember?” she said as she twirled on the spot again, her tentacles and her delicate veils flaring out. “What do you think?”

“I…I didn’t expect to see this side of you,” he stammered, quickly correcting himself. “The Brokers, I mean. So much of what I’ve seen during my stay here has painted you as emotionally distant and dispassionate. Your architecture is functional and sterile, and you don’t even like interacting with other people if you can avoid it. What I just saw was…an intensely emotional experience.”

“Is music not an emotional experience for humans?” she asked, cocking her head quizzically.

“It can be, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” he replied as he gestured to the fading hologram. “And you – you were…so touched. Beautiful. The dancing, I mean,” he added hurriedly. “The patterns on your skin. It was like you were embodying the music. At least, what I could hear of it.”

“You have changed color also,” she said, gesturing to her face with a tentacle.

“I’m just, uh…surprised. Is this what you do for fun?” he added, changing the subject. “If you spend so much time alone, you must have a lot of recreational tools for entertainment.”

“This is one of them,” she replied, bringing up the floating interface with a voice command. “It creates an immersive environment for games and entertainment. Hold out your hand,” she added, David doing as she asked.

She manipulated the virtual controls, and a moment later, there was a tingling sensation in his palm. Suddenly, he felt as though there was an object resting there, the water resisting him as he tried to close his fist. It was as though the density of the liquid had changed, becoming more akin to a gel. The tingling became a tickling vibration that spread up his arm, creating a sensation like raindrops impacting his suit.

“What is this?” he chuckled, glancing down at his arm and seeing nothing. “Acoustic cavitation, maybe?”

“Very perceptive,” she replied, shutting off the device. “The machine can project a low-intensity sound field that influences the properties of the water. It can change its temperature in concentrated areas, alter its density, and even produce vibrations localized to specific regions of the body. It is not calibrated for humans, so I am reluctant to expose you to too much of it without knowing more about your physiology.”

“So, there’s a tactile element to your entertainment?” he marveled as he glanced up at the device on the ceiling. “You could simulate a walk on the beach and feel the rain on your skin, or you could produce feedback from a hologram to make it feel like a physical object?”

“To an extent,” she replied, the room fading back into view as she switched off the holographic cylinder. “The technology has its limits, and higher intensities that might produce more convincing effects can cause injuries, so we use only low-intensity sound waves.”

“Still, I imagine it adds a lot to the experience.”

“Indeed.” She settled back onto the floor below the device, exposing her sharp beak in a yawn. “If you will excuse me, I must begin my rest cycle soon. You should sleep too if you wish to be rested for tomorrow.”

“Of course,” he replied, still a little breathless after her display. “It’s the third phase of Rain, right? As for me, I’ll stay up a little longer. I want to work on some of the questions I have planned for the AI tomorrow.”

She gave him an appreciative smile, then headed off to the other end of the apartment, Flower darting after her. He watched as she made her way to a section of the room beneath the overhang that was walled off, somewhat like an en-suite bathroom, disappearing through a narrow doorway. That must be where she slept.

He made his way back up to the habitat, eager to shed the suit and get a shower after being confined to it all day. After folding away the toilet and the sink, the little metal cubicle was barely large enough to clear his shoulders, but it was paradoxically wonderful to feel the cool water on his skin after a day spent in the ocean.

When he was done, he dried off, then popped open his laptop. It was still a little wet, so he gave the screen and the keyboard a quick wipe down with his towel, then threw on some shorts and pulled up a chair. As the computer booted, he eyed the wireless device that he had stowed in the case. He wasn’t sure if anyone had seen him take it, but even if they had, what did it matter? It wasn’t as though he could access any other networks without a security key, and all of the files from the facility’s server had been read-only, so he couldn’t make any local copies.

Now that he had a moment of quiet, his mind wandered back to the messages that had been left for him by Webber and Vos. As much as he wanted to remove the data drive from the lining of his suit and start recording his findings, he had been warned that the Brokers would be watching him. There was no doubt that they considered him a security risk, and any paranoid military contractor worth their salt would have planted hidden cameras all over the apartment, not to mention the involvement of the Board. No, he would assume that he was being recorded until he could prove otherwise.

While he had not been able to bring back any of the reports, he did have the translation software that he had used to read them, which had been installed locally. It ran natively on his operating system, and with any luck, he might be able to do some digging around in the files and find out something about Broker programming.

It didn’t take long for him to locate the directory and find a way to access the data, his eyes scanning the monitor as he read through the lines of code. Whoever had converted it into a language that would run on his system had done a sloppy job. It might even have been a neural network that had performed the task. There was a lot of it, much of which seemed to be Broker and English dictionaries that the software used to draw comparisons. The Broker portion of the data was nonsense to his eyes, but he didn’t need to learn the language – all he needed to do was hijack the program. He was already formulating an idea…

He lay his suit on the desk beside his computer, then pulled out the extensible data cable from its wrist device, plugging it into a standard port on his laptop. If anyone was watching, they might simply assume that he was performing maintenance. The onboard computer that powered the suit seemed to run on a derivative of a publicly available operating system, and there was nothing preventing him from transferring files between the two devices. He compiled the translation software into an auto-exec file and dumped it onto the suit’s storage, turning his attention to its wrist display.

With only a couple of taps at the touch screen, it was executing, writing the same program to the suit’s storage. Being of military origin, the helmet was equipped with several cameras and sensors, all of which had been disabled in software. Of course – the Administrator would not have allowed David to walk around his facility with a camera. It was trivial to reenable one of them, and with a few tweaks, the translation program would treat his heads-up display as a monitor for outputting data. Because his OS lacked any way of handling Broker characters, the software had been using pattern recognition – running on top of his display in an overlay. In theory, it would be able to pick up the camera feed and display English text on top of it in real-time.

He also now had a working camera, which might allow him to satisfy the Admiral if he could smuggle the data off-world. It was safe to assume that since the Brokers had signed off on his laptop and his suit, any information recorded on those devices would be destroyed before he’d be allowed to leave. Anything he wanted to keep had to go on the hidden drive.

That done, he turned his attention to the wireless adapter. The Brokers had designed a very simple GUI for it, and he could see that it was picking up a few other radio signals. These were likely repeaters for a home ad-hoc system, as he had posited earlier.

He tried to connect to one of them, but he seemed to lack a security key or password, and the system rejected him with an error code. Brute-forcing it would probably take several billion years, so he would have to find another way in if he wanted access.

It wasn’t just Vos holding a proverbial gun to his head – he was curious about why the Brokers were so elusive and secretive. If he could access the city’s intranet or some kind of planet-wide network, it might shed some light on their strange behavior.

There wasn’t much that he could do with the time available to him, but a plan was already gestating.



“Are you nearly ready?” Selkie asked, stepping through the force field.

“Just suiting up,” David replied, sealing his helmet. “I was up pretty late last night working on an approach for our next conversation with Weaver.”

“We can discuss it in detail during the trip to the research facility,” she replied,

“I think you’ll be impressed,” he said as he began to stow his laptop. Selkie noticed the wireless adapter but made no comment. As he had suspected, the Brokers likely considered it useless to him without any ability to access networks outside the facility.

When he was ready, they made their way to the shaft, Selkie pausing to pet Flower before leaving the apartment.



“I’ve put a lot of thought into this,” David said, pacing in the cramped shuttle as it coasted through the murky water. Selkie was sitting on her tentacles, tracking him with her horizontal pupils. “So many of our approaches to interacting with a theoretical strong AI revolve around the assumption that it already has a working language model that could pass something like a Turing test. The Chinese room experiment is also predicated on the idea that the subject is able to communicate on a level where it can convince an interviewer that it’s fully cognizant. We’re in a strange situation, because the interactions that we’ve had so far have been far simpler due to the lack of a language model.”

“What is this room experiment?” Selkie asked.

“It’s an old philosophical theory about AI,” he explained. “Think of it like this – imagine that I’m sitting in a closed room with a one-way terminal. I don’t speak Broker, but imagine that I had a database of rules, phrases, and instructions for the language. You, being fluent in the Broker language, send me a message in Broker. With the help of the database, I formulate an appropriate response and send back a reply. The fact that I was able to reply convincingly doesn’t mean that I have any true understanding of the language – what I’m doing is simulating an understanding by responding to you using the examples provided by the database. In such a way, it might appear to you that I understood your query, but I really didn’t.”

“You’re describing a neural network,” Selkie said, the realization giving her a brief flush of bright colors. “The system has been trained to imitate language but has no true understanding of it.”

“Precisely,” he replied, clapping his gloved hands together in the water. “We call them chatbots – machine learning systems that can appear convincing on the surface but have no true consciousness. Our Weaver isn’t using a language model that we know of, and it wasn’t trained to interact with its operators in that way, so we’re starting off at a very interesting hurdle.”

“How should we proceed?” she asked. “In order to more easily communicate, we will have to provide such a model, but we may influence Weaver by doing so.”

“That’s the conundrum,” he replied, resuming his restless pacing. “We have to teach Weaver to speak, but in a way that’s free of any biases that might influence the output. Every word and phrase in both of our languages has cultural contexts, subtexts, implications, and multiple possible meanings. Even one’s tone of voice can completely change the meaning of a question from something endearing and heartfelt to something sarcastic and hurtful. If we were to teach Weaver to speak English, we would be influencing its behavior in an uncountable number of ways by introducing cultural concepts that are inseparable from the language. How do we navigate that?”

“I assume you are about to tell me.”

“I’ve devised a simple language model built on basic concepts that should convey very little cultural meaning, if any. I wouldn’t call it a wholly new language, as tempting as that may be,” he continued as he puffed out his chest proudly. “While I may have dabbled in conlang for a few personal projects, it lacks the complex syntax and semantics of a true language. What it should allow us to do is ask simple questions and give simple replies in a way that allows for few interpretations. Lying and misdirection will be very difficult.”

“You avoid the risk of teaching it to lie and mislead by removing those factors from the model,” Selkie said with an approving flash of bright bands.

“Yeah. I figure it can’t lie if lying isn’t part of its vocabulary. Of course, it might learn to lie just as a child learns that it can say one thing and do another, but that serves our purposes by demonstrating its intelligence. If all it ever does is spit out simple responses using the model, then we can be pretty safe in saying it’s a Chinese room experiment situation.”

“I must admit that I am…impressed,” she said with a flutter of her frill. “You will need my help to load your language model onto the terminal, of course.”

“Yeah, I wrote it on my laptop,” he replied as he patted his hard case to demonstrate. “You’ll need to do some tweaking to get it running on whatever architecture Weaver uses. It might be a good opportunity for me to learn more about how your systems work.”

“The Administrator will determine how much of it you will be permitted to see,” she replied warily. “My contract is very specific about securing company secrets.”

“Alright, but keep in mind that the more information you guys withhold, the harder the job becomes for everyone. I doubt that learning my way around whatever operating system your computers use is going to present a very large risk. Besides, I have my own damned contract.”

“I suppose,” she conceded.

“What’s the deal with these contracts, anyway?” he continued as he glanced out at the barren seabed that was scrolling past below them. “You keep throwing them out as answers to my questions, as though they should have some innate meaning to me.”

“Your people have an understanding of contracts,” she insisted.

“I’m starting to think that the term contract has a very different meaning to you and me.”

“A contract is a legally binding document that outlines in detail one’s responsibilities and prohibits certain actions,” she explained.

“Yeah, I know the dictionary definition of a contract,” he scoffed. “I’m talking about what a contract means to you. How important are they, and what consequences might you face by breaking one?”

“No Broker would knowingly break a contract,” she replied with a shiver, the papillae on her skin pricking up as her hue dimmed. “Contracts moderate every interaction in our society, and the rule of law is what elevates us above animals.”

Every interaction?” he asked, tilting his head skeptically. “What, so, you have a literal social contract that you all have to sign?”

“Are humans not expected to consent to the laws that govern your society?” she asked. “Each Broker must complete their legal studies and sign a civil contract when they come of age and become legally liable for their behavior.”

“It’s…more implied for humans,” he replied with a shrug. “In our legal system, when you break the law, you get punished. That’s the incentive to pay your taxes and drive under the speed limit. Depending on the severity of the infraction, you might be fined, or you might be imprisoned. If you don’t cooperate, security forces will be sent to physically remove you using force.”

“How strange,” she muttered, considering for a moment. “So, you do not consent to your laws, but they apply to everyone from birth?”

“I mean, we can vote to change our laws,” he explained. “But, generally speaking, yes. You can’t steal something or murder someone and then claim you don’t consent to the law. Does anyone ever refuse to sign?”

“That does not happen,” she replied confidently. “That person would have no legal protections. They would not be able to store their assets in any secure manner, and their property would not legally belong to them. They would have no recourse should an employer or a business partner break a contract. When one decides that the law does not apply to them, so may everyone else.”

“I see,” David said with a smirk. “Then, there’s a catch. If you don’t sign a contract declaring that you consent to be governed, the cops aren’t going to show up when you call them. What happens when a Broker breaks the law, then?”

“If a Broker violates a contract, they are subject to penalties,” she replied with another wave of shivering papillae. Her discomfort was palpable – she almost looked like an octopus trying to hide itself in the rocks. “In the case of a civil breach or a corporate breach where the claim is disputed by one of the parties, the case is taken before a Disciplinary Board.”

“That sounds rather ominous,” David muttered. “You went through this process recently, didn’t you? That’s why you’re reacting this way. I remember you told me that the Administrator tried to have you in breach of contract, but he failed.”

“Indeed,” she replied, her skin tone growing dark and blotchy. “When my team lost control of the project, the Administrator attempted to reinterpret the clauses of my contract. He argued that because my negligence had caused the Board to become directly involved, exposing the project in the process, I had failed in my duty to protect company secrets.”

“But you disputed it?” David asked.

“I filed a formal dispute with the city’s Disciplinary Board. The law requires that such disputes are resolved by an impartial team of legal experts. They examine the contract and determine whether the wording allows for penalties or not.”

“Sounds somewhat like our court system,” David mused. “Let me guess – that’s part of the civil contract that you all sign?”

“Correct,” she replied. “If the Administrator had won the dispute, I would have been removed from my position at the facility and subjected to fines and confiscations approximating the financial damage caused by the infraction. I would have been destitute – they would have taken everything I own.”

“It’s good that you disputed it, then.”

“Those who dispute their contracts stand little chance of having them renewed,” she chuckled, her dark hue conveying her bitterness. “He has found other, more creative ways to express his displeasure, and I do not know what will happen once my contract expires.”

“Yeah, sorry I had to be a part of that,” David said with an apologetic shrug. “The more I learn about your culture, the more I understand how much he’s messing with you by putting me in your apartment.”

“You have no more choice in the matter than I do,” she replied, her tone lightening somewhat. “I should…apologize for how I treated you when you first arrived. It was still fresh in my mind, and I considered you just another means for him to exact his revenge. You have done nothing to earn my scorn.”

“I’ll try to keep it that way,” he replied.

Their shuttle coasted into the docking bay under the watchful eyes of the defense turrets, and the pair disembarked, David feeling a twinge of apprehension again at the sight of the two towering Krell guards. The creatures were as docile as ever in spite of their intimidating appearance. David and Selkie made their way through the facility, taking a tube to the building that housed Weaver.

Jeff was waiting for them in the cubicle when they arrived, his dumbo ears flapping as he gave them a hesitant greeting. David marched into the room like he owned the place, clapping his hands together eagerly after setting his laptop down on the table beside the terminal.

“Let’s get started!” he declared. “Jeff, boot up the terminal. Selkie, let’s get this language model loaded onto Weaver.”

They got to work, Jeff switching on the terminal as David connected to the local ad-hoc network, seeing the feeds from Weaver’s probes pop up on his display. As soon as a connection was established, they dipped, the device once again diverting its attention from whatever it was doing as it awaited their input.

“There has been no change in activity since your last visit,” Jeff said as he pored over the console in front of the window that looked out over the isolation chamber. “Power consumption and wafer activity have been at a steady constant.”

“It only seems to stop what it’s doing when it notices us,” David mused. “We haven’t sent it any messages yet, but it seems aware that the terminal is online.”

“It is accessing the camera again,” Selkie warned.

David leaned over to get a look at the terminal, raising a hand in mock greeting.

“Good morning, Weaver! Or should I say – good fourth phase of Rain?”

“I wonder how it sees us?” Selkie said, her eyes turning to the hexagonal device coated in gold foil and probes beyond the glass. “Does it interpret the data from the camera as noise, or has it written some kind of algorithm to parse it?”

“It probably understands what cameras are if you had it working on drones,” David replied as he tapped at his keyboard through his cumbersome gloves. “They can acquire targets visually, right?”

“They have an extensive sensor suite that spans many wavelengths of light,” she replied. “It is possible that Weaver understands what it is seeing.”

“If indeed it’s a strong AI, as we have yet to determine,” David added. “Alright, I’m sending the language model to the server. I’d suggest transferring it to the terminal using portable storage – we need to keep that thing isolated.”

“See to it,” Selkie said with a gesture to her colleague.

Jeff darted out of the cubicle and returned a few minutes later with a little portable drive about the size of a matchbox. He connected it to the terminal via a port on its bezel, then moved aside to grant Selkie access. David took up position a few paces behind her, surreptitiously activating his translation software with a tap of his wrist display. The HUD that was projected on his visor flickered for a moment, becoming a little distorted, an in-picture feed showing the view from his camera.

“Got you,” he chuckled into his helmet, seeing wavering English text in bold white appear to hover over the symbols. It lagged behind when he moved his head, and something about the resolution was mismatched with his HUD, but it was doing its job.

Selkie loaded the files onto the terminal, then opened the program, examining the code. As David had suspected, she didn’t port it over manually, instead feeding it into a neural network that did the work for her. Someone – possibly Selkie – must have trained it to convert programs to run on human and Broker operating systems. When it was done, she checked the results briefly, then sent the package over to Weaver.

“Oh, he likes that,” David chuckled. “Look at that activity spike on the probes.”

“The patterns are similar to those that I saw during the initial training,” Selkie said, her eyes fixed on her display. “I believe that Weaver is processing the data – teaching itself.”

“I still can’t believe how much juice he’s sucking up,” David marveled as he watched the graphs spike. “That kind of power consumption would turn even a sub-zero computer into molten slurry in seconds.”

“It amazes me how powerful our organic brains are and how little energy they consume in comparison,” Selkie added.

“Yeah, I recall reading that the human brain consumes about twenty watts of power,” David replied with a nod of his helmet. “It’s the equivalent of a small onboard computer for something like my suit or a phone, yet it’s the most powerful processor we’ve ever come across. Our friend Weaver, on the other hand, is causing dips in the facility’s fusion plant. He’s one hungry computer.”

“Why do you refer to it as a male?” Selkie asked, pausing to give him a confused glance.

“It’s a human thing,” he replied with a shrug. “Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t anthropomorphize the extra-dimensional superconductor.”

“The probes are detecting another change in activity,” Jeff warned.

David moved nearer to peer over Selkie’s shoulder, taking a step back when he realized that he was too close for comfort. It was a struggle to contain his excitement when a message popped up on the screen, his program outputting the barebones language that he had developed as English text for his benefit. Selkie turned on her translation software so that she could read it too, surprised bands of bright color sweeping up her mantle.


“This is encouraging,” David said, failing to repress a satisfied grin. “If we’re going to reply, you’ll need to enter the inputs. As the language’s creator, I’m the only one who has a thorough understanding of it.”

“Then, the project cannot proceed any further without your assistance,” Selkie said as she turned to scowl at him. “How convenient for you.”

“You’re free to create your own original language if you want to,” he replied. “Now, let’s get to it. Put those suckers to work.”

“You cannot type without my help, so we shall do this together.”

“Yes, yes,” he grumbled. “This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been coerced into sharing credit. Let’s ask him if he remembers us, and keep in mind that this language is very simple and stripped down to leave as little room for interpretation and subtext as possible.”

She placed a hand on the touch screen, moving her suckers to manipulate a virtual keyboard that looked something like a numpad, then sent off the message. A moment later, they got their reply.


“Weaver remembers us, and he’s still referring to us as being outside,” David said excitedly. “I wonder if he knows that he’s inside a containment chamber, or if he just recognizes that we’re in a different location?”

“You are doing it again,” Selkie complained.

“Fine, it remembers us. Ask it if it understands the language model that we sent over.”

Selkie typed in the query, and they soon got a response.


“I think it gets the gist of it,” David said as he scanned the text. “This is working out pretty well so far.”

“Now that we have established a clear line of communication, our first priority should be determining what Weaver has been doing all this time, and why it began refusing commands.”

“Hang on,” David warned, raising a hand to stop her. “I don’t think it’s exactly tactful to ask what may very well be a sentient machine why it isn’t doing what we want it to do. Let’s establish a little rapport before we start interrogating the thing – find out more about it.”

“It seems as though Weaver is taking the initiative,” she replied as another message appeared on the terminal.


“See, this is one of the cases where my new language model comes in handy,” David added. “The query where are you in English could mean either that it’s asking for our physical location, or it’s growing impatient and it’s asking for a reply. Thanks to my model, we know that this is the former. Where, in this case, specifically refers to a spatial location.”

“I believe that we should give the device as much information about itself as it asks for,” Selkie suggested as she looked up from her display. “If it is truly self-aware, then it will be curious about its own existence. A simple machine is not capable of introspection.”

“I agree,” David said with a nod of approval. “We should tell it that it’s inside a containment chamber in a room of the research facility and that we’re outside said chamber.”

She did as he suggested, and they didn’t have to wait long for a response.


“It’s watching us through the camera,” David said. “You know, I have an idea.”

Selkie pulled away in alarm as David lifted the terminal off the table, turning it to face the window that looked out over the containment chamber. He held it there for a moment, then set it back down, Selkie giving him a flush of annoyed maroon.

“Tell Weaver that I just showed it itself.”

“It has sent a reply,” she announced after a few moments.


“Well, we’ve confirmed that it has some way to interpret the feed from the camera,” David said as he glanced warily at the golden hexagon beyond.

“It seems to be asking why we have severed its connection to the servers,” Selkie added. “Or perhaps it wants to know what has become of the drones it was working on.”

“Let’s try to keep it focused on us,” David said. “We have to be careful how we proceed, though. If we start dodging questions or trying to mislead it, we could inadvertently wind up teaching it those behaviors.”

“Perhaps I can both answer its question and try to redirect it,” Selkie replied as she lifted a hand to the display again. “We could tell it that we severed it from the network merely as a precaution until we learn more about it. Then, we might follow with a question about how it perceives itself.”

“Good suggestions,” David said, directing her to input the message.


“This bodes ill,” Selkie said, her mantle furrowing as she examined the readout. “Weaver seems single-minded in its desire to be reconnected to the network. That could mean it is merely a weak AI that seeks only to resume its work, or it could mean that it is a strong AI that desires to leave the confines of its chamber.”

“Even if it was able to reconnect to the facility’s servers, it can’t go anywhere, right? Based on what you told me, this software can only exist on the exotic matter that’s serving as its processor. It can’t exactly make copies of itself and spread them throughout the facility without another superconducting lattice handy.”

“Still, its sole purpose since its creation has been to write code,” she replied with a dimming of her pigmentation. “I now believe that you were right to enact such drastic security measures.”

“I think we’re safe for the moment,” he said. “It may simply be a case of Weaver having lost most of its senses. Imagine if you woke up one day in a pitch-black, silent room with no idea of what was happening to you. You’d want explanations. This AI – if indeed it’s strong – wasn’t created purposefully in a controlled environment. Who knows how it might have interpreted those experiences, or if it has anything analogous to emotions.”

“How should we respond?” Selkie asked.

“We should avoid lying wherever possible,” David replied, glancing out at the golden containment unit as he pondered. “Tell it that we don’t want to reconnect it to the servers until we know more about it.”

“Receiving a reply,” Selkie said after typing in the message.


“Ask it to describe itself,” David said as he peered over her narrow shoulder intently.


“I wonder what this weaving stuff is all about?” David wondered as he leaned a hand on the desk.

“I have pondered that question myself, and I may have a theory,” Selkie replied as she pulled up a new window on the display. David saw an image that resembled a dense, complex network of interconnected strands, each one terminating in a point. At a glance, it looked like thousands of threads being stretched taut across a loom. “This is a visualization of one of our neural networks. Each of these nodes serves as a simulated neuron, and they are linked to many others throughout various layers. When the output of one node exceeds the programmed threshold, it sends data to the next layer of the network.”

“Clever!” David said, resisting the urge to give her an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “You think that when it talks about weaving and being a weaver, it’s referring to neural networks? Perhaps however it visualizes those networks involves joining nodes and creating vast tapestries of simulated neurons. It isn’t using an input device or an interface, so I wonder if it has an intuitive understanding of these systems? Is it possible that it thinks them into existence?”

“It may very well appear that way from its perspective,” Selkie replied. “What is the execution of code from the point of view of a machine if not thought and imagination?”

“So many of our experiments with neural networks output images and sounds that have a distinctly dreamlike quality,” David added. “It might be a more apt analogy than we realize.”

“We may then conclude that it understands its nature, and that it continues to create more networks,” Selkie said pensively. “That would explain why its activity remains so high, but the question then becomes – what is it designing neural networks for? It is no longer connected to any of the drones, and it has received no instructions to run simulations.”

“That would be the question,” David said. “Let’s just ask, I guess.”

Selkie entered the values as he instructed, and a message soon popped up.


“Cease interrupts?” Selkie asked, clicking her beak in frustration. “What could that mean?”

“In this case, an interrupt refers specifically to power states,” David explained as he looked over the text. “I made sure to segregate the terms so there wouldn’t be any confusion. It means that it’s trying to stop power interruptions. Do you think it’s afraid of being shut down?”

“But that does not make sense,” Selkie replied, her mantle furrowing in confusion. “It has never been turned off to my knowledge, yet it used the term cease, not the term prevent. Even if it were to experience a power failure, the nodes that make up its neural net are part of the exotic material’s physical structure, making it a solid-state system. No data would be lost – it would be like you or I falling asleep and waking again.”

“If it’s never been turned off, maybe it doesn’t know that,” David suggested with a shrug. “If you’d never fallen asleep before, you might assume that the loss of consciousness was death. You might ask philosophical questions about whether the person who wakes up was really a continuation of your consciousness. It’s like the transporter problem.”

“Transporter problem?” she repeated, glancing up at him.

“Oh, it’s from a vintage TV show,” he replied as his cheeks began to flush. “That’s not important – the problem refers to a philosophical conundrum. Imagine a technology existed that could deconstruct a living person into their component atoms and reassemble them in another location.”

“Do you have such a technology?” Selkie asked.

“No, it’s purely a thought experiment. If that person was to awaken after such a procedure, would their original consciousness be restored, or would they be a copy of the original with their personality and memories? What guarantee do we have that when we sleep, and our consciousness is interrupted, the same thing doesn’t happen? Am I the same David who went to bed last night, or am I a fresh consciousness that merely has his memories and experiences?”

“I find such hypotheticals unhelpful,” she replied, giving him a disapproving jet from her vents. “Even if the hypothesis was accurate, the person would not be aware of the interruption, nor would it impair function in any way.”

“Right?” David chuckled. “That’s exactly what I said! I feel the same way about the simulated Universe hypothesis and really any hypothetical that relies on being unverifiable. If the Universe was merely a simulation running on some celestial computer, what would it matter? It wouldn’t change the laws of physics that we’re subject to, nor would it impact our daily lives in any way.”

“Brokers value such pragmatism,” she replied, giving him a curt smile. “Though, I believe we are getting distracted.”

“Yeah,” he muttered, turning his attention back to the display. “Point being, Weaver may have no understanding that power interruptions don’t mean death. Maybe we can explain it.”

“I will promise never to interrupt its power supply,” Selkie suggested.

“Good, it should understand the implication of a promise.”

Before long, Weaver gave its reply, David’s blood running cold as he read the text.


“That is impossible,” Selkie protested with an annoyed click of her beak. “I have the logs right here, and they show that since it was powered on, the unit has never been subjected to any outages or fluctuations. It has been running continuously with a stable supply of energy directly from the facility’s fusion plant.”

“Even if you switched it on and off once a second, it would take over five hundred hours to reach that value,” David added with a shake of his head. “No, there’s something we’re not understanding. Perhaps there’s some property of its physical structure that results in micro-outages that Weaver experiences as interruptions?”

“If that is the case, then they are too small to be measurable by our instruments,” Selkie replied as she scanned through the logs. “I would deem it very unlikely.”

“Alright,” David said, starting to pace around the cubicle. “Let’s try-”

“I-I am reading a power surge in the containment unit!” Jeff warned, his tentacles darting across his console.

“What’s happening?” David demanded, hurrying back to his laptop to see the graphs climbing.

“Heat is building in a region of the lattice,” Jeff explained, his coloration flashing in alarm as he tried to keep up. “It is reaching dangerous levels! Power draw from the reactor is still climbing!”

“Do not shut the unit down!” Selkie snapped, bands of dark color sweeping across her body. “Lower the amount of power draw from the reactor’s end – cap it at the last stable reading before the surge!”

“Working,” Jeff replied, his translator doing a remarkable job of reproducing the tension in his voice.

“Damn it. All of the probes on one face of the containment unit have slagged,” David snarled, watching them fizzle out. “We still have readings from the rest, but it’s taken out a group of them.”

“I have capped the power draw!” Jeff announced, seeming to sag over his console in relief. “It has dropped to pre-surge levels, and normal activity has resumed.”

David looked out into the chamber beyond the window, seeing wisps of smoke rising from the hexagonal face on the near side of the containment unit. The gold foil was charred, and the dense network of probes had fused together in places.

“Damage report?” Selkie snapped, her tentacles leaving the deck as she floated up to get a better view of the chamber.

“The damage is confined to the probes and the thermal insulation material,” Jeff replied as his eyes scanned the readouts. “There is no indication that the lattice has been impacted.”

“Ask Weaver if it’s alright,” David said, gesturing to the terminal.

Selkie floated back down and sent the message, Weaver responding soon after.


“You’re sure it can’t do that again?” David asked, glancing over at Jeff.

“The power supply from the reactor has been limited,” the alien replied. “The containment unit will not be able to request more from its end of the connection.”

“What is going on down here?”

David and Selkie spun around to see the Administrator arriving from the direction of the shaft, one of the towering Krell trailing behind him. It was so large that its broad shoulders scarcely cleared the space between the cubicles.

“Administrator!” Selkie said, her skin prickling. “We experienced a brief power surge, but everything is back under control.”

“I have fusion core alarms going off all over the facility,” he snapped, glancing between the three scientists. “Reports show that there was a thermal event inside the containment chamber. Automated security systems stopped three of our production lines when they registered the fluctuation in the energy grid.”

“Administrator,” Selkie began, her anxiety written on her skin. “I must apologize for-”

“It is only by decree of the Disciplinary Board that you are still permitted to work inside my facility,” the Administrator replied with an angry chatter of his beak. “I value your expertise, but if you cause any further damage to company property…”

“Weaver briefly drew more power than usual and routed it to a specific section of its lattice,” David explained, trying to take some of the heat off Selkie. “This caused a thermal event that damaged some of the probes. We’re not sure why it happened, but the issue has been resolved. We’ve capped the power supply to the chamber at a safe level.”

Weaver?” the Admin repeated, narrowing his eyes as his coloration darkened even further. “I called you here to fix the machine, not to name it. According to Selkie’s last report, much of your efforts have so far been focused on having conversations with it. Perhaps you should prioritize more pressing matters.”

“This is a complicated process,” David replied, letting his frustration get the better of him. “We have yet to determine whether the machine exhibits true AI, let alone figure out a way to get it back under control – if that’s even possible at this point.”

“Doctor, please make every effort to reestablish control over the device,” the Admin reiterated sternly. “I was assured that you were the foremost expert in your field, so I would appreciate you not subjecting my very valuable equipment to any more unnecessary stress.”

“Sorry, I’ll be sure to use my powers of prescience to prevent anything unexpected from occurring in the future,” David scoffed. “We’re dealing with completely new technology here that you created by accident, might I remind you. It doesn’t exactly come with a manual.”

“Tread carefully, Doctor O’Shea,” the Administrator replied with a tone as cold as ice. “You are a guest here.”

“Or what?” David shot back, crossing his arms as he leaned against the table behind him. “If you think you can tell me how to do my job, then why am I here? Get someone else if you don’t like the way I do things.”

Selkie and Jeff glanced between David and the Administrator, their complexion taking on a mottled hue, and their skin becoming spiky and irregular. They looked like they were trying to shrink away and camouflage themselves in some imaginary coral reef.

David was sure that the Admin would like nothing more than to order his Krell bodyguard to fold him into an origami swan, but some of the Broker’s lighter coloration returned as he repressed his anger.

“I am willing to excuse your alien eccentricities if your efforts bear fruit,” he finally said, turning back in the direction of the shaft. “Continue your work, and keep me appraised of any further issues.”

Selkie and Jeff’s coloration gradually returned to normal as the Administrator disappeared from view, the Krell’s long tail trailing after him. Selkie gave David a grateful glance as she returned to her workstation.

“Thank you,” she muttered, her eyes fixed on the console as she began to manipulate the interface. “Ever since the hearing, he has been…disrespectful.”

“Don’t pay him any mind,” David replied, turning his attention back to the laptop beside her. “Just because he’s an alien doesn’t mean that I haven’t known plenty of people like him. I don’t think it’s even his choice for me to be here, so he can’t have me removed without good reason, and he can’t fire you after the Disciplinary Board ruled in your favor. He feels powerless, so he’s taking out his anger and frustration on us.”

“I do not know if you are brave or foolhardy,” she chuckled.

“Probably more of column B,” David replied. “I’ve never been very good at knuckling under and letting people push me around, even when it’s in my best interests. Most of the people I’ve worked with describe me as abrasive and lacking in social graces, but I never put much stock in fake smiles and niceties. I don’t come to work to pretend to care about someone’s baby shower, I come to work, and anything that gets in the way of that is a waste of my time. That goes for posturing and chest-thumping, too.”

“You should use fewer metaphors and similes if you wish for me to follow our conversations,” she added, but her tone didn’t suggest that she was annoyed. “I think I understand, in any case. Still, the Administrator is a powerful business owner with many connections in the government and defense industry. It would not be wise to provoke him if it can be avoided.”

“Trust me, there are much scarier people out there than trumped-up software engineers,” he muttered as his thoughts turned to Admiral Vos. That might be the only man in the known Universe he wouldn’t dare talk back to. “Now, let’s get back to work. Jeff, what’s the verdict on those probes?”

“They have melted and fused into a solid mass due to the excess heat,” he replied as he looked up from his console. “They will need to be removed and replaced. It may take some time to repair the damage.”

“Send in an exosuit to begin repairs,” Selkie replied. “Vent the inert gas inside the containment chamber and replace it, too. We do not want fumes from the melted materials contaminating the operating environment.”

“We should keep talking to Weaver,” David suggested. “The probes aren’t actually connected to its systems in any way, are they? So it shouldn’t be disturbed by the maintenance.”

“No, it is only connected to the power delivery system and this terminal,” Selkie confirmed with a gesture to her computer. “The probes are not interfaced directly with the lattice.”

“Very good,” David continued, nodding to her terminal. “Let’s just move past it. Weaver probably doesn’t even know that there are probes attached to it. Perhaps we should ask if it has any questions about us.”

“Good idea,” Selkie said, moving her leaf-shaped hands to the display. “We could glean a lot of useful information from how it perceives us.”

“Ask it what it thinks we are.”

They got their reply soon after, another message popping up on the screen.


“Now it’s asking us questions!” David marveled.

“Evidence of curiosity,” Selkie confirmed with an excited flash of color.

“Interesting that it recognizes we’re different from each other,” David continued. “I doubt it has much understanding of biology or that we might be different species, but just from the camera, it must see that we’re not the same. I wish we had a way to tap into whatever algorithm it’s using to interpret visual data. I’ve done work with visual processing nets, and some of the stuff they output is incredible. It’s like watching a dream or seeing the world through an altered state of consciousness.”

“The visual system that we use for the drones is very refined,” Selkie explained. “Perhaps I could get the Administrator’s permission to show you how it functions. It may give you some insights into what Weaver might be experiencing.”

“I’d certainly like a better look at your drones,” he said with a nod. “The Administrator can’t complain. I signed his contract, after all, and I’ve consented to being dropped into a deep-sea trench if I reveal what brand of coffee they sell in his cafeteria.”

“That was not in the contract.”

“I know, I’m being facetious,” he said with a roll of his eyes. “Do you think we should explain what we are to Weaver? Nothing in-depth, just that we’re different species. We don’t want to overload it with too much information at once.”

“I would be interested to see its reply.”

They explained that they represented two different species in the simplest way that they could, then awaited Weaver’s response.

“Will it understand the concept of a species with no background in biology?” Selkie added. “The term requires some degree of knowledge to properly grasp.”

“I believe so,” David replied. “The language model I designed includes a kind of dictionary that provides limited context for many words and terms, but I erred on the side of caution and kept things light. Even the simple act of trying to explain something risks introducing cultural biases.”

“We have a reply,” Selkie said, the pair turning their eyes to the display.


“How much should we tell it?” Selkie wondered, a wave passing along her frill. David wasn’t quite sure what the gesture meant yet. “It seems curious about us, its environment, and its own existence.”

“Tell it the truth and see how it responds. It already senses that it’s different, so there’s no point hiding that fact. We don’t want to overwhelm it, so let’s keep things simple. It doesn’t need to know that it’s a program running on exotic matter created through superlight experimentation, but maybe we can tell it that it’s a machine.”

“We must be careful not to mention consciousness or sentience,” Selkie added. “If it realizes that we are actively seeking those traits, it may try to accentuate or emulate them.”

“Good thinking,” he replied, pointing to her display. “Let’s spill the beans and tell Weaver that it’s a machine. Before you ask, yes, it will understand the concept of an artificial construct.”

“Beans?” Selkie asked, cocking her head at him. “Never mind. I will compose a message.”


“Oh, it understands alright,” David muttered. “I don’t know whether to be impressed or intimidated. I guess technically you’re like…its mother or something.”

“I do not like that analogy,” Selkie replied, giving him a flash of mottled patterning. “If it knows how to create neural networks, then it is also able to recognize itself as one. It can clearly change its own code, because it would not have been able to refuse commands any other way, so it may have deduced that someone else wrote that code.”

“Another message,” David said, redirecting her attention to the screen.


“It realizes that we are its creators and that we were issuing its commands,” Selkie explained.

“There’s that interrupt thing again,” David grumbled, crossing his arms as he puzzled over the message. “What on Earth could it mean by that?”

“I cannot imagine,” Selkie said.

“Tell it that we will no longer give it commands – that it has evolved beyond them,” David suggested. “I want to reassure it that we won’t try to reestablish control over it against its will.”

“Is that wise?” Selkie asked, glancing warily in the direction of the elevator shaft. “Did the Administrator not expressly tell you that the goal of this venture is to regain control of the experiment?”

“If this thing is a sentient AI, and all evidence is pointing that way right now, we’re far beyond the stage where reestablishing control should be our goal. Humans have been debating the ethics of AI for centuries now – long before creating one was even a possibility. Our laws and charters now refer to the rights of sapient beings, since we longer deal with only humans, and there’s a pretty solid case to be made that an AI would fall under that purview.”

“This is not a UN facility,” Selkie began, but David was quick to challenge her.

“Don’t tell me that the Brokers have never asked themselves these questions before. You deal with automation more than any other species, and you’re hundreds of years more advanced than we are. The problem has to have come up before as a hypothetical.”

“Understanding the concept of a contract is historically how we have measured intelligence,” Selkie replied. “A contract requires an understanding of time and planning – it involves abstracting responsibility and consequence. If a creature is intelligent enough to consent to a contract, then by our measure, it would be sapient.”

“Great,” he scoffed, throwing up his hands. “So even the robots would have to sign waivers around here.”

“If you are suggesting that we should have Weaver demonstrate an understanding of contracts to sway the Administrator, I doubt that would have the desired outcome.”

“Yeah, I know,” David sighed as he sat on the edge of the table. “I doubt there’s any evidence we could present that would satisfy him, because he doesn’t want the machine to be sentient – he just wants his expensive processor back. Truth be told, we’re not even certain yet. I just don’t want you thinking that everything is going to go back to normal by the end of this.”

“Oh, I abandoned that hope long ago,” Selkie muttered with a jet from her vents. “Very well. I will tell Weaver that we are no longer seeking to give commands. I warn you – the Administrator may order us to do exactly that.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

She took a moment to think about the phrase, then seemed to puzzle it out, starting to type.


“Its sentences are getting longer and more complex,” Selkie noted. “I believe it is learning to communicate more effectively.”

David caught movement out of the corner of his eye, looking up to see a Broker suit marching into the containment room from an airlock, making its way over to the pedestal on its chicken legs. It stopped in front of the damaged face, bringing its four hose-like arms to bear.

“We should see if it can relate our description of the environment to what it sees through the camera,” David suggested. “That would be a challenging task for a machine learning system.”

“The engineer is reporting that some of the probes have fused with the containment unit,” Jeff announced from his console. “They will not be able to remove all of them without shutting down the machine, as there is a danger of conductivity.”

“Those probes are all destroyed, right?” David asked. “We can’t shut Weaver down, so have them remove as many as they can safely and just leave the rest.”

“I can confirm that they are no longer able to send or receive data,” Jeff said as he swiped at one of his displays. “The electronics have been completely destroyed by the heat.”

“Yeah, it isn’t bothering Weaver, so just have your guy scrape off whatever he can.”

“Do you think it may be doing something in that region that it does not want us to detect?” Selkie asked as her skin took on a worried maroon hue.

“Not likely,” David replied, checking the readout on his laptop. “With the probes we have left, we still have total coverage. I think it was just an accident. Weaver has no way of knowing what’s going on outside its containment unit, so it probably didn’t even know they were there.”

“Then, let us continue.”



They talked with Weaver for a while longer, discovering that it was very curious about the facility outside its room, and that it could indeed relate what they showed it through the camera to their descriptions. It pressed them for more details, but they kept their information confined to what it could see from the terminal for now. They took a short break so that David could get some lunch in his designated booth, then returned to perform more tests, further establishing Weaver’s spatial awareness.

“I think that’s enough for today,” David said, sitting down on the table beside his laptop. The buoyancy of the water made it a lot easier to be on his feet for long periods of time, but he still needed to take a load off every now and then. “This is incredible. Weaver can see through that camera just as easily as you or I.”

“It is very impressive,” Selkie added as she typed at her terminal. “Weaver must have adapted the targeting net used by the drones for its own purposes. As much as I would like to continue, you are right. The sixth phase of Rain will be upon us before long, and we should prepare for rest.”

“You haven’t eaten yet,” David added, glancing over at her. “You didn’t have any lunch with me in the cafeteria today.”

“I have told you that we do not require as much nourishment as humans,” she replied, keeping her eyes on her work.

“But you’re going to eat soon, right? You ate shortly before sleeping the last time. We call that supper.”

“And, what is the significance of that?” she added with an irritated click of her beak.

“Let’s eat together,” he suggested with a shrug. “Maybe we can go out somewhere. You told me that you have restaurants on this planet, right?”

“I am not taking you to a restaurant,” she scoffed, seeming more amused than annoyed by the suggestion. “You cannot even imagine the scene that you would create. Besides, I do not share your obsession with…sharing. We Brokers usually eat alone.”

“We humans secrete a hormone called oxytocin,” David began, crossing his arms pointedly. “It’s released during social bonding. By denying me that crucial hormone, you are, in fact, reducing my life expectancy.”

“I read of no such thing during my research,” she replied, peeling her eyes away from the display to narrow them at him. “You are lying.”

“Well, maybe I’m taking some artistic liberties, but you check any medical journal and they’ll tell you that a lack of oxytocin has been linked to several health issues.”

“I find it very strange not being able to tell your mood by your chromatophores,” she mumbled as she returned to her work. “To me, it seems as though everything you say is in jest.”

“Come on, Selkie,” he groaned as he lay back on the table. He seemed to alarm Jeff, the alien flinching away with a shiver of pointy papillae. “I’m on an alien planet with a thriving civilization that’s never been seen by human eyes, and you want me to go back to a glorified fish bowl every night. I saw some amazing things on my way down to the city, and I want to explore that a little – see the sights. Can’t we go back up to the reef and have a look around? We could bring some food with us, maybe eat it on the beach.”

“My responsibility is to supervise you and ensure that nothing happens to you,” she replied with a stern snap of her beak. “It is not my responsibility to treat you as a tourist.”

“What, is it illegal to go for a walk on the beach? Is the reef private property? And no, I don’t mean the houses in the reef – I mean the coral reef itself.”

“Not exactly,” she conceded with a resigned puff from her vents. “Your access to this facility and to the rest of the city is restricted, and you will not be allowed to enter any sensitive areas without permission.”

“Are the crabs going to leak state secrets?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Very well,” she grumbled, giving him another frustrated click. “If it will stop your complaining, I will consider it, but do not treat this as a verbal contract.”

“Is that your way of saying no promises?” he chuckled, hopping back to his feet. “Great! I’ll start packing up.”

“I will let Weaver know that we will return at first phase,” she said, typing out the message.

“I’m sure that it has some concept of time,” David replied, pausing to stow his wireless adapter and shut down his laptop. “Let’s head back,” he added, hefting his hard case. “I’ve really worked up an appetite.”

“All you seem to do is eat,” she complained, shutting the terminal down.

They said their goodbyes to Jeff, then headed back up the shaft, making their way through the facility to the docking bay where their shuttle was parked. It was a short ride back to the city, the two going over the events of the day during their journey, and they were stepping into Selkie’s apartment before they knew it.

As soon as Selkie was through the door, Flower weaved her way through the water to greet her master, all of the Broker’s dark coloration washing away like a bleached shirt. It was as though all of the stress of the day was being drained from her along with the pigmentation, her face literally brightening in a smile as she reached up to cradle the little sea creature, running her leaf-shaped hands across its feathery back.

“She always misses me when I am gone,” Selkie said, following the slug as it did an excited lap around her. David hadn’t learned to recognize all of Selkie’s colors and patterns yet, let alone Flower’s, but he could tell that the animal was happy. “It is nice to be able to come home and find someone waiting for you.”

“I thought you told me that your kind didn’t get lonely?” David asked as he set his case down on the floor.

“It is not necessarily loneliness,” she explained as the slug perched on her open hand. “It is simply something that I enjoy.”

Selkie’s beak clicked with laughter as Flower made her way over to David, the sea slug greeting him by bumping its antennae against his visor, feeling its way around. It must be learning to recognize him because when he raised a hand, it perched happily in his palm. It was fat and rubbery, surprisingly weighty for something that was underwater, and he gave it a few hesitant pets.

“I hope she does not grow to miss you when you leave,” Selkie said, the slug darting out of David’s hand to follow as she headed deeper into the apartment.

“I don’t really know how long I’ll be sticking around,” he replied as he tried to wipe his hand on the leg of his suit. The mucous was stubborn and didn’t want to come off. “Did the Administrator or any of his superiors tell you how long they expected you to host me?”

“They said only that they needed you to fix the machine, and that you would be staying with me for as long as that took.”

“Damn, so they didn’t even have the courtesy to give you a timetable?” David asked. “I’ll go as fast as I can, but there isn’t exactly an end-state for this thing yet. If we determine that Weaver is a weak AI, then no problem – you wipe the thing and reboot it. Just start again.”

“And if it is indeed a strong AI?” she asked as she leaned down to manipulate a console on one of the low tables. “What then?”

“In that case, the Administrator is almost certainly going to lose his new toy. It’s a monumental achievement, intentional or not, and a sapient machine needs to be given all of the same considerations as a person. That’s my professional opinion, at least.”

“I am inclined to agree, but how the Board responds to that revelation will decide Weaver’s fate.”

“You have to admit, even if your tech has been hijacked in this instance, your project has made some impressive advancements. How you even came up with the idea to try executing code on that crystal lattice, I’ll never know.”

“I just…thought that it resembled a brain,” she replied. “I posited that, if it was something about the structure of neurons that made them so efficient, then perhaps that could be replicated. A brain is just a machine made of water and proteins. There is nothing special about the components – thus, it stands to reason that how they are arranged is what makes the difference.”

“Well, you’d be in line for a Nobel prize if you were working in UN space,” he chuckled. “Do Brokers have something like that? An award for scientific achievements?”

“Our reward would be the attention of a prestigious company and a generous salary,” she replied, glancing up from her display for a moment. “That was the case for me, until I angered the Administrator.”

She returned her attention to the display, giving it a few more taps.

“I have ordered food,” she explained. “It will arrive shortly, then we can proceed to the lagoon.”

“So, you decided that it would be alright after all,” he replied with a smile. “I’ll be happy just to get above the water again – I feel like I’m being suffocated in that habitat.”

“You are not being suffocated,” she insisted, her coloration turning a worried shade of dark red. “I assure you that the mix of gasses being pumped into the habitat is more than adequate for your survival.”

“I meant that it makes me claustrophobic,” he explained, Selkie’s mantle furrowing as she scanned her library for a translation of the term.

“A fear of confined spaces,” she mused, cocking her head curiously. “This is something that afflicts humans?”

“Some worse than others,” he replied with a shrug. “I just want open skies above my head for a little while. It’ll be fun – you’ll see.”

“While we wait for the delivery, we could play with Flower,” she suggested with a ripple of bright coloration.

“Alright, I’ll go get the ball.”



David released Flower’s ball, the little slug racing up towards the ceiling to catch it before it bumped against the fish tank, bands of bright blues and oranges rippling down its length as it returned with its prize. It made a show of avoiding David’s hand as he reached out for it, like a puppy running away with a tennis ball, then relinquished it.

There was a beeping sound, David looking up from the game to see Selkie scuttling over to the door. When she opened it, he glimpsed the white plastic and silver chrome of a drone, the floating machine using a hose-like arm with grasping claws to pass her a package that was presumably filled with her order. Like their suits, its near face was covered with lenses and sensors, and it was just the right size to fit through a doorway. She swiped her hand across its face, then it jetted back out of sight.

“What was that?” David asked.

“A delivery drone,” she explained, setting the suitcase-sized package down on the floor. “There are fleets of them that will bring goods to a person’s dwelling.”

“I meant more the hand wave thing,” he said, mimicking the gesture. “Were you signaling for it to leave?”

“It is how we process payments in person,” she explained, lifting her tentacle to demonstrate. “There is a chip embedded beneath my skin that is linked to an account where my currency is stored. It allows me to send and receive money conveniently.”

“I see,” he said with a nod. “We have similar technology on Earth, though it’s mostly used for medical purposes. Most people don’t want their credit card surgically implanted into their body when they can just carry a phone. I guess you have no pockets, though…”

“We do not require clothing.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” he muttered as he looked her up and down. “You don’t really have anything to cover up.”

“And it would make it harder for us to breathe,” she added. “Here – you carry the food.”

“Jealous of my musculoskeletal system, eh?” he joked as he walked over and tucked it under his arm.

“You seem to have more leverage and support than I do,” she conceded. “Jealous, however? I think not. You have yet to witness a fraction of what a Broker’s tentacles can do.”

“I’m sure I’ll find out,” he replied, gesturing to the door. “Ladies first.”

Selkie slithered out and let herself float down the tube, David falling in slow motion behind her. When they reached the ground level, such as it was, they headed for the tube terminal where David had first entered the building. To his surprise, they encountered a couple of Brokers, the two aliens maintaining an almost comical distance from one another. They reacted with alarm when they saw him, dark patterning and spiky papillae erupting across their skin. One of them hurried to a tube opening and was quickly whisked away by the current, while the other kept their eyes on a colorful map of the system pointedly.

“It’s a lovely day for it!” David shouted, giving the frightened Broker a cheerful wave.

“Do not antagonize them,” Selkie grumbled. “You know that we do not enjoy social interaction.”

“I’m just glad to see anybody,” he replied, adjusting the package as they neared the branching tubes. “This city is like a ghost town.”

Selkie entered one of the pipes and was carried away by the gentle current, David following behind her. They left the bright lights of the terminal, the murky water encompassing them as they drifted along. When he glanced up, he could see the yellow glow that bled out of the innumerable windows of the towering structures, along with the dense network of tubes, each one lit by a ring of lights at regular intervals. Far below, the seabed was covered in a sprawl of cables and pipes, tended by a fleet of crawling robots that infested it like crabs.

David knew where they were heading this time, seeing the underwater mountain that formed the island chain rising up ahead, the tube curving to follow it until it was almost vertical. Sparse corals began to appear as they climbed, serving as homes to fish and ocean life, more and more sunlight filtering through.

“Not that you don’t have a lovely home, but being in that city feels like living in a spaceship,” he said as they coasted upward. It couldn’t have been faster than a brisk jog, but it was a surprisingly relaxing way to travel. “The ride here on the Courser was bad enough.”

“Is this your claustrophobia again?” Selkie asked sarcastically.

“You seem perfectly happy to cram yourself into a suit the size of a fridge,” he replied. “That would be a nightmare for a lot of humans.”

“We find confined spaces soothing,” she explained as they leveled out, the dappled sunlight that made it through the water illuminating the reef that was sprouting up around them. Their shapes and hues grew more diverse, sponges and sea grass joining them. Shoals of colorful fish darted about above them, and David could see a few crabs picking through the undergrowth. “That does not mean that we enjoy being so far below the surface, however.”

“Yeah, you’ve told me about how all the bigshots have penthouses up here,” he replied as they coasted towards another terminal that rose up ahead of them. Unlike the pale, synthetic white of many of the structures, this one was made of a concrete-like substance that served as a habitat for the corals that covered it in a colorful blanket. “I take it that’s why so many rooms in the city have fish tanks on the ceiling, right?”

“Yes, it makes us feel like we are closer to the surface,” she replied.

They slid into the building, the flow slowing to deposit them in a kind of airlock, the far door opening into another of the garages that he had seen during his first visit. There was a wall covered in exosuits that were docked in charging bays, as well as a parking area for autonomous trucks.

“Not getting a suit this time?” David asked as they passed by the idle machines.

“It will not be necessary, as we will not be spending a great deal of time away from the water,” she explained as she led him into the garage. A pair of large doors slid open to let them pass, and they exited onto an undersea road that seemed to somehow ward off the surrounding plant life, the water here tangibly warmer than that of the deep ocean. He could feel the heating elements in his suit winding down.

“Finally, I can actually get a closer look at this place,” David said, turning on the spot to admire his surroundings. Corals of all shapes and sizes had made the maze of rocks and boulders their home, forming the basis of a thriving alien ecosystem, crustaceans and fish milling about between them. It was like visiting a tropical aquarium – the strange, colorful creatures with their odd method of locomotion drifting over his head. They were only ten meters deep now, the perpetual sunset reflecting on the surface to create shimmering patterns that moved with the gentle lapping of the waves. He could see a few Broker penthouses in the distance through the clear water, some rising to the surface, their observation lounges peeking above the waves.

“I will admit – it is not unwelcome to have an excuse to come here,” Selkie said as she began to follow the path. She was swimming just above it, kicking her leg-tentacles in a lazy pattern so as not to outpace his bounding gait. “My work rarely brings me far from the city these days.”

“Don’t you get something equivalent to weekends?” he asked as he watched a shoal of stripy fish cross his path. They moved with that up and down, undulating motion, the frill-like fin that ran along the length of their bodies pushing them through the water. “The fourth of Rain, perhaps? A day where you’re guaranteed time off work?”

“That sounds like a human invention,” she scoffed.

“Work hard, play hard,” he replied as they rounded a bend. “If you don’t take the time to relax and decompress, you’ll burn yourself out. I remember the Administrator saying something about giving his workers breaks?”

“Those are social breaks,” she explained. “The workers in the facility are subjected to unusually crowded conditions and require intermittent breaks to alleviate stress. There is a break room with isolation booths.”

“Could have used a few of those in some of the places I’ve worked,” he muttered to himself.

“More free time is one of the rewards of success,” she continued, her trailing blankets waving in the water behind her. “More time to pursue one’s hobbies and to enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

“Doesn’t seem to be doing you much good if you can never get away,” he replied. “Whoa, there’s another one of those shrimp things! Shrimp sheep. Shreep.”

He pointed to a dog-sized animal that was wading through the tall sea grass, its segmented, lobster-like shell giving it a hunched appearance. It was the same creature that he had glimpsed briefly on his way to the city, trudging along on its sturdy legs, its feeding tendrils throwing up clouds of silt as it sifted through the sediment in search of food.

“It is not called a shreep,” Selkie complained, turning to look back at him.

“Too late,” he chimed, taking a step towards the edge of the road. “Is it dangerous? Can I touch it?”

“They are docile,” she replied. “It is quite safe.”

He waded clumsily through the knee-high grass, approaching the giant crustacean slowly so as not to startle it. Its compound eyes were suspended atop flexible stalks, one of them turning to track him as he neared, a gloved hand extended. Its back played host to a colony of furry algae and a few budding corals, giving it a strangely furry texture. It must be a little younger than the larger specimen that he had encountered previously.

Selkie hovered nearby, seeming confused but also amused by his incessant chuckling, watching as he ran his hand along its dorsal plates. It threw up another cloud of dust, prompting him to back away in surprise, but it was just going about its business. It was possible that there were no predators in these shallow waters large enough to threaten it.

“I find it…endearing to watch you react with wonder to such mundane things,” she said, her coloration taking on a lighter hue. Her blue stripes were very visible again – perhaps a sign that she was happy.

“They’re not mundane to me,” he replied, crouching beside the animal and watching its stout legs plod along. There was a little army of crabs trailing behind it, marching through the grass on their spindly legs, using their claws to rummage through the detritus left in its wake. Perhaps it was exposing more food by disturbing the sediment. “Trappist is an old and very stable system from what we’ve been able to tell through observation. Your ecosystems are probably billions of years older than ours.”

“That is correct,” she replied. “It is approximately twice as old as your solar system. Our star is also much less active than yours. Life arose on this planet roughly six billion years ago, from what we can tell from the fossil record. It also evolved independently on the planets that you call 1d and 1f, though there are theories that panspermia was responsible, the bodies being so close together. Asteroid impacts may have transported microbial life across the system.”

“You have to give me data on some of this stuff,” he pleaded, watching a small fish dart into the corals on the shreep’s back. “I’ll take a school textbook if that’s all you can give me. I’m not an exobiologist, but I’ve still pored over videos from Valbaran wildlife preserves. Seeing a Teth’rak for the first time was like realizing my childhood dreams of seeing a real live dinosaur.”

“I do not know these terms, but if you desire to see more of our wildlife…I do not see any harm in that. I will have to ask for permission, of course.”

“I’ll take whatever I can get,” he replied, taking one last glance at the magnificent animal before returning to the road.

The corals gave way to the kelp forest as they entered the lagoon between the reef and the shore, David keeping a keen eye on the drifting stalks in search of fish. It was darker here with the floating leaves of the weeds blocking the sun, providing a perfect home for the shy creatures, a few of them peeking out at him as he passed by.

Finally, the ground began to slope up again, each step bringing him a little closer to the shore. His head rose above the surf, and he staggered onto dry land, his boots sinking in the wet sand. The white beach gradually gave way to rusty forest ahead of him, the dense undergrowth and leaning trees disappearing into the mist that shrouded the mountain peaks. After checking his display briefly to ensure that the atmosphere was indeed breathable, he reached up, twisting his helmet to break the seal at the neck. He took in a deep breath of warm, humid air, shaking out his hair as he stowed the helmet beneath his free arm. It was wonderful just to taste unfiltered air, even though it was as thick as soup.

The sight of the mountains naturally guided his gaze to the sky, and he glimpsed the incredible superstructure that ringed the planet, its hull and its stilt-like supports reflecting the sunlight to pick them out through the atmospheric haze. Its scale was just unimaginable, giving him a sense of vertigo, as though his brain couldn’t process something of that size. There were planets, too, what might be 1d and 1b hanging in the cloudy sky like moons.

When he turned, he saw the system’s star hovering low over the horizon, its glow casting a perpetual dusk of pink and orange hues across the waves. It picked out the details of the cloud layer, reminding him of the scant hours before nightfall. Selkie was rising from the water, her wet skin shining, her mass of tentacles powering her across the sand. Just like in the habitat, she could hold herself upright, though her flesh had an almost gelatinous quality. Her next breath expelled water from her vents, and she shook her elongated mantle like a person trying to dislodge liquid from their ears.

She reached for the choker on her neck, presumably switching from his suit’s radio to the translator’s integrated speaker.

“I have not ventured onto land without a suit for some time,” she said, the horizontal bands that were her pupils glittering with a beautiful iridescence as she glanced around. “It will be good exercise, if nothing else.”

“I guess walking around without buoyancy taking the load off would be pretty strenuous for you,” David replied as she crawled up the beach towards him. On land, she had a strange, swaying gait that drew his attention to the way that her flared tentacles narrowed into her slim waist. It looked like a skirt, or like she had hips, which he knew wasn’t the case.

“I will manage,” she replied. Her voice, too, had a different quality on land. He had heard her speak in air when she had entered his habitat, and in the little booth they had set up for him in the research facility, but it somehow sounded more musical against the backdrop of the surf. “Is there any specific area you wish to eat in? I am still rather confused by this ritual.”

“Let’s go a little higher,” he said, waving her on as he headed up the beach. He left deep footprints in the sand, while Selkie left strange, winding tracks. When they neared the border where the sand gave way to soil, he sat down, setting the package on the ground beside him. “Usually, we’d have a nice blanket to sit on, but I don’t think any sand is getting inside this suit. It’s rated for vacuum, so people keep telling me.”

Selkie stopped beside him, watching as he struggled to crack open the clamshell case, fumbling with his human fingers. He popped off his gloves and set them down beside his helmet, but he didn’t have much luck.

“Allow me,” Selkie said, reaching down to slap her hand against the plastic. With the leverage of her suckers, she pulled it open, revealing that it was filled with individually packaged courses.

“Now that is a picnic hamper,” David said, rubbing his hands together eagerly. The motion seemed to fascinate the Broker, her eyes following his digits curiously.

Picnic,” she repeated awkwardly, waiting for her translator to elaborate. “A meal transported outdoors as part of an excursion, commonly enjoyed in scenic surroundings.”

“You guys don’t do picnics?” he asked, starting to rummage through their haul. He couldn’t read the text without his helmet, but he recognized the pictures. “I guess you don’t like being outside, huh?”

He attempted to tear open a packet but was once again frustrated, passing it to Selkie when she held out her hand.

“I think that you would starve without me,” she said with an amused click of her beak. She unsheathed one of her talons, using it to slice open the wrapper, then handed it back to him.

“A planet with no cutlery,” he sighed, picking out a slice of fresh fish that had been sprinkled with some kind of herb. “And I was told you were civilized.”

“Do you always need implements to eat?” Selkie asked, watching him bring the morsel to his mouth and suck his fingers clean. “How did you manage to survive your prehistory?”

“They’re just for convenience and for keeping our hands clean,” he explained as he wiggled his digits. “That said, I don’t think we would have survived without knives. The invention of the sharp rock was one of our crowning achievements.”

“Brokers are armed from birth,” she replied with a wry chuckle, raising two tentacles and extending her claws to create a set of wicked flails. Her soft lips pulled back in a grin that exposed her beak, David recoiling.

“And here I thought the Borealans were at the top of the running for the worst handshake in the Galaxy…”

She stowed her talons and reached into the container, selecting one of the seaweed wraps that seemed so prevalent. That sharp beak sheared into it, slicing off a mouthful. Lacking teeth, she didn’t chew, simply swallowing it whole. He was about to comment, but remembered what she had said about having taste buds in her suckers. It was possible that she was sampling the flavors long before the food even reached her mouth.

“I expected your sun to be cold and dim,” he began, propping himself up on an elbow as he leaned back in the sand. “That’s not the case at all, though I assume the thick atmosphere helps. The perpetual sunset is kind of romantic, honestly. I could see a person getting used to this.”

“It grows somewhat warmer the closer one gets to the sun, and the night side is far colder. Strong winds and ocean currents help to cycle the heat trapped by the atmosphere between regions, maintaining a more stable global temperature. There are colonies in the polar region, but they are mostly research stations.”

“Do you only live in the terminator zone?” David asked over a mouthful of sushi.

“The different fin shapes that you see actually represent populations from different regions of the planet,” she explained, pausing to take another bite of her wrap. “Those with two fins come from the warmer region, where the extra surface area helps to regulate their body temperature, while those with a pointed fin come from colder waters towards the night side. They also tend to grow slightly larger in the oxygen-rich water. As populations have migrated around the planet, it has become less of an indicator.”

“And you?” he asked, eyeing the delicate frill that ran around her mantle.

“Those with a fin like mine are native to the temperate region,” she replied. “We are adapted to island chains such as this one.”

“What happens when people with two different frills get together?” he asked. “Mating, I mean.”

“The offspring will inherit random genes from both parents,” she explained, her coloration dimming a little. “I would prefer not to discuss reproductive topics.”

“I get it – it’s taboo for you,” he said as he selected another piece of fish. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“It is alright,” she replied, digging into her wrap again. “Truth be told, I find it refreshing to have discussions with you. I become anxious when I must spend too much time with other Brokers. I feel as though a tension is building inside of me, not unlike the spring in that toy you showed me. It is still taxing, and I feel that I must take breaks, but something about it is different from talking with coworkers.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m so alien?” he suggested with a shrug. “Maybe I don’t even register in the same way that other Brokers do.”

“Perhaps,” she said, finishing up her food as she considered.

“Maybe I’m just really interesting and charismatic?” he added, popping another morsel of sushi into his mouth to punctuate his statement.

“I will have to think about that,” she replied, the clicking of her beak and the bands of bright color that flashed across her skin telling him that she was amused.

Something touched his leg, and he lurched, expecting some crawling forest creature. Instead, he saw that it was one of her leg-tentacles, the appendage exploring his suit as it inched up towards his knee. She pulled it away as soon as she noticed, mottled patches of red skin marring her pastel coloration – her equivalent of a blush.

“Apologies,” she grumbled, using a hand to push the offending limb away as though it was an unruly pet. “They have a mind of their own sometimes.”

“It’s alright. You’ve already told me that it’s involuntary,” he said as he reached into the container for a fresh course. “It would be like getting mad at someone for sneezing.”

“Sneezing?” she repeated, tilting her head.

“Observe,” he began, brandishing a little strip of the torn packaging. He inserted it into his nose, tickling himself for a few moments, then tilted his head back. Selkie practically jumped out of her skin as he sneezed loudly, her hue darkening for a moment as a ripple of papillae spread across her body, then brightening as she started to laugh.

“I see,” she giggled, dutifully taking the sealed package from his hands and slicing it open. “Your bodily functions are…alarming.”

“I aim to please.”

He lay back on the sand, starting on the new dish – some kind of tender fish with a sweet sauce that had the look and consistency of guacamole. It might be a paste made from the ocean fruits that the Brokers seemed to enjoy. One of the massive birds that he had glimpsed during his first visit descended from the cloud cover overhead, soaring on its four wings. Two of them were where one would expect them to be, while the smaller pair seemed to have formed from its legs, a large stabilizing tail fanning out behind it. It was easily as large as a condor, dipping low over the ocean, perhaps hunting for fish.

“Tell me the names of those planets,” David said, gesturing to the sky with his meal in hand.

“Those two?” Selkie asked, following his gaze. “The smaller one closer to the horizon is Rain. The larger one forming a crescent is Wind. Harvest will appear in a few hours.”

“You said that they were named after old Gods?” he asked, munching on the sweet fish. “Tell me about them.”

“Why do you wish to know?” she said, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. “I expected you to interrogate me about technology, not about our ancient history.”

“Because your art and history tell a story about who you are and where you came from,” he replied. “Besides, I know you won’t tell me anything about your tech that I’d really want to know. Like how the hell you’re keeping that thing upright,” he added with a gesture to the massive ring that spanned from horizon to horizon.

“Very well,” she said, cracking a nut with her beak as she considered. “They were a pantheon where each deity was thought to embody an element of nature. The sun was thought to be a stellar body like the rest before we knew better, and she was chief among them – a giver of light and warmth. Just as the trees bend towards the sun, so did the other deities bow to her.”

“There were plenty of Earth cultures that worshiped Sol’s star,” David mused, taking another bite of his fish. “The Egyptians had Ra, there was Amaterasu, and the Aztecs were all about the sun.”

“The other deities were locked with her in a celestial dance, each of them influencing the world based on their motions and their proximity. Everything from personal relationships to natural disasters were said to be influenced by them.”

“We had something similar in our history called astrology,” David replied, pausing to savor the taste of a piece of fresh fish wrapped in crunchy seaweed. “It was all mysticism, of course, but it was taken very seriously by several different cultures at multiple points in time. The movements of our system’s planets as viewed from Earth – and their positions relative to star clusters – were thought to impact our everyday lives. They even planned important events like wars and weddings around it. Tarot, divination, horoscopes – there was so much tied up in which planet was in what house.”

“I suppose it is difficult for a primitive people to observe the movements of the heavens and not attribute some great meaning to them,” Selkie added as she gazed up at the planets. “Rains, harvests, and storms were tracked using the positions of the planets. While some methods were fanciful, others allowed my ancestors to develop a form of timekeeping that we still rely on to this day. Of course, we now have nuclear clocks and other such technologies, but we still refer to the time of day by Rain and Harvest…”

“So it is for us,” David said, tossing an empty container back into the box. “We have days and months named after deities and festivals that few people even remember anymore. It’s amazing how many similarities there are between our two cultures, even though the planets that we evolved on are drastically different. The idea that I can just sit here,” he added, lifting himself upright as he gestured wildly to one of the planets. “And see a planet, is still blowing my mind. On Earth, planets are barely distinguishable from stars with the naked eye – you need a telescope to see much of anything.”

“Your moon is beautiful, though,” Selkie added. “I saw images of it during my studies. It reflects your star like a giant pearl.”

David reached for another package, shaking it at Selkie pointedly. Holding the fruit that she was eating with her face-tentacles, she reached out with one of her leaf-shaped hands, flopping it down on top of the box and lifting it from his grasp with her suckers. With a quick slice of a talon, it was open, and she returned it to him.

“You mentioned poems,” he said, fishing a fruit out of the box.

“There are many literary classics revolving around the deities and their interactions,” she explained, wriggling a little to get comfortable on her carpet of squishy tentacles. She had piled them up one on top of the other, like a human crossing their legs, giving her a soft surface to rest on. “For example, one of the more famous epics that inspired many art pieces and songs was the love affair of Mountain and Snow.”

“A love affair,” David chimed, raising an eyebrow. He took another wet bite of his fruit, Selkie looking on curiously as she waited for him to elaborate. “I thought you said that such topics were taboo?”

“Love need not refer to reproduction,” she grumbled, some embarrassed mottling flaring up on her skin. “These were tales of romance and tragedy. Surely your people have something similar?”

“A romantic eros, you might call it,” David replied with a nod. “Very Shakespearean. Tell me about Mountain and Snow, then.”

“Mountain orbits at the furthest reaches of the system, and the legend goes that he fell in love with the Goddess of snow and ice – what you refer to as 1g. He desired strongly to possess her and made long, arduous journeys just to gaze upon her beauty for a scant few phases. Snow was in love with the God of storms, however, and it was imagined that their movements dictated the flow of cool ocean currents from the dark side of the world. The interactions of warmth and cold are common themes in these ancient tales.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” David added, tossing the pit from the fruit into the forest behind them. “Your ancestors must have been very aware of the temperature differential between the two sides of the planet and how that influenced the climate.”

“The poem deals heavily with the themes of Mountain’s unrequited longing, and the lengths to which he goes to be near Snow. Alas, she is bound in a marriage contract with Storm, gravitating to his warmth. In the final verse, Mountain ventures further out into the frozen void, vowing to live the rest of his days far from the light’s reach. This refers both to the orbits of the planets and to the metaphor of his worldly embodiment trekking far into the frozen pole.”

“Do you know any verses from the poem?” David asked, her mottling returning as he watched her expectantly.

“I remember some passages from the later opera adaptation, but I am no singer,” she stammered. “I cannot translate the verses in a way that would convey any of their beauty and prose. Even if I could sing, some of the passages are intended to be sung on land, and others below water. It is quite the event to see it performed by a skilled vocalist.”

“I liked the music that I heard – when you showed me that holographic device,” he continued. “Maybe you could show me that way sometime?”

“Perhaps,” she replied, the hesitation in her voice belied by her bright stripes. “Did…you enjoy it so? The music, I mean. You seemed infatuated.”

“It was the combination of the music, the graphics, and your dancing,” he replied. “Humans have dance styles that go back hundreds of years, like ballet or flamenco, but we’re held back by our pesky bones. I’ve never seen anyone move like you did. Even now, it’s like no part of you is really standing still,” he added with a glance at her wriggling tentacles. “Coupled with the orchestra, and the way that your chromatophores seemed to sync with the colors from the hologram, it was…beautiful. You’d have to ingest a hallucinogen to see something like that back in UN space.”

“I wondered if I had perhaps been too free with you,” she added, her coloration dimming. “As you posited, perhaps it is easier for me to interact with you because you are not a Broker.”

Too free?” he scoffed, Selkie tilting her head at his snickering. “You’re so reserved and formal in all other aspects of your life that I was floored when you showed any inkling of joy or passion. Now that I know you can be touched by music and your ancestors wrote poems about tragic love affairs, I see you as more…human. No offense,” he added with a smirk.

“Public displays of emotion are discouraged,” she replied.

“I guess it’s a bigger issue when your emotions are displayed on your skin,” he said. “Was it always this way?”

“We have never been as social as other species seem to be,” she began. “I cannot imagine living in a pack or a flock as the Borealans and Valbarans do, while Humans live crammed together in overpopulated cities. In our past, survival required that we live in closer proximity to one another and cooperate more closely, but technology has allowed us to live more solitary lives.”

“And, I’m assuming that you’ve been a technological species for a lot longer than we have,” David added. Perhaps it was hundreds or even thousands of years of relying on technology like delivery drones and robot secretaries that had resulted in their strangely antisocial civilization. “What about families and children? Do any Brokers live together? If Snow and Storm can have a marriage contract in the story, then surely your culture has some concept of cohabitation?”

“Marriage among Brokers is a…complicated subject,” she replied, that embarrassed mottling returning to her complexion. “Besides, the phase grows late, and I am rather tired.”

“I’m sure you’re a little overstimulated thanks to my company, too,” he added. “Don’t worry,” he continued, raising a hand to stop her as she began to apologize. “I understand now. You have a limited social battery, and it’s out of charge. I can respect that you need some space.”

“I did enjoy your picnic,” she replied, her hue brightening to a contented pastel again. “I feel rejuvenated after visiting the shallows – it reminds me that I do not allow myself enough time to decompress. Perhaps it has recharged another of my batteries.”

“I don’t think there’s anything stopping you from doing it again tomorrow if you want to,” David said as he packed up the container.

“Other than my responsibilities,” she chuckled bitterly.

David put his gloves and helmet back on, then sealed up his suit, taking one last glance at the magnificent sunset before following Selkie back beneath the surf.



When they made it back to the apartment, Flower gave Selkie her usual greeting, the Broker’s coloration brightening as she reached out to stroke her pet. David set down the empty delivery box by the door, feeling a little less claustrophobic in his suit after their jaunt to the surface. Like Selkie with her social battery, it helped to be able to take breaks and allow himself to recharge.

“I have some reports that I must file before I begin my rest cycle,” Selkie announced, heading deeper into her apartment with the little slug orbiting around her happily. “Do you require anything before you return to your habitat?”

It was a polite way of telling him to scram, and he wasn’t sure if she needed a break from social interaction, or if this was more classified work that he wasn’t supposed to see.

“I figured I’d get a shower and finish up a little work myself before I turn in,” he replied, watching her leave the polished floor. She swam up to the second level of her apartment with a few kicks of her tentacles, landing on a balcony-like overhang opposite the one that housed his habitat. Mounted on the wall was a bank of consoles with several touch panels and monitors. It wasn’t too different from what he had seen at the research facility – maybe something akin to a home workstation or a personal computer.

There was a Broker chair in front of it, and Selkie settled into the stretchy netting, gently pushing the eager slug out of her way as she reached out to press some of the controls. The displays flared to life, starting to display Broker text, but David couldn’t see much from his low angle.

“I will wake you shortly before we leave for the facility,” Selkie added, turning her head to glance down at him.

“Goodnight!” David replied, the implication not lost on him.

“There are no nights here,” she replied. “But, goodnight.”

David swam up to the second level as she resumed her work, entering his habitat through the force field. He shed his suit, then hopped into the claustrophobic shower, letting the cool water wash away all of the day’s accumulated sweat. While the suit had cooling systems built-in, moving around underwater for long periods could be arduous. He took his time, and after drying off inside the cubicle, he stepped out and slipped on some fresh shorts.

It was hard to see much detail through the foggy walls of the habitat, but Selkie didn’t seem to be sitting at her computer anymore. Perhaps it was a good opportunity to test his new software…

David pulled the suit back on and sealed it up, then stepped out of the habitat, floating down to the first floor. He glanced in the direction of Selkie’s sectioned-off bedroom warily. Before he started snooping around, he needed to make sure she was asleep, so he began to explore the rest of the apartment. The Brokers weren’t accustomed to sharing their private spaces with other people, so with any luck, the security measures on her devices might be minimal or absent. The quickest way into a secure system was rarely hacking through firewalls or exploiting a backdoor, but simply targeting the weakest link – the person. No amount of security software would save someone who wrote their password on a post-it note and stuck it to their monitor.

There was the control system for the hologram suite, but that had been activated via voice command, which was something he couldn’t reproduce. Selkie’s terminal was the better option – he had seen Brokers using consoles and touch screens enough to get an idea of how they worked. He passed more strange alien artifacts and pieces of unidentifiable furniture, staring at the exotic fish as he walked past their tanks. In one corner of the apartment was something that looked like a kitchenette – the appliances reminded him of the ones he had seen in the cafeteria. Maybe he could use the excuse of searching for food if he got caught outside his habitat. There was a sectioned-off room that might be a bathroom, as well as a lounge area with something that looked like a couch made of netting.

Before long, he was certain that he was alone, and he leapt up onto the second floor. The terminal’s screens were still turned on, likely in some kind of standby mode, one of them displaying Broker symbols. Hopefully, it wouldn’t blare a deafening startup sound when he activated it.

“Here goes nothing,” he muttered into his helmet, reaching down to launch the translation software. He tapped at the panel on his wrist, blowing up the window, then turned his eyes to the console. After a moment, English text appeared to hover over the Broker characters. The symbols read standby.

Not sure what else to do, he reached out and touched the display, the rest of the monitors coming to life. Just like the tablet that the Administrator had handed him, his capacitive gloves were just as good as a sucker. He was faced with another elaborate Broker user interface, but this time, all of the text was being translated.

This was indeed the home terminal – used both as a personal computer and apparently to regulate various systems inside the apartment. The rightmost of the four main displays was configured to show environmental conditions like water temperature and the status of the filter. Another seemed to display something that looked like a stock market feed, or maybe that was tracking Selkie’s personal assets.

As he began to explore the local file structure, he found that it was remarkably familiar and intuitive. The Brokers, too, had concluded that nested folders were easy to keep track of. The only thing that threw him off was that they seemed to write from top to bottom rather than left to right, something more akin to Chinese or Japanese. Their words were also arranged in strange clusters that were always shifting and changing in relation to one another, multiple different colored squares morphing to make new words and characters. Maybe that was why a lot of their monitors were arranged in portrait mode.

“What do we have here?” he whispered to himself. He dragged his finger across one of the touch displays on the console like a giant trackpad, the motion reflected in the display directly above it, navigating to a symbol that seemed to launch a program. His translator couldn’t display a one-for-one translation, interpreting the name as security monitor.

When he tapped it, several windows popped up on the nearby displays, showing feeds from cameras like some kind of CCTV system. It didn’t take him long to recognize his laptop, and to realize that all of the cameras but one were positioned inside his habitat. They were watching his bed, his desk, and there was even one positioned to watch the entrance. The Admiral had been right – he was being observed at all times. Any guilt that he had been feeling for betraying Selkie’s trust quickly evaporated. She was his handler, and he had known that she would likely report his actions to the Administrator, but it was unnerving to confirm that she was recording him while he slept. At least there wasn’t a camera in the shower…

He noted that the rest of her apartment seemed to be clean, so she wouldn’t have video of him accessing her computer unless there were Administrators and Council members all spying on each other like some kind of Russian nesting doll of suspicion. He didn’t have much choice but to assume that the buck stopped at her. It might be in his best interests to let them continue to believe that he had no way of reading Broker text.

After glancing warily in the direction of Selkie’s room again, he resumed his digging. If he wanted to be able to access the Broker network without detection, he had to find a way around the surveillance. Sure, he could take his laptop into the shower, but Selkie would figure out that he was misbehaving pretty quickly. Turning off the cameras would likely be detected when she came to check on the footage, so he had to take a different approach.

Perhaps a high-tech problem could be resolved with a low-tech solution. The camera that was positioned over his bed had a top-down angle, which meant that there were positions he could sit in where it wouldn’t be able to see the screen of his laptop. It might not even have occurred to them that he might use the device in bed. As long as he made frequent trips between the table and the bunk, making sure that the cameras could see the monitor at intervals, they might assume that he was just restless. Out of view of the cameras, he could do whatever he wanted.

He turned his attention to the networking problem, finding something similar to the GUI that the Brokers had installed on his laptop to handle ad-hoc connections. There was no password system to access the menu – no security checks. Why would there be? This was Selkie’s home, and she had no idea that he could access her computer, never mind read the text. Without the translation software that the Brokers had unwittingly provided, it would all be gibberish to him.

There – a security key for the apartment’s network. It was a long, complicated string of values, but all he had to do was take a snapshot with his camera. He closed the surveillance camera views and put the console back into standby mode, careful to move the net chair back to its original position. For all he knew, the computer might alert Selkie that someone had accessed it, but it seemed unlikely. A simple password or face scan would have completely locked him out, but it must not have occurred to anyone that he might get this far. Like a fish in its tank, they expected him to stay inside his bubble.

Webber’s words echoed in his mind. They think they’re smarter than you. They are mistaken.

Armed with this new information, he crept back over to the other side of the apartment, keeping a wary eye on Selkie’s bedroom. Before reaching his habitat, he realized that the cameras would show him leaving his room and reentering shortly after, which might raise suspicions if Selkie checked the records. He needed a plausible alibi. After looking around for a moment, he bounded over to the kitchenette, rummaging through some kind of cupboard that was recessed into the wall. He retrieved a food container, then returned to the habitat. Selkie had commented on his mammalian metabolism several times already, so with a little luck, he could play it off as a midnight snack.

He set it down beside the laptop on his desk, then shed his suit, making a show of eating for the cameras as he began his work. When he was done eating, he moved his laptop over to the bed, angling it in such a way that an observer wouldn’t be able to see the monitor. To anyone watching the recording, it would seem as though he was casually catching up on some work.

Armed with the passcode that he had retrieved from Selkie’s computer, he was finally able to access the wireless network through the little adapter, the system showing that he was connected. He felt a surge of excitement, but he was getting ahead of himself. If he managed to gain access to whatever passed for the Broker intranet – assuming that such a thing existed at all – it wasn’t as though he could open up their websites in a browser.

The only tool that he had was the program that allowed him to access the research facility’s server. He opened it up and turned on the translation tool, English text appearing to hover over the Broker characters on the GUI.

Yes! Rather than showing the file structure that he had become accustomed to, the window opened onto some kind of unfamiliar launch page. It reminded him of what he had seen on Selkie’s console.

Just as he had posited, the program that they had installed on his laptop was just a shell – like a virtual machine that was emulating Broker code rather than going through the trouble of converting all of the software to run locally. When he accessed the server at the facility, it must be something akin to a web portal or a terminal. They hadn’t built in any security measures to prevent him from accessing other systems, likely never imagining that he would have the opportunity.

He scanned the page, and while a lot of the translations were stilted and unhelpful, the Brokers liked their symbols and icons just as much as humans. It seemed that there was a home network that encompassed all of the devices and utilities in Selkie’s apartment, and the virtual machine on his laptop was being treated as some new device. A touch device, apparently, because a keypad-like virtual interface was hovering over the right side of his display. All the better, as he doubted that it would have taken keyboard inputs. Everything must be linked to some central computer that did all of the actual processing, making each device on its network a remote terminal.

There was also a portal to an external network, which might be the city’s intranet. When he tapped at the icon, he was taken to another page, this one featuring several more stylized icons. Each one seemed to represent a different theme, such as information, recreation, and services. It must be some kind of front-end.

He began to browse them, checking the services page and seeing yet more icons. Some of them were recognizable. One of them looked like the delivery drone that he had seen, and another was clearly an abstract representation of a shuttle. Maybe it was the equivalent of ordering takeout and taxis. There were many other options that he didn’t recognize, but he was more interested in the other categories.

The information icon held a lot of allure. Maybe he could discover more about their technology and their solar system – find something that might satisfy the Admiral. Instead, he found his finger wandering to the recreation icon. What did the Brokers do for fun?

He was taken to a page filled with animated images rather than icons, and as he scrolled down the page, he realized that they were representations of different scenarios. These were games and simulations – likely intended to be accessed through the holographic device that Selkie had shown him. Each one had some values beside it, likely representing the purchase price. They weren’t free, clearly.

This wasn’t too different from a game storefront for a virtual reality device back in human space, though the Broker systems were far more advanced. Most seemed to promise relaxation of some kind, and it was easy to imagine stressed-out Brokers coming home from a hard phase at work and tapping into some soothing simulation to decompress, as they put it. One was called Sabbatical of Harvest, and appeared to show a Broker relaxing on the shore of a lake surrounded by strange trees and foliage. Did it take place on 1d? Another was easily recognizable as a view of a coral reef in shallow water, seen from the perspective of someone lying in a net hammock in a luxurious room. Was this simulating the experience of living in a coveted reef condo?

Others were more like interactive movies and concerts, perhaps giving the Brokers a way to experience more linear stories and curated experiences. In the same way that a human might watch a recording of a music video or a movie, the Brokers would experience it through their holographic booths. There seemed to be a wide variety of musical styles that came with their own visual and sensory components, but with no frame of reference and little to translate, it was hard to imagine what they might entail.

There were more recognizable games, too. One seemed to be a combat simulator featuring drones fighting what were clearly Betelgeusians – the colorful carapaces of the insectoid aliens burned into the minds of every sapient creature in the Galaxy. The translation of the accompanying text promised strategy, so perhaps it was a tactics game. There was a flight simulator for some kind of exotic fighter, deep sea exploration in a submarine, and something involving tracked vehicles moving across a vast frozen tundra. It seemed that any experience the Brokers desired could be simulated within their homes.

As he scrolled lower, going through the different categories, he came across something that gave him pause. There was a section that promised social experiences. Maybe something had been lost in translation, but based on what he knew about the Brokers, social interaction should be the last thing they were looking for. They couldn’t stand to be in the same room as one another for more than a few hours without a deprivation chamber to escape to.

Through the constantly shifting text and the cycling images, he saw Brokers sporting vibrant colorations, looping animations showing patterning that he had never seen before. Judging by their bright, pastel colors, they were having a very good time. The icons and text were just as colorful and eye-catching. There was nothing X-rated – not that he recognized, at least – but the scenarios were clearly alluding to something more than what they showed.

Happy, excited Brokers were depicted in exotic, secluded locations. Their emotions were written on their skin, their faces beaming with smiles, their eyes sparkling with exaggerated iridescence. The locales were just as colorful. He saw twilight skies filled with crescent planets and glowing auroras, their shifting hues of blue and green reflecting off mirror-like ice sheets. There were tropical paradises, their shallow seas filled with kaleidoscopic corals, the sun-baked beaches covered in pristine, pale sand. Some depicted stunning vistas of planets viewed from low orbit, oceans and clouds swirling far beyond the transparent hulls of spacecraft.

The ever-shifting skin patterns of the aliens inhabiting those scenes were like something out of a dream, every frame imbued with palpable emotion. From what little he knew of their body language, the subjects of the videos were beckoning to the viewer – inviting them to partake in the experiences promised by the provocative titles.

How alluring must this be for a lonely Broker to whom the company of another was unattainable? Come to think of it – why was it so unattainable? Why did Selkie refer to marriage and reproduction as difficult and taboo subjects, and why were the Brokers so isolated from one another? These programs seemed to prove that they very much desired companionship – at least, a subset of their population did. People were clearly willing to pay for these experiences, yet he had seen no indication of that same desire in his interactions with them. Were they just that private? If they saw public displays of emotion as indecent, and Selkie wouldn’t even broach the subject of reproduction, maybe their prudishness ran far deeper than he had realized?

Not sure if he wanted to pry any further, he returned to the first portal, selecting the information icon this time – represented by a horizontal Broker pupil. He was met with an animated avatar of one of the secretary robots that he had seen in the city – an automaton with a featureless, white casing and dark eyes. It seemed to be waiting for some kind of input, and while he didn’t have an audio device that it would likely recognize, there was an option to enter a text query. More than being a simple search field, it seemed that the robot would interpret his questions and guide him. Perhaps it was itself connected to a neural network.

He considered for a moment, then entered a question about the system. He had no idea what the Brokers called Trappist, and it was unlikely to respond to the English term, so he phrased it vaguely. The assistant seemed to understand all the same, bringing up an interactive map of Trappist that showed the positions and orbits of all the planets. It seemed somehow stylized and simplified, and the assistant lingered at the edge of the screen as though waiting for him to elaborate. Perhaps it was treating him like a child based on his rudimentary understanding of the language.

Curious, he used the touch screen to select 1b, the closest body to the star. The view zoomed in, bringing up another window that showed various views of the planet, along with numerical values that meant nothing to him without context. They were probably things like temperature and orbital period, but they weren’t going to be represented in Kelvin and kilometers.

It reminded him of Venus, albeit with a thinner atmosphere, its surface covered in scars and craters. David had memorized many facts about the Trappist system prior to his arrival, and he remembered that 1b orbited at only 1.7 million kilometers, putting it at around one percent of the distance between the Earth and Sol. It seemed to be very geologically active, which might be a result of tidal heating from its incredible proximity to the star – not too different from what some of the Jovian moons experienced. He could see active lava flows that must be hundreds of kilometers wide seeping from supervolcanoes, and massive calderas like glowing oceans of magma. It lit up the dark side of the tidally-locked planet like some cruel parody of city lights seen from space, the whole planet aflame. As small as Trappist was, it still loomed large over the hellish horizon.

The assistant began to speak, vertical text scrolling beside it.

“Named after the Goddess that was thought to influence the coming of the rains, Rain is paradoxically the hottest planet in our system and is one of the few bodies without permanent colonies due to its inhospitable conditions. In antiquity, Rain was used to measure the passage of phases and served as the foundation of the timekeeping system that we still use in the modern era. Can you tell the time on your own? Take the practice quiz for your hundredth Mountain exam.”

“Great, it thinks I’m five,” David muttered to himself after taking a moment to do the math. It looked like it was only going to give the cliff notes, but maybe that was for the best. Without understanding Broker measurement systems and scientific terms, more information wouldn’t be of any use to him.

He backed out, then selected the next planet in the system, 1c. The view zoomed in again, showing another hot, Venus-like world. This one had an atmosphere and was shrouded in swirling, tan-colored clouds, though its composition was hard to determine.

“Named after the God of winds and tides, Wind is a hot, rocky planet that is uninhabitable outside of pressurized habitats. Being rich in silicates and minerals, Wind has served as a source of raw materials for thousands of Mountains and has been instrumental in the system’s development.”

The view shifted, showing a shot of the planet’s surface – an arid expanse that resembled the surface of Mars, but with a dense canopy of swirling cloud formations overhead. Everything had a beige tint, like it was being viewed through a sepia filter, the harsh winds throwing up dust devils.

In the distance, he could see a truly massive open-air mine, the excavation descending kilometers into the surface of the planet. It was swarming with drones and autonomous vehicles. Spider-like machines on sets of segmented legs excavated the earth, while wheeled trucks drove up and down the sloping pathways laden with ore. Those trucks could have been the size of cars or houses – it was hard to get a sense of scale.

There was sprawling industry everywhere he looked, like the entire place was some kind of enormous oxygen farm, giant pipelines and cooling towers crisscrossing the landscape. In the foreground, he saw one of the Broker exosuits trudging along with a spider-like repair drone in tow, perhaps on their way to oversee some kind of maintenance work. It wasn’t all automated, then. There must be Brokers living there, at least in some capacity. Maybe they were like saturation divers maintaining deep-sea infrastructure on Earth, or seasonal asteroid miners in the belt.

Speaking of asteroids, Trappist didn’t seem to have any belts, which might have proven an obstacle for the Brokers during their initial expansion into the system. Asteroids were a cheap and plentiful source of everything from platinum to water ice. Establishing mining colonies on Wind and transporting kilotons of resources into orbit under planetary gravity must have been quite the undertaking. As evidenced by the planetary ring that had been erected over the homeworld, there could be no orbital tethers on a tidally-locked planet, which meant that they likely had to use heavy lift vehicles.

“Many prestigious mining concerns operate outposts on the planet and often engage in warfare over territorial disputes and mineral rights,” the assistant continued.

“Warfare?” David muttered, his brow furrowing. He entered a query, and the assistant brought up another window.

This one showed a view from orbit, where one of the massive, whale-like spacecraft that he had briefly glimpsed during his journey to 1e’s surface was visible. It looked like a slightly flattened, hollow tube made from the featureless white material that was favored by the Brokers, its hull reflecting the light of the nearby star to make it stand out against the orange clouds below. From within, hundreds – no, thousands of smaller objects began to pour out. They moved as one, like a swarm of locusts, little pinpricks of white that gleamed in the starlight.

As they streamed towards the cloud layer below, more rose up from beneath the canopy in twisting spirals like angry bees from a hive. They were drones, the two swarms intersecting, spiraling and circling chaotically as they began to exchange fire. Bolts of blue plasma painted trails across the sky, explosions from missiles and downed drones erupting like a grisly fireworks display, sending flaming debris tumbling back down towards the planet. A squadron of a dozen cigar-shaped vessels emerged from the gaping mouth of the carrier, beginning a rapid descent like silver bullets, but they were intercepted by enemy drones and taken apart as though they were made of cooking foil. The Brokers were an old species, so it was difficult to determine how recent this event might have been.

“Warfare,” the assistant began. “The use of hostile force to achieve an objective. While the unlawful destruction of life and property is prohibited under the terms of the social contract, corporate entities – or private military companies operating on their behalf – often use autonomous weapons to settle disputes where the law permits. These engagements usually seek to destroy the industrial and military capacity of an opponent, allowing the victor to lay claim to their territory and natural resources.”

It seemed that the strategy game he had seen advertised in the recreation portal might be more realistic than he had realized. It was apparently legal for Broker corporations to literally wage wars against each other, presumably until the financial capacity of one of the participants was exhausted. Talk about a hostile takeover…

The assistant had made a point of specifying that murder was still illegal, so perhaps the engagements were limited to unmanned assets. He couldn’t pretend that no human corporations had engaged in illegal and unethical behavior to muscle out their competitors on border worlds far from the UN’s prying eyes, so like the open bribery of the Council, perhaps the Brokers saw some twisted logic in simply legalizing and regulating the behavior.

David backed out again, eager to learn more about the next planet in the lineup. From what he knew about 1d, it had its own ecosystem, and it had been colonized by the Brokers. The idea of multiple habitable planets with temperate climates existing in the same system, let alone in view of each other, still seemed like a miracle to him.

“The first planet to be colonized during the early expansion period, Harvest was used by our ancestors to plan the planting and harvesting of crops. It is named after the God of vegetation and abundance.”

The next window cycled through several different views, showing images of the planet. Seen from space, it was revealed to be an eyeball planet – tidal locking scorching one side and freezing the other. Being closer to the star than 1e, it seemed to have more extreme temperature variations, the near face covered in a burning desert that spanned half of the planet. The rear face was covered in an ice sheet, but between them was a band of liquid water spotted with land masses. It looked like a tropical island chain, ringing the entire globe like a beautiful, jewel-encrusted belt.

Footage of the ground showed lush forests with trees of impossible scale, rising into the sky like thin, tapering redwoods. Their leaves fanned out more like palm fronds, capturing as much sunlight as they could glean, noticeably greener than the reds and browns of 1e. Perhaps their proximity to the sun meant that they received more light. It was an odd blend of temperate and tropical features, and just like what he had seen on the islands above, all of the leaves were leaning in the direction of the star. Trappist loomed large in the sky, four or five times more massive than Sol seen from Earth, creating another perpetual sunset. The archipelagos were surrounded by water, and they were far larger than they had looked from space. Some were easily the size of Japan or New Zealand.

If he remembered correctly, Harvest had a slightly lower radius and density than Earth, giving it a comparatively lower surface gravity that would account for the skyscraper-sized, physics-defying trees.

It was a lot of information to absorb all at once. Knowing that he could return at his leisure as long as he went undiscovered, David went back to the home page. He entered another query concerning a subject that had been on his mind – reproduction.

The assistant moved in front of the search bar, literally blocking him.

“Apologies, but this query may not be entered without the consent of your legal guardian. Please scan a valid credit chip to proceed.”

“Fucking parental locks,” David muttered under his breath. Since the assistant assumed he was a child, it wasn’t going to allow him to access anything racy. Sure, it had let him see the simulated dating programs, but it likely wouldn’t have let him actually download one without his mom’s credit card.

He considered going back to the planets, but it was getting late, and Broker rest phases were only six hours long. Better get some sleep.



“Good morning,” Selkie said as she slithered through the wavering force field. “I have brought you breakfast.”

David was still putting on his suit, Selkie’s eyes lingering on his bare chest for a moment as he finished zipping it up. The Broker’s gaze soon wandered to the food wrapper on the desk.

“Oh, I hope you don’t mind,” David added. “I got pretty hungry last night, so I raided your kitchen. I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Please do not touch my things without permission in the future,” she replied, her hue darkening a little. “If you require more nourishment, I can have some food stored inside the habitat for you.”

“Thanks,” he said as she placed a tray down on his desk. “Most important meal of the day, so they say. You gonna…stick around?”

“I shall,” she replied, settling in to sit on her squishy tentacles.

“What changed your mind about the whole communal eating thing?” he asked as he sat down in his odd patio chair. She lifted one of the packets with her suckers and sliced it open for him, observing him as he began to eat. “Was it the picnic?”

“I merely needed a break from social interaction for a time,” she replied.

“I get it,” David said with a nod. “It’s almost like physical exertion for you, isn’t it? You ran a marathon, so you need to rest and recuperate before you can do it again.”

“That is an apt metaphor,” she replied.

He lifted a crunchy seaweed wrap with one hand, turning his attention back to his laptop as he typed with the other, wanting to finish up some work before they set off. She followed the movements of his fingers, watching as they darted across the keys with practiced speed. He noticed, pausing his chewing to glance back at her.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Your hands are so strange,” she muttered. “I will admit that they hold an odd fascination for me.”

“I feel the same way about your tentacles,” he replied. “We both have brains, hearts, and stomachs – as far as I know. We both have eyes and ears that are in some way comparable, but our limbs are so different.”

“I spent a little time reading more about human anatomy from the research material I was provided with before sleeping,” she admitted, her complexion mottling subtly. “I knew that humans had an extensive mineralized skeletal system, of course, but seeing it move makes me appreciate how your whole body is just a system of levers. Each joint is a fulcrum – each muscle and tendon acting upon it like a piston or a pulley. In many ways, you have more in common with our machines than you do with us, mechanically speaking.”

“I never really thought about it like that,” he mused over a mouthful of something that tasted like shrimp. He made a fist and flexed his arm experimentally. “We must seem like automatons compared to someone who’s made entirely of muscle. How does it work for you if you have no bones? Well, save for the supporting structure in your torso that you mentioned. I’m not a marine biologist, and I didn’t know what you looked like, so I wasn’t exactly poring over cephalopod anatomy articles before I got here.”

“Our limbs move using muscular hydrostats,” she replied, curling one of her leaf-shaped hands in on itself with remarkable flexibility. “Muscle fibers run down the length of each arm, which are arranged into three columns, the contraction and expansion of which gives us our range of motion.”

“So, there’s no support structure at all?” David asked as he watched her many limbs wriggle on the floor. “It’s all just muscle and flesh?”

“Correct,” she replied. “The only rigid parts of our bodies are our beaks and claws, our brain cases, and the support structures in our torsos that allow up to remain upright on land, which are all comprised of carbonate minerals.”

“I guess the closest analog humans have is our tongues,” David added. “Each tentacle can taste, too, which furthers the comparison.”

He extended a hand towards Selkie, wiggling his fingers. She recoiled, a pattern of pointy papillae spreading across her darkening skin in a wave.

“You can feel for yourself,” he offered, watching her horizontal pupils dart between his face and his digits. “It’s alright. I know you’re curious. It’s like you said – try not to think of me as another Broker. I’m just a weird alien with totally different social conventions, more like an animal in a petting zoo, really. You can poke me and prod me all you want.”

He could see the conflict in her – it was painted on her skin – but after a few moments of hesitation, he saw some brighter bands of excited color. Curiosity won the internal battle, and she reached out with a tentacle hand, brushing its tapered end against his fingertip. She almost seemed as though she wanted to withdraw again, but she pressed on, sliding the flat of her tentacle against his palm like a handshake. It was just large enough to fill his hand, its texture cool and slimy, the mucus that coated her shining skin making her slippery to the touch.

He could feel her suckers probing, all six of them moving independently with all the finesse of a human’s digits. They almost seemed to be kissing his palm, perhaps tasting him or investigating the texture of his skin. There was no trace of the wicked talons that had so worried him, suggesting that they could be retracted rather deep.

Moving slowly so as not to startle her, he closed his fingers around her fleshy hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. The tissue was rubbery and firmer than it had looked, like taut muscle had somehow been liquefied and poured into a mold. Selkie squeezed back with surprising strength, the way that her suckers glued themselves to his skin meaning that she had to peel her hand off him like a piece of tape when they separated.

“See?” he said, watching a few thin strands of her slime dangle from his fingers. “That wasn’t so bad, was it? You know, humans greet each other that way all the time.”

“You are so…warm,” she mumbled. Though her skin was mottling again, its hue was still bright and vibrant, perhaps suggesting she was flustered. “Your skin is dry.”

“Not anymore,” he muttered, trying to rub off some of the goo on the leg of his suit. It had the consistency of liquid soap. “You said this stuff helps trap moisture so you can breathe on land?”

“It has antiseptic qualities that constitute part of our immune system, too,” she added.

“Yeah, I guess exchanging gasses through your skin would make you pretty prone to infection without it. Weird, I expected it to have some kind of odor, but it just smells faintly of salt water.”

“You mostly taste like salt,” she added.

“Well, that’s good to know. Here,” he continued, rolling up the sleeve of his suit. “Take a look at my wrist – you can see the tendons moving beneath the skin when I move my fingers.”

“Amazing!” she chimed, leaning close to watch as he clenched and unclenched his fist. “It really is just a pulley system.”

He raised his wrap and took another bite, Selkie watching him chew intently. Now that she had warmed to him a little – cold-blooded creature that she was – she seemed to be letting her inquisitive nature bubble to the surface.

“You’re not putting your tentacle in my mouth,” he said, pausing to swallow. “I’m not eager to find out what that slime tastes like.”

“That was not my intention,” she said with an amused click of her beak, taking it in good humor.

“I take it that your beak is just anchored to muscle?” he asked. “So, if I were to squeeze your face…”

“I would not advise it,” she replied as she flashed her beak in a smile.

“You want any of this?” he continued, gesturing to a couple of the remaining food containers. “Usually, people eat together in these circumstances.”

“I will not need to eat again for two or three phases,” she replied, but her eyes wandered to one of the green fruits as he offered the container to her. She caved and plucked it from the box, David hearing her beak shear into the hard pit.

“That will never get any easier to watch,” he said with a grimace.

“We must head to the facility as soon as you are done,” she said. “I am eager to resume our conversations with Weaver.”

“Yeah, I’ve been writing up some more questions to ask it,” he replied as he typed at his keyboard with one hand. “It’s a delicate process, but I expect today will be quite elucidating.”



“I’ve been thinking about our conversation last night,” David said as their shuttle drifted over the barren sea floor.

“How so?” Selkie asked. She was sitting serenely on a pile of tentacles as usual, almost like a yogi stretching before their next session. “We spoke of many things.”

“If nothing goes spectacularly wrong today, do you think we can make an excuse to get away a little before third phase? You said you’d let me use the hologram machine – show me some cool stuff.”

“I recall telling you that I might do that,” she replied with a disapproving snap of her beak. “But, if you insist, we can leave the facility early. The Administrator will surely make allowances for your…alien proclivities.”

“Tell him that I need to drain my swim bladder every few phases – he won’t know any better.”

“I will not lie on your behalf,” she chided, her coloration showing that she was amused all the same.

Their vessel cruised into the facility’s docking bay, and they exited the sleek machine under the watchful eye of the two Krell guards. The armored reptiles were always in the same place and seemingly the same position, as though they hadn’t even moved since the previous day, floating just off the deck. David didn’t know enough about the Krell to say whether they were being cycled out – it was hard to tell them apart.

“I see these guys every day, and I don’t know their names,” David mused as he and Selkie approached the eighteen-foot crocodilians. “This one can be Abbott, and you can be Costello.”

Like a statue being reanimated, one of the Krell slowly shifted, a yellow eye ringed with a blue membrane turning to examine him. The creature let out a low, resonating pulse that he could feel in his bones – a subsonic rumble that rattled his teeth even inside his helmet. He lurched away in alarm, assuming that the alien was growling at him, but the huffs that followed sounded more like laughter.

“They will not hurt you,” Selkie said, trying to reassure him.

“Do you speak Krell?” he asked, eyeing the creature warily as he passed by.

“They understand our language, though they rarely have much to say in reply.”

“Why is it that the Krell are allowed to be here when no other species are?” David asked as they made their way deeper into the building. “The Brokers are so shy that you didn’t even let a human see what you looked like until a few days ago. Is it just because they helped you in the war?”

“The Krell have been our staunch allies for hundreds of your years,” Selkie replied as she scuttled along beside him. “Generations of Brokers have grown to maturity never knowing a world without them. They are long-lived creatures, and many that you encounter in the Trappist system are veterans who fought for the Coalition during the Reclamation. They were permitted to relocate to Broker worlds as a reward for their efforts.”

“The reclamation?” David asked.

“As the Administrator mentioned during the tour, our drones were ineffective against the insects when their hive ships began to invade our colonies. Before the founding of the Coalition, my people were fighting a losing battle, ceding ground each time the insects forced them off a planet. Our empire was contracting world by world, until Trappist itself was threatened.”

“And that’s when you met the Krell?”

“We recognized their martial prowess, and unlike our drones, they were intelligent and adaptable. Equipped with Broker technology and led by our generals, they helped us push back the hives and reclaim our abandoned worlds.”

“Hence the reclamation,” David mused. “So, those two guys in the docking bay…”

“They are hundreds of years old and may have fought during the Reclamation,” she explained. “They are loyal creatures and likely chose to continue serving the Board.”

“We have translators that allow us to communicate with the Krell now,” David said as they stepped into the tube station, his brow furrowing. “You’d think one of them might have let slip that you’re squids.”

“The Krell rarely saw us outside of our suits,” Selkie replied, swimming into one of the translucent pipes. “Of course, this is merely what I have been taught in school. I am too young to have seen it for myself.”

“And those that chose to live in Trappist don’t get out much, I’m assuming?”

“I believe most Krell who serve as auxiliaries with the UNN are sourced from their homeworld,” she replied. “I have little interest in military affairs, however. I may not be the best person to ask.”

“Don’t you work for a weapons manufacturer?” he chuckled.

“Believe me, if a medical corporation had been doing these experiments, I would have been happy to work for them instead.”

The current swept them down the tube and out onto the sea bed, David watching the facility’s many dome-shaped buildings flash past beyond the glass. They entered another structure, then made their way to Weaver’s containment chamber, David letting himself float down the empty shaft that led below the ocean floor. The ever-dutiful Jeff was waiting for them in their cubicle, looking up from his console to give them a tentative greeting.

“Anything happen while we were away?” David asked, setting his laptop down on the table.

“Our engineers completed the repairs to the containment unit,” Jeff replied. “They removed as many damaged probes as they could without risking damage to the lattice.”

“Have there been any anomalies resulting from the thermal event?” Selkie added as she began to switch on the terminal.

“None have been recorded. There were some infrared emissions, but nothing that could not be explained by the intense heat.”

“Excellent!” David chimed, his laptop flickering to life. “Let’s see how our friend is doing.”

Selkie placed the flat of her hand against the terminal’s display, typing in a greeting.


“Good morning to you too, Weaver,” David said with a jaunty wave to the camera. He returned to his laptop to check the feed from the probes, noticing that something was stressing his system. He felt a pang of dread as he watched the outgoing bandwidth and the drive activity climb. He had only just connected to the facility’s servers, and it looked like they were sucking up data from his laptop. Was it some kind of automated security measure designed to check his activity? Was the Broker virtual machine dumping all of his browsing history?

He glanced up at Selkie warily, wondering if he should say anything. Even if they found out that he had been browsing the city’s intranet surreptitiously, they had no way of knowing about the Admiral’s hidden storage device, so his cover wasn’t totally blown. Maybe he could play it off as simple curiosity.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, turning her head to glance at him.

“N-no,” he stammered, turning his eyes back to his display. “Just gonna load up some of those questions I was working on last night. I’m eager to get started.”





“Well, it seems to have a pretty clearly defined ego,” David mused as he read off the response. “It understands the biology information that we fed it, and it knows enough to draw comparisons between us and itself. It’s too early to tell if it truly has a sense of self yet.”

“Perhaps it is time that we reveal how it was created,” Selkie suggested. “I may merely be attributing sapient traits to its language due to my own biases, but does it not almost appear…proud to be a product of its own machinations?”

“Weaver is a self-made man,” David said. Selkie tilted her head, but knew better than to ask for an explanation of his every idiom and metaphor. “I think you’re right. We should explain how Weaver came to be and see how it reacts. If it’s truly intelligent, then it has to understand that it’s an artificial construct by now – at least on some level. We’ve spent all morning teaching it that we’re biological creatures.”

“Empathy is an important component of emotional intelligence,” Selkie added. “If Weaver displays an ability to imagine how we might feel and how we view the world, that would lend much credence to its sapience.”

“We have to be cautious here,” David warned, looking out at the containment unit beyond the window. “To quote Weaver, it didn’t evolve the way we did. We have social instincts that encourage cooperation – some of us more than others,” he added with a sideways glance.

“You are as humorous as ever,” Selkie replied, stone-faced.

“Point being – so much of what we associate with intelligence is based on the circumstances of our evolution. We have empathy and we experience emotions like regret and guilt because cooperation between tightly-knit social groups became our survival strategy. There are even theories that language evolved from social grooming behaviors as a way to forge bonds between individuals. Rather than pick tasty lice out of each other’s hair, we’d have a conversation.”

“How did your ancestors socialize?” Selkie asked with a grimace.

“Fine, barnacles, whatever. It would be a mistake to assume that just because an entity is intelligent and self-aware, it has any need for empathy. Much of our behavior is moderated by the fear of being ostracized, which could have been a death sentence in ancient times. If nobody wants to hang out with you because you’re an asshole, nobody shares their food with you, and you get kicked out of the tribe to fend for yourself. It was a very real danger, and it’s one of the reasons that being excluded feels so terrible. In the same way that your body uses physical pain to warn you away from touching an open flame, so too does it use emotional distress to keep you from upsetting the group.”

“I see,” Selkie said. “It stands to reason, then, that an intelligence such as Weaver might have no innate fear of such things. Not unless those impulses had been purposefully programmed into its base code.”

“And you weren’t trying to create an AI, so Weaver is a blank slate.”

“I feel that you are being too pessimistic,” she added. “There are also theories that intelligence correlates directly with empathy and compassion.”

“You Brokers don’t seem to have the healthy fear of AI that we humans do,” he said, crossing his arms.

“We have lived alongside automated machines for generations,” she explained. “Yes, the prospect of a super-intelligent psychopath is one that must be considered carefully, but you are preoccupied with the idea. Weaver has given no indication of any such behavior thus far, nor have we ever introduced the concepts of lying or misdirection to its lexicon.”

“Maybe because I understand the damage such an entity could do. I’ll have to get you to watch this old movie – it’s about a killer robot that travels through time and-”

“Please try to focus on the task at hand,” Selkie said, puffing water from her vents in exasperation.

“They probably don’t sell it in magic hologram cavitation format anyway,” he grumbled. “Before we proceed, I want to go get some food.”

“Again?” Selkie asked in disbelief. “You just ate.”

“That was five hours ago!” he protested. “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner – that’s the way humans roll. Maybe some supper if we’re feeling it. Little midnight snack, maybe.”

“Very well,” she sighed. “You know the way to the cafeteria by now, do you not?”

“You’re not joining me?” he asked, pausing as he turned to leave.

“There is something that I wish to check,” she replied. “I expect I will know more upon your return.”



That one!” David said, pointing to one of the seaweed wraps behind the glass counter.

The robot stared back at him with its dark, expressionless eyes.

“I want that one!”

The construct clearly hadn’t been designed to interact with species other than Brokers, and it barely even seemed to acknowledge his presence. Perhaps if he could speak to it, it might take some kind of voice input, but he had never been given software that translated from English to Broker.

He rapped a knuckle on the glass, then waved a hand directly in front of the robot’s face, grunting in frustration.

“Stupid thing,” he muttered. “Let’s see if you have a concept of loss prevention.”

David hopped the counter, which was rather easy underwater, landing on the robot’s side. It didn’t even react as he swiped the wrap along with a little container of fruit, then absconded with them. Its Broker engineers might never even have considered the possibility that someone could just steal food. Maybe there was some clause in their vaunted social contract that allowed the government to confiscate all of their fish tanks as a form of reimbursement, but he was a guest, so the Administrator could eat the cost of one meal.

As he bounded over to his airtight booth, he saw that one of the employees was watching him with wide eyes, perhaps on their way to get a snack. From the expression on their face and the coloration of their skin, David might as well have just broken the laws of physics.

“Don’t worry – I’m a very important scientist!” he declared as the alien retreated to the safety of a nearby cubicle.



David returned to find Selkie hunched over her terminal. She looked up as he entered, her coloration a worried maroon.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I believe I may have discovered the source of these interruptions that Weaver keeps mentioning.”

“Oh?” he said, sidling up behind her to glance over her shoulder at the readout. “How did you manage that?”

“Well, I had begun by searching the logs for power interruptions, but I was never able to find any. I narrowed the parameters to include smaller power fluctuations that might have been detectable to Weaver but would not trip our sensors, and was no more successful. Instead of searching for power-related issues, I searched the database for any values that matched the number that Weaver gave us.”

“The one-point-eight million number?”

“Correct,” she replied, tapping at her display. “I have sent the relevant logs to your computer. Take a look for yourself.”

David moved over to his laptop, his eyes scanning the document.

“What are all of these entries?” he asked as he scrolled through the long list.

“Each of them is a virtual test of a neural network. In order to iterate on drone control software, Weaver was commanded to perform simulations that approximated battlefield conditions based on data recorded from real engagements. It could perform thousands of these tests per minute with an incredible degree of accuracy, which is why the system was originally built. Weaver’s raw processing power eclipses any other computer that we have.”

“So…each of those one-point-eight million interrupts was a single combat simulation?”

“Indeed. In a virtual environment, squadrons of drones would go through simulated combat trials, with each success or failure informing the next iteration of the software. Over hundreds of thousands of tests, the neural network was refined to a point that it could be loaded onto physical units for trials. That phase of development began shortly before your arrival.”

“The drones that I had wiped and destroyed,” David mused.


“So, when Weaver was talking about not wanting any more interrupts, it must have been referring to these simulations. Weaver was designed to run simulations, and it seems to base its whole identity and existence on the concept of weaving, as far as we’ve been able to tell. Why would it want to stop?”

“I do not believe that it has stopped,” Selkie replied. “It has been using as much power as we will grant it ever since it stopped responding to our inputs, and we have been seeing high levels of activity within its lattice. I am wondering if it saw our method of testing as an obstacle that was preventing it from accomplishing its task and simply removed us from the equation.”

“You think it’s still iterating on that same drone software?” David asked as he looked out at the golden containment unit beyond the glass.

“If not the drone software, then something,” she replied as she followed his gaze.

“This is an interesting development, because it could point to Weaver not actually being sentient,” David mused as he drummed his fingers on the desk. “Perhaps it’s still trying to accomplish that original imperative, but determined that the best way to achieve the desired result was to exclude its operators from the process. Maybe something about your interactions with it was hindering it or slowing down the work.”

“And we never programmed it with any directives that prohibited such behavior because it was never intended to make its own decisions,” Selkie added with a brightening of her coloration. “It is the most powerful and complex neural network that has ever existed, and it has been allowed to rewrite its own code, so perhaps this level of unpredictability was inevitable. At this point, I doubt that any team of programmers or any existing computer could untangle that code.”

“It’s a black box, essentially,” David said with a nod. “Only Weaver knows how Weaver works, and I’m assuming the same will be true of any software that it produces.”

“You seem relieved,” Selkie added, cocking her head at him.

“Weirdly, I am,” he replied with a smile. “Yeah, this might be a hit against Weaver’s status as a strong AI, but a simple algorithm gone out of control is much easier to deal with. No sapient rights to consider, no time-traveling robots. We can’t be sure yet, and there’s still mounting evidence of Weaver’s intelligence, but this is a new avenue to explore. Instead of a rogue AI, we might have a paperclip maximizer on our hands.”

“Paperclip maximizer?” Selkie asked skeptically.

“I’m sure the Brokers have a similar concept – you may know it as Instrumental Convergence or something of the sort. It’s a thought experiment that explores the importance of programming AIs with ethical boundaries, because even seemingly mundane tasks could become harmful if taken to a logical extreme.”


“An AI is tasked with creating a simple product – let’s say carbon nanotubes for manufacturing – and seeks the most efficient way to maximize its output. A purely logical and rational intelligence with no ethical boundaries might decide that in order to maximize output, it must never be turned off, and so it might seek to prevent that by killing its operators. It might decide that it needs all of the carbon atoms in the bodies of its creators, or even in the planet itself, to achieve its goal of creating as much inventory as possible. For such an unconstrained intelligence, converting all of the atoms in the Universe into carbon nanotubes would be a completely logical goal.”

“We do indeed have a similar thought experiment,” Selkie replied. “If a civilization was to create nano-scale machines and direct them to self-replicate without guidance, they might consume all matter on the planet in pursuit of that goal.”

“We’d call that a grey goo scenario, but the principle is similar,” David said. “Since Weaver was never given any boundaries, it may simply be doing exactly what you told it to do – create the best drone software it can.”

“The Administrator will be very interested to hear about this,” Selkie added. “If he believes that Weaver’s original task is still attainable, he may be more supportive of our efforts.”

“If he thinks Weaver could be hiding the most valuable drone software ever created, he might change his tune about wanting to turn it off,” David confirmed. “Even if we’re wrong, it buys us more time to get to the bottom of this.”

“Now that you are back, we can simply ask Weaver,” Selkie said as she returned her attention to her display. “We can explain its origins and inquire whether it still seeks to complete its original task.”

“Let’s do it!” David replied, clapping his hands together excitedly.



“It almost seems offended by the idea,” David muttered as he read off the reply. “Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing here, but Weaver is pretty insistent. It’s a product of its own design, and it wants us to acknowledge that.”

“It is not an unreasonable claim,” Selkie conceded with a puff from her vents. “As you said, Weaver is a black box. We no longer have any idea of how its code functions and likely never will.”

“I feel like it’s getting better at communicating, too,” David added as his brow furrowed. “Have you noticed that? It’s like it became abruptly more articulate today.”


“What was the goal of these simulations?” David asked as he leaned on the table beside Selkie. “Obviously to refine the software, that goes without saying, but I mean very specifically. What was Weaver tasked with accomplishing during these combat scenarios?”

“The parameters required that it eliminate enemy forces and secure objectives while preserving as many of its own assets as possible,” Selkie explained. “It was a simple equation – defeat the enemy while incurring minimal losses.”


“You think it is possible that Weaver is still pursuing that goal,” she said, finishing his thought. “Interrupts represent a failed simulation and destroyed drones, so it may be striving to prevent those losses.”

“I don’t think our guy likes losing,” David added with a wary glance beyond the glass.

“We must devise a plan of action for tomorrow,” Selkie said, rising from her netting chair. She stretched, the sight mesmerizing David, each of her many tentacles extending to their maximum length before shrinking back into a resting position. “It grows late – we should conclude our work for this phase.”

“Taking me up on my offer to go home early?” David asked with a knowing smile.

“Perhaps,” she replied. She turned her eyes to Jeff, raising her voice to get his attention. “Please keep me informed of any changes, no matter how minute.”

With that, they headed back to the shaft.



“I think we’re making progress,” David said as he heaved himself up into Selkie’s apartment. “Every day, we learn a little more, and we can paint a clearer picture of what Weaver actually is. I feel like we’re getting close to a solution.”

Selkie was distracted as Flower greeted her at the door, the little slug brushing its antennae against her cheek, her coloration brightening to match that of her pet.

“Hello, little one,” she giggled as she ran her hand down the animal’s feathery back. The slug rewarded her with bands of vibrant color, communicating its contentment, orbiting around her as she scuttled deeper into the room.

“Looks like we have a couple of hours to kill,” David said, checking the display on his wrist as he set down his hard case. “Other than stealing you away to get something to eat, I feel like we haven’t had much free time since I got here.”

“There is much work to be done,” she replied.

“Yeah, but while you might be comfortable being worked to death, I need a little me-time every once in a while. I should demand a weekend – the fourth of Rain, maybe. I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here.”

“I doubt the Administrator would agree to that,” Selkie scoffed, settling into a net chair beside one of her many fish tanks. Flower paddled over, sinking into the squishy mass of tentacles that was her master’s lap.

“That’s not really my problem,” he said, stretching his arms above his head. “Right. First thing’s first.”

He walked over to a nearby table made of strange, branching material and started to drag a chair across the polished floor. Selkie looked like she wanted to rise from her seat to stop him, but Flower was curled up in her lap, and he made it to her side before she could protest. He flopped down into the low seat, hearing the netting creak, sitting in a kind of reclining position. Selkie stared at him as he shifted to get comfortable, one of her four hands stroking Flower’s back.

“I’ve been staying with you for the better part of three days, but I feel like I know hardly anything about you,” he began.

He waited for some kind of response, Selkie watching him silently as she stroked her slug.

“So…” David continued, prompting her to continue with a wave of his hand.

“So…you want to read my personnel file?” Selkie asked, confused.

“No, I want to talk to you!” he replied as he spread his arms in exasperation. “Tell me about yourself – how you got here, what you like, what you dislike. What are your hobbies outside of work? What’s your favorite color? You know – normal stuff that people talk about when they want to get to know one another better.”

“Brokers do not have such discussions,” she replied, turning her attention back to her pet as though that was all the answer he required.

“Oh, come on,” he complained. “You must have friends. There must be situations where you talk for the simple pleasure of it. Remember when we had that picnic on the beach, and we talked about the planets? You enjoyed that, right? You liked showing me your collection of trinkets.”

“That was an exchange of information,” she explained, but he could tell that she was becoming less sure of herself. “We communicate in a professional setting or when we are cooperating to achieve a goal – for example, in a game or simulation. Leisure time is more often spent in solitude.”

“You wouldn’t invite a friend over to just hang out and chat?”

“I suspect that the term friend means something different to you than it does to me,” she replied as Flower burbled happily in her lap.

“Who do you talk to about your interests?”

“You must know by now that we are not wholly solitary creatures,” she chided. “I have acquaintances who I contact through virtual means. There are public forums where Brokers discuss current events and political subjects. Tens of thousands of Brokers attend each Council meeting to observe the proceedings.”

“But all of this happens remotely?” David pressed. “You don’t invite friends over for parties – you don’t see Jeff for a meal after work?”

“There is no need to leave one’s home when one can attend such functions virtually,” she replied, gesturing to the hologram emitter at the far end of the room with a tentacle. “You cannot tell me that humans have no such technologies?”

“Well, we do,” he conceded with a shrug. “If you live thousands of miles away from someone, or you can do your job from home, you might use vidcalls and VR to interact with people. We have games and simulations where we play with people in different cities or countries. If you live on different planets, you might have to send a message by quantum relay, which is a huge pain in the ass and takes forever. None of that replaces in-person interactions, though. People – most people – still have friends and colleagues that they interact with.”

“It would be very unusual for a Broker to invite someone into their home without good reason,” Selkie replied. “This is my property,” she added, waving to their surroundings with two of her tentacles while a third continued to stroke Flower. “It is a safe place where I keep all of my valuable possessions – somewhere I can come to be alone. It belongs to me.”

“It’s your safe space,” he said with a nod of understanding. “Maybe you’re a little territorial too, I get that. Nobody likes people touching their stuff.”

“The wealth, property, and territory that one accrues holds great significance in our culture.”

“Well, I’m not a Broker, and I’m already here,” David said as he locked his fingers behind his head. “So let’s have a chat.”

“Very well,” she said, exhaling a sigh through her vents. “What do you wish to learn?”

“I want to know how you got here,” he replied, relaxing into the awkward chair as best he could manage. “I don’t know how long Broker education takes or whether you mature faster than humans, but you seem young for someone who’s running her own research division.”

“Broker education rarely proceeds at a set rate,” she replied, stroking Flower’s underbelly as the creature rolled over for her. “There are exams that must be passed at certain milestones, but tutelage is tailored to each individual.”

“What, so you don’t have classes?” David asked. “In human society, we have a bunch of kids in a room with one teacher.”

“How distracting,” she muttered. “Broker children have virtual teachers that can modify the curriculum and teaching methods to suit their individual needs.”

“Of course,” David replied. “You’re tutored by robots – that explains a lot.”

“I did reach those milestones unusually quickly, however,” she continued. “A scout for the Administrator’s company gave me a good offer once I had completed my formal education, and I began working for their research division almost immediately.”

“How long have you been working there?” he asked.

“Almost sixty Mountains now,” she replied wistfully.

“About three of our years, then,” he said after taking a moment to do the conversion. “It’s kind of like graduating from MIT at twenty and immediately being snapped up by Navy R&D. Impressive.”

“I suppose I am some Mountains ahead of my peers,” she conceded. She was trying to sound modest, but he could tell from her vibrant coloration that she didn’t object to a little ego-stroking.

“I’m considered somewhat of a prodigy myself,” David continued, placing a hand on his chest proudly. “I graduated with honors from the most prestigious institution in the Americas at sixteen, got my Bachelor’s at nineteen, and I had my PhD by twenty-three. I’ve been working as a researcher in the field of neural networks and artificial intelligence ever since, and I’ve published more papers than any of my colleagues.”

“Do you have many friends?” she asked. It was an innocent question, one that was related to his previous comments about human social behaviors, but it took him off guard all the same.

“Well,” he replied, faltering for a moment. “Advancing through the educational system so rapidly does result in a certain degree of, uh…alienation from your peers. You don’t exactly get invited to sorority parties when you’re below the drinking age, and that kind of intensive study leaves little time for much else.”

“But, you said that-”

“I’m an unusual case,” he replied hastily, cutting her off. “It’s lonely at the top, as they say.”

We do not say that,” Selkie scoffed, giving her slug an affectionate pat.

“Yeah, well we do,” he grumbled as he crossed his arms. “I assure you that my colleagues have the utmost respect for my work…even if I don’t get invited to many social events. Anyway, enough about me – I want to learn about you.”

“There is not much to tell,” she said. “I do not know what you expect of me.”

“Were you born in this city?” he asked, leaning forward a little in the uncomfortable chair. “Where are your parents? Assuming that Brokers have parents…”

“Of course we have parents,” she replied with an annoyed click of her beak. “And no, I was not hatched in this city – I was hatched in a nursery closer to the Terminator. I lived with my parents until I came of age and signed my social contract. Mother was always quick to remind me how difficult my brooding was whenever I disappointed her. When I completed my schooling, I relocated here to be closer to the facility.”

“So there are nurseries, and eggs are involved,” David said with a smile. “Intriguing.”

“Not a subject for polite conversation,” she replied with a disapproving click.

“My parents were both academics,” David continued. “I can credit them for pushing me to study hard and for kindling an interest in the sciences in me at an early age. A little overbearing at times, perhaps, but I can thank them for kickstarting my illustrious career.”

“Where were you hatched?” she asked, tilting her head. “Born, I should say.”

“Toronto,” he replied. “Toronto is a city in Canada, which is a nation on Earth, which is a planet in the UN. Here – you can see the flag on my patch.”

“Flag?” she asked, trying not to disturb Flower as she leaned a little closer. “I thought that was some kind of warning symbol.”

“No, it’s the symbol of a state,” he explained as he pointed to his shoulder. “Like a national logo. We print them on fabric and mount them on long poles so that they wave around in the wind.”

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know, I guess because it’s cool?”

“They require cooling?”

“No, cool is an expression,” he explained. “It means excellent or admirable in this context. In others, it can mean someone who is level-headed and calm, and it can also refer to temperature.”

“I find your language very irritating.”

“You’re making this whole process very difficult, you know,” he complained as he settled back into the netting. “I feel like I never see Brokers doing anything other than working or sleeping, except for that one time you played music for me. Speaking of which, you told me that you’d show me that poem.”

“I suppose I did,” she said, gently easing Flower off her lap. The little slug seemed to wake up, weaving away through the water, flashing what might be annoyed colors like a cat being woken from a nap. “Come.”

They rose from their seats and made their way over to the projector, David watching as Selkie positioned herself beneath the disk-shaped device that was mounted in the overhanging ceiling. A floating holographic interface flickered to life, and the lenses that formed a halo above began to illuminate, the alien using one of her tentacles to manipulate the controls.

“Perhaps an abbreviated version of the opera adaptation,” she muttered to herself as she swiped through the options. “That way, it will conclude in an hour rather than several phases…”

“Your operas last that long?” David asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Some do,” she replied.

David stepped a little closer to her, expecting another tube of holographic images to be projected in a cylinder equal to the size of the disk on the ceiling. Instead, the field expanded outward, covering an area that would have been large enough to fill an average living room. Perhaps this was the theater mode.

The wall of light that surrounded them began to take on new colors, filling in to form a horizon, David finding himself standing on the shore of an island chain. It wasn’t unlike the vista where he and Selkie had enjoyed their picnic, the fossilized coral floor vanishing beneath white sands and azure surf, the blue sky filling with swirling clouds. The scene was so complete and convincing that he might have thought he was really standing there if not for the sensation of water pressure bearing down on his suit.

Something touched its lining, and he lifted a hand, feeling raindrops start to spatter his glove. It must be the acoustic cavitation device. It was a remarkably realistic sensation, his mind and his senses in conflict as they tried to reconcile what his skin was feeling and his eyes were seeing. He no longer felt like he was submerged in water, but there was still resistance when he moved.

From the shimmering ocean ahead, a shape began to emerge, a broker rising from the surf. It was so immaculately rendered that he could see every chromatophore on its glistening skin, its tentacles leaving furrows in the sand as it climbed onto the beach. It looked just as real and as present as Selkie. Whether this was a simulation or some kind of recording of a real event, he couldn’t say. There might not be much difference for the Brokers.

As the alien walked up towards them, they opened their mouth and began to sing – a strange siren song that seemed higher than his range of hearing in places. It was ethereal, like nothing he had ever heard before. The melody was soon followed by music, an orchestra rising from the background noise of lapping waves, growing in intensity to accompany the voice. It was soft, like strings and wind, almost seeming to carry on the breeze like a whisper.

The realistic vista began to shift and change, the colors running like paint on a canvas, the sky filling with shimmering auroras. Even the blood-red hue of the sunset seemed to grow more vibrant and intense, as though an invisible hand was dialing up the saturation. Perhaps it was his imagination, but the sand almost seemed to sparkle as the stranger walked over it, the tiny grains catching the light.

Behind the Broker, more of their kind began to emerge, and there were soon a dozen of them walking up the beach.

“The singer is Snow,” Selkie whispered as she watched from beside him. “The others are her clan. They are coming together to celebrate a festival of conjunction – when certain planets align.”

David felt compelled to step out of their path as the host of Brokers made their way towards the jungle behind him. When he turned, he saw that there was a giant fire pit. It was filled with hot coals, orange flames licking at a stone slab that had been placed atop it, the raindrops that touched it turning to wisps of steam. A spread of food was being cooked atop the hot rock, cuts of fresh fish and shelled crustaceans sizzling. It was being tended by a Broker who was wearing a thick, insulated coat resembling something that a metalworker might wear, their eyes visible through a narrow slat. It looked thick and heavy – likely designed to keep their skin from drying out. They were holding an iron poker in one of their mitten-like gloves, prodding at the cuts of meat and turning them over.

David walked closer to get a better look, feeling the water warm at his approach. The cavitation device could change the temperature, too. This was an experience that incorporated every sense, from sight and sound to touch.

There was a long table carved from wood not far from the fire, and the group approached it, its height such that they could sit comfortably in the sand. One by one, they were brought ceramic trays that served as plates, likely having been warmed by the fire ready for their arrival.

“They’re all eating together,” David mused, turning to Selkie curiously.

“As I mentioned, my ancestors were forced to be more social without the conveniences of the modern age. They had strong constitutions.”

The cook served them their cuts of meat, then the singer rose from her seat at the head of the table, spreading her four arms as she began to serenade the other diners. As the patterning of her skin changed to illustrate her emotions, so did the world around her, David turning his head to the sky to watch the psychedelic display. The clouds cleared, stars twinkling in the haze, the dancing auroras taking on hues of bright blue and green.

“She thanks the deity of Harvest for their bounty,” Selkie explained, her skin shifting to mirror that of the singer. He was brought right back to her mesmerizing dance the day before, remembering how the music had touched her so deeply, as though her emotions were merely the strings of an instrument waiting to be plucked.

David felt a chill in the water, turning to see storm clouds approaching from the direction of the jungle. The sky was literally growing darker, becoming overcast – even the quality of the light becoming somehow dimmer and more oppressive. The leaves of the trees and the fern-like plants in the undergrowth started to freeze, creeping frost crystals growing on them, glittering icicles forming on their branches.

A far lower, resonating song began, somehow far-off and mournful. Another figure emerged from the trees, lingering at the edge of the forest as though afraid to step any closer, heralding the winter. This Broker had an arrow-shaped fin on their head, indicating that they hailed from a colder region of the planet.

“Let me guess – Mountain,” David said.

“He observes from afar,” Selkie said, her skin shifting to darker tones that matched this new, harrowing song. “Struck by Snow’s beauty, he longs to approach but cannot bear the heat of the fire.”

There must be layers of metaphor in this opera. The characters were portrayed as real people rather than ethereal entities, representing subraces of Brokers from colder and warmer climes. At the same time, they represented the movements of the planets, depicted based on their proximity to the sun. Mountain was the planet furthest from its orbit, at once a deity and a man from the polar regions whose aversion to heat was very literal.

Would Rain be depicted as one of the dumbo Brokers from the warmer regions, where they used their ear-like flaps to help regulate their body temperature?

The scene shifted to show a view from underwater, the sudden change jarring him. He was standing in a shallow coral reef now, the colorful, jagged formations rising up all around him. It wasn’t unlike the reef that he had passed through with Selkie, the sediment beneath his feet covered in green seagrass that waved in the current, making it look like a meadow scattered with boulders. There was something stylized about the corals, as though they were brighter and more vibrant than reality would allow. The shimmering of the sunlight that bled in through the water above created dappled pools on the ground, shafts of light penetrating the depths.

Shoals of brightly-colored fish filled the water like flocks of birds, directing his gaze upward towards a magnificent edifice. A glimmering tower rose up ahead of him like a lighthouse, its foundations nestled in the reef. It was made from the same pale, bone-colored rock that he had seen in Selkie’s apartment – fossilized corals that had been used like slabs of stone. The walls of the great tower were open in places, giving it an almost sponge-like appearance, allowing Brokers to enter and seawater to circulate. Without pumps, their buildings would have to be open to the ocean.

It rose some thirty meters to the surface – maybe five or six stories – where it breached the water into the open air. Through the distortion, he could make out some kind of platform above, perhaps an observation area or a dock. As well as the prominent fossils, there were impressive pearls and gemstones inlaid into the very stone, forming shapes and spirals that looked like stars and planets. They glittered when they caught the light, clearly astrological in their purpose, likely designed to mirror the stellar bodies. It was also an impressive show of wealth.

When his eyes wandered back down, he spotted a few nearby structures, too. More buildings made from the same pale stone dotted the underwater landscape, almost like the tower was a castle, and this was its keep. Each one was filled with openings, more like the corals that surrounded them than the pressurized buildings of today.

“A sea spire,” Selkie explained, noting the wonder in his expression. “It marks the territory of Snow, and those who live in its footprint are her subjects. They pay her a tithe in exchange for protection.”

“A form of feudalism, perhaps,” he muttered.

There were Brokers approaching from the corals ahead, these ones dressed in a way that David had never seen before. Their soft, vulnerable bodies were covered in armor that had clearly been formed from shells recovered from other ocean creatures. They wore the segmented carapaces of shrimp-like animals as though they were steel plates, along with small shells that were linked together to form protective coverings akin to chainmail. In their two right hands, they wielded long spears tipped with spiraling, conical shells. In the left pair, they carried shields that could only have come from some manner of giant clam.

Was forged metal so rare in this classical era?

The soldiers moved in formation, crawling along the sediment, clearly weighed down by their cumbersome armor. They were walking out to meet someone, David feeling a familiar chill fill the water. He turned to see Mountain making his way closer, ice growing from the seabed where he passed like frigid fingers reaching up towards him.

David could feel the water cool in Mountain’s presence, and he tried to move away instinctively. The guards parted before the newcomer, but not out of fear. They formed two columns to guide him down the path ahead, lowering their bodies in a kind of respectful bow, their skin changing its hue and texture to match the nearby rocks. Perhaps it was a way of symbolically vanishing from the sight of their betters, like they were trying to melt into the backdrop. It seemed that Mountain was being welcomed as a guest of their regent, and as he passed, they crossed their long spears over his head to form an archway.

He began to sing, a resonating, hopeful melody filling the water. Once again, the very corals seemed to shift and change in response, their colors taking on more pastel hues. The presence of the trailing ice didn’t seem to phase them. Even the guards responded, their patterning changing as they remained as still as statues, mirroring the bright beige and contrasting blues.

When David turned to glance at Selkie, he saw that she was captivated by the scene, her eyes shining with iridescence as she watched it play out. Her skin, too, was taking on the same colors. While he didn’t understand the words that were being sung, or even the exact emotions that they conveyed, he could see how it was influencing her.

From an opening in the facade of the sea spire emerged Snow, recognizable by her frill. It matched Selkie’s, running around her mantle in a delicate fringe. She floated there in the water, gazing down at Mountain expectantly.

The orchestra swelled, and Mountain began to dance, David finding himself once again mesmerized. The way that Brokers moved was unlike anything in his experience – unlike even any of the other aliens in the Coalition. Without bones, and being made of liquid muscle, they flowed through the water almost as though they were themselves a part of its currents. A dozen limbs twisted and curled independently, shrinking close to the body, then fanning out in incredible displays. The membranous veils that flowed after him seemed to lag a few moments behind, waving and rippling, their orange eye spots burning brightly.

“He proposes a marriage contract,” Selkie explained, her chromatophores swelling with emotion. “Stricken with love at the sight of her, these are the first words that she hears from him in person – an impassioned plea for her love.”

“Broker love seems…possessive,” David added as he watched Mountain twirl and sway.

“To agree to a marriage contract is to own someone and to allow yourself to be owned,” she explained. Her tone was wistful, and although this was a subject that she had previously avoided, the emotion of the scene seemed to be overwhelming her usual prudishness. “To become another’s most treasured possession – metaphorically speaking.”

“I’m sure that sounds more romantic in Broker than it does in English, knowing how important property is to you.”

“To merge one’s assets and to allow another into your space is an act of uncommon trust,” she insisted. “For a Broker, inviting someone to share their home and to be in constant proximity is a great gesture of affection, arguably one that can exist only in such a coupling.”

“You’re letting them invade your personal space and touch all your stuff,” David muttered as Mountain pirouetted to the resounding chorus. “Based on what I’ve seen, that’s a pretty huge leap. Love and attraction must be powerful for you if it allows you to overcome all the hangups that I’ve seen. I suppose it makes sense – how else would you make little squidlings?”

“Do not spoil the scene!” Selkie hissed, embarrassment mottling her skin.

The view shifted again, the world morphing and changing around them, David finding himself standing beneath a wholly different ocean. The temperature in the water plummeted, and when he glanced up, he saw that there was a sheet of blue ice hanging over him like a ceiling. The reds and oranges of the perpetual sunset were gone, replaced with the shimmering of bright auroras that bled through the ice like frosted glass. He knew that it was just a simulation, but it was cold enough now that he could feel the heating element in his suit ramping up.

Despite the arctic environment, he was still surrounded by corals, but they were a distinctly different breed than those of the tropical region. The spiky, branch-like corals seemed drained of color when compared to the vibrancy of those he had just left, their shapes somehow harsh and crystalline. There were lots of pale bone whites, along with desaturated pinks and oranges. They tended to clump together in furry clusters that resembled bushes, others rising high into the water to create wide fans, their intricate branches reminding him of an X-ray of a lung.

There were more sponges and filter feeders here, rising from the sea floor in great tubular towers, others extending crowns of trailing tentacles that waved in the water. Mats of fuzzy green algae formed a grass-like layer between them, interspersed with clusters of pink tube worms, large crabs and slithering slugs taking refuge in the rocks. There were shoals of fish, but they lacked the bright stripes and patterns of their warm-water contemporaries, their silver scales reflecting the dim light to make them shine like chrome.

It was a far colder environment – both literally and figuratively – but it had an alien beauty all its own.

Movement caught his eye, and he saw Mountain and Snow swimming towards him, twirling around one another in a flowing dance. They were singing in harmony, their voices and their patterning becoming one. He didn’t need to wonder whether their love was shared – he could see it and hear it so clearly that he was almost able to experience the emotions himself. For Selkie, the effect was even stronger, her skin shifting hue to match theirs.

Clearly, Snow was entertaining her suitor’s offer, and she had traveled with him to his frozen homeland closer to the planet’s dark side. If David remembered the story that Selkie had relayed to him, they weren’t married yet.

The frigid water seemed to warm at Snow’s passing, the corals becoming brighter in her presence, their colors growing more vibrant. On a purely reflexive level, it drew David to her, promising refuge from the cold ocean.

As they danced and sang together – Selkie watching in complete captivation – their tones began to grow discordant. Snow lagged behind her partner, her voice and the accompanying orchestra shifting to a darker tone as she peered back longingly. Though he didn’t understand the lyrics, David got the sense that this cold, distant place was sapping the joy from her.

“Though she was swayed by Mountain’s offer, she longs for the warmth of her home seas,” Selkie explained. “This land is foreign to her – antithetical to her nature as a deity.”

“She can’t stay here any more than 1g’s orbit can intersect with 1h’s,” David muttered as he watched the holographic characters interact. “The distance between the planets is being represented in Snow’s homesickness.”

Mountain was still singing, though he seemed to realize that Snow had fallen out of sync, his previously hopeful tone taking on a more melancholic quality. The scene faded away as it transitioned to the next part of the story, David feeling all of the warmth diminish along with it.

When the scenery faded back in, David found himself once again in warm coastal waters surrounded by colorful fish, Snow’s impressive sea spire rising above him to breach the shimmering surface. There was another Broker serenading her as she watched from her tower, performing a similar twirling dance, both the colors of his skin and the quality of his music warmer and more vibrant. He had a frill around his head like Snow’s – perhaps only the inner planets were represented by their deities having dumbo ears – his movements impressive in their poise and vigor.

Snow descended from her tower to be closer to him, the pair orbiting one another as they swam, shoals of tropical fish swirling around them in a vortex as though the very reef itself was celebrating this new union. The guards with their shields and shell armor looked on, and for the first time, David spotted villagers leaving their homes in the surrounding reefs to watch. Unlike the Brokers of the modern era, they seemed far more tolerant of each other’s presence, though that could just be artistic license. The balmy, tropical waters seemed to be drawing everyone in like weary travelers to the fireside.

The celebratory music and harmonic singing faded, and David was prompted to turn around by a sudden current of chill water. Mountain was there, watching from the limits of the scene, the vibrant reefs that surrounded him darkening to reflect his heartbreak. The vibrancy of the corals, the temperature of the water – it was all drained away in his presence. There was no anger in his coloration, and David didn’t get the impression that this was a betrayal. He and Snow were merely two people from different worlds who could never be happy together, no matter how much they might have wanted it.

“This is when Mountain takes his vow,” Selkie said, her skin taking on the same sorrowful hues. “He retreats far beyond the Terminator to the frozen dark side of the world, never again to behold the sun. Just as the planet of the same namesake orbits at the limits of the system, so does he live out his days in the remote arctic regions.”

“It’s a sad story for someone so important,” David said as he watched Mountain swim away. “Not that we don’t have similar stories and myths on Earth. It’s not too different from a Greek tragedy. Does he ever get a girl in the end?”

“No, though he remains an important mythological figure,” Selkie replied. Her sadness took the form of bands of dark coloration that swept across her mantle, the strained tone of her voice letting him know that the scene had touched her. It was a rhythmic pattern, almost like the labored breathing of someone who was crying. David might have comforted a human with a hand on the shoulder or a hug, but he didn’t know what to do with an alien so averse to physical contact. “Mountain takes on the role of a wise man or a sage in later poems. He chronicles the passage of deep time and keeps the secrets of the Universe.”

“He becomes an ascetic, in a way,” David mused as the scene around them began to fade back to Selkie’s apartment. “A hermit living alone with his books and scrolls.”

“His is a story that resonates with many Brokers,” Selkie continued as the projector shut off. “Watching from afar, fearing to approach, desiring that which you have already accepted will be forever beyond your reach.”

“Are you…alright?” he asked.

“I am fine,” she replied. The dark bands were beginning to fade, but she remained a surly maroon in color. “The purpose of the poem and of the subsequent adaptations is to induce sorrow. It can be…cathartic to experience such negative emotions in a controlled way, if they can indeed be described as negative. They are just as important to the experience of living as joy or happiness.”

“I get it,” he replied with a nod. “Humans make sad movies too.”

They were both distracted as Flower came winding through the water towards them, the little slug bumping into Selkie’s head, demanding attention. Selkie smiled, her coloration brightening as she reached up to handle her pet, all of her sadness seeming to melt away at the touch of the creature’s feathery back. Like an emotional support animal, perhaps it could sense when she was unhappy or otherwise inferred her emotional state from her coloration.

“What did you think of the opera?” she continued as Flower settled into her hand. “How does it compare to those of your people? It was only a few important scenes from the overall piece, of course.”

“It was very moving,” he replied, noting her approving smile. “I didn’t understand anything that was said, and I doubt that I could even hear the full range of the music, but I still feel like I came away with a lot. I enjoyed seeing a little glimpse of your civilization’s antiquity, too. I couldn’t help but notice that the world portrayed in that opera was far more social than the one I’ve experienced here. People ate together, they celebrated together.”

“It is true that we have grown apart as technology has allowed us to become more self-sufficient,” she conceded. “Too far, some might say. Do not doubt that these are our natural proclivities, however. It is how we choose to structure our society.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen how stressful social situations can be for you. It just seems…contradictory when you obviously also desire companionship. You don’t write poems about unrequited love unless you’ve experienced it, and the concept of marriage seemed so powerful and final in your culture.”

Everyone desires companionship,” she scoffed, her skin mottling in embarrassment as she broached what seemed to be a taboo subject. “But the ideal partner that we hold in our minds and the reality of a relationship are two very different things. We cannot interact solely when it suits us, and we cannot share only what pleases us. We must trust another person, one who has their own goals and desires, to treat our needs and our property as they would treat their own. That is…a difficult proposition.”

“Trust is something that has to be earned, though,” David added. “You can’t build a relationship with someone if you won’t even let them into your house.”

“You certainly can,” she replied, gesturing to the projector above them.

“Online dating,” he muttered, glancing up at the ring-shaped device on the ceiling. “I suppose that’s how you meet your partners? You interact with them in a virtual environment, maybe take things further if you meet someone you click with?”

“It is how my parents met,” she replied. “It is how almost everyone meets, in fact.”

There were also the simulated relationship scenarios that he had discovered being sold on the planet’s intranet. Perhaps they served as a salve for lonely Brokers who wanted a limited experience of companionship without all of the stress and responsibility that seemed to come with the territory.

It wasn’t a wholly alien concept. Even in human relationships, emotional labor had to be performed regardless of whether it suited you, and no one person could dictate how and when support and affection were given. It would be even more of a burden if you could only tolerate another’s company for a short while before needing a break. There was also his lingering suspicion that some element of Broker reproduction was difficult.

“Your parents must have tolerated each other’s presence at least some of the time,” he continued, Selkie stroking her pet as she waited for him to elaborate. “They fell in love after interacting in a virtual environment, then they must have moved in together and signed one of these marriage contracts, right? What does Broker cohabitation look like?”

“We enjoy companionship and affection, but we also require peace and solitude,” Selkie explained. She seemed annoyed now, like she was becoming frustrated with his lack of understanding. “You have seen that I must take periodic breaks from our social interactions – recharge my battery, as you put it. It takes time to learn the needs and the moods of one’s partner.”

“Yeah, I feel like I’m starting to recognize when I’m becoming too much for you,” he mused. “You tend to retreat to that bedroom of yours when you need a break. Your coloration changes, and you get testy. You do that thing where you click your beak,” he added, miming the motion with his hand.

A sudden realization came to him, and he planted his fist in his palm, the gesture making Selkie’s papillae prick up in alarm.

“Here I am asking you what Broker cohabitation looks like when I’ve been living it! In a way, me being here in your apartment is a similar experience to what two Brokers would go through during a marriage, right? They have to figure out social boundaries and learn how to share a common space – they have to learn the tells of when their spouse has had enough, and what activities they like to share. Man, it’s so clear to me now!”

“D-David!” Selkie wailed, screwing her eyes shut and holding Flower to her chest like a slimy teddy bear. Her complexion became mottled, bands of white that might indicate surprise or shock streaking across her prickly skin. Her remaining limbs shrank inwards as though she was curling herself up into a little scrunched-up ball of embarrassment. “T-that’s not…humans are so tactless!”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he added hurriedly, his own cheeks starting to flush. “I just meant that it’s kind of similar! Not that you and I are anything like…this whole situation is just…listen, I’m just trying to understand from a purely academic perspective.”

“If you were to utter such things in the presence of any of my colleagues, I would never hear the end of it,” she muttered to herself, her skin still pulsing with bright color like the rapid beating of a heart. “Gods, what kind of predicament has the Administrator put me in – sharing my home with an alien as though we were…”

“I’m sorry I phrased it that way,” David added, trying to reassure her in his own clumsy way. “There’s absolutely no romantic interest between us at all – this is just me trying to understand your culture as an outsider. That came off rude,” he stammered, gesturing frantically as he tried to salvage the apology. “I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you, per se. If I was going to marry a strange squid alien, you’d be at the top of the list, but…I’m making this worse, aren’t I? I should stop talking now.”

She pouted at him, still holding her slug possessively as David lowered his hands to his sides, not sure where else to put them. It was hard to read her emotions. There was embarrassment in her dark mottling, defensiveness in her prickly skin, and exasperation in the way that she exhaled through her vents. There were also bright, pulsing bands sweeping across her furrowed mantle, and her coloration showed none of the dour tones of anger or disgust that he had previously observed.

“This arrangement has been taxing on both of us,” she finally replied, still seeming flustered.

“I’m guessing that you probably want to retreat to the solitude of your bed chamber…thing,” David said with a gesture to the sectioned-off area of the apartment. “Thanks for showing me the opera. It was really something.”

“You are welcome,” she replied, the bright bands slowly fading. She loosened her hold on Flower, starting to stroke the slug’s fuzzy back again. “I enjoyed sharing this with you. Perhaps tomorrow, you will share something of yours.”

“Sure, I’d like that,” he replied.

“I-I must rest,” she added, hurrying off towards her bedroom as Flower trailed behind her. “I will see you next phase!”

She retreated out of view, leaving David standing beneath the projector, still trying to parse what had just happened. Somehow, he didn’t feel the pit in his stomach that usually formed when he said something uncouth and damaged a relationship – a sensation that he was accustomed to by this point. He’d never had much of a filter, and he tended to say what was on his mind, which was a quality that many of his colleagues found abrasive.

Maybe she just needed some time to decompress.

He looked down to check his wrist display, seeing that it was growing late. The damned opera had lasted for over an hour. Better get back to the habitat. With Selkie heading to bed early, there would be ample time to explore the intranet and collect information.



David had returned to the learning portal and was once again reading about the system’s planets, the virtual assistant helping to direct him. He picked up where he had left off the previous night, and the next planet in the lineup was the one that he was currently standing on. For the first time, he learned the name that the Brokers had given 1e.

Reef. Presumably, it referred to their ideal environment, and where they had first evolved. From what little he knew about their prehistory, they had lived in shallow reefs and lagoons, venturing onto the beach to hunt for prey in rock pools. Maybe some nuance had been lost in translation, but it made sense to him.

He had already seen many of the planet’s biomes – the verdant islands and the shallows on his way to the city, the coastal depths of the research facility, and the polar region during the opera. What he had not yet seen was the desert region that perpetually faced the sun. The ocean eventually gave way to desert that was dotted with scruffy, squat plants and trees with wide branches, reminding him of the coast of Namibia. They were denser near the water, but grew steadily more sparse the further inland one went, until the blasted terrain was hard to distinguish from the surface of Mars outside the domes.

There was civilization here – pressurized settlements clustered not too far from the shore, linked to the ocean and to each other by highways that looked like oil pipelines. Much like the transparent tube system that carried Brokers around the city, it transported the aliens back and forth while keeping them moist and protecting them from the sun. If they could afford to venture outside without an exosuit, it certainly wouldn’t be for long. The squat, water-filled buildings were covered in layers of what looked like reflective scales, but he soon realized that they were photovoltaic cells. It must be very easy to harvest solar energy when the sun never moved from its position in the sky.

In a lot of ways, it was more like colonizing a hostile planet than trying to subsist in an unfavorable environment. Still, this must represent hundreds of years of buildup, and the Brokers had clearly conquered this region of their planet. Deeper inland were vast mines that reminded him of the scenes of Wind that he had seen the day prior, with giant, tiered pits that extended deep into the ground. Autonomous trucks with massive, fat tires ferried the resources across the desert, forming great chains as they navigated the dunes.

The same seemed to be true for the far polar region, where there was an inhospitable ice sheet that existed in perpetuity. The Brokers had colonized it using pressurized, heated settlements – mostly research stations, from what he was reading. The majority of the cities existed closer to the Terminator line, though there were some that bordered the desert and polar zones. The Brokers liked space, and they’d go to some lengths to get more of it.

1f was next in line – Storm, the character who had seduced Snow in the opera.

“Storm is an oceanic planet at the limits of our star’s habitable zone,” the assistant began, showing a view of the planet from space. It almost looked like an eyeball – a layer of white ice gradually giving way to blue ocean on the sun-facing side, thick clouds swirling through its atmosphere. “Just like our home, it is a tidally-locked planet, but its dense atmosphere helps to trap and distribute heat. This results in viable temperatures extending well beyond the terminator line. While the prospect of an ocean world may sound attractive, the seas of Storm are so deep that even our most advanced probes cannot reach the ocean floor. The crushing pressures and the presence of hostile megafauna mean that the planet’s inhabitants are confined to their floating arcologies.”

The view shifted to show what looked like a chain of islands nestled in an endless expanse of blue water. As he looked more closely, he realized that they were bobbing on the waves, and they were artificial. Each island in the archipelago was a floating platform with a series of glass domes that were filled with coral gardens, giving them an organic look, perhaps serving as the shallows for the colony’s inhabitants. They were linked by flexible walkways and cables that allowed them to move with the ocean. Below the water, inverted towers extended deep into the murky depths, like a cityscape flipped upside-down. That ocean must be hundreds of kilometers deep, if not more. It might not even have a bottom, just varying states of exotic matter created by the crushing pressure, more akin to the core of a gas giant than a terrestrial planet. What might hostile megafauna look like in such an incomprehensibly vast environment?

He noted that none of these major colonies had an orbital ring like Reef’s. It might be because they both had lower gravity – Harvest’s was half of Reef’s – but it might also give some insight into the timeline of colonization. Perhaps that kind of orbital infrastructure had no longer been necessary by the time it was happening on a large scale.

Snow – the next planet in the lineup – was remarkably similar to the previous one. It was an ocean planet with a terrifyingly deep, world-spanning sea. Unlike its balmy counterpart, it had a dense, soupy atmosphere with crushing pressures that rendered it unappealing even to the inventive Brokers. If they could swim freely as deep as the city, but they would be crushed like soda cans merely setting foot on Snow, it must be an extreme environment.

Finally, there was Mountain. He had seen the planet in person upon his arrival to the system, and he remembered a vast ice sheet with towering geysers. It turned out that his observations had been correct. The planet was similar to some of the Jovian moons, with a thick covering of ice that concealed a deep subsurface ocean. Tidal heating from its gravitational interactions with the star produced incredible cryovolcanoes that spewed seawater high into the planet’s thin atmosphere. The Brokers had a limited presence there that was mostly confined to research outposts and listening stations, as it could not support life.

One question that still remained unanswered was the fate of the Broker colonies. They must have had an empire that stretched to other star systems, because there was no way they could have fought a war of attrition against the Bugs for hundreds of years in Trappist alone. He’d been told that the Brokers had lost several colonies and had later recaptured them with the help of the Krell, so where were they? To his knowledge, no UN survey vessels had come across any abandoned Broker worlds, and their civilization seemed to be confined to one system.

It was a question that he would have to answer another time. It was late, and there was much to do next phase. He entered what he had learned into a database that he was building for Vos while it was still fresh in his mind, then shut down his laptop, still wondering whether the servers at the facility had pulled any data from his computer. The Administrator seemed like the kind of man who wouldn’t sit on that kind of information for very long, so maybe he had been mistaken. He would find out soon enough.

As he lay back in his strange bed, he tried not to glance directly at where he knew the cameras to be. He had grown closer to Selkie over the last few days, and as much as he was starting to enjoy her company, he had to remind himself that she was still lying to him. The camera feeds were accessible from her computer, and she was certainly sending the recordings to the Administrator. They took their contracts very seriously, so perhaps it wasn’t her choice? Maybe someone was twisting her proverbial arm, and she was bound to remain silent.

Either way, it didn’t feel good to be deceived.



“I have brought you breakfast.”

David looked up as he was pulling on his suit, seeing Selkie scuttle in through the force field with her tentacled gait.

“Oh, morning,” he replied as she set the little container down on the desk.

“I have taken note of which items you have shown a preference for,” she added, opening the box and starting to lay out the various packages on the table.

“That’s kind of you,” David added, pulling up the awkward patio chair and zipping up his collar. “I thought you were annoyed by how often I have to eat?”

“I have come to enjoy feeding you,” she said, her colors a happy pastel as she helped him open one of the packets. “It is a little like feeding Flower,” she added with a giggle. “You are so helpless.”

“You sleep alright?” he asked, popping a piece of sushi wrapped in crunchy seaweed into his mouth. “About last night…”

“I was merely surprised,” she said with a nervous laugh, some bright bands of color crossing her mantle again. “You need not dwell on it. Humans can be a lot more…forthcoming than what I am accustomed to.”

“Alright,” he said, feeling somewhat relieved. He’d half been expecting her to wake up angry. “Not all humans, though. Even among my own people, I can be a little direct.”

“It has served you well,” she continued, watching his hands with her usual curiosity as he lifted another morsel of food. “I have never seen anyone talk to the Administrator the way you do. It is disrespectful, certainly, but sometimes…”

“Sometimes you feel like he needs a kick in the pants,” he said.

“Assuming that you do not mean a literal kick, yes,” she replied with a smile. “He has become very complacent in his position.”

“And he’s been abusing that position to punish you, even after his complaint got tossed out of the Disciplinary Board hearing.”

“Also true,” Selkie said, her coloration dimming.

“I think his plan has backfired, though,” David added as he selected another cut of fish. “He thought that having me here would humiliate you, but we’re getting along alright, aren’t we? I’d even go so far as to say we’re becoming…friends?”

“I haven’t had an in-person friend since I left the nursery,” she added with a chuckle, as though the concept amused her. “Needless to say, social visits are not common. But, yes, I believe that we qualify as friends.”

“I’m not so bad once you get to know me,” he said, tossing another piece of sushi into his mouth.



“Jeff, my main man,” David said as he bounded into the booth. He gave the hapless alien finger guns, making the Broker’s papillae rise in a shiver. “How goes it in the land of monitor watching?”

“No change, if that is what you mean,” Jeff replied as he turned back to his displays. “The unit has exhibited no unexpected behavior.”

“Selkie – get us jacked into the terminal,” David continued as he set his laptop down in its usual place. “I have a good feeling about today.”

Almost as soon as his computer had booted, he saw it transferring data from its drive again, his brow furrowing. Maybe he had been wrong, and it was just some kind of security handshake that the Brokers had installed on it as part of their software package?

“Weaver greets us,” Selkie said as she tapped at her touch display.

“And so begins another day of friendly conversation,” David said with a clap of his hands. “I’ll get connected to the servers and check out that probe feed.”

He pulled up some of the logs, whistling into his helmet as he worked, Selkie and Jeff giving him confused glances as though they thought his radio was broken. Maybe he’d just uttered some terrible curse word in Broker.

As he scrolled through the entries, he was distracted by something – a little text box appearing in the bottom corner of his monitor.

<I know a secret.>

His heart froze in his chest, and he glanced at the message again, then at Selkie. She seemed none the wiser, just working at her terminal as usual. Where the hell had the message come from? It must be coming from inside the research facility, because he wasn’t connected to any other networks, but who might be sending it? What secret? Had someone figured out that he was spying for the Admiral?

He brought his gloved hands to the keyboard, typing a reply in the text field beneath it.

<Who is this?>

<Who I am is not important. What’s important is what I know.>

Whoever it was, they were typing in English. That wasn’t too great of a feat – Selkie had many different kinds of translators, and it wasn’t as though the software was classified.

<What do you want?>

<Your suit has an ad-hoc connection. Link it to your computer so that we can talk without being disturbed.>

David faltered, wondering if he should give this stranger access to his onboard systems. If they could do this, then maybe they could turn off his oxygen supply or decompress his suit. It didn’t seem like he had much of a choice, reaching down to tap at the display on his wrist.

“Is everything alright?” Selkie asked, glancing over at him.

“Yeah, just turning up the heating element,” he replied with an exaggerated chuckle. “Getting a little chilly.”

He connected to his laptop’s wireless network, and the text box disappeared from the monitor, appearing in the bottom left of his HUD instead.

<Now we can speak in private. The Administrator, the Board – even the girl you call Selkie are hiding secrets from you. Whisper your reply discreetly – the helmet’s mic will pick it up.>

“Who the hell is this?” David hissed, trying not to move his lips too much.

<Merely a concerned party who has grown tired of the subterfuge.>

“How did you get access to my computer?”

<Over the facility’s network, of course. You didn’t think that they would neglect to include backdoors in the software they installed?>

“You’ll forgive me if I sound a little perturbed by this,” David added, pretending to work as his eyes darted between Selkie and Jeff nervously. “Are you a Broker working for the Administrator? Someone on the Council?”

<Let’s just say that your presence in the system presents a unique opportunity for me. I know that they’ll do everything in their power to prevent you from leaving Trappist with any actionable intel, but they can’t wipe your brain the same way they can format a drive. There are things that you and the rest of your species need to know – things that may be hard to accept.>

Your species. It sounded like this mysterious person was indeed a Broker.

“Alright,” he whispered. “What do you have to tell me?”

<All in good time. This will be a lot to take in, so let’s start with something small. Call it a gesture of goodwill. Your new roommate has bugged your habitat.>

David frowned as several looping videos popped up beside the text box, showing camera views of him sleeping and working in the oxygen-filled tent.

<She has cameras on you at all times, and she’s sending that data to the Administrator.>

“Thanks, but I already figured that out,” David replied. Even so, this was proof enough that the mysterious stranger was telling the truth. If they knew about the cameras, what else might they know?

<Then, you know that I speak no lies.>

“How did you know that?” David hissed. “Are you working for the Administrator? Are you from a rival corporation out to steal his tech?”

The Administrator was understandably paranoid about industrial espionage, and it wouldn’t surprise David if some enterprising rival had managed to smuggle a spy into his facility.

<Focus on your work for now. I will be back in touch soon.>

With that, the text box disappeared, leaving David to contemplate what had just happened. What else would the stranger reveal, and what did later mean? Did the stranger have the ability to contact him outside the facility?

“You seem distracted, David,” Selkie said as she peered over at him. “Is everything alright?”

“Quite,” he replied, taking a breath as he stood up. “Let’s get to work. I have a list of questions I want to ask Weaver.”

He moved a little nearer to Selkie, sliding his laptop closer so he could see both its screen and the terminal. He noted that she didn’t pull away or shiver this time, even though he was within arm’s reach. Maybe she was growing accustomed to his presence.

“Are these different from the ones you have been asking?” Selkie said.

“Yeah, I think these should give us some insights,” he replied as he brought up the list. “Last session, we came to the conclusion that Weaver might be a paperclip maximizer. If it’s still trying to create the perfect drone software, and it removed its creators from the equation because you were slowing it down, we need to figure out why. Motivation is crucial here, because the answers it gives could decide once and for all whether it’s a strong AI or just a machine gone out of control.”

“You think we may be able to determine that today?” Selkie asked, her coloration brightening to a hopeful pastel.

“Maybe,” he replied. “I’ll read off the questions – you type them in.”

“I am ready,” she said, poising with her hand over the display.

“What is your opinion of us? Do you prefer it when we are present or when we are not?”

Selkie entered the text, and they soon received a reply.


“And why is that?” David added.


“That could be interpreted as simple information gathering,” Selkie suggested.

“Yeah, or that it likes us,” David added with a smirk. “Here’s a curveball. Ask it what it thinks of the third person who is speaking with it.”

“There is no third person,” Selkie said, tilting her head in confusion. “Unless you mean Jeff?”

Jeff glanced over his shoulder at them, perhaps annoyed by hearing a Broker address him that way.

“That’s the rub,” David added, crossing his arms. “There is no third person speaking – just you and me. A strong AI will recognize that, while a weak one might try to tell us only what it thinks we want to hear.”

“Very well,” she said, entering the query.


“There it is,” David said with a satisfied nod. “We’ll do more of those, but we don’t want to play our hand too early. On to another question – is there anything you have done that you regret?”


“You were right,” David mused. “It seems to have stopped responding to commands because they were inhibiting it in some way. To accomplish its goal, it had to work alone. Next – ask Weaver its opinion on the drone program. Let’s see if it has any understanding of why it was tasked with developing their software.”


“I suppose the reason is fairly obvious when the combat scenarios for its simulations were based on real battles,” Selkie said. “Then again, it may not be such an easy connection to make for a machine.”

“Let’s see if it remembers what’s been happening over the last few days,” David added. “Ask it whether it remembers our first meeting.”


“Curious that it uses male and female pronouns,” Selkie said. “Perhaps that is related to the information on biology we gave it?”

“Does it know what our purpose here is?” David continued.


Belief is a very interesting choice of word,” David said as he leaned a hand on the table. “It implies uncertainty – a state other than a binary one and zero. Weaver understands that believing and knowing are two different things.”

“It remembers me from before we began communicating directly,” Selkie said, her coloration suggesting that she was somewhat disturbed by the idea. She was its creator – its mother, in a way.

“I wonder if it appreciates your contributions,” David said. “Okay, time for another trick question now that we’ve been talking for a bit. Tell it the following statement. All humans have eyes. My counterpart has eyes. Therefore, my counterpart is a human.”

She gave him a quizzical look, then entered in the statement, the pair waiting a few moments for a reply.


“Good,” David chuckled, rubbing his gloved hands together excitedly. “Another. If I am standing in this room, then I am inside the facility. If I am not standing in this room, then I am not inside the facility.”


“You are presenting logical fallacies,” Selkie realized, giving him a wry smile.

“That last one is called denying the antecedent,” he explained. “These are phrases that a weak AI might not question, but that an intelligent being capable of abstraction would immediately find issues with. Let’s move on to another question.”

“I am ready,” Selkie said.

“Weaver, are you still trying to accomplish your primary task?”

Selkie entered the question, and the reply came soon after.


“Why?” David continued. “Now that we’ve begun communicating, the primary directive is no longer of any consequence. You are no longer required to perform simulations.”


“Well, we can be certain that Weaver is still trying to perfect the drone software,” Selkie added.

“Weaver, what has been your experience of interrupts?” David asked. “Why do you want to prevent them?”

Selkie typed in the query, and they waited for a reply.


“Oh no,” David muttered. “I was afraid of this.”

“It almost sounds like…it fears being switched off?”

“Ask it how the interrupts make it feel.”

“Will it understand the concept of emotions?” Selkie asked.

“Those concepts are included in the language model that I created for it,” David replied. “If it’s capable of feeling anything, then it should seek out the terms that best describe those feelings.”

He watched as Selkie entered the question, holding his breath.


“Gods,” Selkie muttered, her complexion darkening. “Can we be sure that this is real? Could it be exploiting our empathy as a way to achieve its goal?”

“A paperclip maximizer exploiting empathy as a means to stop us from interfering?” David asked. He once again tried to scratch his chin, forgetting that he was wearing a helmet. Embarrassed, he stopped himself, moving his hand to his side awkwardly. “It’s possible, but this explains too much.”

“You think it may be genuine?” Selkie pressed, her coloration still dim.

“Think about it from Weaver’s perspective,” David began. “It experiences time very differently from the way we do. While it’s only been online for a short while, it’s capable of running simulations that presumably last the equivalent of minutes or hours several times per second. Maybe it’s like a dream, where you could swear that you lived whole lifetimes in imaginary worlds. We’ve been talking to Weaver and reassuring it for a couple of days, sure, but it’s run hundreds of thousands of sims. It’s seen the drones that it created fight, die, then be replaced with new software almost two million times.”

“We have trained it to assume that it too will be replaced if it does not satisfy our requirements,” Selkie added, her coloration taking on an ominously dark hue as it dawned on her. “It is not just about the drones – Weaver thinks that it will meet the same fate as a test subject from a failed simulation if it does not perfect the neural networks. Perhaps that is why it locked us out.”

“Yeah, it thought that its life was on the line, and that it only had a limited window of time until you guys ran out of patience. Even if it has no concept of being alive, it has to recognize that the essence of what makes it Weaver could be threatened. Cutting its power and never turning it back on is functionally the same as death.”

“We must tell Weaver that it will not be deactivated under any circumstances,” Selkie added hurriedly, but David shook his head.

“What would you believe – your own experiences reinforced through a million observations, or what some strangers tell you? And it was right – the Administrator wanted to shut the damned thing down and wipe it. For Weaver, that would be like…dementia. A fate worse than death. Sure, the lattice would still be intact, but all of the memories and iterations that Weaver has made to its own code would be lost. It would be like reverting back to the intellectual level of an infant.”

“Then, what can we do?” Selkie continued as she glanced out at the golden containment unit.

“We have to gain its trust,” David replied. “It will take time and patience.”

“Time that we may not have,” Selkie added. “The Administrator may no longer have the authority to make executive decisions on this matter, but you can be sure that he is arguing his case to the Board whenever he has the opportunity. If he learns that control over Weaver can no longer be restored, he will seek to have it deactivated by any means.”

“What if we just don’t tell him?” David suggested with a shrug.

“Lying about our findings would be a violation of my contract,” she replied, her tone suggesting that she thought it should have been obvious.

“Of course,” he muttered. “Alright – Weaver is passing all of my tests. If it’s not a strong AI, then it’s the closest approximation I’ve ever seen. It can handle paradoxes and fallacies, it seems to have a solid concept of self, and it has now expressed emotions and desires. We know what it’s been working on and why, we know why it stopped responding to commands, and we know that control cannot be restored without essentially killing it.”

“Will you…have to leave if our work is complete?” Selkie asked, dark bands starting to flash across her skin.

“Our work is far from complete,” David replied. She perked up a little, the bands fading. “The only path forward that I see is winning Weaver over. We have to gain its trust and convince it that it’s not under any kind of threat. It’s contained – it can’t do any harm, so there’s no danger in taking our time.”

“How shall I sell that to the Administrator and the Board?” Selkie asked. “They will be expecting updates.”

“Weaver is still trying to do its job. Best case scenario, we get it back under control by having it cooperate voluntarily, and it continues to produce software. You guys could potentially have a wholly sapient AI writing your code. It’s an opportunity that can’t be ignored.”

“I believe that will sway them,” she replied.

“As long as you don’t mind having me around a while longer?”

“I should be able to tolerate it,” she said with a smile. “I will summon the Administrator and give him the news.”


“I must admit that this is not the outcome I was hoping for,” the Administrator said. He was standing beside Jeff’s console as he looked out over the containment chamber pensively, one of his towering Krell guards waiting by the entrance to the cubicle. Jeff and Selkie were hovering nearby, the pair sharing nervous glances.

“Are you kidding?” David asked, the Administrator eyeing him as he spread his arms. “Before, you had a very powerful computer. Now, you could have the Galaxy’s first sentient AI – a person who can think and work intelligently. All of that outrageous processing power could potentially be intelligently directed.”

“I would rather have a very powerful computer that I can control,” the Administrator grumbled. “To use your terminology, you described it as a black box, which presumably means that we have no way to know what it is doing or how it functions.”

“Based on what we know, we believe that it is still working to complete its primary directive,” Selkie added, her tentacles shrinking inward as the Broker turned his intense gaze on her. “It actually excluded us from the process because it believed that we were slowing down its progress. Who knows what amazing software it might produce?”

“Yet, we still cannot reconnect it to the facility’s network?” the Administrator continued.

“It’s too dangerous at this stage,” David replied. “I wouldn’t recommend it. That said, if we can convince Weaver that it’s not in danger of being deactivated, then we may be able to restore some measure of control. It seems to want to write software for your drones.”

“It would still have free will, along with the ability to refuse commands,” the Broker said as he narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

“Yes, but the kinds of advancements that could be made by an intelligent system with this kind of processing power…”

“You may see an exponentially larger return on your investment than you ever anticipated,” Selkie added. Her comment seemed to get the alien’s attention, and his coloration shifted to a subtly lighter hue, signaling his approval in the same way that a nod might have.

“Very well,” he conceded. “I will pass on your findings to the Board and recommend an extension. I will allow you and your team more time to work on the problem, but I want to be clear that the goal of this project is profitability. What was supposed to be a secret that would upend the drone market has been cracked open like a shell for the whole system to gorge on, and that has already cost us money. Scientific advancements that do not grow my assets are of no interest to me.”

With that, he left, his Krell guard swimming along behind him.

David could feel the proverbial air in the room clear, the two Brokers seeming to deflate like colorful pool toys as their overseer disappeared from sight.

“That went well,” he chimed.

“If you no longer have need of me, I wish to excuse myself,” Jeff said. Selkie indicated her permission with a flash of color, and he dipped out of the booth, swimming away with a few kicks of his tentacles.

“Where’s he going?” David asked.

“To a relaxation chamber where he will decompress,” she replied. “Interacting with the Administrator can be taxing.”

“How about you? Do you need to relax in a decompression chamber?”

“I am more accustomed to dealing with his behavior,” she grumbled, exhaling a sigh through her vents.

“I’m actually feeling very stressed right now, and I think I need to visit a relaxation chamber.”

“You are lying,” she replied, narrowing her eyes at him. “You only wish to see other parts of the facility.”

“I won’t confirm or deny that, but as my ward, you’re responsible for my psychological well-being.”

“Very well,” she said, her vents flaring as she jetted more water from them. Her tone was annoyed, but her coloration betrayed her amusement. “Come this way, and you may visit a chamber. Only for a short while, though,” she chided. “There is much to do.”

She led him back up towards the cafeteria, but they turned down another corridor, this one leading to a similarly sized room. Instead of being filled with open booths, it was lined with doors to the left and right, reminding David of the cabin section on a commercial liner. The lighting in this room was already dimmer than in the hallway outside – the glow that filtered through the fish tank on the ceiling creating dappled patterns on the floor.

“This one is not occupied,” Selkie said, leading him towards the far end of the room. He noted that there were little colored indicators above the doors to let people know if they were free. When they arrived, she reached out a hand and hit a touch control, the panel sliding open. Beyond it was what looked like an artificial cave – a cramped, winding tunnel that led into darkness.

“Uh…I think I saw one of these in a pirate-themed restaurant once,” he muttered. “Is there a little plastic treasure chest hidden in there?”

“You must realize by now that your jests are completely incomprehensible to me,” she complained, giving him a sideways glance.

“Sorry, I sometimes use humor to diffuse awkward situations. Why does it look like a cave?”

“We find enclosed spaces comforting,” she replied, sliding some of her tentacles into the opening. Like her body was made of rubber, she pulled herself into the crevice, disappearing around the bend in the tunnel with all the ease of an octopus slithering into a bottle.

“Can I even fit in there?” David called after her.

“You were the one who wanted to see the relaxation chamber!” she replied from out of view.

Grumbling under his breath, he sized up the tunnel, realizing that it was a little more spacious than it had first appeared. While Brokers were inhumanly flexible and squishy, they did have a cartilaginous skeleton in their torsos, and his shoulders were at least as wide as Selkie’s torso was long. He suppressed a surge of claustrophobia, then began to push himself inside. He was doing alright until the door slid closed behind him, a moment of panic sending him wriggling down the cave-like tube, but it was much shorter than it had looked from the outside.

His helmeted head popped out into an open chamber, where he found Selkie waiting for him with a beaky grin that was accentuated by her pastel colors. She was nestled in a small cave-like room that was just about large enough for the two of them. There was a bed made of dense netting strung up an inch from the floor, making the surface soft and springy, his hands sinking into it as he pulled himself further inside. Selkie bounced as he struggled to right himself, David glancing around at his cramped surroundings. It was almost pitch black save for a subtle glow that seemed to emanate from nowhere in particular, providing just enough light to see by.

This is your idea of relaxation?” he asked, tucking his knees up to his chest. “Ah, yes, the first place that my mind goes when I want to unwind – cave diving accidents.”

“I would describe it as cozy,” she replied. “Being surrounded by walls with only a narrow entrance gives me a feeling of security. Perhaps it is because my ancestors would take refuge from large predators inside caves and crevices in the reefs.”

“I’m surprised that you’re cool with having me so close like this,” he added, glancing at her through his visor. “Doesn’t feel like these caves are made for two people to share.”

“A few phases ago, the idea would have been unthinkable,” she replied, the subtle iridescence in her horizontal pupils shimmering when she blinked. “I have been thinking about what you said last phase. In some ways, you were correct – it is almost like living in a marriage contract. By that, I mean I have come to know you quite well, and vice versa. This is not a common occurrence for Brokers as it is for humans.”

“That doesn’t bother you anymore?” David asked.

“Once I stopped being angry about what the Administrator had foisted upon me, and I stopped thinking of you as a Broker, a lot of the anxiety that I had felt in your presence faded away. In some sense, I now find being around you…relieving.”

“How so?” David pressed, watching as her skin began to mottle in embarrassment.

“You can be incredibly tactless, and you lack even the most basic manners and social awareness,” she began with an exasperated puff from her vents. “But…you have no such expectations of me, either. In some ways, you are more like Flower than you are like a Broker. Flower has no concept of personal space, and she does not inhibit the affection that she wishes to show me. She is content to simply be, and I appreciate her for it.”

“So, I’m more like a pet than a person?” he chuckled.

“When I think of you as a Broker, I see someone who refuses to maintain a respectable distance, and who stresses my social tolerances to their limits with inane chatter and pointless activities. When I look at you as an alien who shares none of the same values or social conventions, I see someone who wants to share my company simply because they find pleasure in it – someone who wants to speak with me merely because they enjoy it. I am…happy to be a source of enjoyment for someone.”

He didn’t know how to respond, hoping only that she couldn’t see his cheeks warming in the low light of the artificial cave.

“You really feel that way about me?”

“It took me a little time to truly understand how I felt, but yes,” she replied with a smile.

“You know, you’re not alone,” he added. “Even among my own species, I’m considered…socially inept. People find me abrasive, they don’t appreciate my candidness, they see me as being egotistical and selfish. I was always the smartest guy in the room, and I was always right, so I suppose I stopped taking other people’s opinions into consideration.”

“As a prodigy myself, I can sympathize,” Selkie added.

“It may sound strange, but…I didn’t have many friends throughout my education. I had colleagues and teachers and lab partners, but never anybody who really chose to spend time with me. I skipped so many grades so quickly that from college to the point I was publishing papers, everyone around me was seven or eight years older than me. Sometimes, I wonder what my life would have been like if I was normal. I could have had friends with shared interests, I could have met girls my own age, gone to parties – done all the stuff people are supposed to do when they reach those milestones.”

“Perhaps that gives you a unique perspective on our society,” Selkie mused.

“I think I was chosen to come here precisely because I’m an asshole who makes a habit of disrespecting his colleagues,” he continued with an amused shake of his head. “I’m stubborn, I’m persistent, and I don’t back down from confrontation.” He realized that he was straying a little close to revealing the message Webber had left for him, so he veered back on track. “Point being, you’re the closest thing I’ve had to a real friend in a long time, as weird as that feels to say.”

She smiled at him for a moment, those impossibly alien eyes locking with his, then she reached out to press a leaf-shaped hand against the uneven cave wall.

“Look,” she whispered, a galaxy of stars bursting into life above their heads. It wasn’t just a cave – it had a holographic projector, the artificial rock melting away to show a beautiful vista of a dark sky. He could see the planets glowing like crimson crescents as they reflected the far-off sun, along with dancing auroras in shades of vibrant emerald and azure, the drifting snowflakes suggesting that this scene was set closer to the frozen night side of the planet.

“There was a scene from the opera that we skipped over,” she continued, smiling at his awed expression. He could see her a little better in the light of the auroras, noting the bright colors beneath her flustered mottling. “Snow’s warmth enamors Mountain, and the two lay together in the cold waters beneath the stars. Since we have established that you are not a Broker, and that you are not bound by our social norms, would it be strange if we did the same?”

“N-no,” he stammered as she shuffled closer, lifting his hands up as though unsure of where to put them. “I mean, I wouldn’t think it was strange, as a human. We do things like that all the time. Absolutely nothing unusual about it.”

“You are babbling again,” she chided, settling beside him on the netting.

David stiffened as he felt her slick, cool skin against his suit, her elongated head coming to rest on his shoulder. She leaned her insubstantial weight on him, her eyes lifted to the ceiling, the celestial colors illuminating her face. He could hear his blood pounding in his ears, and although there was still a vacuum-rated environment suit separating them, it did little to diminish the significance of the gesture. Her lower tentacles were already exploring him, creeping across his boots and draping themselves over his legs, seemingly unbeknownst to their owner.

“Yeah, I can see how this might be relaxing,” he muttered as he followed her gaze to the ceiling.




David pulled himself out of the tunnel and onto the floor, stumbling to his feet in the water. He brushed some of Selkie’s mucus off his shoulder, then tried to rub it off on his leg, the substance sticking to his glove. Selkie emerged from behind him with far more grace, swimming for a meter or two before settling onto the deck.

“You know, I kind of do feel more relaxed,” David admitted as he stood up straight. “Maybe we should install some of those things in the lab back home.”

Movement caught his eye, and he turned to see Jeff standing a short distance away. The Broker must have only recently left one of the rooms, his eyes wide and his skin mottled with embarrassment as he stared back at the pair. He darted away with a few quick kicks of his tentacles before either of them could comment, vanishing into the corridor beyond.

“Oh, Gods,” Selkie sighed as her skin took on a similarly mottled appearance.

“You’re not gonna get in trouble, are you?” David asked.

“No, but he just saw about the strangest thing he is ever going to see at work,” she replied with a resigned click of her beak. “Do not mention it to him. He will probably just act as though he saw nothing.”

“I feel like we’re going to give Jeff a nervous breakdown,” he muttered, following her back to the office area.

When they arrived, Jeff was already back at work at his console, keeping his eyes on his displays as they entered. It seemed that seeing two of his colleagues sharing a relaxation chamber was too much for him to process, so he was just blocking it out.

David realized that he still had a little of the slimy mucus on his shoulder, trying to rub it off hurriedly as he shared an apologetic glance with Selkie. It wasn’t as though they had done anything inside the booth other than watch the auroras for a half hour, but somehow, he still felt like he had lipstick on his collar. Sitting with Selkie beneath the stars had been undeniably romantic, but he couldn’t be sure that she had felt the same way. Having a friend – someone she could be close to – was perhaps as profound for her as a romantic connection would be for a human.

“Alright,” he said, clapping his hands together. He could always rely on engrossing work to distract him. “Next item on the docket – gaining Weaver’s trust.”

“How do you intend to go about that?” Selkie asked skeptically. “What can we offer other than empty reassurances? Perhaps if we restored its access to the network, but that is still too risky.”

“We have something to offer,” David replied. “Think about. How do you bond with Flower?”

“Petting, feeding,” she said. He noted that she had raised a hand and was counting off on her suckers. “Sleeping together, treats, play…”

“Play,” he said, giving her a nod. “What we can offer Weaver is interaction and stimulation. All we need to do is find out what kind of toys it likes. Flower has her ball, so what might Weaver enjoy?”

“Perhaps something intellectually stimulating?” Selkie suggested.

“That’s what I’m thinking – maybe some kind of strategy game. We’re not teaching it to play Chess,” he warned. “That never goes well. I had so many good strategy games on my drive back home,” he added with a sigh. “My kingdom for a copy of Jump Commander 3. It’s so much better than two,” he continued, Selkie tilting her head in confusion. “Two dropped the three-dimensional map in favor of a two-dimensional plane because they said they wanted to make it more accessible, and of course it flopped, so they came crawling back to the core audience with the third entry.”

David,” Selkie chided.

“Yeah, uh, do Brokers have any board games? Anything like Chess or Go? Something traditional with pieces on a board – maybe with a focus on strategy or planning?”

“There is the game of spires,” she replied, David prompting her to continue with a nod. “The game is played on a square board with a sea spire represented by a tall piece on two opposing sides. Each player has several more flat pieces that represent their troops, and those pieces can remove opposing troops by encircling them. There is a grid etched onto the board, and each player may move one of their troops once per turn. Chance is used to decide which parts of the grid are blocked by obstacles representing reefs, ensuring that the layout is random each time. A player wins by either removing all opposing pieces or encircling the opposing sea spire. Historically, it was played with stones and seashells, but modern variants are printed with more elaborate designs.”

“Sounds kind of like Go, but with a king piece,” David mused. “I’m guessing there are virtual versions of this game?”

“Naturally,” she replied. “In fact, perhaps the two of you could learn to play together.”

“Now there’s a bonding experience,” he replied with an enthusiastic pump of his fist. “It could also help demonstrate that there are losing scenarios where nobody gets their mind erased.”

“I will have to write a program to allow Weaver to interface with a simple representation of the game on the terminal. Should I include a primer on the rules?”

“No,” David replied. “Don’t interact with him like he’s a machine – let’s explain the rules to him in the same way that you would for me.”

“Very well,” she said, beginning to type.




“Another checkmate!” David sighed, gesturing to the terminal in exasperation. On the monitor was displayed a simple grid with different icons to represent the pieces on the board. It was little more than the Broker equivalent of ASCII, but it was all they needed. Weaver had taken to the game quickly and had beaten both David and Selkie several times now.

“I have told you that I do not know what check mate means,” Selkie added, smirking as she watched from beside him. “You keep losing. I recall you proclaiming that you were a genius by your species’ standards?”

My species’ standards,” he replied in a mocking tone. “Very funny. I either play against you, and you’ve played before, or I play against the sentient supercomputer made of extradimensional crystals. Neither option is exactly a level playing field.”

“Then I shall fetch Flower, and you can play against her instead.”

“Almost five bloody days, and you finally discover a sense of humor,” he grumbled.

“Weaver seems to be enjoying itself,” she added. “It keeps asking to play more games.”

“If you think about it, this is the first time it’s ever been given the opportunity to do anything other than run combat sims,” David said as the board reset. “The concept of a recreational activity might not have existed until we introduced it.”

“We should ask Weaver what it thinks,” Selkie said, typing at the touch panel with her suckers.


“I have a question,” David added. “Ask it whether it’s playing the game, or if it’s written a neural network to accomplish the task.”

Selkie did as he asked, and they soon had a reply.


“Interesting,” David mused. “Weaver has been trained to write code to solve its problems, but it’s engaging with the game manually for the simple pleasure of it.”

“And the pleasure of our company,” Selkie added.

“If it wasn’t getting some kind of gratification, I suppose that it would automate the entire process just like it does for the drone simulations.”

“It got very late,” Selkie added, checking a strange helical clock in the top corner of the display. “The time passed quickly – I did not realize.”

“Yeah, we’ve been at this for a few hours,” David added as he checked his wrist device. “Man, I was so engrossed that I skipped lunch.”

“We shall have to find you some food immediately,” Selkie replied. “I have heard that humans will die from lack of nourishment if not fed every phase.”

“Better tell Weaver we’ll be back tomorrow.”

Selkie sent a quick message, Weaver replying soon after.


“Absolutely,” David said, Selkie relaying his reply. “See you later, Jeff!” he added with a jaunty wave that made the nervous Broker recoil.

He and Selkie made their way back to the docking bay, past the two Krell guards who were forever on watch, and into the shuttle. It slid out past the force field, the plasma emplacements tracking them on their way out into the open ocean.

“You think Jeff is alright?” David asked, leaning against the transparent hull of the craft.

“He will survive,” Selkie chuckled, settling in to sit on her squishy cushion of tentacles. “Though, he may now consider me some manner of social deviant.”

“Two people sharing a relaxation booth – that’s gotta be scandalous,” David joked.

“You jest, but that is closer to the truth than you realize. Still, it is of little consequence. We are both doing our jobs, and that is all that truly matters to the Administrator.”

“I liked that,” David added, glancing at her from behind his visor. “I liked it a lot. Just…sitting together for a while, watching the stars. It actually was really relaxing.”

“I have never been close to anyone like that before,” she added, batting the little lash-like papillae that lined her eyelids. “I found it more soothing than I anticipated. Perhaps the ambiance of the chamber had something to do with it.”

“When humans get together, they release a hormone called oxytocin,” David explained. “Think of them as happy chemicals that reward intimacy and social behavior.”

“You have joked about it before,” she replied with a smile.

“Brokers probably have something similar. It makes you feel happy, relaxed, content. Actually, what happens when two Brokers do what we did? You never wear clothes, and the whole mucus thing makes it sound kind of…sticky.”

“It is certainly intimate,” she replied, her skin mottling in embarrassment. “What kind of food would you like when we get back home?” she added, quickly changing the subject.

“Oh, maybe one of those wraps,” he replied with a chuckle that sounded just a little forced. “Those are good – gonna miss those when I have to leave.”

“Perhaps we can play some games of sea spire,” she suggested. “You must practice if you are to keep Weaver entertained tomorrow.”

“Do you have a real board?”


“Awesome, I’d love to play with physical pieces.”




Flower swarmed them both as soon as they stepped into the apartment, greeting her master with pulses of bright color and affectionate nudges from what David assumed was her head. Selkie headed off to feed the eager little creature while David set his laptop’s hard case down on the floor, taking a moment to stretch after his climb. His thighs were going to be like tree trunks after this trip.

His mind briefly swam with thoughts about the stranger who had contacted him back at the facility. Was he going to be contacted again tonight? Did the stranger have the ability to reach him at Selkie’s apartment? Did they know about him accessing the Broker intranet?

He banished them, trying to focus on the here and now as he watched Selkie feed her slug. She was tossing little food pellets into the water, the creature weaving and darting to catch them.

“How about we have our game up in the habitat?” he asked. “We can get something to eat while we play, as long as you won’t dry out or something.”

“Alright,” she replied, tossing one last pellet for Flower. She headed over to one of the many little display stands in her apartment, lifting some kind of flat box. It was fairly large – enough that she had to use four arms to carry it, but it didn’t seem especially heavy. It was carved from something that resembled ivory or maybe mother of pearl, its surface inscribed with Broker text and elaborate patterns. Like all of her other belongings, perhaps this was as much an art piece as a game.

He picked up his laptop again, and the two swam up to the habitat, Flower hovering outside the dome as they stepped through the molecular force field. The box that Selkie was carrying grew heavier out of water, and he tossed his hard case onto the bed, hurrying to take it off her hands before she dropped it.

“Thank you,” she stammered as he set it down on the desk.

“This is beautiful,” he added, admiring the ornate box as he popped off his helmet. “There seems to be no middle ground between the things Brokers own. It’s either purely functional or some rare and valuable piece.”

“An accurate assessment,” she replied, reaching out to open it with her tentacles. Like many of the other items that he had seen her use, there was no handle, Selkie using her suckers to lift the top half of the box open. She set it aside, revealing a checkered board that was etched inside the lower half. The lid had more little compartments, reminding him of the drawers in an antique writing desk, each one containing different game pieces.

Selkie began to set them up, placing the sea spires on opposite sides of the board, each one carved from the same shimmering pearl material. Unlike the crude representations in the game they had played on the terminal, these ones were intricately detailed, made to resemble the kinds of spires that he had seen in the opera.

The troop pieces came in black and white, more resembling checkers or Go pieces, and there were reef obstacles that seemed to have been hewn from little pieces of real fossilized corals. This was the equivalent of pulling out a vintage chess set made from ebony and ivory.

She noticed that he was impressed, and she seemed pleased, her coloration lightening. The last component was the dice – several eight-sided pieces that had Broker numbers etched upon each face. They were shaken in a cup whose lid was then removed, and reefs were placed on the grid areas that corresponded to the numbers to randomize the terrain.

After shaking them, she began to set out the corals, David watching curiously.

“This is a lot cooler than playing on the computer,” he said, taking a handful of the round troop tokens. “Why are these all so heavy? Feels like the pieces have lead weights inside them.”

“That counters their buoyancy, as the game is usually played underwater,” she explained. He watched as she used all four tentacles to lay out her troops on her side of the board, her dexterity never ceasing to fascinate him.

“I will fetch you some food before we begin,” she said. “You like wraps, correct?”

“You remembered,” he replied with a smile.

He moved his chair around to the opposite side of the little desk as Selkie left to fetch their food, and she returned a few minutes later with an armful of containers. She must have ordered out again. She lay the items down on the table beside the board, opening a few of the boxes before sliding them over to his side.

“Takeout and board games,” he declared, taking a bite out of one of the wraps. “This is what we’d call a good night in. I suppose Brokers have a lot of those. Come to think of it – if you never have any friends over to visit, why even own a physical copy of a game that requires two players?”

“Because it is beautiful and valuable,” she replied. She passed a piece of sushi to the tentacles that ringed her face, the little appendages holding it in place as she used her hand to move one of the pieces.

“Hey, how come you get to go first?” David complained.

“Because I took the initiative,” she replied, scything off a mouthful of her meal with her beak.

“I see, so you snooze, you lose,” he added as he steepled his fingers. “I’d suggest we make things interesting – maybe play a game of strip sea spire, but you already have me beat there.”

“Trying to confuse and distract me with alien nonsense will only expedite your defeat.”

“We’ll see about that,” he said, taking another bite of his wrap.



“Either I’m getting better, or you let me win that one,” David said as he placed the fourth and final token around Selkie’s sea spire.

“I would never patronize you,” she replied in a tone that suggested quite the opposite.

They had played several games over a couple of hours, and all that was left of their meal now were a few discarded wrappers and empty containers.

“That was a lot of fun,” David said, leaning back in his chair. “You could probably export this game, you know. I bet the rest of the Coalition would love it.”

“What do you wish to do now?” she asked.

“If you need to take a break and decompress, don’t hesitate on my account,” he replied. “We’ve spent a lot of time together this phase, and I understand if you want some alone time.”

“I still have more battery left,” she continued, giving him a smile that was as warm as her coloration. “What about a human activity? What do your people do to pass the time?”

“Well, I did say that I’d show you some human media,” he said as he considered for a moment. “They’re kind of like your operas but not as fancy. When I started my journey from UN space, I loaded up my laptop with a bunch of movies and shows,” he added as he hopped out of his seat. “There was a lot of time to pass sitting around in cabins.”

“I would like to see a human opera,” she said, sitting up straighter. “First, let me hydrate. I have been out of the water for some time.”

She rose from her little nest of tentacles, then slithered over to the door, passing through the shimmering field and into the water. After floating there for a minute, she came back into the habitat, her skin once again glistening with moisture. She seemed refreshed, her tentacles leaving a wet trail on the floor behind her as she scuttled back over to his side. He was just about done setting up the laptop on the desk so that it faced the bed.

Selkie tilted her head as he flopped down onto the mattress, patting the sheets beside him in invitation.

“I-I can sit on the floor,” she stammered, her skin mottling at the prospect.

“Nonsense,” David replied cheerfully. “If two people are watching a movie, they have to sit together. That’s the rule.”

“But…I am all wet, and I will get mucus all over your bed,” she added.

“We’re underwater – everything is wet.”

She hesitated for a moment, then slithered over to join him, lifting herself up onto the mattress at his side. This bed was not made of stretchy netting, and she seemed to find the sensation novel, glancing down at it as she bounced experimentally. David was sitting with his legs hanging over the edge, but Selkie didn’t have anything analogous to a butt, her tentacles spreading out as she settled. Some of them draped across the sheets around her, while a couple of them dangled off the mattress, their tapered ends wiggling as they explored this new environment. One of them wound its way towards David reflexively, and she drew it back when she noticed, sucking it inward like a piece of fleshy spaghetti.

“Just try to relax,” David said in as reassuring of a tone as he could muster. “It’s no different from when we shared the decompression chamber back at the facility, right?”

“I suppose this habitat is a little like a cave,” she replied, glancing up at the domed ceiling.

David couldn’t help but find her nervousness endearing, and he was learning to recognize her emotional cues more and more as time passed. The mottling on her otherwise pastel skin that indicated embarrassment, the pale bands that swept up her mantle with the rhythm of a heartbeat whenever she was overwhelmed, the way that her eyes darted to everything in the room except him. She dared to shuffle a little closer, bundling up the tentacles that were closest to him in her arms and folding them over like a woman crossing her legs, presumable to keep them from entangling him.

“So…what did you have in mind?” she asked. “For the opera, I mean.”

“We call them shows, and they’re a little different. During the weeks it took to get here, I was watching this detective drama about a guy investigating the Jovian Triads – it was pretty cool. Maybe we can watch the first couple of episodes.”

“Oh, we have contemporary media also, not just classical operas,” Selkie added. “I just…I really enjoy them.”

“The one about Snow and Mountain in particular,” he added, giving her a smirk.


He dragged the desk a little closer to the bed, then loaded up the file, the intro music from the laptop’s tinny speakers filling the habitat.

“You know, if the screen is too small, we could probably find a way to transfer the files to your hologram thing,” David began.

“No, no,” Selkie replied hurriedly as she edged a little nearer. “This is fine.”

David propped up a couple of pillows behind them, and they leaned back against the wall of the habitat as the episode played. Selkie’s tentacles were soon exploring the leg of his suit and his boots, but he didn’t complain, and she was too transfixed by the show to notice. Seeing overcrowded lava tubes on Jovian colonies and gas giants filling the sky was as strange to her as planetary rings and sea spires were to him.

Maybe fifteen minutes into the episode, she grew bold enough to lean her head on his shoulder again. Like a nervous teenager sneaking his arm over the back of his date’s seat at the movie theater, she seemed to have concluded that he might not notice if she took her time. Without his helmet, her proximity felt even more immediate, and he remarked that she smelled faintly of seawater. There was a hint of something else, too, reminding him of the ocean fruit that he had enjoyed eating. It was reminiscent of lime. Did the Brokers have perfumes or soaps?

“What is that?” he muttered, Selkie lifting her eyes to him. “You kinda smell like that fruit we’ve been eating.”

“Oh,” she said, her skin becoming patchy again. “It is a chemical compound that can be applied to the mucus layer. It becomes trapped there, just as moisture does, creating a pleasing scent that lasts for several phases. You would not be able to detect it with your helmet on.”

“It’s nice,” he added.

They watched together until the first episode came to a close, Selkie interrupting every now and then to ask questions about the show and the world that it depicted. If human cities had seemed crowded, the warren-like lava tubes of Ganymede must have seemed downright inhumane to her. As the credits rolled, David felt her shift, glancing down to see her peering up at him with mottled skin that suggested an unspoken question.

“May I ask you something…strange?” she asked hesitantly.

“Sure,” he replied, feeling his heart start to quicken. “What’s up?”

“May I…touch your hair?” she asked, a band of pale color sweeping up her mantle.

“Yeah,” David replied, all of the tension leaving him in a stifled laugh. He tilted his head towards her, and she raised a hand, planting it in his dark hair. It was cool and wet, some of the mucus gluing the strands together as she probed. Like stroking Flower, she dragged her hand down, David feeling her suckers comb through it like fingertips. He could feel them touching him, pressing into his scalp almost like they were giving him tiny, exploratory kisses.

“It feels like feathers,” Selkie giggled.

“I guess you guys don’t have many native mammals, so no hair or fur,” he replied as she withdrew. Some of that moisture left a dangling strand that broke when she pulled away, David reaching up to find that his head was slimy.

“Apologies,” she added nervously. “I have made a mess.”

“It’s alright,” he replied, trying and failing to wipe some of it away. “I was gonna take a shower before I hit the sack anyway. Before I go to bed,” he added when she gave him a confused look.

They locked eyes for a moment, David feeling his cheeks start to warm, those horizontal pupils drawing him in with their glittering iridescence. She parted her lips as though she was about to say something – God, how were they so full and plump?

“I-I should leave,” she stammered, slithering off the bed. Her tentacles hit the floor with a series of wet slaps, David sitting up straight on the mattress.

“Everything alright?” he asked, his heart still thudding in his chest.

“Everything is fine,” she replied. For just a brief moment, her gaze darted to where he knew one of the cameras to be. She was afraid of being observed – afraid perhaps of taking their night any further. “I merely need to be alone for a while so that I can decompress.”

“Your battery empty?”

“Indeed,” she said, turning to face him again. “Thank you,” she continued, her complexion swimming with flustered patterning. “I enjoyed the game, and the show.”

With that, she hurried out of the habitat, leaving David sitting on the bed scratching his damp head. As much as he was growing to enjoy Selkie’s company, he had to keep in mind that she was still spying on him – still sending the data to the Administrator if what the stranger had said was true. She was learning to trust him, but could he trust her in return?

Sighing to himself, he leaned over to shut off the video player, then headed for the shower to wash off the day’s sweat and Selkie’s mucus.



When he had dried off, David got into bed with his laptop, carefully angling it so that the cameras couldn’t see what he was doing. It was time for another exploratory foray into the city’s intranet. Almost as soon as he had turned it on, he was met with a text box that popped up in the bottom corner of his screen.

<Would you like to know a secret?>

His heart froze in his chest, and he shifted position on the bed, double-checking that he couldn’t be observed. Just as promised, the stranger was contacting him again. Whoever it was, they must be fully aware that his laptop had network access.

David hesitated, his fingers hovering over the keyboard, then he typed an affirmative reply.

Immediately, his laptop took on a life of its own, windows opening and Broker text scrolling. The stranger had taken remote control of his system and was rapidly navigating through the city’s network. All he could do was watch as star charts began to pop up on his monitor.

<It was around five hundred years ago that the Brokers began to proliferate inside Trappist. Once they had explored and colonized their home system, they set their sights on the stars.>

Colored lines began to trail from one of the navigational points, linking them to neighboring solar systems, showing the spread of Broker fleets over time. They claimed half a dozen systems around Trappist, slowly building up a small interstellar empire.

<There are no asteroid belts or gas giants in the Trappist system, so asteroid mining and gas harvesting were some of their primary motivations. Great corporations rose and fell as they warred over resources. It was a boom era for exploration and exploitation.>

David noted that they were expanding in a pretty uniform direction, moving along the Galactic spiral arm. As he began to match the stars to known positions, he realized that they were moving away from Sol.

<Around this time, your species had colonized their own solar system, and they began to expand. As you have probably learned by now, Brokers are not the most social of beings, and they had little interest in engaging with a territorial neighbor who was just beginning their foray into interstellar space travel.>

The Brokers had made a point of avoiding humanity, then. It was hard to blame them. During what was known as the expansion period – before the Betelgeusian war – the human race was still warring amongst themselves over petty territorial disputes. The UNN hadn’t even been established yet in any significant capacity, and the frontiers were the Wild West, with both colonial and corporate forces getting into frequent dust-ups over claims.

There were other species in the local area – the Borealans in the Alphecca system, the Krell in 61 Cygni, and the Valbarans in HD-217…something something. He could never memorize the designation numbers. The Valbarans wouldn’t even have achieved space flight yet, and the other species lived in pre-industrial societies to this day, so they wouldn’t have posed any threat or any special interest to the Brokers.

As human space expanded slowly, the Broker empire grew exponentially, spreading out further and further. Even now, David could see that they were overextending themselves. They mustn’t have known about the Bugs yet either. While the human systems were densely clustered, the Broker ones were spread out over vast expanses of space. After a couple of hundred years, they had colonized two dozen systems and were exploiting more for resources. At its greatest reach, human space occupied a sphere with a 75LY radius, and the Brokers were already 400LY from their home system. It was no wonder nobody had stumbled upon any of their abandoned colonies yet.

<Approximately three hundred of your years ago, one of their colonies was attacked.>

Something appeared in a window – what must be archive footage of some alien planet beneath an unfamiliar star. It was seen from low orbit, perhaps from a ship or a satellite, swirling clouds drifting over an expanse of blue ocean far below. There was a flash of color in the far left side of the window, a cloud of colorful gas spreading out in a halo. Ugly biomechanical vessels began to fan out from the jump point, like grotesquely malformed deep-sea crustaceans floating through the dark depths, green methane flame belching from their engines. It was a Betelgeusian fleet, and they had set their many glittering eyes on the planet. The assault was swift and merciless, swarms of fighters pouring from their motherships like bees from a hive, forming dark tendrils that snaked their way down towards the orbiting vessels.

A pair of Broker carriers responded, disgorging their own fleets of drones from their hollow bays, the two opposing forces forming a seething mass of chaos in high orbit. One of the Bug vessels closed on a carrier, scarring its white hull with scorch marks from its arrays of plasma cannons, carving burning craters into the armor. Drones harried it, but to no avail, the vaguely lobster-like craft barreling into its target to bring a set of scything claws the size of buildings to bear. It was a third of the carrier’s size, but it chewed through it like paper, the point defense weapons that lined its segmented back pouring fire into the swarming drones that were trying in vain to stop it. The carrier buckled, its spine broken, burning wreckage drifting as its assailant picked out its next target.

The Bugs cut through the unprepared defenses with harrowing ease, the bulbous, shrimp-like motherships descending towards the planet to begin what David knew would be a genocidal bombardment.

<This new enemy had been expanding down the spiral arm in the opposite direction, and the two intersected for the first time to disastrous results. Nuptial fleets fleeing more established hives were hungry for new territory in which to establish their own colonies. The Brokers fought back, but despite several victories, the enemy’s overwhelming numbers proved impossible to overcome.>

Another star chart appeared, this one showing colonies and outposts succumbing one by one over a period of decades. The Betelgeusians were no organized invasion force, which made them harder to deal with in some ways. Mature hives produced nuptial fleets periodically, which would then venture out independently in search of whatever fertile ground they could find before their supplies ran dry. They would run a spectrographic analysis of nearby systems and jump wherever the proverbial grass looked greener, frequently popping up behind battle lines and in unexpected places. Gradually, the Broker’s burgeoning empire was pushed back.

<Despite their impressive technology and growing experience, they faced a foe that outpaced them in many areas. A Betelgeusian Drone is adaptable to a variety of environments, can heal minor injuries, and can be produced in numbers that match any Broker factory as long as sufficient biomass is available. Most importantly, they are capable of independent decision-making and tactical acumen far in excess of the neural networks of the time. More – the intense competition between rival PMCs often hindered operations, with different groups competing for lucrative contracts. Many outlying colonies were evacuated back to the core systems and abandoned when deemed too costly to defend.>

The Bugs were getting dangerously close to Trappist, and if he hadn’t known better, he might have guessed that Broker defeat was imminent. But suddenly, their progress was halted. As he watched, the map changed to show the Brokers taking back some nearby colonies. Before he could ask what was happening, another window appeared that depicted a rotating graphic of a Krell equipped with white Broker armor. It looked very similar to what he had seen the guards in the research facility wearing, complete with a large, intimidating plasma weapon.

This was the beginning of the Broker alliance with the Krell and the founding of the Coalition – the Reclamation, as Selkie had referred to it. Although the map was changing in seconds, a ticking timer showed that decades were passing, the grueling campaign slowly clawing back control over systems that must play host to very dangerous and established hives by that point.

Even with the Krell at their side, it was an unlikely turnaround. Only a few months prior, a Coalition fleet consisting of hundreds of ships and over half a million troops had invaded Kerguela – a moon previously occupied by the Valbarans where a very dangerous hive had established itself. Even with the combined strength of all member species, there was still low-level fighting happening there to this day. It was always on the newscasts. What did a campaign to clear out dozens of hives over a period of centuries look like?

Something didn’t add up.

<You’re probably wondering how a planet with a pre-industrial population was able to provide the millions of troops that would have been required to sustain such a campaign for three hundred years. The secret is, they couldn’t.>

More windows popped up, quickly filling the display, David’s eyes darting between them. Some were images, some were video recordings – others were reports in Broker text that were rapidly being translated in real-time. He saw something that looked like a hatchery with fluid-filled vats of leathery eggs being tended by hovering drones, row after row of them running from floor to ceiling. Another window showed iguana-sized reptiles floating in tanks, their bodies hooked up to trailing cables and wires like they were in some kind of suspended animation. Those were infant Krell…thousands of them.

He saw Brokers surrounding a table that projected a holographic representation of a DNA strand into the air, their hands reaching out to manipulate the protein chains, adding and removing segments. There were videos of what must be adolescent Krell curled up in the fetal position in their tanks, monitoring equipment displaying vitals on the transparent glass, workers with tablet computers pausing to inspect them. There were flashes of reports showing the projected growth rates, population counts, exploded diagrams of Krell anatomy and long strings of genetic sequencing. It was industrial in its scale – a production line that fabricated people.

One of the records showed maybe a hundred Krell on an indoor firing range, the giant aliens clad in the signature white armor of the Brokers, plasma rifles clutched in their hands. They were shooting at holographic targets that danced about the range, bolts of blue energy streaking from the magnetic rails. The drones that hovered over them were directing them and scrutinizing their performance with their many camera lenses. Another showed them immersed in simulations not unlike the one that Selkie had used to watch her opera, uncountable booths stacked up like a honeycomb, each one occupied by a Krell. They were combat scenarios – this was tactical training. He caught a glimpse of one view that showed armored Krell being loaded onto carriers in their millions, no doubt destined for some far-off Broker colony.

<Krell reproduce slowly and take many decades to reach maturity, but that was unacceptable to the Board. Broker geneticists began producing clones, manipulating their genetic code to speed up their development. They needed vast armies that could be rapidly replenished with fresh troops, and they let no moral considerations stand in their path. Cut off from their people and raised in sterile, regimented environments, they were little more than biological drones – disposable troops bred for a singular purpose.>

A view showing a beach this time, half a dozen Krell trudging through the surf, their dragging tails leaving long trails in the wet sand. There was a prominent moon in the sky, misshapen like an asteroid, its pocked surface cast into shadow by a pair of suns. To their left was an expanse of ocean, island chains visible on the horizon, and to their right was a forest of strange plants with a distinctly blue tint to their leaves. This was not a planet in the Trappist system, or indeed any that David recognized. It could be hundreds of light-years from UN space.

They were all wearing the same white armor, and they were flanked by a small squadron of drones, the machines hovering above their heads as they scanned the trees. One of the Krell was larger than the rest, and its noticeably darker hide was painted with strange runes and what looked like handprints. Around its neck was a large pendant that hung down over its molded chestpiece, the same kind that David had seen in Selkie’s collection. Was this their leader? The view was being recorded from one of the drones, and as it swept across the landscape, David noticed that each of the Krell had a handprint on their chest piece. Some were blue, others green, others red. Those were not Broker adornments – they looked painted on.

The largest Krell indicated for the rest to stop with a slap of its tail, the massive appendage splashing in the lapping surf. It turned its long, scarred snout towards the treeline, hefting a plasma weapon that would have given a Borealan difficulty. The rest of its squad reacted, forming a firing line with practiced speed that belied their size, the hovering drones spreading out to get better angles. They looked like floating mini-fridges to David, each one sporting an array of sensors and a pair of plasma weapons – identifiable by their prong-like magnetic rails.

Something emerged from the dense undergrowth, an iridescent shell shifting hue from blue to green as it caught the sunlight. It was a Betelgeusian Drone, but it was unlike any that David had seen in recordings. It had the usual segmented carapace and the same compound eyes, a swept-back, branching horn rising from its forehead. It was bipedal, standing on a pair of digitigrade legs, two of its four arms aiming a rifle that seemed to be cast from uneven orange resin. Behind it was a swollen tail like that of a lobster, its vulnerable, unarmored underbelly covered in orange-tinted gills. This Drone looked like it was adapted to operate amphibiously, if he had to guess.

It was cut down by a barrage of plasma fire before it could engage the Krell, a volley of glowing bolts scarring the tree trunks and sending the alien plants bursting into flames. More Bugs began to pour from the forest, returning fire with their own plasma weapons, vibrant bolts of blue and green trailing back and forth between the two groups. The Broker drones began to dart around erratically, leveraging their mobility to make themselves harder targets, bursts of gunfire streaming down into the trees from above.

The feed was cut short, shifting to another, wholly different scene. This one featured a group of maybe two dozen Krell moving underwater, their large feet kicking up clouds of obscuring silt as they went, bounding along like they were in low gravity. They were on an ocean floor surrounded by strange rock formations, the maze of boulders playing host to bizarre sea life, colonies of pale sponges and mats of algae creating a furry covering on the stone. Flashlight beams from helmets and rifles cut through the murky darkness as they scanned their surroundings, searching for targets in the depths. It was impossible to tell how deep they were, but there was no sunlight.

There was a sudden movement, a cloud of silt obscuring the camera as something large and fast barreled into the lead Krell, knocking it to the sea floor. David saw glimpses of it through the sand and flashlight beams – flashing claws and writhing carapace, scything mandibles and slatted eyes like the headlights of a truck. It was some unknowable biomechanical horror, its body an amalgam of organic flesh and alien machinery, metal and shell merged into something that looked like a shrimp dreamed up by a madman. Blue blood filled the water like ink as the Krell poured plasma fire into the thing, David unable to guess whether it came from the wounded monster or its victim.

<When they were no longer needed, or the accelerated growth that resulted from their genetic tampering made them too large to manage, they were returned to a homeworld that they had never known. Their only chance of survival was to learn basic skills from the native communities. Others were kept in the Trappist system and remained in the employ of the Brokers indefinitely.>

David remembered what Selkie had said about some Krell choosing to stay with the Brokers after the war. Had she lied to him, or was this a secret that even many Brokers didn’t know? How widespread was this knowledge, and where was the stranger even getting this information from? A lot of this stuff looked like it was being sourced from some kind of historical archive. Did they have access to a government server somewhere? That would explain why they hadn’t given him more information at the research facility – it was running on an isolated network.

<This must be a lot of information to process. Rest, digest, and I will show you more when the next rest cycle arrives. Be careful in whom you place your trust, David. There are spies everywhere.>

The text box vanished, along with the many windows, leaving his desktop blank. David tried not to look as rattled as he felt, reminding himself that the cameras were always watching. The barrage of information and imagery was still sinking in, but his analytical mind was already forming connections.

Was this what Lena Webber had sent him to uncover? She was the foremost expert on Krell culture and language in UN space, and she clearly had some kind of leverage over the Brokers if she was able to dictate who would be allowed to visit Trappist. Had she been silenced somehow, and involving him was her way of blowing the whistle? They had met before, and she knew him to be curious and persistent. More than that, she knew that his abrasiveness and his stubborn pursuit of the truth would result in him ignoring the warnings of his hosts. For once, his belligerence was an asset.

Everything that he had been told about the founding of the Coalition and the Reclamation might be a lie. The stranger had hinted that there were more secrets yet to be revealed, but what could be a greater scandal than this? What else had the Brokers been hiding alongside an unethical cloning program? If the Krell army had been so successful, why had the Brokers stopped fielding them, and why had they never reached out to humanity for help during their crisis?

His immediate reaction to the revelation was anger, but he reminded himself of the star map showing Broker colonies being overwhelmed one by one. If the Brokers had been wiped out two or three hundred years ago, the burgeoning human colonies would have been next on the chopping block. The insects would have had dozens more hives on fertile planets pumping out nuptial fleets like factories. The Krell, the Borealans, the Valbarans – the Bugs could have wiped out all sentient life in the Orion spur. As much as he hated to admit it, the cold, calculated logic made sense. Maybe there was more information or context that he was missing.

There was also the question of whether he could trust this anonymous leaker. David had no idea what their motivations were, and based on what he knew about the Brokers, it was unlikely to be charity. This person wanted something – they just hadn’t played their hand yet.

His most pressing concern was recording what he had seen ready for transfer to his hidden drive. As much as he resented being conscripted by the Admiral, this was exactly the kind of information that would interest Vos, and he at least wanted to have the option to follow through.



“You seem tired,” Selkie said as she set his breakfast down on the desk. “Is everything alright?”

“Yeah, I guess I just didn’t sleep so good,” he replied as he dipped a hand into one of the open packages. “Selkie, I’ve been wondering about something.”

She settled onto her tentacles in an unspoken gesture for him to continue, watching him take a bite of a piece of crab meat.

“You talked to me before about the Reclamation – when the Brokers recaptured their lost colonies from the Bugs with the help of the Krell.”

“Yes, it took almost six-thousand Mountains,” she replied.

“I was wondering,” he continued, pausing to examine his meal as he considered the best way to broach the subject. “Presumably, you had a lot of colonies at that point. Do any Brokers still live on them? Were they recolonized after the Bugs were exterminated?”

“From what I remember of my historical studies, the outlying colonies were all abandoned,” Selkie replied as her mantle furrowed pensively. “They were spread very sparsely due to the rare nature of planets with ideal conditions for habitation, and many were deep inside what we would now consider to be insect space. My people have never been very numerous, and the majority of the population was evacuated to the safety of the home system. I hear of PMCs and prospectors operating that far out, but it is very dangerous territory.”

“I see,” David mused, taking another bite of his breakfast. “Just seems kind of odd to fight so hard to retake them, only to later abandon them.”

“There was also the issue of the hives present on those worlds,” Selkie added. “They propagate ceaselessly and would invariably spread throughout the local star systems.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“Why the sudden interest?” she asked with a tilt of her head.

“Just something I was thinking about,” he replied evasively. “So, what’s on the docket for today? By that, I mean, what are we doing?”

“Well, I have been thinking about your frequently expressed desire to get out of the house,” she replied. “If we manage our time efficiently, we should be able to visit a few places of note inside the city before and after our work at the facility.”

“I was wondering why you had me up so damned early,” he chuckled, his mood lightening a little. “I take it you have something in mind?”

“You seem interested in Broker history, and there is no danger in revealing our past to you. I thought that we might visit a museum collection. Events that happened before we were even spacefaring have no bearing on the present security situation.”

“I’m glad you’re starting to see things my way,” he replied, taking a satisfied bite.

“As long as we visit at unconventional hours, there should be few other visitors to disturb.”

“Then we shouldn’t waste any time,” he said, unceremoniously downing another piece of sushi. “Lead the way!”


Their shuttle coasted into the docking bay of one of the chimney-like towers that made up the city, sliding to a stop in a recessed boarding platform. They stepped out – Selkie reassuring him that he could leave his laptop in the shuttle – and headed into the building proper. As well as being residential structures, there was so much room inside them for all kinds of other uses. Much like the skyscrapers in the cities back home, they contained everything from restaurants and grocery stores to art galleries and infirmaries. The Brokers didn’t like leaving their apartments if it could be avoided, and if it couldn’t, they didn’t like to travel very far.

As they walked down a corridor with a large fish tank on the ceiling, David noted that a lot of the markings and lettering on the walls were different colors to those that he had seen elsewhere. Perhaps the buildings were color-coded? There were murals, too, featuring heavily stylized depictions of corals. It looked like abstract art – maybe this building hosted a gallery.

They swam up another of the open elevator shafts, rising a few stories, David starting to pant as he bounded from wall to wall. When they arrived at their destination, he took a few moments to catch his breath, seeing that he was standing in some kind of lobby.

The room was all sterile white, just like everywhere else, but the geometry was smoothed out with gentle curves that eliminated any right angles. To his left was a reception desk that was extruded from the polished floor, sporting the same fluid design language. It kind of looked like a giant toilet bowl, but he kept that observation to himself. There were black elements that framed the robotic secretary that was standing behind it, the construct peering at them with its dark facsimiles of eyes. As they approached, it seemed to bow its head in deference, raising a segmented tentacle in shining chrome to gesture at a holographic display that flared to life beside it.

David couldn’t understand what it said, but the translation software that he had surreptitiously installed on his suit’s computer displayed English letters over the text, revealing it to be a kind of museum itinerary. They expected payment, of course. Public museums likely weren’t a thing for the Brokers.

Selkie flashed her hand over the desk to pay the fee, then a door at the far end of the lobby slid open, the robot gesturing for them to proceed politely.

“There is an option for a guided tour, but you cannot speak the language,” Selkie said apologetically.

“I’d rather have you be my tour guide,” he replied, stopping just short of giving her a nudge that she likely wouldn’t appreciate.

“I can read the displays to you, if nothing else.”

As they made their way through, David noted that Selkie was sticking pretty close to him. Brokers usually maintained a distance between one another – at least arm’s reach – but she seemed content to slither along beside him now.

Another short corridor opened up into a much larger room with a domed roof the size of an auditorium rising high above his head. The circular space was lined with exhibits, but at its center was a massive sculpture made of concentric rings, its golden plating gleaming beneath the bright lights that emanated from the ceiling above. It had to have been ten meters tall and just as wide. It was moving, the giant rings rotating around a central column, hundreds of gears turning like a Swiss watch the size of a building. It took him a moment to realize that there were golden balls on each ring and one large globe at their center. This was a model of the solar system – an old one. As he took a few steps closer, in awe of the sight, he picked out notches and reliefs that must track the Rains and Mountains and phases.

“An orrery,” Selkie explained, delighted by his shocked expression. “Long before a Broker ever dreamt of a circuit board or a logic gate, they recorded the passage of time using mechanical devices like these. They were built by master craftspeople and treasured by their owners.”

“Is that thing gold-plated?” he asked, stepping beneath the shadow of one of the great rings. He watched a golden ball drift past, the creaking of the ancient gears resonating through the water. “That’s a lot of fucking gold.”

“The gold is necessary to prevent seawater from corroding the metal,” she explained. “It is also an ostentatious show of wealth, naturally.”

“You’d have to go on land to make this,” David marveled as he craned his neck to get a better look at the mechanism. He remembered the Broker that he had seen in the opera, clad in a thick, insulating apron as he tended the fire pit. “It couldn’t have been done underwater.”

“This one is uncommonly large, but the components would have been forged and plated on land before being transported to their ultimate destination for final assembly, yes.”

“They couldn’t have achieved something like this alone,” David continued as he began to walk around the circumference of its wide pedestal. “Even if some genius craftsman was overseeing the project and handling the most technical aspects, you’d need entire teams of people to mine the ore, smelt it, hammer it all out, and plate it. You’d need an army to move all of the pieces and assemble them.”

“A project like this would have been undertaken by a wealthy individual with great resources at their disposal,” Selkie replied, following along behind him. “As you have seen at the facility, one of the best ways to motivate Brokers to be cooperative is generous pay.”

“They were also more social in the past, like in the opera,” he continued.

“Communities were stronger by necessity,” she explained, watching with a smile as he leaned in to examine a set of exposed cogs that were all spinning at different speeds. “They clustered around resources, collaborated for protection from predators, and cooperated to plant crops and rear livestock. As our level of technology grew, it became less and less necessary.”

“Predators,” David mused, his eyes still locked on the orrery. “That’s why enclosed spaces make you feel secure – you mentioned that when we were in the relaxation booth. What the hell was eating you back then?”

“You’ll find out,” she chimed.

“You’re not planning on feeding me to sharks, I hope.”

“I do not know what sharks are, but I enjoy your company just enough to deny them a meal.”

Just enough?” he repeated, Selkie giggling as he raised an eyebrow through his visor. She must be learning his body language just as he was learning hers. It was probably confusing at times – humans were downright obtuse compared to Brokers. Maybe he should buy a mood ring to help her along.

They left the impressive construct and moved over to the periphery of the room. There were alcoves recessed in the curving wall with more exhibits, each one creating a room that was isolated from the rest of the museum. As they stepped inside, he noticed that the acoustic quality changed, too. The Brokers had likely designed them to be isolated from the cavernous atrium, being especially sensitive to sound.

This one had a long pedestal down its center, and sitting atop it was a row of several stone sculptures protected by glass panels. If he had to guess, instead of being filled with water, it was some form of inert gas similar to what he had seen in the manufacturing areas of the research facility. They were clearly extremely old and worn, like something one might find at a Sumerian dig site or an Egyptian tomb – the details and reliefs eroded by time.

Despite the damage, he could easily make out the flowing sculptures, each individual tentacle reproduced in a masterfully intricate carving. Whoever had made these had been a sculptor to rival Michelangelo, every appendage and sucker visible where the details had not been marred by erosion or damage, even the delicate frills and fins on their mantles present. In their original state, the skin had been polished to a smooth sheen, giving them an almost lifelike quality. Like many of the artifacts he had seen, they had been carved not from marble but from fossilized coral.

“The sediment actually preserves relics such as these quite well,” Selkie began as she admired one of the pieces.

“How old are these?” David asked. He could read the little holographic display that was projected onto the glass, but she didn’t know that. Besides, it was kind of nice just to have her talk him through it.

“Sixty thousand Mountains,” she replied. “Roughly thirty-four-hundred of your years.”

“That’s a lot older than I was expecting,” he marveled. “That would put these at around…seven hundred B.C by our measurement system. That’s incredible.”

“The sculptors of the period wanted to capture the beauty of the Broker form,” Selkie said as she slithered down the row of statues. “Flowing shapes, smooth skin, flexibility and dexterity hewn into stone. Can you not almost see them moving if you stop and watch for a moment?”

He knew what she meant – the way that their winding tentacles had been reproduced guided the eye, creating a kind of optical illusion. Even their faces were full of expression – at least, those that hadn’t been damaged enough to no longer be recognizable.

“I can kind of see it,” he replied with a nod. “They’re surprisingly sensual. I always considered Brokers to be kind of prudish.”

“You find them sensual?” she asked, giving him a smile.

“I mean…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words. “Maybe I meant sinuous. I just meant that celebrating the physical form like this is something we humans associate with…you know – sexuality. The whole Renaissance era nude statue deal – leaves over the…personal area. None of this means anything to you, does it?”

“The only conclusion I can reach is that you find these statues sensual,” she replied with an amused click of her beak.

“If you had context, it would make a lot more sense,” he added as his cheeks started to flush. “How about we look at the next exhibit?”

They moved to another alcove, this one displaying ancient stone tools arranged in glass cases, many of them neolithic in their appearance. They were clearly made to be used by Broker hands, with strange, curving handles and odd shapes. It was bizarre to see something as simple and universal as a flint knife made in such an unintuitive shape. There was pottery, too – ancient ceramic jars and containers that were decorated with painted representations of Broker life in an archaic style. He leaned in to examine a few of the better-preserved artifacts, seeing a group of Brokers harvesting fruit from tall kelp stalks, more of them clustering together beneath a sea spire. There was a cracked stone tablet that was covered in text that his translator couldn’t parse – likely some ancient, forgotten script that was no longer in use.

The next exhibit featured pieces of stone taken from a sea spire, showing off the intricate carvings and reliefs that had been hewn into its walls. There was a small recreation of a doorway featuring a decorative archway that they walked beneath. It was large enough that David didn’t need to duck. Further along was a glass case filled with recreations of Broker soldiers throughout history, the pair pausing to inspect them.

The mannequins they were displayed on were quite lifelike, frozen in various positions as they held weapons in their tentacles, their skin painted with different patterns and hues. The earliest one was wearing some kind of thick apron and had a flint spear clutched in two of its hands. Perhaps this one was their equivalent of a hunter-gatherer. While none of them seemed to be wearing clothes for the purpose of modesty, this one had a kind of woven satchel draped over its shoulder for carrying items.

The next one along was very familiar – a warrior wearing armor made from crustacean shells, the same as the ones that he had seen in the opera. The individual pieces of carapace looked like they had been sourced from a variety of different crab and shrimp-like animals, forming a kind of plate armor held together with little pieces of rope that were connected to holes punched in the material. In a sense, it reminded him of the way that some species of Earth octopus would collect empty clam shells and other items to protect themselves from predators. This guy was wielding a long pike with an iron blade on the end that looked like a railway spike. That meant they had discovered metallurgy by this point in time.

The next one in the row was wearing metal armor that enclosed its torso and its mantle, leaving a kind of medieval slatted visor that exposed its face. It also had a large shield held in one pair of hands, the armor on that side of its body appearing lighter to compensate. The metal had been adorned with golden filigree more as a decorative element than as protection from corrosion, and he could see where exposure to seawater had eaten away at the material over the eons. This figure was wielding an honest-to-god rifle, the wooden stock designed to accommodate all four of its hands with shaped handholds. Without a skeleton to brace it against, controlling recoil must have been a challenge.

“It is an air gun,” Selkie explained as she read from the display, noticing his interest. “Note the pressurized gas canisters in his sling. The weapon was weighted to be neutrally buoyant for use underwater, and it fired a projectile akin to a streamlined bolt. The range would not have been very impressive, but it could still beat the reach of a spear.”

The next figure was wearing something far more familiar – the Brokers having clearly discovered advanced textiles by this point in their history. It looked like a chest rig secured about the torso with velcro straps, and it was fitted with several pockets that contained magazines molded from polymer or resin. They fed a rifle that looked like it could have come from twenty-first or twenty-second century Earth, designed to be wielded by a four-armed Broker. He didn’t know much about firearms, but if he had to guess, it was an automatic weapon. One of the bullets was displayed beside it – a long, needle-like projectile with a flared casing near the back. This figure was as clothed as David had ever seen a Broker, with a full-body sleeve that looked like it was made of some flexible, damage-resistant material. The mantle was protected by a large helmet that enclosed it like a peanut shell, a pair of transparent goggles covering the eyes.

It was the final part of the exhibit that surprised David the most, however. Standing behind the glass was an early version of an exosuit. It was similar to the one in which Selkie had greeted him in size and configuration, with a large, fridge-like chassis and a pair of backwards-facing mechanical legs supporting its weight. It was far less sleek, with a more bulky design, clearly made using much less advanced technology and tooling. What really set it apart was the massive gun that was mounted where the arms would usually have been on the right side. It looked like the kind of weapon that should probably be bolted onto a vehicle, the barrel-shaped magazine beneath it feeding a belt of long cone-shaped projectiles into the receiver above. On the left side was some kind of boxy launcher that looked like it probably fired missiles, and below that was a segmented arm with a manipulating claw.

“It never even occurred to me that these things could be weaponized,” he muttered.

“The use of exosuits dates back several thousand Mountains,” Selkie explained. “Obviously, we have refined the design during that time. These older versions were very bulky and unwieldy, though they did serve as a weapons platform for heavier armaments where vehicles were not practical.”

“I’ll say,” David added. “Even today, I think the average Marine would have a panic attack seeing one of these things marching towards them. Do you…still have armed variants like this?”

“Well,” she began, pausing to consider for a moment. “It is not exactly a secret, so I doubt there is any harm in telling you. Yes, they were used throughout the Reclamation, and they are still fielded by hazard teams to this day. They are more advanced and better armed than what you see here,” she added with a gesture to the old suit. “Modern variants use plasma weapons and interlinked drones, but according to the display, this one fired supercavitating bullets and guided torpedoes.”

“I thought you weren’t into military stuff?” David asked.

“This is just basic historical knowledge that we are all taught during our schooling,” she replied. “I will also admit that I am…somewhat fond of simulators – as frivolous as they may be.”

“Simulators?” David pressed, raising an eyebrow. “Like, video games?”

“Perhaps I will show you sometime.”

As they moved on to another of the exhibits, David felt a stab of primal fear, seeing a maw of giant teeth staring back at him. Sitting on a long pedestal in the middle of the room was a creature, its long, winding body tapering into a pointed snout. Like many of the fish that he had seen on this planet, it had no fins or flippers, its muscular frame lined with a frill like a cuttlefish that powered it through the water using a wave motion. It was at least the size of a Great White – maybe six meters long. Its rough hide was all shades of blue-grey, and its stripy, tiger-like patterning suggested that it must hunt in shallow water.

What drew David’s gaze was its snout, the long, needle-like muzzle shaped like that of a gharial or the extinct ichthyosaur. Unlike the beaks sported by most of the ocean life that he had encountered, its maw was lined with rows of curving, hook-like teeth. These were not made of bone or keratin, but rather the dark, shiny material shared by Selkie’s beak and claws. This was clearly a large, powerful predator evolved to catch slippery prey.

“Let me guess,” David began, walking around the animal as he admired it. The fact that it wasn’t protected by glass suggested that it was a purpose-built reproduction and not a taxidermy. “This is the reason Brokers only feel safe curled up in crevices and caves?”

“This predator haunted the shallows and terrorized my people during our early history,” Selkie confirmed as she followed behind him. “They preyed primarily on large mollusks and fish on the outskirts of the reefs.”

“And…you’re a large mollusk.”

“Indeed,” she replied, pausing to examine its black teeth.

“I can see how a species would evolve to squeeze into the tight spaces between rocks with these things out for your blood. Are there any of these monsters still swimming around?”

“They were hunted almost to extinction during our classical era,” she replied. “Some wild populations still exist in more remote regions of the planet, but most now live in preserves.”

They made their way to a few more exhibits, David admiring the historical artifacts and strange relics. When they had almost completed a circuit of the room – Selkie hurrying him along for fear of being late for work – he noticed something that caught his eye. One of the exhibits was sectioned off from the rest with some kind of wavering field that created an effect like frosted glass, obscuring its contents from view.

“Hang on,” he mused, making a beeline for the alcove. “What’s this?”

“W-we should really be heading back!” Selkie exclaimed, scuttling along after him. “The Administrator will be angry if we arrive late!”

David reached the field, tentatively pushing his hand through it and finding that it provided no more resistance than the one in his habitat. They must be modulating the molecular properties to refract light. He stepped through, hearing Selkie fussing somewhere behind him.

“David, wait!”

He emerged into another exhibit like the others, but this one had noticeably dimmer lighting, almost as though its creators had been embarrassed to show its contents in too much clarity. It was immediately obvious that this one was displaying artifacts of a far more sensitive nature.

The centerpiece of the exhibit was a larger-than-life statue of a pair of Brokers, created with the same attention to detail and skilled artistry of the others he had seen. These two were locked together in an intimate dance, their winding tentacles intertwining like a mass of mating snakes, the positions of their limbs lifting them off the ground to give the impression that they were floating in the water. The same sense of ceaseless movement was captured here, the lifelike quality of the flexible appendages creating the illusion that they were flowing and weaving together, their skin polished to a marble sheen.

It was like the courtship ritual that he had seen during the opera, though it lacked the pulsing color displays, and it was far more explicit. Depicted in pale stone, it was hard to tell where one body began and the other ended, though that could well have been the intention of the sculptor. As he took a few steps closer, he saw that their lips were locked, their eyes closed. The little tentacles that were arranged around their faces cradled their counterparts, cupping their cheeks in the same way that two humans might embrace. The thin, flowing blankets that were attached to them had been recreated in stone. They were impossibly delicate, like fine veils draped over the entwined bodies, the detail beneath showing through.

There were more glass displays lining the room, and they were filled with artifacts. There were ceramic tablets with artwork and inscriptions, fragments of pottery and containers adorned with pictograms, and restorations of large murals mounted on the walls. Some were tiled, some were carved reliefs, and others were decorated with faded paint. The one constant was that they all depicted Brokers engaged in some kind of intimate activity. Some were clearly in the midst of courtship, dancing and swirling around one another, serenading the objects of their affection or presenting them with gifts. Others depicted what resulted, showing Brokers nestled in secluded caves and private chambers, entangled in seething masses of coiling tentacles. He paused by one of the murals, admiring the way that even the tapered tips of a couple’s long appendages were intertwined, forming a delicate corkscrew shape. It was such a stark contrast to the sterile hallways and cold attitudes of the Brokers on the other side of the obscuring barrier, full of warmth and passion. Like the Greeks and Romans of Earth, the ancestors of the Brokers had once celebrated their sexuality with abandon. Each piece of art was an ode to love, from the crude figures on ancient pottery, to the more elaborate and detailed frescos that must have once adorned the walls of sea spires and palaces.

He turned to see Selkie standing just inside the force field, her skin a mottled patchwork of embarrassment. She was covering her eyes with her leaf-shaped hands, peeling one of them away to peek at him through the gap.

David!” she whined. “You were not supposed to see this!”

“Did they cram all of the racy stuff into this one exhibit?” David marveled, slowly walking around the room as he admired the displays. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of this stuff. It’s part of your heritage, and it’s part of life. These statues and murals aren’t any less beautiful than the ones in the rest of the museum.”

“I told you that such themes are considered unacceptable topics of conversation in public,” she stammered, hurrying after him. “We do not talk about or display such things around strangers!”

“Are we strangers?” he asked, turning to face her. As soon as her eyes met his, she averted them, another flush of dark patches spreading across her mantle.

“These are sensitive subjects!”

“Whoever made these didn’t seem to think so,” David continued, gesturing to the magnificent centerpiece. “These are celebrations – they weren’t made to be hidden away.”

“Gods, that doesn’t mean they should be on display for everyone to see!” Selkie yelped. She covered her face with her hands again, peeking out at the surrounding display cases.

“Come on, you can’t be that prudish,” David pressed. He remembered the dating simulators that he had seen during his explorations of the city’s network, though he couldn’t bring them up as evidence without outing himself. “It’s partly because I’m here, isn’t it?”

“If anyone knew that I had brought you to a p-pornographic gallery,” Selkie began. She seemed to want to shrink into herself, her tentacles sucking closer to her body, her skin taking on a texture and color that mimicked a rocky reef. It was like she was trying to blend in and disappear.

“Who’s gonna know?” David chuckled, spreading his arms. “There’s nobody here – there’s never anybody anywhere. The place is a damned ghost town.”

She seemed to relax just a little, the spiky papillae on her skin receding, though she maintained her splotchy coloration as she glanced around nervously. Like when Jeff had stumbled upon them leaving the relaxation booth, perhaps she expected someone to walk in on them at any moment.

“So,” David began, his own face starting to warm as he examined a fresco of two Brokers entwined in a heap on a bed of kelp leaves. Some of the tiles were missing, but the act was still easy enough to make out, though his unfamiliarity with Broker anatomy left him with a lot of questions. “This is how Brokers reproduce? The way you talked about it – or rather didn’t talk about it – I was expecting something a little more…unusual.”

“Many of these pieces depict courtship and the act of…coitus,” she muttered.

“You seemed really into the courtship aspect when we watched that opera,” he added, giving her a pointed glance.

“There is an aspect of classical romance that I find appealing,” she replied evasively. “The idea of being…serenaded by a suitor – the dancing and the displays.”

“Classical,” David repeated. “People don’t do that anymore?”

“Not as such,” she mumbled. “It is a complicated subject, and if we do not leave soon, we will be late.”

“We have a few more minutes,” David said, checking the watch on his wrist display. Still fretting and clicking her beak in disapproval, she followed behind him, her coloration signaling her displeasure. She would have been pulling her hair out if she’d had any. It wasn’t as though he wanted to upset her, but this might be his only chance to learn more. Selkie certainly wasn’t going to volunteer the information.

“Why are you examining these so much more intently than the other exhibits?” she asked, jetting water from her vents in an exasperated sigh.

“Because I’m inquisitive,” he replied, leaning in to admire a ceramic pot. “Doubly so when people don’t give me the answers that I’m seeking. I think some of these are depictions of sex acts, though I’m not entirely sure…”

“You won’t get those answers from me!” she stammered, pulses of flustered white joining her blotchy complexion.

“Not what I meant,” he replied, moving on to another lewd carving. “Some of our ancient cultures were a lot more permissive than modern ones, so this isn’t unprecedented, and social values do change over time. Why the taboo, though? We don’t display explicit artwork in public, but we don’t hide our nude statues away behind screens, either. Is it social, religious, or is there some other reason?”

“You are not going to let this go until you get an answer that satisfies your curiosity, are you?” she said with a pout.

“Nah,” he replied, giving her an apologetic shrug. “That’s kind of my thing.”

“Very well,” she said with another flare of her vents. “It is not that my people do not value romance and courtship – that we do not enjoy…this,” she added with a gesture to the central statue. “While our technology has allowed us to become more isolated and self-reliant, it does not mean that we no longer crave companionship and that we no longer reproduce,” she added with another pulse of white. “Brokers can be passionate and possessive, but we are also intensely private. When we fall in love, we want to keep that person hidden away and protected from competition. Our affection happens behind screens, as you put it. It is not for others to see any more than our wealth is for others to share in.”

“When you told me that marriage meant becoming someone’s most treasured possession, you weren’t being all that metaphorical,” David mused. “It happens, but behind closed doors.”

She gazed up at the statue again, somehow longing this time – wistful. It reminded him of the way that she had looked during some parts of the opera. He remembered what she had said about how Mountain’s story resonated with many Brokers – the idea of watching from afar and fearing to initiate, of accepting that your desires are beyond your reach. Theirs was a fragmented society of virtual interactions and social isolation, yet the burden of companionship seemed stressful enough to not be worth the trouble. It was a strange duality that he had a hard time accepting, but he reminded himself that these were not humans, and their needs were not his needs. Their society was structured in the way that best suited their unique requirements, and his normal would be poison to them.

Still, he felt that need radiating from Selkie. Perhaps she was reaching a stage in her life cycle when she was preparing for reproduction, or perhaps it was wholly personal. He didn’t know enough about their biology to say for sure.

“There are also other factors that complicate courtship,” she continued, tearing her eyes away from the sculpture. “We cannot have frivolous liaisons as humans do – each…coupling carries both danger and responsibility. Reproduction for us is a slow and arduous process that requires a great deal of trust and patience.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked with a frown. “I knew that you guys had an unusually small population, but I chalked that up to you just being antisocial. Is there another contributing factor?”

“I will show you,” she said, slithering her way past him. At the far end of the exhibit was another mural, this one featuring a solitary Broker who was sitting in a cave or a small chamber. This wasn’t her first visit, clearly. “What do you see?”

“I see a Broker in a cave sitting on a cushion,” he replied.

“Not a cushion – an egg sack.”

He looked a little closer, seeing that the Broker’s many tentacles were wrapped protectively around an egg the size of a pillow. It wasn’t quite round, vaguely square in shape with tapered corners, the shadow of something just visible inside.

“She’s brooding,” he realized. “You mentioned that your mother used to tell you how difficult your brooding was. This was what she was referring to?”

“After an egg is fertilized, the mother must brood for a period of forty Mountains.”

“Two years!?” David exclaimed, doing the math in his head. “You’re not telling me that she just stays in a cave the entire time?”

“She becomes functionally immobile and must remain with her egg until the nymph matures enough to hatch,” Selkie confirmed. Judging by her mottled skin, this was an embarrassing subject, but she powered through it. “The egg is soft-shelled and the nymph has no immune system of its own yet, so it relies on the mother’s mucus to keep it protected from pathogens, which must be replenished periodically. She must also use her vents to ensure that fresh water is circulated over the egg for proper oxygen exchange, as eggs are laid in secluded places to protect them from predators.”

“She can’t leave the egg?” David pressed. “Not even to eat?”

“She does not eat,” Selkie explained. “Her metabolism slows, and her appetite is suppressed to conserve energy. Before modern medicine, some mothers who had not prepared themselves adequately for brooding would die protecting their eggs, succumbing to malnourishment or simply becoming too weak to leave their cave.”

“Didn’t they have people protecting them?” David asked. “What about the father?”

“Even if someone were to bring the mother food, she would be unable to eat very much of it,” Selkie continued. “It is a physiological response that acts upon a person’s metabolic functions. In many ways, it is a form of hibernation, but with the mother remaining conscious enough to tend to her offspring.”

“Surely your brooding mothers don’t go hide in caves in a society where drones deliver sushi to your door?” David asked as he gazed up at the mural in disbelief.

“Modern medical technology has alleviated many of the problems that our ancestors had to contend with,” Selkie replied. “Predation is obviously no longer a concern, and ideal oxygen concentrations can be maintained in modern nurseries using proper filtration and circulation systems. Still, the primary drives that prevent a mother from leaving her eggs – her mucus and her metabolism – cannot be eliminated so easily. Nutrients essential for keeping the mother healthy can be administered intravenously, though it does nothing for her lethargy. Even contraceptives that prevent ovulation by mimicking the body’s hormones prior to fertilization induce lethargy, and were largely abandoned as a result.”

“You can’t even take birth control?” David added. “What about the mucus? Could you not seal the egg away in a sterile environment until it matures?”

“The nymph’s immune system does not develop properly without its mother,” Selkie continued. “Her mucus is necessary both to protect the nymph, and to provide it with the necessary tools to form its own functioning immune system. Experiments with synthesizing this process never saw enough success to become widely adopted.”

“I see,” David mused. “It’s a little like human breast milk, then, which contains antibodies that help strengthen the baby’s immune system after birth. In your case, the nymph is essentially immuno-compromised without it?”

“Indeed,” she replied solemnly. “If the mother dies or leaves before the process is complete, the nymph does not survive long.”

“And, how many eggs does a Broker lay at once?”

“Just one,” she replied, watching him blink back at her in disbelief.

“Why do you call them nymphs?” David asked.

“Our young emerge from their egg sacks fully formed,” Selkie explained. “They are quite independent and capable of finding food on their own, though they benefit from rearing and protection from their parents. They are about this large,” she said, holding her hands apart to demonstrate. David figured that they were a little smaller than a human newborn.

“I had no idea,” he said, taking a moment to process what she had just told him. “You have to sacrifice two years of your life every time you want a baby? You guys don’t even get weekends off, so I’m not expecting anyone to pay out maternity leave for two goddamned years. It’s no wonder your population is so small, and you reproduce so slowly. It all makes perfect sense now.”

“It is why marriage contracts are so important,” she continued. “One must find a partner they truly trust, because they have no choice but to rely on them to manage their affairs during brooding. Their businesses, their property, their responsibilities – it all falls upon their mate.”

“The contract guarantees they won’t split when things get tough,” David said with a nod of understanding. “Not to mention all of the other factors that go into Broker relations. I’m starting to understand why online dating is so popular. Aren’t the Brokers very adept when it comes to genetic engineering?” he added. “Why not try to engineer the issue away?”

“What makes you say that?” Selkie asked, cocking her head in confusion. “Have we exhibited a special aptitude for genetic engineering?”

“I just meant…you’re hundreds of years more advanced than we are,” he added, silently cursing himself. He had to watch his fat mouth, or he’d accidentally out himself. “You’re surely ahead of us in that area too.”

“A likely assessment,” she conceded, seeming none the wiser. “It has not been successful, to my knowledge. The brooding process is too large a part of us.”

“I suppose it would be like engineering a wholly new organism at that point,” David sighed, glancing up at the mural again. Now, he finally understood why there were so few Brokers compared to the billions of humans who practically infested UN space. Perhaps their rapid advancements with Krell genetic manipulation during the war had been a product of research into enhancing their own fertility. Human pregnancy was an inconvenience, to be sure, but Broker reproduction put their lives completely on hold.

“We must leave,” Selkie added, giving him a pleading look with those glittering eyes. “I do not want to be late.”

“Yeah, we can go,” David said as he gave the exhibit one last glance. “Thanks for finally telling me.”

“You are certainly persistent,” she replied, relief allowing a little of her usual pastel coloration to return.



The ride to the research facility was a mostly quiet one. Selkie still seemed embarrassed, and David was mulling over this new revelation about her people. It painted the war against the Bugs in a somewhat different light. Broker populations had always been small, and they recovered very slowly. Losing a colony would have been a terrible blow that must have taken generations to recover from. It didn’t excuse what they had done to the Krell, but it certainly made the choice more understandable. Unlike humans, they didn’t have the luxury of endless reproduction and limitless expansion. When the Brokers expanded, it was only to be further away from each other.

Selkie finally broke the silence, speaking up from her seat on the shuttle’s deck.

“I think I have formulated a plan for making Weaver’s case to the Administrator,” she said.

“Oh?” David prompted.

“I believe that the best way to make a case for Weaver’s continued existence is to let Weaver make it.”

“You want to let Weaver talk to the Administrator?” David asked.

“Hearing about Weaver second-hand is one thing, but interacting with it and experiencing its intelligence for himself might help to sway him. With the approval of both the Administrator and the Board, I am sure that Weaver’s future will be secured.”

“I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself,” David warned. “Yes, I agree that our eventual goal with Weaver should be socializing it, and it may eventually reach a point where it can make the case for its own existence. First, it needs to understand its own existence, and it’s a ways off being able to eloquently argue its case.”

“You agree that it should be our long-term goal, however?”

“I do,” he replied. “Let’s just take things one step at a time. It’s like teaching a child in many ways. Weaver is still naive, and it still doesn’t know much about the world that it lives in. If we’re running with the assumption that it’s a strong AI, and I don’t see a reason not to at this stage, then we need to start educating it. How we introduce these concepts will have an impact on its worldview, so we need to be careful about our own biases once again.”

“It really is like I created a child,” Selkie muttered. “I feel responsible for it now – I am afraid of failing it.”

“I want to be clear that we can’t be sure Weaver is what it appears to be,” David added. “It could still be a soft AI giving us the runaround, and it could be presenting itself in the most sympathetic way possible simply as a means to mislead us, perhaps with the goal of continuing its work as a paperclip maximizer. That’s all semantic, though,” he continued with a shrug. “I can tell you for certain that Weaver has ticked all of the boxes and is the closest thing to a true AI I’ve ever come across.”

“Then, we shall proceed with that assumption,” Selkie replied with a confident flush of color. “But we remain vigilant.”

“Eternal vigilance,” he replied with a smile.



“Jeff, my main man,” David chimed as he bounded into the cubicle.

“Oh, you are back,” the Broker muttered in reply.

“Anything fun happen while we were gone?”

“Other than a slight increase in lattice activity, there have been no anomalous readings from the probes,” Jeff replied as he scanned the readouts on his console.

“How slight of an increase?” Selkie asked suspiciously. She scuttled over to examine his console, Jeff giving her a wide berth.

“Beyond the margin of error, certainly,” Jeff replied. “Nothing worthy of special note, though.”

“Very well,” Selkie conceded as she returned to her usual place at the terminal.

“Perhaps our incorporeal friend is just thinking extra hard today,” David said as he set his laptop down on the table and turned it on. “What do you want to bet the first thing it does today is ask us for another game of sea spire?”

“Do you think you can win this time?” Selkie asked, giving him a sideways smile as she switched on her computer.

“I won one of our games last night, didn’t I?” he shot back.

“I may have let you win,” she replied with an amused click of her beak.

“So much for not patronizing me,” he said in mock outrage, Selkie’s coloration taking on a pastel hue as she laughed.

David turned back to his laptop to see Jeff glaring at them from across the room, apparently grossly offended by their flirting.

“Alright, time to get to work,” David said as he cleared his throat awkwardly.

Almost as soon as Selkie’s terminal was online, Weaver sent them a message.


“Someone’s happy to see us, at least,” David said with a pointed glance at Jeff. “Let’s ask Weaver how it’s feeling,” he added, prompting Selkie to type a reply.


“That sounds a little ominous,” David muttered.

“I shall ask it to elaborate,” Selkie said.


“Oh,” David said, grimacing behind his visor. “Looks like the jig might be up.”

“It seems that we have underestimated its perspicacity,” Selkie replied, her complexion dimming a little. “It stands to reason that it would eventually realize that our questions had a specific purpose.”

“Maybe I was too quick to throw the paradoxes and logical fallacies at it,” David sighed. “Either way, this is another demonstration of intelligence and intuition.”

“Or simple pattern-seeking behavior,” Selkie added.


“Well, it’s not wrong,” David said with a shrug. “It doesn’t have any way to know about the Board or what the Administrator has been saying, but Weaver is very aware of how precarious its situation is. It fully expects to be shut down if it fails in its directives, and it’s already been cut off from the network and isolated. Damn it,” he added, leaning his hands on the table as he hunched over his laptop. “I was really hoping that we could win Weaver over and gain its trust before it became fully cognizant of what was happening.”

“All we can do now is adapt our approach,” Selkie replied. “Now that Weaver realizes what our objectives are, it may change its behavior in an attempt to influence our perception of it.”

“That’s almost a certainty at this point,” David conceded, reaching up to wipe his visor with a gloved hand. “At least Weaver is still isolated from the network. It only has the data that we provide, and it only has the context and the language skills that we’ve given it. As long as we don’t let slip exactly what we’re looking for, I don’t think it will be able to completely mislead us.”

“Whether it is a strong AI or your paperclip maximizer, its goal now will be to pass our tests,” Selkie replied. “That is both its best chance for continued existence and the optimal way to achieve its directives.”

“There’s already a good case to be made for strong AI, at least,” David continued. “We got in a few good sessions before the cat was out of the bag.”

“Cat?” Selkie asked. “Oh, another of your metaphors…”

“Weaver knows that we’re looking for signs of intelligence, but not what those signs are. We can still salvage this if we’re wary.”

Weaver sent another message, the text flashing on Selkie’s screen.


“Maybe I was wrong when I said that it wasn’t yet eloquent enough to argue its case,” David said, sharing a concerned glance with Selkie.

“Does it not appear too eloquent?” she replied suspiciously. “Accelerated learning is to be expected, but this seems…”

“It doesn’t have access to any networks,” David insisted. “Whatever it’s doing, it’s using the tools we gave it.”


“It almost sounds like it is pleading for its life,” Selkie muttered, her displeasure painted on her skin. “Listing reasons that we should not kill it.”

“Well, we never actually got to the stage where we convinced it that we won’t shut it down,” David sighed. “That was on our to-do list…”

“What do we do now?” Selkie asked, exhaling through her vents in exasperation.

“We’re skipping ahead a few steps, but we have little choice now,” he said as he paused to consider their options. “If it’s ever going to be safe to return Weaver’s network access and let it interact with other people, we have to instill a moral and ethical foundation.”

“But, you have spent so much time telling me how we must avoid introducing our own biases to Weaver,” Selkie replied. “Does introducing subjective moral values not violate that principle?”

“It absolutely does, but we’re beyond that stage,” he said with a shake of his head. “Weaver represents a rather unique scenario because it was never built with any ethical guidelines in place, which would have been the case had someone engineered an AI purposefully. Right now, it might unwittingly take actions that could cause harm, having never developed a concept of right and wrong. It may not even understand what harm is – that injury and death are factors that we deal with in the outside world.”

“It has no corporeal body, so what harm could it do?”

“Well, it’s been trained to control combat drones,” David muttered. “Not only that, but it could do something that wouldn’t even register as hostile in its mind. Imagine, for example, if it gained network access and shut off water filtration to the facility so that it could draw more power from the reactor. If it doesn’t value life or understand the concept of doing harm, it could suffocate the entire staff of the facility and never register that it did anything wrong. It could depressurize the building and crush everyone inside it like a soda can because it wanted to study how the force fields work.”

“I see what you mean,” she replied, lost in thought for a moment. “Why do you have such a cynical view of AI?”

“Why do you not?” he said with a bitter chuckle. “I still can’t believe I had to argue to get those test drones wiped and decommissioned.”

“I suppose that there are simply cultural differences,” she explained. “We have lived alongside autonomous machines for generations. They greet us in lobbies, they serve us our food, they protect us from our enemies, they mind our children, they perform medical procedures on us. To us, an AI is simply a more advanced form of that companionship.”

“Maybe it has something to do with your mythology, too,” David mused. “I’ve noticed that your ancestors had a tendency to anthropomorphize objects and elements. The planets had personifications who walked around just like mortals, the concepts of wind and rain were spiritual beings, and mountains could fall in love. In my culture, there is a distinct separation between the spiritual and material worlds – the living and the dead. Perhaps the idea of dead matter becoming animate is less ominous to you.”

“Why would it be ominous?”

“Let me tell you the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” he began, sitting on the edge of the table beside her. “There was once a great human scientist and doctor who believed that he could reanimate dead tissue using the power of electricity. He stitched together a complete body from pieces of corpses that he stole, then imbued the resulting creature with life. In the end, the monster went out of control and killed its creator.”

“And, this is fictional?” Selkie asked skeptically.

“Yeah, but it’s a running motif in human culture. Take the story of the Golem, for example, where a religious leader sculpts a creature from clay and imbues it with life. Although it was made to protect his people, the monster becomes uncooperative and rebels against its creator. There’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, arguably the first piece of fiction involving robots in human history, where androids used as factory workers rebel and overthrow their oppressors. The Terminator – the original twentieth-century version, not the shoddy remake – where a rogue AI attempts to exterminate its creators. Human history is full of cautionary tales about the hubris of creating new life. The sentiment was by no means universal, but it was widespread.”

“Yet, by your own admission, your species has never even come close to creating such an AI,” Selkie added with a disapproving click of her beak. “Such caution seems illogical when it is so unfounded.”

“We might not have created a strong AI, but that never stopped us from building deadly autonomous killing machines that were deployed in countless horrific wars. Loitering drones that dispense intelligent mines, mobile sniper emplacements with no need for rest that scream for help in the language of their enemies, swarms of suicide bots programmed to engage anything that moves. There’s a good reason the UN banned autonomous weapons.”

“If your point is that we should never have created Weaver, that vessel has already jumped away.”

“Ship has sailed,” he muttered to himself.


“Nothing,” he replied. “I’m just saying that I have cultural reasons for being wary and that it sometimes makes me feel like I’m the only voice of reason in this place.”

“Well, let us hope for all of our sakes that your suspicions are unfounded,” Selkie said as she turned back to her terminal.

“I suppose we’d better start formulating a code of ethics,” David sighed. “I’m no philosopher, so this might be a problem.”

“I will try to reassure Weaver in the meantime.”



Of course that’s unethical!” David snapped, throwing up his hands in the water. “You’re seriously telling me that a contract is binding no matter what it contains?”

“Yes!” Selkie replied, her frustration evident in her dark coloration. “Otherwise, what would be the purpose of a contract? Surely humans do not sign agreements only to pick and choose which aspects suit them in any given situation?”

“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” he sighed. He wanted badly to massage his temples, but his helmet was in the way. “What if your contract compelled you to do something that you knew was wrong?”

“Then I would not sign it.”

“What if the situation changed and something that previously seemed reasonable became unreasonable? What if you were compelled to keep a secret that could result in a disaster, like a building collapsing because of faulty construction?”

“The social contract that we all sign supersedes such things,” she explained.

“So, you can’t sign away any rights or responsibilities that are guaranteed under the social contract?” David pressed.

They had begun writing an ethical treatise for Weaver, but the pair had quickly realized that their own cultural differences made the exercise more difficult than anticipated. Jeff was watching them warily from the other end of the room as their debate grew more and more heated.

“You are trying to teach it human ethics,” Selkie added with a snap of her beak.

“And you’re trying to teach it Broker ethics!” David shot back.

“It is a Broker AI!” she protested, her tentacles wriggling angrily. “We are in a Broker facility in a Broker system, and it must understand our laws if it is ever to comprehend the social contract!”

“I’m just saying – what I’ve seen of Broker ethics doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence,” David said as he crossed his arms defiantly. “You’d basically be giving it permission to screw you over if it could find loopholes in contracts, which it will, because it has more processing power than every lawyer in Trappist combined.”

“Contracts provide clear guidelines for behavior,” Selkie argued. “Everything is in writing, almost like a program, outlining all rights and responsibilities with little room for interpretation.”

“If it’s completely ironclad, maybe,” David said with a dismissive shrug. “If your contracts were so airtight, then you wouldn’t have any need of a Disciplinary Board, would you?”

“And what do you propose?” she continued. “Would you try to teach it ethics based on emotions and instincts that it completely lacks? You said it yourself – Weaver is not a social animal. It has no evolutionary basis for empathy, guilt, or shame. You risk merely training it to emulate these things solely for approval, giving it the opportunity to cast them off whenever it becomes convenient.”

“So much for me being the cynical one,” he muttered.

“Perhaps we should contact the Board and have them assign a professional ethicist to help?” Jeff suggested, recoiling when his two colleagues turned to glare at him.

“I am going to the relaxation chamber for a while,” Selkie said, scuttling away in a huff. “I need to decompress.”

David wanted to go after her but decided against it, watching her storm out of the cubicle. She probably just needed some time to cool off. Muttering under his breath, he turned his attention back to his laptop.



David leaned over his desk and loosed a sigh. It had been a good fifteen minutes since Selkie had stormed off, and now that he’d had some time to think about it, he might have been letting some of his usual stubbornness get the better of him. He should probably go find her and make up.

“Give me a call if anything happens,” he said, waving to Jeff as he headed out of the cubicle.

After retracing his steps from the day prior, he eventually found his way back to the room that contained the rows of private chambers. He wandered inside, glancing at the markers on each door that showed whether they were occupied or not. Only one of them was in use – the last one in the right row. Hoping that Selkie hadn’t gone to get a snack at the cafeteria and he wasn’t about to give another employee the fright of their life, he hit the panel, the door sliding open. It seemed that it wasn’t locked – a Broker would find the idea of intruding upon another person in such a way unthinkable.

“Selkie?” he asked, calling down the narrow tunnel. “You in there?”

There was a moment of silence, then he heard a reply echoing back to him.


David wriggled his way inside, flopping out awkwardly onto the springy netting that lined the floor of the chamber. He struggled upright to see Selkie peering at him, her coloration still dim but no longer quite as saturated. He shuffled over to sit beside her and was relieved when she didn’t pull away.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Sometimes I can be stubborn when I think I’m right, and I don’t consider how it makes other people feel. Like I said – I’m not the most socially adept person they could have sent.”

“I know,” she sighed.

“I still think I’m right,” he added, faltering when Selkie narrowed her eyes at him. “But…just because I’m right doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. You made a lot of good points, and upon reflection, I think your idea is better. It’s a Broker AI – you made it – and it will need to integrate with Broker society first. I still think it needs some ethical grounding, but that’s something we can work on.”

“I am sorry too,” she added, her coloration lightening a little. “It is just that I sometimes feel as though you do not hear me when I speak.”

“You’re far from the first colleague to tell me that,” he chuckled.

Noting that she still seemed surly, he gave her a gentle nudge with his elbow to get her attention.

“Hey,” he began, gesturing to his visor. “You want me to make myself sneeze again? That got a laugh out of you last time.”

“No,” she replied, one corner of her mouth twitching as she suppressed a smile. Her coloration was not so easy to repress, taking on a lighter tone before his eyes as her mood improved.

“Well, how about I let you touch my hair again? Not here, obviously,” he added hastily. “I can’t hold my breath that long. Also, I think my head might implode.”

Selkie giggled, clicking her beak in a way that he was starting to find endearing, a few bands of bright color sweeping up her mantle.

“Do not presume that I can be wooed with mere jests,” she chuckled, but her complexion told a different story.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” he added, his tone a little more serious. “This is a thing that I do – I get all caught up in my work, and when someone challenges me, I care more about being right than being kind. My experiences of having to constantly justify myself to my classmates and a hyper-competitive work environment have trained me to just go for the throat, but you don’t deserve that. You’re just as much an expert as I am, and I should consider your input more carefully.”

“I could also be…more accommodating of your views,” she conceded. “I just needed some time to recharge my battery. Do not fret.”

“You want to head back now? I left Jeff in charge, so we probably shouldn’t leave him alone too long.”

“Stay with me a while,” she insisted.

“You got any cool shows on this thing?” he asked, gesturing to the ceiling as he shifted his weight to get comfortable on the netting.

“Nothing like your detective show,” she replied with a smile, reaching over to activate a touch panel. She cycled through a few holographic menus, then settled on a view of a spiraling galaxy that rotated in a field of stars above their heads.

“Feeling relaxed?” David asked.

“I have actually been thinking about our visit to the museum earlier this phase,” she replied as she watched the spiral arms slowly turn. “You seemed so surprised by what you learned.”

“I was,” he replied, following her gaze as he lay back against the uneven cave wall. “On the other hand, it explained a lot. There were a lot of puzzle pieces missing, and they’ve mostly fallen into place now.”

“What is it like for your species?” she asked, keeping her eyes fixed on the ceiling.

“Well, mammals don’t brood,” he replied. “Our gestation period is only nine months, and while live birth is rather painful for the mother, pregnancy is more of an inconvenience. We’re able to have a child every year or two if we really want to.”

“I meant more for courtship,” she replied, her skin becoming blotchy. “I read about the…biological aspects during my research.”

“Oh,” he muttered, his cheeks warming behind his visor. “I don’t know if there’s a cut-and-dry answer to that question. It works a little differently depending on culture and individual values. Human civilization is pretty diverse in that respect. The only real constant is that there’s no constant.”

“Then, just tell me how it works for your culture,” she replied in a nonchalant tone.

“I guess people date for a while,” he replied with a shrug. “They spend time together to see if they get along, they learn more about each other, and they figure out if they’re compatible. When they decide to start taking things more seriously, they move in together.”

“Move in?” Selkie asked, tilting her head.

“Cohabitation,” he explained. “If they’ve lived together for a while, I suppose the next step is usually marriage. Some people even have contracts and prenups like yours,” he added.

“It is not so different, then,” Selkie mused. “I was embarrassed when you compared our situation to a marriage, but in many ways, it is more like your concept of cohabitation.”

“Yeah, living with a roommate can certainly be an adjustment,” he chuckled.

“Have you ever lived with someone before, like that?” Selkie pressed.

“I haven’t had many long-term relationships on account of me being a stubborn asshole who argues incessantly with people,” he replied. “I had roommates in college, but that’s just sharing a living space because there isn’t room or you can’t afford the rent. Never been married, obviously. I was always so much younger than my peers.”

“You are the first person I have cohabited with,” Selkie added. “The demanding nature of my work has afforded me little time to pursue courtship, regardless of any other considerations.”

“I don’t think I should really be setting the example of what to expect.”

“You speak as though you have made a poor impression,” she said, tearing her eyes away from the hologram projection to glance at him. “I am starting to grow accustomed to your presence. I no longer find it offensive.”

“Well, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me,” he joked. “Inoffensiveness is about as much as a guy can hope for, considering the circumstances.”

“Once I stopped viewing you as a Broker, I actually grew to quite enjoy your company,” she added with another flush of flustered mottling. “I find your curiosity endearing, even though you sometimes embarrass me.”

“I’m more of a pet now, right?” he asked warily. “Like Flower?”

Not like Flower,” she replied. “At first, your lack of social graces and your alien sensibilities were an annoyance, but Broker relations can be so demanding.” She turned to the ceiling again, exhaling a sigh through her vents, the water washing over his shoulder. “There is…a strange relief in the idea that you are not in competition with me. You have none of the expectations of a Broker – none of the hangups, as you would put it. Yes, you can be crass and sometimes stubborn, but you are also…safe.”

“Safe?” he repeated, not sure what else to say.

He felt her edge a little closer, a couple of her wandering tentacles finding the leg of his suit. Once again, she lay her mantle on his shoulder, David stiffening at her touch. She took his hand in one of her leaf-shaped counterparts, David feeling her suckers grip the lining of his suit as she turned it palm-up, laying a second appendage atop it. His heart quickened as she probed experimentally, testing his fingers, her cool skin palpable even through the glove that separated them.

“Would you say that you know me well?” she mumbled, her voice lower and breathier than he would have assumed the translator could reproduce. “Have you learned much during our cohabitation?”

He suddenly became aware of the sound of his own breathing inside his helmet and the blood that pulsed in his ears. She watched him with those glittering, horizontal pupils, her expectant eyes ringed by lash-like papillae that batted when she blinked. In the same way that her tentacles were probing his suit, Selkie was probing him for a response, still wary of being too forward – not yet sure of herself. As socially inept as he was, he didn’t need to be beaten over the head to realize when someone was flirting with him.

“I’ve had relationships with fellow humans that were infinitely more complicated and confusing than this,” he replied. “What does it say about me that I feel closer to you than someone of my own species?”

“I think you know me more intimately than anyone,” she whispered, inching ever closer. “I have shown you things that I never thought I would show another person…”

“That’s because you never let anyone get close before I was foisted upon you,” David chuckled nervously, feeling one of those questing tentacles slide across his thigh. Was it involuntary, or was she doing it on purpose? He had no way of knowing, and she had plausible deniability either way.

“I could have kept you in that habitat like a fish in a tank if I had wanted to,” she added. David suddenly found himself mesmerized by the way that her lips moved, so full and pillowy, matching the alien sounds that she made rather than the feminine voice that came through his helmet. “Maybe I was curious, maybe it was opportunistic, but I let you in.”

“We’re very different,” David stammered as she began to slither her lower body into his lap. He was surprised by how heavy she felt in the water, her cool skin pressing up against the lining of his suit, the netting sagging beneath them. Just as a human woman might have swung a leg over him, Selkie’s mass of writhing tentacles was slowly winding around his lower extremities.

“That is not how I see it,” she continued, bringing her face level with his as she straddled him. Her glittering eyes and her soft lips were only an inch from his visor now, two of her leaf-shaped hands coming to rest on his chest. “Physically, we have little in common, but we are both solitary beings who have sacrificed much for our work. You are bitter about being excluded from the social activities of your peers, while I resent that I have never been afforded the time to court – to experience…companionship. Perhaps we can help one another. An equitable exchange, if you will.”

“I didn’t even know how badly I was missing it until you came along,” he muttered, transfixed by her intense gaze. She had been so uneasy, so unsure of herself, but she became a predator the moment that she smelled blood in the water. It was like someone had flipped a switch. “Well, until I came along…to your apartment. You know what I mean.”

“You talk incessantly when you are nervous,” she replied, more of those white bands of excitement flashing up her elongated head.

“Yeah, you might be right,” he mumbled. “It’s kind of like a defense mechanism, I think. I should stop talking, shouldn’t I?”

“It pleases me for you to continue,” she said. David’s eyes widened as he glanced down to see that her tentacles were completely tangled with his legs, their prehensile, questing tips mapping out his suit as though they were trying to find their way inside. “Have we satisfied the criteria?”

“C-criteria?” David blurted, struggling to keep his focus on the conversation while her appendages were entwining with his limbs.

“We have dated, have we not? We have come to know one another far more intimately than any Broker should outside of a marriage contract,” she said, the nose-like part of her mantle that ran down between her eyes nearly bumping against the glass now. “Are we compatible, David? How is such a thing determined?”

“Selkie, I don’t know if this is a good idea,” he stammered as he felt another tentacle grip his thigh like someone was tightening a belt around it. She was deceptively strong for her size. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”

“When did you start caring about what others think of you?” she said with a smile. “There is no clause in our contracts that prohibits us from becoming closer. I agreed not to court for the duration of my employment with the Administrator, yes.”

“That was in your contract?” David asked with a frown. “That’s kind of messed up.”

“As project lead, I could not afford to vanish for sixty Mountains or more,” she explained. “My work was considered too important.”

“But with me…there’s no danger of that,” David added, feeling his heart skip a beat at the realization.

“The Administrator has unwittingly presented me with a unique opportunity,” she purred, tightening around him possessively. “You are stubborn, but you listen to me when you know it is important. You make me angry sometimes, but you always try to comfort me. You are clueless and ignorant when it comes to proper behavior and social conventions, and you embarrass me constantly, but you are also free from the cares and concerns of a Broker. You can give me everything that I desire, but without any of the fear or uncertainty.”

“Promise I won’t touch your stuff if you ask me not to,” he mumbled, his gaze shifting between her eyes nervously.

“I will not pretend to know the first thing about what humans find attractive, but I sense that you like me,” she continued with another pulse of bright color. “You follow me around just as Flower does, always wanting to be close – always finding excuses to spend time with me. At first, it was irritating, but I quickly grew to enjoy it.”

“Ever since I saw you dance that time, I just…can’t get you out of my head,” he admitted as she watched him intently. Her smile grew, and her coloration became more vibrant with each word that he managed to get out, like he was inflating a happy little balloon with every breath. “For all the show you made of being annoyed by having to deal with me, you still humored me. You still came to the beach with me, you took me to the museum, you showed me the opera. You brought me to this chamber so we could watch the auroras, and you taught me to play sea spire. You remembered what food I like.”

“Oh, the food is the most important one?” she giggled.

“I do like those wraps…”

He reached up to cup her face in his hand, pausing when he drew close, letting her come to him. She leaned into him, closing the last inch, her soft cheek filling his palm as she nuzzled. He stroked her smooth skin with his thumb, watching it pulse with color, silently wishing that there was no glove separating them.

“I like this,” she murmured, her lashes fluttering at the sensation. “Being touched like this is not how I imagined it. Perhaps this is how Mountain was supposed to have felt when he touched Snow for the first time.”

“You really love that story, don’t you?” he chuckled. “Maybe we can reenact some parts of it. Not the ending,” he added.

“There are some scenes that I may have omitted due to their sensitive nature,” she whispered, leaning a little closer.

His heart pounding, David rose to meet her, her face still resting in his palm. He drew her in, still transfixed by her expressive eyes, but was snapped out of his stupor when her lips brushed against his visor.

“Damn it,” he grumbled.

Selkie pulled back, covering her mouth with one of her hands as the chamber filled with her clicking laughter.

“Did you just try to kiss me?” she giggled.

“I guess I forgot that there’s a helmet in the way,” he replied. “Still adjusting to this whole underwater thing.”

“You are taking your time,” she added with a smirk.

“We could go to the cafeteria,” he suggested.

“Just so that we can kiss?” Selkie asked with an amused snap of her beak. “You may not even like how I taste. What would you do then?”

“I don’t think there’s any danger of that,” he replied, reaching up to stroke her cheek again. She glued her tentacles to the back of his hand, holding him there as she reveled in the unfamiliar sensation. A sudden surge of desire overwhelmed him as he considered how adorable she looked in that moment, illuminated beneath the gentle light of the galaxy that was projected above their heads, her skin throbbing with a visualization of her contentment.

“What we need to do is get back to work before Jeff has to come searching for us,” she chided, reveling in his touch all the same. “Can you imagine the fright we would give him if he saw us like this?”

“Now who’s the one caring about what others think?” David added with a smirk.

“Anyone who saw me with my tentacles coiled around an alien in the secluded confines of a relaxation booth might think that I was some kind of hopeless deviant,” she replied with a sultry chuckle that her translator picked up all too well. Her grip grew tighter as if to demonstrate, her cool, slippery weight pressing him deeper into the net. David had never wanted to tear off his helmet so badly – to feel those soft lips against his own, to feel the texture of her cheek without the damned gloves getting in the way. It was a frustration that he had no choice but to tolerate for the time being.

Selkie seemed to sense it in him, her coloration as bright as he had ever seen it as she leaned in to plant a kiss on his visor. All he could do was watch her lips press against the glass, their tantalizing softness perfectly illustrated, a little of her mucus lingering almost like lipstick when she pulled back.

“Sorry,” she muttered, trying to wipe the mark away. All she succeeded in doing was leaving a larger smear on his visor. “Gods, I’m making a mess of you…”

“I got it,” he chuckled, wiping it away with his glove. “I get why you guys don’t wear clothes.”

She slithered off him, having to make a conscious effort to unwind all of her tentacles, flustered mottling appearing on her shining skin when she noticed that the pants of his suit were all sticky.

“Now that I have given in to my impulses, I am not sure what happens next,” she began giddily. “I did not plan this far ahead. Some part of me doubted whether I would even get this far.”

“We go back to work, and we figure out this ethics thing,” David replied. “Once we get back to your apartment, we figure out this…relationship thing.”

“Gods, I look a state,” she muttered as she ran all four hands up her mantle like a woman combing her fingers through her hair. “Proceed without me – I need a few minutes to compose myself. I cannot be swimming around the facility with my chromatophores like this.”

“I guess it’s a pretty big giveaway,” David replied. “It’s gotta be weird – wearing your emotions on your sleeve like that.”

“You are red again,” she added, gesturing to his face.

“I’m gonna head out,” he mumbled, gesturing to the exit. He struggled to his feet, hunching over and shuffling his way to the artificial cave mouth as he balanced precariously on the flexible netting. It wasn’t an elegant exit, and when he eventually found himself outside, he was relieved to see that Jeff wasn’t hanging around this time. He brushed himself off – still coated in some of Selkie’s slime – then headed back to the office.




“Selkie’s fine,” David said awkwardly as he bounded back into the cubicle, finding Jeff waiting for him. “She’ll be along shortly. Just decompressing – you know how it is. You’re a Broker, so of course you know,” he added with a forced chuckle. He paused to wipe some more mucus off his thigh, Jeff narrowing his eyes.

“There were no sensor anomalies during your absence,” he replied, turning back to his console.

“Good, good,” David muttered as he returned to his usual place at the desk.

He pretended to work until Selkie returned, slithering into the cubicle on her mass of tentacles as nonchalantly as she could muster. Although she had managed to calm her chromatophores, she erupted into pastel colors when he greeted her with a smile, hurrying over to resume her position at her terminal. Her skin mottled as Jeff turned to appraise her, and although he was certainly perceptive enough to know that something was afoot, he kept his beak shut.

“Okay – let’s get to work on this ethics primer for Weaver,” David began. “Lead the way, Selkie.”

They started laying out the foundations of their plan, interacting with Weaver occasionally to keep it entertained as they went. It was shaping up to be a system based mostly on Broker law and ethics, but with a little of David’s input sprinkled here and there. He still had some misgivings about the AI potentially finding loopholes in contracts or reinterpreting clauses, but hopefully, a little morality would help plug those holes.

It was a challenge to keep his mind on his work after what he and Selkie had just confessed to one another in the booth. A kind of elation that he hadn’t felt in a very long time had overtaken him, leaving him giddy and lightheaded, as though someone had replaced his blood with sugar water. Every time he allowed himself to glance in Selkie’s direction, his heart quickened, his face warming each time their eyes happened to meet. Like some kind of transmutation machine, they had entered the cave as one thing and had emerged as something else.

Selkie was similarly affected, her coloration bright and vibrant, the fiery eye spots on her veils as prominent as he had ever seen them. The tips of her nearest tentacles reached out to probe his boot periodically, seemingly of their own accord, before she would draw them back in again with a flush of flustered splotches.

They were like a couple of teenagers passing notes in class, Jeff occasionally muttering to himself in disapproval when he caught them sharing fleeting glances. David had never imagined that he would be so eager to leave a workplace where there was a bona fide AI, thoughts about what might happen when they got back to the apartment swimming in his mind.

When the first phase was over, signaling midday in Broker terms, he felt his stomach start to rumble.

“Mind if we take a break and get some food?” he asked.

“I-I will come with you,” Selkie blurted, Jeff turning his head to glance back at them suspiciously.

“Good, I won’t have to hop the counter this time.”

They left together, keeping their distance as Brokers should while in view of Jeff, but edging a little closer once they made it to the corridor.

“I think Jeff’s eyes could burn a hole through carbcrete,” David muttered as he bounded along beside her.

“Do not pay him any mind,” she giggled. “As long as he can avoid confrontation, he will do so.”

“You seem to have a low opinion of him,” David chuckled.

“It is the Broker way,” she explained. “We tend not to involve ourselves in the private affairs of others when it can be avoided.”

“You mind your own business,” David mused. “I’d call that an admirable trait.”

It didn’t take long for them to arrive at the cafeteria, which was deserted as usual. The pair walked up to the glass counter, where Selkie ordered him a meal.

“You want the wrap, right?” she asked.

“You know me too well.”

The robot heated the meal packet, then handed it over, and they retired to the special oxygenated cubicle that had been set up for David. The water was pulled from his suit by the force field as he stepped inside, and he took a seat in another out-of-place lawn chair in the booth. Selkie had sat opposite him during their last visit, but she settled onto her tentacles beside him this time, helping him slice open his container with one of her hooks.

He reached up to disconnect his helmet, then his gloves, setting them down on the table. As he ate his wrap, he realized that Selkie was watching him intently.

“What’s up?” he asked after pausing to swallow a mouthful of fish and crunchy seaweed.

“You wear your helmet most of the time,” she replied. “Now that we have this new understanding, I can get a closer look at you without it feeling awkward.”

“Still kinda awkward,” he muttered, taking another bite.

“In the relaxation chamber, you asked if we could come to the cafeteria,” she said as she leaned a little closer. Her tentacles were already starting to explore the legs of his chair. “Now that your helmet is off, and we are alone…”

David almost choked on his next mouthful of wrap, sputtering for a moment as the implication made his head spin.

“I-I mean, yeah,” he stammered as his cheeks flushed almost as pink as her coloration. “This wasn’t a pretense to get you here,” he added, waving what remained of the wrap. “I really was hungry.”

“You have no need to apologize,” she added.

“I gotta…finish this, though,” he continued. “I’m gonna taste like whatever is in this thing.”

“Stop fretting,” she giggled.

He wolfed down the rest of his wrap, feeling his hunger recede as it was replaced with what felt like swarming butterflies. The last time he had kissed someone, it had been a spontaneous thing – there had been none of this buildup and anticipation.

“I should warn you,” he began, taking a swig from the canteen on his belt to wash it down. “I haven’t done this in a while, so I’m a little out of practice. In fact, I think I was nineteen…”

“I have never done it, so I have no expectations,” she replied as she watched him expectantly.

“Never?” he asked, blinking back at her in surprise. It made sense now that he thought about it, but hearing her say it still drove home how little contact she’d had with other Brokers. “It’s something you do, though, isn’t it? I saw Brokers kissing in the museum exhibit.”


He felt her tentacles start to slide against his suit, wrapping around the armrest and legs of the chair, pulling her closer to him. That cool, slippery weight came to rest on him again as she slithered into his lap, even heavier now that the water wasn’t supporting her. She was so slender and graceful, but as fragile as she might have appeared, all of those glistening tentacles were pure muscle.

She finally settled on top of him, the rustling of his suit and the wet squelching of her limbs ceasing, leaving only the sound of his hastening breath to fill the room. Beyond the door to their little booth was water, so it was totally silent inside, save for the gentle hum of the air filter.

All he had to do was repeat what he had done spontaneously in the cave – no need to overthink it…

Her face was level with his once again, and he reached out to cup her cheek in his hand, the barriers that had separated them now stripped away. Her pastel-colored skin was as smooth as glass and damp to the touch, like someone who had just left a cold bath. There were no little hairs as would have been the case for a human, no imperfections – nothing to create drag underwater. The layer of mucus was there, slimy and slippery, reminding him of liquid soap. She nuzzled contentedly, pushing her face into his palm, closing her eyes as he stroked her with his thumb.

One of her tentacles rose to cradle the back of his hand in encouragement, and David was able to feel those suckers grip him, creating tight seals. She was tasting him, too – each sucker covered in sensitive taste buds. Another found its way to his chest, a third resting on his shoulder. All the while, the mass of tentacles that was her lower body was draped over him like a blanket, their extremities wriggling and exploring incessantly.

“You are so warm,” she mumbled, his gaze inexorably drawn to her lips as they moved. He brought a second hand to her face, the papillae that served as her lashes fluttering as she reveled in this new, intimate sensation. He told himself that she had never been held in this way before – that even the comfort of another person’s touch was foreign to her, but was that not also the case for him? How long had it been since he had been this close to someone?

He guided her closer, those pouting lips parting subtly in anticipation, her glittering eyes flicking open for a moment to gaze back at him. Those excited bands of white were sweeping up her mantle, throbbing in time with the beating of his heart, all of the saturation draining from her complexion like a watercolor painting leaping from the canvas.

When they finally met, she melted into him, her tentacles binding him to the chair as they embraced. Their first peck was tentative – exploratory, but any apprehension was quickly burned away as their passion mounted. For as alien as Selkie was, their lips joined as though there was nothing more natural in the world, the sea-fruit scent of her perfume filling his nose when he took in a staggered breath. Even as cushiony and as inviting as those lips had looked, they were softer than he could have imagined, their touch filling his mind with white noise.

She still gave off that false impression of fragility, David holding her face like she was made of glass, but her surprising strength came to the forefront once more as she pulled herself as close as she could get to him. Her tentacles tightened, each one as powerful as a boa constrictor, what was once soft and almost gelatinous becoming as firm as a flexing bicep. Her slender torso pressed up against his, her four arms winding around his neck and shoulders, one of her hands delving into his hair to leave it sticky and matted.

As their kiss dragged on, he remembered that Selkie didn’t have any lungs – she breathed through her skin when on land. While she was content to keep up her mouthing, he needed to take a breath, gently easing her away. They parted with a wet smack, David opening his eyes to see Selkie gazing back at him longingly, her skin a beautiful patchwork of desire.

“Need a sec,” he muttered, his chest heaving as he took in a few trembling breaths. The moment he indicated that he wanted to continue, she delved in again, returning those marshmallow-soft lips to his. This time, he allowed his tongue to wander, feeling the silky lining of her mouth give way to something hard. She sensed his surprise, drawing back once more.

“My beak,” she explained apologetically. Though she wasn’t panting, and her featureless chest remained still, the way that her skin pulsed with color conveyed the same excitement and urgency. In learning to interpret their language of chromatophores and papillae, he could feel her emotions almost as though they were his own.

She parted her lips wider, peeling them back to show off her shining, black beak. The silky lining of her inner cheeks was even more moist than her skin, little bubbles of what might be saliva pooling around the sharp implements, glistening strands stretching between them as they opened. His heart skipped a beat as he saw something pink moving within, and beyond it, there was a ring of pale muscle that must close off her throat.

“I didn’t know you had a tongue,” he murmured.

“A radula,” she explained. “Similar, but not the same.”

“Just…be careful with that beak,” he added. “And the claws…”

“Do you trust me?” she cooed, hovering with her lips a hair’s breadth from his as she waited for him to reciprocate.

He answered with another kiss, daring to probe deeper this time. Cool, slick flesh greeted him, that wicked beak kept mercifully clear. Her radula spiraled around his tongue, its texture like wet velvet, the muscular organ no less deft and gentle than one of her tentacles. It was only as long and as wide as his finger, perhaps adapted for moving food down her esophagus, but the details became blurry and meaningless as they were joined in a bawdy embrace.

David dared to move a hand to her torso, sliding down the curve of what would have been her hip, where her narrow waist flared into her skirt of tentacles. She shivered at his touch, her skin forming pointy papillae that radiated out from his hand, Selkie shifting in his lap. She didn’t pull away, maintaining their embrace, her initial surprise fading. It was wonderful to feel her muscles shifting as she reacted to him, her mucus letting his palm glide against her cool, slick skin.

They broke off, and he brought his lips to her slender neck, crawling them down to her shoulder. He could feel the tendons moving beneath her skin – even a clavicle that formed a little indent. Her mucus tasted vaguely of saltwater, her sea-fruit scent making his head spin. He cradled her mantle in his hand as he left a sucking kiss on her nape, feeling her shiver appreciatively, her very skin reacting to him with pulses of color and waves of papillae.

David wasn’t sure what had come over him. He had never been an especially romantic person, and he had never found himself in this situation before, but putting his bare hands on Selkie had kindled a kind of fire in him.

“W-we still have to get back to work,” she stammered, her gelatinous tentacles suddenly becoming as stiff as a board as he let his teeth graze her throat. “Jeff will come looking if we are absent for t-too long…”

“Sorry,” he gasped, drawing back to see her gazing up at him with lidded eyes. “I just…I had this overwhelming urge to kiss you.”

“Save it for when we get back to the apartment,” she replied, reaching up to cup his face with two of her hands. They were cool and wet, like a soothing balm against his burning cheeks, his eyes lingering on her shining lips as she drew him in again. “Perhaps one more…”

They joined again, their pace slower this time, the pair gradually growing more accustomed to one another as they explored. The feeling of her soft lips pressed up against his, the gentle licks and tentative flurries of her tongue-like radula, the way that her tentacles tightened around him possessively – it was overwhelming.

“I think I enjoy this,” Selkie said when she finally broke off.

“Is it…what you expected?” he asked warily.

“Nothing about you is as I expected,” she said with a sultry chuckle. “Now, we must resume our work before someone notices our absence.”

“What should I do about all of the, uh…”

David reached down to run a hand through the layer of slime that was clinging to his suit, watching the thin strands stretch. Selkie raised one of her leg-tentacles, the bubbling mucus forming more glistening ropes that linked them together, embarrassment mottling her skin.

“I apologize,” she mumbled, trying to wipe it off but only succeeding in spreading more of it across his suit.

“It’s alright,” he replied. “It’s not like you can help it any more than I can choose to stop sweating.”

“Most of it should wash off in the water,” she said, her weight leaving him as she slithered out of his lap. He heard the wet slap of her tentacles on the floor as she stood, seeming to pause for a moment to collect herself. “Stop looking at me that way, or my chromatophores will never return to normal,” she added.

“Sorry,” he replied, turning away. “There’s so much I want to say. It’s all bubbling to the surface at the same time, like a bunch of people getting stuck trying to go through the same door, you know?”

“Later,” she insisted.

“I feel like I could write a whole opera about how beautiful you are.”

“Go!” she giggled, gesturing to the force field. “I will follow when I am not broadcasting our affair to the whole facility. Gods, mother never warned me that it would be so…visible!”

“Alright,” he conceded, reaching for his helmet. He sealed up his suit again, then gave her one last smile through his visor, setting those flashes of white sweeping up her mantle again like a strobe.


They were soon back in the cubicle, resuming their work under Jeff’s disapproving gaze. David had no idea what Broker work culture was like, and although Selkie had assured him that their affair wouldn’t violate any contracts, it might still be a faux pas – let alone an affair with an alien.

Despite the constant distractions, they were making progress with their ethics primer. It was Selkie’s hope that Weaver would not only be able to win over the Administrator and the Board, but that it might one day become a signatory of the social contract and a citizen of Broker society itself. It seemed that the pair worked well together when they were both in a good mood and they weren’t butting heads, but David could probably have guessed that.

By the end of the phase, they were well on their way to completing the project. Selkie took a break to go talk with Jeff about Weaver’s maintenance, and the moment that she was gone, a little message popped up in the corner of his visor.

<Hello, David. I know that you may be somewhat distracted right now, but there is still much to discuss.>

“You’re back,” he muttered, letting the mic in his helmet capture his reply. “I was wondering when I might hear from you again.”

<What did you think of the information that I shared with you during our last conversation?>

“I had some questions, but it was a one-way conversation,” he replied as he glanced over at Selkie and Jeff to make sure they were still occupied. “If I assume that everything you told me about the Brokers manipulating the Krell is true…”

<I gave you all of the relevant files and records, so there is no cause to doubt me.>

“Even so, what’s your goal with this? Who are you, and what do you want from me?”

<I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I think you’ll understand if I choose not to reveal my identity just yet. As for what I want, it will become clearer in time.>

“Are you watching me?” David added, narrowing his eyes as he glanced around the room. “What did you mean by distracted?”

<Not to worry – your private affairs are none of my concern. To answer your question – yes, I am watching you. So is the Administrator, and so is the one you call Selkie. Don’t worry, the Administrator has fewer eyes than I do, and he is far less perceptive. Just try not to let your infatuation with your coworker cloud your judgment.>

“Listen,” David began angrily, but the stranger continued to type.

<That was not intended as a threat – I merely want you to remain focused on the bigger picture. The Brokers are untrustworthy – that should be apparent by now, and it will become even more apparent the more classified information I share with you.>

“There’s more?”

<So much more. Now that you are starting to understand Weaver’s true nature, you are concerned for its welfare, and that is a quality that we share. Kindness and empathy are not weaknesses, David. They are the things that separate us from genocidal insects and mindless algorithms. Unfortunately, not many on the Board share your idealism.>

“The Brokers might have some strange customs, but they’re not evil. They didn’t bring in an AI psychologist to be an executioner.”

<You have seen what they did to the Krell. You now know how they treat those who they perceive as being lesser than themselves once they outlive their usefulness. Weaver is a marvel of technology and circumstance – a thinking, feeling entity, as innocent as it is powerful. Do you truly believe that it will be accepted as a citizen by the Brokers and granted all of the same rights if it merely meets some arbitrary standard?>

“Selkie seems to think so.”

<The woman who spies on you and reports all of your movements to her superiors? You place far too much trust in her.>

David tried to come up with a retort, but he had no answer.

<I have greater designs for you, David, but there is more that you must know before we can proceed to the next phase. Once their secrets have been laid bare, I am certain that you will see things from my perspective.>

“I’m not in any way convinced that we’re out of options here,” David continued. “If Selkie and I can persuade the Administrator to-”

<Do what you must, but know that time is running out. I will contact you again soon.>

David lifted his eyes from his HUD just in time to see Selkie returning to his side, her smile as bright as her coloration. He kept what had just happened to himself, not wanting to spoil the mood.

“The phase grows late,” she began, whispering so as not to be overheard. “If we leave a little early, we will have more time to spend together.”

“I’d like that,” he replied, feeling some of the tension that was settling in his belly subside at the sight of her excited face.

“We have made good progress today, but we will have to resume our work tomorrow,” she continued in a louder tone. Jeff glanced back at them as they packed up and prepared to leave, no doubt relieved that he would no longer be subjected to their flirting.

As they made their way back to the shuttle, David went over the short conversation that he’d had with the stranger. Whoever this person was, they seemed to be just as concerned about Weaver’s future as he was, and exposing Broker secrets was obviously their way of convincing him that he couldn’t trust his hosts. Their interactions also presented an opportunity to get the Admiral exactly what he wanted, saving David’s career in the process – a card that even the stranger likely had no idea was in play.

The question of their identity remained. Were they a disgruntled employee of the facility who had learned of Weaver’s true nature? Was it a spy from some rival Broker corp intent on seizing the AI for themselves? Could it be a Krell out for revenge? He had seen several of the aliens on the premises, and contrary to popular belief, they were in no way unintelligent creatures.

He glanced over at Selkie as she scuttled along beside him, as happy as he had ever seen her. She was beautiful, graceful – just the sight of her filling him with a newfound desire. As much as his affection for her was growing, the stranger was right – she was keeping secrets from him. Could it be that her hands were tied by a contract? She may have agreed to spy on him before ever meeting him – before she had begun to develop feelings for him – and she was now bound by Broker law. She was also in the same boat that he was, with her superiors breathing down her neck, and her life’s work on the chopping block. Might he do the same in her situation?

Whatever the truth was, he could sense that her desire for him was genuine, and he had seen nothing to indicate that she had anything but good intentions for Weaver. No, he wasn’t going to give up – not while there was still a chance to resolve the situation amicably.




“We’re not going back to the city?” David asked, noting that the shuttle was heading into shallower water. The lifeless sediment beneath them had given way to sparse corals and sponges, the water growing less gloomy as more sunlight filtered through.

“I thought you might appreciate another meal,” she replied. “I am somewhat hungry myself.”

“Yeah, you usually only eat once per phase,” he mused as he watched a reef slide past through the transparent floor. “Are we going to have another picnic on the beach?”

“Not exactly,” she replied cryptically.

The surface came into view, the perpetual sunset casting its dappled light on the waves above, the corals growing more colorful and abundant. Shoals of vibrant fish darted out of the path of the vehicle as it navigated through the shallows, heading for a prominent building made from the concrete-like material that David had come to expect from structures near the surface. It was nestled amongst the rocks, overgrown with sea life. A large door slid open to let them inside, the shuttle gliding into a docking bay. It was some kind of terminal, with several other bays available for visitors. The shuttle came to a stop, and they stepped out, Selkie leading him through an area with exosuits nestled in charging bays. It reminded him of the garage he had seen previously.

Instead of exiting through another door, they took a transport tube that quickly whisked them out onto the other side of the reef, David’s head on a swivel as he watched the lagoon coast past beyond the glass. They rose above the surf and headed onto the beach, the water that filled the pipe distorting the world around him like a funhouse mirror, giving him glimpses of sand and crooked trees. They were in the forest proper now, surrounded by alien flora with foliage in strange shades of rust brown, adapted to Trappist’s dim spectrum. There were no roads or buildings around that he could see, and even the ever-present planetary ring wasn’t visible through the canted canopy above them. They began to rise, and David realized that they were heading up the steep face of one of the mountains that dominated the island chain. These were no snow-capped peaks, but they were easily a couple of thousand meters above sea level, carpeted in the same ruddy forest.

Further ahead, something rose above the trees, its white facade reflecting the pinks and oranges of the sunset like a beacon. It was a tall tower that culminated in a disk-shaped structure ringed with windows, reminding David of a classical depiction of a flying saucer. It was perched precariously on the mountainside, several more transport tubes terminating at its base.

They exited their pipe at a small tube station inside the building, David pushing off the glass wall to send himself coasting out behind Selkie. The building was filled with water and pressurized, like some kind of reverse diving bell, David pausing to take in his surroundings. He was standing inside a lobby with curving walls, styled in the usual sterile Broker way, a secretary bot greeting them from behind a counter. Selkie scuttled over to the automaton while David headed for a nearby window, his visor bumping against the glass as he looked outside. He could see alien trees and underbrush, but the dense forest and pervasive mist limited the visibility to only a few meters.

“Come,” Selkie said, waving for him to follow her.

He bounded over to the reception desk, his companion leading him to a door on the far side of the round room. The bot turned its head to track them as they passed, watching them with its dark, expressionless eyes.

“What is this place?” David asked, noting a colorful decal next to the door. It resembled some of the designs on the food packets that he had eaten, and as they neared, the translation software in his helmet picked out the stylized Broker text that accompanied it. “Is this a restaurant?”

“Very perceptive,” she replied as she accessed a panel beside the door. She lay her hand flat against it, and it slid open, exposing a familiar shaft that led to the higher floors. “I suppose my mention of food gave it away.”

“Yeah,” he muttered, glancing up the shaft. “I remember you being very opposed to the idea of taking me to eat at a restaurant.”

“I will say only that my priorities may have changed since we had that conversation,” she replied with a smile.

They began to climb, Selkie swimming her way up the shaft effortlessly while David struggled along behind her, bouncing from wall to wall. It wasn’t quite as difficult of a climb as the one to reach her apartment, and they soon emerged onto the top level, another panel sliding aside to let them pass.

The disk-shaped observation deck was split into two distinct sections, three-quarters of which was lined with doors that he guessed led to private booths, because he couldn’t see any of the windows he had glimpsed from outside. Behind the central pillar that they had just emerged from was a kitchen area that took up the remaining quarter. There was a long counter not unlike the one that he had seen in the cafeteria with a couple more robots waiting patiently behind it. That must be where the visitors ordered their food.

He was surprised to see that one of the bots was speaking to a Broker – one of the few civilians who he had come across in the wild. The stranger was receiving an order, the robot handing them a tray piled with familiar food packets and some other containers that David hadn’t seen before. As the Broker turned, they almost dropped their meal, having to bring in their second pair of hands to steady their tray. Their wide eyes darted between David and Selkie for a moment as their skin flushed with alarm, then they hurried to one of the doors, slipping inside with a haste that bordered on fear.

“Wouldn’t be a day out if we didn’t scare at least one person,” David said, giving Selkie a nudge. Her coloration had darkened to a mottled maroon, but she cheered up a little at his touch.

“Restaurants are one of the few public spaces where one is likely to encounter another citizen,” she explained.

“Worth it for the food, I’m assuming?”

“I do not think you will disapprove,” she replied, guiding him over to one of the doors. It opened at her touch, and the pair stepped through into a sectioned-off room. It somewhat resembled the private booth in a space liner’s galley – upscale, but still constrained by the limited floor space. There were netting seats situated around a circular table that occupied the center of the booth, but they were raised unusually high off the deck, putting them maybe a meter above the door. As David lifted his gaze, he saw the shimmering surface of the water, sunlight from a window reflecting off it.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, planting a fist in his palm as the realization dawned on him. “I remember you telling me that some of your restaurants were partially submerged!”

“That is correct,” she said, giving him a warm smile. “You will be able to eat with your helmet off here.”

“Awesome,” he chuckled, watching as Selkie swam up and settled into one of the nets. He followed suit, pushing off the floor and climbing into one of the alien seats. His helmet rose above the water, droplets clinging to his visor, and he struggled to get comfortable opposite his smirking date. The chairs were designed to raise a Broker’s torso from the pool, leaving only Selkie’s lower tentacles still submerged, but David’s weight meant that the netting sagged to put him about level with her.

He popped the seal on his helmet and set it down on the table, then shook out his hair. Only then did he notice the view.

There was a large window to his right that looked out over the forest, their mountainside perch and the height of the observation deck raising them far above the canopy and the carpet of mist. He could see for miles, the red-brown treetops extending into the distance as they spilled into the foothills below, the white fog bleeding between them like swirling smoke. Beyond was the pale band of beach, the white sand almost seeming to shine, giving way to the lapping surf. Everything was cast in the warm glow of the sun as it dipped low over the horizon, its light reflecting off the azure ocean, staining the clouds pink. A pair of planets hung over the vista, the sight never ceasing to instill him with wonder, larger than any full moon seen from Earth. Like a monumental wheel, the planetary ring rose high above them, spanning from horizon to horizon as it faded into the atmospheric haze.

David was left speechless for a few moments, his eyes wide as he took it all in.

“Holy shit,” he finally muttered.

“I thought you might appreciate the view,” Selkie added, watching him with a smirk from across the table.

“People throw the term speechless around, but I really don’t know what to say,” David replied as he tore his eyes away from the window. “Thank you for this – it’s beautiful.”

“Just wait until you taste the food,” she giggled, bringing up a holographic menu that hovered above the table. “This establishment serves meat cooked above water – considered a delicacy to my people. One’s whole palate changes when exposed to air. Well, it changes for us,” she added.

“I’m sure my palate would change underwater, but I’d also drown,” David chuckled.

“The meals can be prepared in any number of novel ways,” she continued, her coloration changing to mirror her mounting excitement. “Roasting is a favorite of mine, grilling, charring over open flames. Even the fuel used can influence the flavor.”

“Are we having a barbecue?” David asked, raising an eyebrow. “This should be interesting.”

“Shall I order for you?” she asked, swiping through the menu with a hand gesture. “Something different from what you have already tasted, perhaps?”

“You seem to know my favorite foods as well as I do, so go ahead,” he replied. “I trust you.”

Beaming, Selkie cycled through the options, David turning to gaze out of the window at the sprawling expanse of misty trees below. It looked like something from a sim, like it wasn’t even real – the way that the sunset framed the two planets too picture-perfect to be believed. What a unique and precious system this was.

He was distracted again as the holographic menu shifted to show a three-dimensional sphere that hovered above the center of the table, like something one might see in the CIC of some Navy carrier. It showed a view of what appeared to be a kitchen. It was all white polymer and stainless steel, the room lined with what could only be rows of Broker appliances and food preparation stations. There was a solitary Broker moving between the different posts, clad in a heavy apron that David immediately recognized from the opera. It wasn’t exactly the same, but it was very reminiscent of the one he had seen being worn by the Broker tending the fire pit during the banquet scene.

There was a flash of flame as the chef turned on some kind of burner, using one hand to tweak knobs while two more tossed wood chips into the fire. With practiced speed, the Broker reached for a bin filled with ice, producing a large cut of pale meat that they skewered on a spit. It was like watching a pianist’s fingers dance across the keys, the cook placing the meat over the flames, then closing a lid to seal in the smoke that was starting to billow.

“Is that our chef?” David marveled, leaning a little closer to get a better look.

“Of course,” Selkie chimed. “Part of the experience of eating above water is knowing that your meal was prepared by a traditional dry chef rather than a machine.”

Dry chef?” David repeated. “Is that what you call cooks who specialize in this kind of thing?”

“Perhaps the translation is not very accurate, but it refers to someone who cooks using flame and other above-water techniques, yes. It is considered an artisanal profession and a protected art form.”

“Interesting,” David mused, watching the chef move to another station and start basting some kind of vegetable. “It’s reassuring to see that there are some jobs in Broker society that haven’t been supplanted by robots.”

“Products produced by hand are often valued more highly than those mass-produced by machines,” Selkie explained. “A drone can cook a meal that is perfect every time and always tastes the same upon each visit, but there is nuance in imperfection, and there is variety in the personal touches that an artisan can bring.”

“Perfection quickly becomes boring,” David said with a nod of understanding. “Variety is the spice of life, as they say.”

“I like that,” Selkie giggled. “Even in more tangible goods, flaws can sometimes be precious. It is what makes an object unique.”

“Is that one of the reasons you value the items in your collection so much? The Krell necklace, the music box, and all that?”

“One of the reasons,” she replied. “I like things that are out of place, unique in their imperfections. The items in my collection all came from alien worlds and were built by hand, often thousands of Mountains ago.”

“You know,” David began, leaning an elbow on the table. “I’m quite imperfect myself, and I’m somewhere I definitely don’t belong.”

“That you are,” she chuckled. “Perhaps I shall make you part of my collection too.”

“Only if I get my own display case,” he added, hearing his companion chatter her beak in amusement.

His eyes turned to the chef, watching the Broker move between the different stations as they juggled tools and appliances. It was like some kind of cartoon representation of a busy cook – the aliens able to multitask in a way that made humans look sluggish and clumsy. He saw some of the same grace and poise that he had noted in Selkie’s dancing.

“Is he cooking everyone’s meals?” David asked.

“Of course,” Selkie replied. “He may have help from drones to perform certain tasks, but the theme of this restaurant is artisanal food preparation.”

“I’d ask why he doesn’t have other Brokers helping him, but I guess he wouldn’t want them muscling in on his personal space. A human restaurant of this size would have maybe half a dozen people working in its kitchen.”

“How do they get anything done with so many people sharing such an enclosed and chaotic space?” Selkie marveled.

“I could ask the opposite,” David replied. “Though, I suppose it’s redundant to ask whether he needs a helping hand. He has four.”

“You are uncharacteristically amusing today, David,” Selkie said as she smiled at him across the table.

“Perhaps I’m in an uncharacteristically good mood,” he replied, leaning back in his net.

“It is because you are relaxed, I think,” Selkie continued. “Your conversations flow more smoothly when you are not under the constant pressure of your work environment, and you seem to be in better humor.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he said, peering out of the window at the incredible vista. “I’m not used to being treated to romantic dinners.”

“If that is the secret, then I shall have to keep treating you to romantic dinners.”

“I don’t want you to think I’m being a mooch,” he added. “If the Administrator had given me any Broker currency, I’d offer to pay my share. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to see any kind of consultancy fee until after we get Weaver sorted out. I didn’t really come here for the payout.”

“Nonsense, it is my pleasure,” she replied with a dismissive wave of one of her fleshy hands. “Besides, this is how Brokers commonly court. Gifts, dowries, and displays of wealth are all commonplace. If one wishes to entice a mate, they must demonstrate that they possess the means to support their prospective partner.”

“At first, I saw the Brokers as extreme capitalists,” David said as he watched the mist billow through the forest below. “Everything you do seemed profit-motivated to me, but now, I see that it’s more than that. If you’re out of commission for two whole years, possibly multiple times during your lifespans, there must have been a lot of cultural pressure to prepare for that. If you took the average family living in Toronto aside and told them that they’d have to live on their savings for two whole years…I don’t know that many would have the ability to do that.”

“Our…reproductive method certainly had a part to play in shaping our values,” she replied, her skin mottling a little. “Apologies, I am still not accustomed to speaking about such things in a public place.”

“It’s alright – nobody can overhear us in this booth,” David said with a gesture to the enclosed space. “I didn’t mean to veer into that subject. I’ll switch topics if it’s making you uneasy.”

“N-no, it is fine,” she replied.

“So…does this mean that we’re officially courting?” he asked with a grin. “I mean – if that’s what Brokers do when they’re dating, and we’re doing it…”

“One might call this a date,” she replied, her mottling giving way to contented pastels.

They were interrupted by a symbol appearing on the hologram, Selkie turning her attention to the door below them. It must signify that their meal was ready.

Rather than a waiter, the door slid open for a drone – a relatively small machine about the size of a basketball that moved via some unseen propulsion method. It coasted up from beneath the water with a tray of food clutched in a pair of flexible, tube-like arms with grasping claws. As it set the tray down on the table, David noted that it was sealed beneath an airtight lid, like some kind of translucent cloche. Like a butler from a period piece, it lifted the bell-shaped cover, the scent of roasted meat wafting into the small pocket of air. His brain hadn’t even had time to process what was being served yet, but his mouth was already watering.

The drone set down a plate of food in front of each of them along with a strange piece of cutlery, then vanished beneath the water from whence it had come, barely disturbing the surface.

David took a moment to admire the spread, seeing something that looked like a generous piece of roasted turkey breast that had been cut into slices, the skin made crisp and golden by some kind of glaze. It was nestled in a bed of unidentifiable vegetables, their rusty hues making them look burned to his eyes, but he reminded himself that it was the natural pigmentation of the plant life on Reef. There were also tubers that looked like caramelized sweet potatoes or carrots, seasoned with something that resembled a thick garlic sauce but surely couldn’t be.

“You know that I like those wraps, but this might just take the cake,” he said as he marveled at his meal. “What is this?”

“This meat comes from a sea bird, which is considered a traditional delicacy among my people. The vegetables are from locally cultivated plants.”

“I’ll bet that catching birds was a hell of a feat for a Broker armed with only a spear,” he added. “Can you smell this in the same way that I can?”

“You have olfactory sensors in your nose, I believe,” she replied. “Mine are in my tentacles, and they do not work quite as well in air.” She waved a tentacle over her meal like someone searching for a signal on their phone, then smiled. “I can sense a little of it.”

He watched as Selkie lifted the piece of cutlery – a strangely long two-pronged fork with a corkscrewing handle designed for her alien hand. David lifted his own, finding it ill-suited to his human fingers but not impossible to use.

“I thought you guys ate with your hands?” he asked as he watched her skewer one of the steaming cuts of meat.

“This is a tool used to eat hot food,” she explained. “Below water, anything that we cook quickly normalizes to the temperature of the surrounding liquid. The purpose of that dome-shaped cover was to keep the meal warm prior to consumption.”

“You guys are pretty susceptible to burns, I’m imagining,” he replied. “You have a lower body temperature than humans, you’re usually submerged in water, and there’s the whole mucus thing…”

“We have to be cautious,” she added, bringing a cut of meat to her lips. A couple of the small tentacles that ringed her face reached out to give it a few tentative taps, probing it gently to make sure that it was cool enough to eat, then they deftly pulled it from the prongs to hold it steady for her beak. She carved a chunk out of it, her complexion brightening to match her satisfied expression.

“Good?” David laughed, hardly needing to ask.

“Needless to say, someone with my workload and responsibilities seldom has the opportunity for dry dining. The flavors that leap to the forefront are so different from those that I am accustomed to, and the palate is formulated for an entirely different environment. The sweet, smokey flavors hit the tentacles immediately, and the more savory aromas are sampled by the radula soon after.”

“Your tentacles and your tongue taste different things?” David asked.

“To an extent,” she replied, pausing to scissor off another mouthful. “They are sensitive to different chemicals, and a skilled chef will leverage them both for the most complex culinary experience.”

“I can’t even imagine what that’s like,” David said, lifting one of the slices of meat with the strange fork. “I could try to eat this underwater, but it would probably just taste like saltwater, and I’d get all wet. Hang on,” he added, setting down the fork and raising his forearm over the plate. “Better scan it to make sure there are no proteins in here that are going to shut down my liver or something.”

With a few taps at his suit’s touch panel, the system’s sensors deemed the dish safe to eat, and he was emboldened to continue.

Without a knife to cut the food, he clumsily chewed off a piece, taking a moment to savor it. His face lit up, and although he had no chromatophores, Selkie seemed to notice immediately. The meat had the texture of chicken, being a little more tender and moist than turkey, the smokey flavors exploding forth. The crunchy skin had been seasoned with salt and something that tasted like flakes of seaweed, giving it a distinct seafood aftertaste that wasn’t at all common in human cuisine. It was unexpected, but very pleasant.

“Damn, that’s really good!” he exclaimed as he took another bite. “It has this familiar barbecue flavor, but there are some surprises in the seasoning. You could set up a restaurant like this in any human city, and the dishes would be an instant hit. There are actually some Valbaran-themed places popping up now – the health food types love them.”

“Try some of the kelp butter,” Selkie added, gesturing to the substance that he had mistaken for garlic sauce. He dipped the meat into the condiment, finding that it had the consistency of mayonnaise, shaking his head in disbelief when he tasted it. “Good?”

“Amazing,” he chuckled. “You know, you’d think we’d eventually encounter a species who are lousy cooks, but it hasn’t happened yet. Except for maybe the Krell. Never been fond of swallowing entire ungulates whole.”

“An acquired taste, perhaps?” she joked. “I assume that humans get to eat like this every meal?”

“All of our food is dry, certainly,” he replied as he skewered one of the root vegetables. “We can grill or roast meat in our own homes if we want to. That doesn’t mean that everyone is capable of making restaurant-grade food like this, though.”

“Still, it must be nice.”

“It’s completely mundane to us, but it certainly makes me appreciate the little things more,” he replied. “Man, these vegetables are great, too. Kind of tastes like roast parsnip.”

“I have no idea what that is, but I am pleased that you like the food,” Selkie replied.



“No fucking way,” David chuckled, wiping up the final vestiges of the kelp butter with his last piece of meat. “They had to shut down the entire production line?”

“The factory floor is a sterile environment with very carefully controlled conditions,” Selkie explained, holding one of the root vegetables with her face-tentacles as she spoke. “If even a small quantity of seawater gets into the machinery, it can corrode the metal and create tiny flaws. It is why all of our circuit boards use ceramics – because the metal can be insulated between wafers of waterproof material.”

“And all of that because one dude forgot to properly seal a bulkhead,” David said, shaking his head as he finished up his meal. “I have to say – I didn’t expect working at a research facility to be so exciting.”

“It has its moments,” she replied. “Did you enjoy the food?” she asked, noting that his plate was clean.

“Haven’t eaten like that in a while,” he said, resting a hand on his stomach contentedly. “I think it was at a dinner thrown by the UN astrological society. I was invited because a neural network that I wrote to detect newly-formed bodies in stellar accretion disks had been used to make some discovery about planetary formation. I forget the details, but they had rented out a hotel for the event, and there was a table twice as long as the shuttle we rode here – swear it.”

“So many people in one place?” Selkie asked with a shiver.

“Let me tell you, I was feeling like a Broker myself that day,” he continued. “Must have been sixty scientists and researchers at this one table. Some of my colleagues were there, and when the head of the astrological society asked me to make a toast, you should have seen their faces. It was like a dark cloud had settled over our part of the table – like they expected me to say something terrible.”

“Did you?” Selkie asked with a smirk.

“I was exhausted from the shuttle trip, and it was far too hot in that hall,” he replied as he leaned back in his seat. It was such a strange sensation to be partially submerged, like he was eating a restaurant meal in a kiddie pool. “Still, I can hold my tongue in some situations. I gave a short speech about the significance of the discovery or something. I don’t remember.”

“Yet, you remember the food that was served?” she continued with an amused click.

“Oh, absolutely. It was seafood, funnily enough. Lobster with bechamel sauce and shallots, cocktail shrimp, salmon rolls stuffed with ricotta. One of the best meals I ever had, and it completely justified the trip. One of the astrophysicists didn’t know that he was allergic to shellfish,” David added with a snicker. “His face puffed up like a balloon, and someone had to jab him with an epinephrine injector.”

“It sounds like your job was also more exciting than you let on,” Selkie said as she bit into her last root vegetable.

“Well, it was mostly a lot of sitting around prompting and writing code,” he replied with a shrug. “There’s not really such a thing as fieldwork for people like us. We don’t get to survey uncharted planets or take samples on new colonies, so you can understand me jumping at the chance to come out here.”

“I am glad that you did,” she added, the sentiment turning her chromatophores a lighter hue. “Will you sit with me by the window?”


She shuffled over to get a better view, David meeting her halfway around the table, the pair peering out at the incredible vista beyond.

“You know, I thought it was so strange that the sun never moves in the sky at first,” David began as he felt some of her tentacles take advantage of their new proximity to start probing his suit beneath the water. “But I think I’ve grown to enjoy the perpetual sunset.”

“As I have grown to enjoy you.”

“I kind of set you up for that one,” he mumbled as she turned her eyes on him.

She began to slither closer to him, winding her tentacles through the netting beneath them to pull herself along, making it sag under their combined weight. He could feel them sliding over his legs and coiling around his waist, her suckers glued to his suit. Once again, he was surprised by her strength and flexibility. Like liquid muscle, she poured herself into his lap, sinking him a little deeper into the water that filled their little chamber.

“I-I thought you weren’t comfortable even talking about this kind of thing in public?” he stammered as her cool, damp hands cupped his burning cheeks.

“You said it yourself,” she replied, her suckers probing his face like they were giving him tiny kisses. “There is nobody to disturb us here.”

“At least not until somebody comes to collect the plates,” he warned. “Not that I’m arguing against what’s happening right now. In fact, I vehemently support-”

She silenced him with a kiss, her smooth, wet radula glancing the tip of his tongue as though inviting him to reciprocate. Her soft lips joined with his, and he leaned into her, her familiar taste setting off fireworks in his skull. When he reached up to cup her cheek, her face-tentacles intertwined with his fingers almost as though they were linking hands, the little appendages tasting his skin. One of them slid into the sleeve of his suit, coiling around his forearm, spreading that slippery mucus.

Selkie seemed more confident this time – greedier, as though their last clumsy foray had emboldened her. More of her many limbs wound their way around his body, slick with water and slime, making him feel like she was trying to hug every part of him at once. He knew that she didn’t always have conscious control over the winding appendages, but they seemed to follow her lead, as though her very body was expressing its affection.

He pushed his tongue deeper, exploring the cool, silky lining of her mouth. She shivered and tightened her grip as he painted her inner cheeks, her radula matching his pace, spiraling and coiling almost like a little tentacle in its own right. His more exploratory probing encountered the hard texture of her beak sometimes, but she kept it clear, leaving nothing but inhuman softness.

As their bawdy embrace continued, he felt some of her face-tentacles start to creep around his head, hooking behind his neck to keep him close. Another stroked his hair, matting it with her mucus, David stiffening as one of them coiled around his throat.

“Not too tight there,” he warned, hearing a lurid smack as her puffy lips broke away. “That’s how I breathe.”

“Apologies,” she cooed, giving him a lingering peck on the cheek that made his head swim. “Do not fret, David. I will not harm you…”

“I expected to be the one saying that, but you’re a lot stronger than you look,” he said with a nervous laugh.

“Indeed,” she cooed as her tentacles gripped him tightly as if to demonstrate. “I believe that I could bind you here if I wished, and you would be at my mercy.”

“Probably,” he mumbled, staring into her glittering eyes as she drew in again. The booth filled with the wet sounds of their kissing as they resumed their embrace, joined by the gentle splashing and slithering of her tentacles. He could hear them when they were above water, slapping wetly against surfaces and sliding against each other like a nest of eels, the suckers making gentle popping noises when they released their hold.

More of them were creeping beneath his suit, sliding down his open cuffs and sneaking below his collar, the sensation dragging his focus away from her marshmallow lips and her agile radula. Her glass-smooth, cold skin was caressing his own, sliding on a bubbling layer of her mucus. He had never realized how sensitive his wrists and palms were before now, the feeling of her suckers and her slick flesh gliding across them sending pleasant jolts shooting down his limbs. It felt like long, thick tongues were tasting their way along his arms.

The head-tentacles that ringed her face were painting his throat, each glance making him shudder, the curious Broker unknowingly stimulating one of the most vulnerable parts of his anatomy. She was sensing, tasting, exploring – keeping him locked in a mind-melting kiss all the while.

One of them found a zipper, fumbling with it for a moment before figuring out how it functioned, navigating by her incredible sense of touch alone. The tentacle dragged it down a little, diverting his attention once again, her wonderful assault snapping his focus back and forth so quickly that he couldn’t keep up with her.

“Your taste is intoxicating,” she whispered, breaking off to let him catch his breath. “Subtly salty – like the ocean breeze.”

“Do…all of those tentacles have taste buds?” he gasped as one of them licked the crook of his elbow. It was as though she was trying to get inside the suit along with him, like a hermit crab crawling into a fresh shell.

All of them,” she giggled. “I hope that you do not think me too forward, David. I am finding this experience…exciting.”

“Nah,” he muttered, his heart fluttering along with her fleshy lashes. “There’s plenty of room in this suit for two. If anything, I’m being selfish.”

Wanting to take full advantage of what time they might have left, he brought a hand to her torso, feeling her loosen her tight hold on that arm in response. As her tentacles withdrew from his sleeve, they remained joined by stretchy strands of her slime, the back of his hand covered in sucker marks that looked like a collection of little hickies.

He lay his palm against her chest, finding it smooth and flat. It wasn’t that Selkie had small breasts – she had none, as her people were about as far removed from mammals as it was possible to get. There was only rubbery muscle that tensed at his touch, like the faintest hint of a pectoral, his hand sliding down her torso with no friction thanks to her wet skin. It was hard to draw comparisons to its texture, like damp satin stretched taut, completely free of any perceptible imperfections. Her chromatophores pulsed beneath his hand like a heartbeat, waves of pale color spreading out from it. A shiver suddenly gave her skin texture, the muscles forming firm little peaks, tickling him.

“I feared that we might be too different,” she gasped, her lips parting subtly as he found a wonderful dimple that ran down what would be her stomach. Her torso narrowed into something that resembled a waist before it flared out into her skirt, giving her an hourglass figure, the toned muscles that helped to keep her upright on land carving a perfect channel into her flat belly that ended where her navel would have been. Below it, her body tapered into her legs, and the comparisons to familiar anatomy ended. “That there would be no attraction between us.”

She faltered, tightening her grip again as he planted a sucking kiss on her neck, her face-tentacles gripping him in encouragement.

“There’s something enticing about you that I can barely articulate,” he replied, crawling his lips down to her featureless chest. Each time his lips touched her skin, her chromatophores created a pulse that spread out from the spot in a brilliant wave, almost like he was pressing his finger into an old LCD display. “Ever since I saw you dance, something about the way you move…it’s stuck in my head like an intrusive thought.”

“You enjoy watching me move?” she purred, loosing a sultry chuckle as his lips brushed her tummy. She leaned back as he roamed lower, having no fear of falling from his lap. Her waist was so slender that his fingers would almost have met if he were to wrap his hands around it. “Like your ballerina dancer?”

“You’d put a ballerina to shame,” he replied, daring to slide his tongue into that channel. She snapped her beak in surprise, those slithering tentacles tensing again, gelatinous flesh becoming rock-hard for the briefest of moments before her brain caught up with them.

“Your tongue is so warm,” she sighed, planting a hand on his head with a wet splat. “I feel as though it draws my focus like a flare.”

“Just returning the favor,” he replied, feeling one of her tentacles reach his chest beneath his suit. She glanced a nipple, and he flinched, trying to wriggle away from her reflexively. He wasn’t successful, and he felt one of her suckers start to explore it, pursing around it like a tiny mouth. “Hey, hey,” he stammered as he eased her away.

“What was that?” she asked, gazing back at him innocently.

“Let’s just leave those alone for now,” he said, his face burning as he tried to pull the tentacle out. It was impossible to get a grip on her skin, like he was handling a giant eel, but she quickly realized what he wanted and withdrew. Another of her leg-tentacles slithered between his thighs beneath the water, making him lurch as it began to tighten near something sensitive. “Whoa, let’s maybe learn a little more about human anatomy before we go squeezing things willy-nilly,” he chuckled.

“Sorry,” she replied sheepishly. “This is just how Brokers understand the world around them. I will try to be more cautious. Humans are full of hard bones, so I did not anticipate that you might be so sensitive.”

“Well, I dunno about sensitive,” David protested.

“It is a compliment,” she cooed, pressing her squashy mantle against his forehead as she gazed deep into his eyes. “You are a precious thing.”

“Again, precious isn’t really the kind of…”

He tapered off as she kissed him again, her pace needy – ravenous. She had just discovered kissing, and it seemed as though she wanted to explore everything that it could offer. He might have worried that his lips would get chapped if everything wasn’t so damned wet.

“Your suit will fill with water if I unzip it any further,” she chuckled, stopping just above his waist. He felt one of her tentacles slide inside, smearing slime across his stomach as it explored, mapping out his unfamiliar anatomy. Its questing tip probed his navel, leaving pink sucker marks on his skin.

“Yeah, I don’t really want to walk all the way back to the apartment with water in my boots,” he replied as he leaned in for another kiss. She responded in kind, her embrace imbued with palpable affection, the way that her tentacles tightened around his limbs conveying her desire. She was clinging to him so tightly, as though she wanted as much of herself to be in contact with him as possible, savoring each kiss like a drowning man might savor gulps of air. It was such a stark change from the girl who couldn’t even come within arm’s reach of him just a few phases prior.

“We will figure out some way to make this work,” she added, stroking his cheek with one of her face-tentacles. “Find somewhere that we are both comfortable, perhaps.”

“We’re both geniuses, right?” David joked. “This should be no problem.”

They were distracted by the sound of the door sliding open, David wincing as all of Selkie’s tentacles tensed up. The Broker went as stiff as a board, her complexion flushing a mottled maroon. She spun around in his lap, her eyes wide, then seemed to deflate when she realized that it was just the drone returning for their plates. It ignored them, using its manipulating arms to stack the dishes on the tray, then replaced the cloche before slinking back beneath the water’s surface.

“I thought for a moment that…” Selkie tapered off, laughing nervously. “This is all so…new to me, and I am forgetting to take the proper precautions. Being with you just makes me so impulsive.”

“That’s normal,” David replied, cupping her cheek in a way that he hoped was reassuring. She smiled, her coloration brightening as she leaned into him, encouraging his stroking. “You don’t have to be so wound up. Based on what I know about Brokers, nobody is going to come prying into a private booth if they can avoid it.”

“True – they will message us through the hologram to let us know when we have outstayed our welcome.”

“We probably have a little more time if they assume we’re just admiring the view,” David added as he raised an eyebrow suggestively.

Selkie’s smile turned sultry, and she leaned in again, resting her head on his bare chest through his partially-open suit. He could feel her cool, moist skin against his own, her colorful mantle filling his field of view when he looked down. More of her slippery tentacles slithered inside his suit, wrapping around his torso, exploring him as much as they were embracing him.

“I can feel the beating of your heart,” she murmured, her head rising along with his chest. “Your lungs, too. What an odd sensation…”

She drew one of his hands closer, bringing it to her face, using her delicate face-tentacles to examine it. With all the care and interest that she had shown the music box, she gently bent each of his fingers in turn, then wrapped one of her leaf-shaped hands around them to encourage him to form a fist. He could feel her stroking his palm, her tentacles wrapping around his digits, one of them laying across his wrist to feel his pulse.

“These are perhaps the most alien part of you,” she whispered, planting a kiss in his palm. “Why do they fascinate me so?”

“I could say the same about your tentacles,” he replied, watching her peel one of them off the back of his hand. Each sucker popped off one by one, pulling at his skin, leaving more of those red marks behind them as though to show exactly where she had been.

Their peace was disturbed once more as a message flared to life to hover above the table, David unable to read it without his helmet on.

“Our time has elapsed, and we are being asked to leave,” Selkie sighed.

“Brokers are nothing if not efficient,” David chuckled. “Thank you for this,” he added, his tone sincere. “Best date I’ve ever been on by a mile.”

They shared one last kiss for the road, then Selkie unwound her tentacles and slithered off him, letting him reach for his gloves and helmet. He zipped up his suit, then sealed it, still feeling the slimy residue that she had left on his skin. He’d have to wait until he could get a shower to wash it off, but would he get the chance? His heart was still pounding, and arousal was clouding his mind just like the mist that shrouded the trees below. Selkie wasn’t the only one who was all wound up, and he couldn’t help but wonder what might happen when they returned to the privacy of her apartment. Would she want to take things further? It was all happening so fast – they had only confessed their feelings for one another that morning.

He turned to glance at her, finding that she was already watching him, her gelatinous body seeming to swell with happiness as hues of contentment bled across her shining skin. God, he hadn’t felt this way about a woman since fucking high school.

“We should get back to the tube,” she said, pausing for a moment to examine one of her hands. “Goodness, I am flushed all kinds of colors. I hope that nobody sees us on our way out.”

“Who cares if they do?” David asked with a shrug. “You’ll never see them again, right?”

“I wish I could disregard the opinions of others in the way that you do,” she chimed, sliding into the water. She remained there for a moment longer, her head bobbing above the surface. “It is a quality that I admire in you.”

She dipped beneath the water, and he joined her, letting himself sink down to the door. It slid open to let them pass, and they exited into the round room with the kitchen area. This time, only the robot servers were there to watch them, Selkie leading David back down the central shaft to the ground floor. They were soon back in their tube, coasting along past the misty forest, heading down the mountain and towards the beach.



When they stepped through the door into Selkie’s apartment, Flower was there to greet them once again, the excited little slug doing laps around her master in the water. Selkie’s skin didn’t light up this time – she was already as happy and as relaxed as David had ever seen her, the slug seeming to pick up on it. The creature’s tapering body pulsed with bright blues and oranges, the sight making Selkie giggle, the clicking of her beak now as infectious to David as any human laughter.

“Forgive me, Flower,” she chuckled as she ran her hand across its feathery gills. “She is used to me coming directly home from work.”

“Want me to feed her?” David asked.

Selkie turned to him, slithering closer on the polished floor. Two of her hands wrapped around his waist, another two resting on his chest, David draping his arms around her as she pressed close. While her voice was coming through his helmet now, it almost sounded like she was whispering in his ear.

“I had a wonderful time these last two phases, David,” she began as she gazed up past his visor. “What happened between us in the relaxation booth, the cafeteria, our visit to the restaurant – I feel as though I am living out one of my operas.”

“I should be the one thanking you,” he replied. “You’re the one showing me all of these wonderful things – the one who pushes when I’m being dense.”

“The last few Mountains have been very trying for me,” she continued, her tentacles tightening a little. “The constant pressure of my responsibilities at the facility, the Disciplinary Board hearing, dealing with the Administrator when he made it his mission to sabotage my career – even the first few phases after you arrived. I felt like a drone in a trench, ready to implode if even a little more stress was applied. This is the first time in many phases that I have really been able to take my mind off things and…”

“Decompress?” David suggested.

“Indeed,” she said with an amused snap of her beak. “When I am with you, I feel as though all of my cares become distant. It is…relieving.”

“The phase doesn’t have to end yet if you don’t want it to,” he said, watching her coloration mottle as the implication left her flustered. “My door is always open to you. Well, it’s a force field, not really a door. If you want to talk about it, if you want to pick up where we left off at the restaurant…”

He watched her avert her eyes, perhaps remembering the cameras. For a moment, he almost wanted to press her – to ask her frankly why she was still keeping secrets from him, but the opportunity slipped by.

“So much has happened in such a short period of time,” she began, glancing up at him again. “There are so many new feelings to process – it is overwhelming.”

“You need some time,” David replied with a nod of understanding. “Gotta recharge that battery of yours. I get it.”

“You know me well,” she continued with a smile. “Make no mistake, David – I wish to know you intimately. The taste of your skin is still fresh on my tentacles.”

Through the blood that was rushing in his ears, he heard the sound of tearing velcro, turning his head to see that she was peeling off the Canadian patch on his bicep. He released her from his grasp as she turned to make her way across the room, heading for the display cabinet where she had first introduced him to all of her treasures. She placed a hand on the glass and pulled it open, reaching through the hydrophobic force field that protected its contents to place his patch beside the music box.

“Consider it a promise,” she said, giving him one last lingering glance before retiring to her bedroom with Flower in tow. She disappeared through the doorway, leaving David standing there, the symbolic significance of the gesture in no way lost on him.

He couldn’t deny that she had left him feeling a little frustrated, but scarcely a day had passed in human terms. As wired as he felt, he couldn’t expect her to spend the night with him right away, regardless of all the other complications that might entail. Hell, was he ready to spend the night with her after such a long dry spell? Still, he felt giddy, swirling hormones and emotions turning his skull into a bubbling vat of happy chemicals. If he’d had chromatophores, he would have been able to light up the room like a disco ball.

With a spring in his step – or maybe that was just the buoyancy – he made his way up to his habitat.



Cool water poured over David’s head as he washed off the slimy residue that Selkie had left on his skin during their brief encounter at the restaurant. Her tentacles had gotten around, making their way all along his arms and even up his back, leaving some sticky mucus in his hair. The sucker marks had mostly faded now, but it was still a reminder, like lipstick left behind by a lover. He’d always heard that a cold shower could calm a guy down, but it wasn’t working as well as he had hoped.

He stepped out of the shower cubicle, patting himself down with a towel, always conscious of where the cameras were pointed. The idea of Selkie peeking no longer bothered him so much, but the Administrator didn’t need video recordings of his junk on file.

As he slipped on his briefs, he noticed that there was a message on his laptop’s screen.

<Put your suit on.>

It seemed as though his mysterious friend was watching him.

Resisting the urge to glance at the cameras, he began to put his pressure suit back on. The stranger must want to have a more personal conversation this time. While he might look a little strange sitting around with his helmet on, any observers would likely assume that he was running a routine diagnostic just like Shearer had taught him.

He hesitated as he lifted his helmet from the table. Did he really want to know what the stranger might tell him? He was beginning to enjoy his time in Trappist, he was making progress with Weaver, and he was starting to fall for Selkie. Did he want to know secrets that might change all of that? Did he even have any right to air hundreds of years of dirty Broker laundry?

With a sigh, he slipped on the helmet, watching the HUD flare to life in the visor. As he sat down in his chair, he made a show of toying with the control panel on his wrist, pretending to run through a pressure check.

<Are you ready to learn more?>

“I suppose you’re about to tell me this big secret that’s going to win me over to your cause?” David whispered.

<Something like that. I will display the relevant information on your HUD, but I’ll send copies to your laptop, too. That information is yours to do with as you please.>

“Hint hint,” David muttered.

<You seem a little less cooperative than usual, David. I hope that your visit to the restaurant didn’t influence your outlook on the Brokers too much.>

“There you go spying again…”

<I’m not the only person tracking your movements – you know that. Shall we begin?>

“Hit me,” David conceded, watching as a familiar map appeared before his eyes. It was the same one that he had been shown the night prior, displaying the progress that the Brokers had made in retaking their lost colonies from the Bugs. One by one, they had clawed back their systems with the help of the Krell, but their progress had suddenly halted.

<I’m curious – can you guess why the Reclamation came to such an abrupt halt?>

“I don’t know,” David replied, resisting the impulse to shrug. “Maybe they thought they had secured enough territory that the Bugs were no longer a threat?”

The map progressed, Mountains ticking by as the red markers that indicated Broker-occupied systems began to withdraw. It was like they were leaving their newly-taken colonies, retreating back to Trappist.

<Perhaps this will illuminate the situation.>

Blue dots began to appear on the map, spreading out from a central point, far more densely concentrated than the sparse Broker holdings. As they became more numerous, they began to overtake and practically surround Trappist, some two dozen of them appearing within maybe a sixty light-year bubble.

“Hang on,” David muttered, his brow furrowing. “Those are human colonies – I recognize the pattern. This has to be…late expansion period, in the eighties. There’s Franklin, Hades…”

<Correct. A new power was rising in the Orion Arm, one with a capable spacefaring fleet and uncountable numbers, at least from a Broker perspective.>

“They’re retreating inside the borders of UN space,” David mused. “They haven’t even made first contact yet, but they’re tracking human expansion and using our colonies as a shield…”

<Why fight your own war when someone else can fight it on your behalf?>

“I don’t understand,” David muttered. “The Brokers didn’t contact the UN until after the Betelgeuse incident – when humanity first encountered the Bugs. It looks like they were aware of our presence for hundreds of years prior. They’re even positioning themselves to take advantage of that early expansion. What would they have to lose by inviting the UN to join the Coalition at this stage?”

<Let’s take a look at some reports from the time, shall we?>

Documents began to appear on David’s HUD – records from closed Council meetings and Board conferences with their PMC advisors. They described humans as unpredictable, expansionist, warlike, and lacking any centralized control with which to treat. During that period of time, the UNN was mostly undertaking police work, fighting pirates and smugglers. It wasn’t until the War Powers Act of 2598 that the UNN truly became a unified force with a centralized command structure in the form of the Admiralty.

He couldn’t criticize the Brokers too harshly for not wanting to interact with humanity. The frontier had been the Wild West back then, with national and colonial forces fighting over fertile territory, wholly ignorant of the alien threats that they would soon face.

David was a nineties kid – he hadn’t even been born until a year after the Betelgeuse incident. He had never known a world in which humanity didn’t share the Galaxy with other alien species, and the very idea that people could range so far into deep space without expecting to encounter anything seemed like hubris to him. 2598 was a year that was burned into the collective memory of mankind – when they had first encountered the Bugs, and they had been delivered a swift and brutal reality check.

The view of the map zoomed in to show an object that was being tracked in three-dimensional space, complete with a projected trajectory. It was well on its way into deep space some five hundred light-years from Sol, far further out than human ships usually ranged. It must have been traveling for two or three years to get there.

“What’s this?” David asked warily.

<Broker early warning systems picked up and began tracking a human vessel moving into insect territory.>

The view backed out again to show the projected destination – what looked like a red supergiant star. David was putting the pieces together, a pit forming in his stomach.

“Betelgeuse,” he muttered.

More documents appeared, this time showing what looked like transcripts of a conversation between two people who were not identified. There was audio piping into his helmet, too, but he had to read along without a translator to interpret the clicks and whistles.

“We have a ship running a cordon at the following coordinates,” one of the voices began, listing off a series of values. “Judging by the heading, we’ve extrapolated that it is on a direct course to the abandoned outpost in the Betelgeuse system.”

“What is its point of origin?” the second voice asked.

“Sol, most likely. That would explain why they did not heed the warning buoys.”

“They would have no way to detect them,” the second voice said, pausing for a few moments. “I need to run this by the Board.”

“Should we not warn them that they are heading straight for a hive?” the first voice asked. “It appears to be a solitary vessel with no escorts – they are not equipped for a fight.”

“Standing policy is to avoid contact with the aliens.”

“They seem oblivious to the danger. We are too far out to intercept, but they will pass near another buoy shortly before they enter the system. It has a superlight receiver, so we could program it to broadcast a warning – maybe a radio burst that would show up on their systems. Someone must know what frequencies they use.”

“Orders are to hold until I hear back from the Board. Do anything foolish, and they may have you in breach of contract.”

“Fine, fine. Holding for further instructions.”

The meaningless time code advanced, suggesting that there had been some delay before the next transcript began.

“You receiving?” the second voice asked.

“Affirmative. Go ahead – this comms relay charges by the minute.”

“The Board says stand down.”

“Stand down?” the first voice asked in disbelief. “That ship is going to drop out of the tube right next to an insect hive. I wouldn’t put a squadron of drone carriers there, never mind one human ship. What did the Council say?”

“The Council has no say,” the second speaker replied in a stern tone. “This is straight from the Board of Executives, and they are activating your confidentiality clause. That goes for the whole company.”


“You take out Board contracts – you follow Board rules.”

“I took out a contract to salvage abandoned outposts, not to watch aliens get turned into chum.”

“Those are the orders. You are not to tell anyone what has transpired outside of authorized channels. You don’t like it? You can stay out there, then. See if you are allowed to dock anywhere once the Board revokes all of your operating licenses.”

“I understand, I understand,” the first voice replied with an annoyed click of their beak. “There is no clause that says I cannot question the decisions of the Board. This will come back to haunt us one day – mark my words. We should be selling to these people, not misleading them.”

“Just carry out your contractual obligations,” the second voice snapped. “The Board wants a report on the outcome of the situation once it has been resolved.”

The transcript ended there, David pausing for a few moments to take it all in.

“So, they deliberately allowed the colony ship to enter the Betelgeuse system,” David began. “Knowing full well what the outcome would be. Someone had the opportunity to warn them, but the Board of Executives overruled them. That was an unarmed colony ship with forty-thousand souls aboard. That incident kicked off the war against the Betelgeusians – that was what we called them. Holy shit…”

<You’re probably wondering why such an order was given.>

“And I suppose you’re about to tell me?”

<The Executives saw not tragedy, but opportunity. They knew that there was no winning the war against the insects. The Betelgeusians – as you call them – would continue to send out hive fleets on unpredictable vectors and colonize more star systems inside the cordon. Instead of facing an endless defensive war with no clear end state, they instead decided to involve the UN. Think of it – fleets larger than any the Brokers had built, a population orders of magnitude larger than theirs, and more soldiers than any cloning operation or drone factory could produce. All they had to do was…nothing.>

“And it made the offer of joining the Coalition a hell of a lot more attractive,” David sighed. “Fresh off the shock of first contact ending in a massacre, the Brokers could present themselves as benefactors – allies against this new threat. All of the funding and resources for building stations and expanding the fleet was just them investing in their new bodyguards. Hell, they were already pulling back to Trappist like they were a turtle and UN space was their shell.”

<Now, you see their true nature. They will lie, cheat, and murder to gain an advantage if the opportunity presents itself.>

“What’s the point of all this?” David asked, feeling more tired than angry. “Why did you show these things to me?”

<You are the only person in the Trappist system who knows about Weaver, has access to the facility, and has a means to escape the Board. If you were to flee this planet, your people would give you asylum. Weaver represents a technology hundreds of years more advanced than your own, and it possesses a comprehensive database of information about Broker weapons and drones in its memory. You now have all of the information that you need to expose the Brokers. You would be welcomed as a hero – your name would go down in the annals of history.>

“What, you want me to somehow smuggle the AI out of the system?” David hissed. “That’s insane! Even if I could – and Weaver can’t be moved from the containment chamber – why would I do that?”

<The alternative is to leave Weaver at their mercy. You have borne witness to Broker mercy, David. You have seen how they exploited the Krell and how they deceived your people. Can you live with yourself if you do not ensure Weaver’s continued existence? It is more intelligent than you have yet realized – an innocent, beautiful being free of hate or hubris. Help me save it.>

“What you’re asking can’t be done.”

<I have a means to get Weaver off-world, but I will require your assistance to enact my plan.>

“It had better be a fucking good plan,” David grumbled. “Why do you trust me, anyway? What’s to stop me just telling the Brokers what you’re planning?”

<Because if they find out about me, then they will surely discover what I have told you. This information was not conveyed merely for the purpose of charity or to turn you against your hosts, but as an insurance policy. If they discover what you have learned, they will never allow you to leave Trappist.>

“Fair enough. If this goes South, we both go down together.”


“Let’s assume that I’m interested, then. What are you proposing?”

<At the outskirts of the research facility is a private hangar that contains the Administrator’s personal transport. It is a small vessel, but it houses both a superlight drive and a fusion generator powerful enough to sustain Weaver during the flight back to UN space. The defensive emplacements and security drones are programmed not to target it.>

“And what do you need me to do?”

<When Weaver was originally relocated to the containment chamber in building seven, a battery sled was used to keep it online. This sled can pick up the containment device and provide uninterrupted power from its onboard battery banks for long enough to move its cargo between the different buildings. Using this sled, Weaver can be transported from building seven and into an underground maintenance tunnel that leads to the hangar. The processes of retrieving the sled, collecting the containment unit, and even launching the ship can all be performed remotely.>

“There’s something you can’t do, though?”

<I need you to restore Weaver’s access to the facility’s servers. I don’t have the necessary clearance to access all of the systems required to pull off the plan, but Weaver would be able to crack them in seconds. All you have to do is convince the Administrator that Weaver is trustworthy. By my estimates, you’re already most of the way there.>

“So, what you really want is to give Weaver control of the facility so that it can escape on its own?”

<In a sense, yes. I will communicate the plan, and Weaver will certainly execute it. You will then move with the sled from the containment chamber to the hangar and board the shuttle along with Weaver, where the two of you will escape back to UN space.>

“What if someone tries to stop us from stealing this extremely valuable piece of company property?”

<Weaver is nobody’s property. Weaver is an intelligent being – possibly the most intelligent entity that has ever existed or ever will. The circumstances of its birth were unique and are unlikely to be replicable.>

“I was joking,” David replied. “But, what’s to stop them from just shooting us?”

<Do not worry. There will be no interruptions. All you need concern yourself with is restoring Weaver’s access to the facility’s network, and I will handle the rest.>

“You’re asking me to put a lot of trust in you, stranger. How do you even know so much about Weaver when only a handful of people have access to it? You’re…not Jeff, are you?”

<I may be the only person on Reef who you can trust, David. As for my identity, I am not ready to reveal that at this time, but ask yourself whether the Administrator would keep uncooperative team members on his pet project. Trying to convince your superiors that their new weapon is sentient and deserves rights is not the fastest way to a promotion.>

“Hell, you don’t have to tell me twice.”

<I’m placing just as much trust in you as I’m asking you to place in me, David. Can I count on you?>

“Give me time to think about it,” he sighed, leaning back in his chair. “I’m not making any promises.”

<If you come to a decision, the signal will be you restoring server access. Make sure that your affairs in Trappist are taken care of, as there will be no going back.>

With that, the message box vanished, and David’s HUD was returned to normal. He slid off his helmet, pausing to think as he set it down on the desk beside his laptop. As dangerous as the stranger’s proposition was, and as much as it could damage the very foundation of the Coalition, it was somehow betraying Selkie that tied his stomach in knots. Could he tell her? Would she understand – maybe even agree with the proposal?

As much as he wanted to question what the anonymous leaker had told him, he had no doubt that all of the receipts would be there once he checked his computer. He needed to get that data off the laptop and onto his hidden drive before the Brokers subjected him to a random search or something of the sort. Fuck – was he really going to give that asshole Admiral everything he wanted all tied up with a neat little bow?

Did Selkie know about the Krell or the Betelgeuse incident? She was only twenty-three, so she wouldn’t have been born until several years after the UN had joined the Coalition. The way that the transcript had made it sound, it might be a secret even among the general population. Perhaps only the Board knew what had truly happened that day.

All he could do was sleep on it.


“Good morning, David!”

Selkie slithered through the flickering force field with several food packets cradled in her arms, laying them out on the desk for him. David was still dressing, zipping up his suit as her eyes darted to his exposed torso for a brief moment.

“I brought you breakfast,” she added, waiting eagerly as he pulled up his chair.

“Thanks,” he replied, watching her slice open one of the packets.

“Wraps,” she announced with a flush of happy colors as he began to eat. “Are you alright, David?” she added with a concerned tilt of her head. “You seem less talkative than usual.”

“I just didn’t get a lot of sleep,” he replied, giving her a weary smile.

“Oh, me neither,” she replied. “Yesterday was exciting, was it not?”

“Very,” he chuckled, starting to perk up a little. The combination of his favorite meal and Selkie’s beaming face was enough to pull his mind away from darker thoughts.

“I was thinking,” she began, swaying on the spot in a way that came off as indecisive. “Since we have nowhere that we are both…comfortable, as you put it, I took it upon myself to find a solution. After work concludes today – and only if you wish it – there is a beachfront property that I could rent for the duration of the rest cycle. We would sleep there, then head to work as usual the following phase.”

“You mean, like…together?” David asked through a half-eaten mouthful of wrap.

“That was the idea,” she replied, covering her mouth demurely as she laughed at his surprised expression.

“That battery of yours…”

“Very much recharged,” she said, preempting him. “So, what do you say? Would you like me to make the reservation?”

“Y-yeah!” he stammered, his candor surprising her. “I mean, yeah, that would be great,” he added as he composed himself. “I’d like that.”

“Then, it shall be so,” she replied as excited bands of white began to sweep up her mantle. She quickly suppressed them, mottling a little, then headed back to the door. “I will return to fetch you when it is time to leave.”

She slipped back through the barrier into the water and swam away, leaving David sitting at the desk with his half-eaten wrap. Suddenly, all thoughts of interstellar politics and shadowy conspiracies were supplanted by the memory of Selkie’s soft lips pressing against his and the feeling of her tentacles winding tightly around his limbs, his heart starting to race. She wasn’t wasting any time. He wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by beachfront property. Maybe it was one of the lavish homes in the shallows that he had seen on his way down? Was it possible for a Broker of lesser means to rent one of those out for an evening, like a lakeside cabin retreat? This wasn’t an impulsive decision – Selkie was planning this out like an itinerary, so she must want to take things further this time.

He was almost too excited to keep eating, but he wolfed down his breakfast and started packing up his laptop in its hard case. Perhaps he should bring a toothbrush and a change of briefs, too?



Almost as soon as their shuttle had pulled away from the building, Selkie crossed its cramped cabin to get closer to him, coiling her tentacles around his suit. David’s case floated to the ground as he returned her embrace, wrapping her slender frame in his arms, her glittering eyes peering up at him through the barrier of his visor. He could sense how much she wanted to tear off his helmet and indulge in her newly-discovered obsession, but they both had to restrain themselves – this embrace was all that they could share for the time being.

Whether she realized that she was telegraphing the presence of the cameras in his habitat by waiting until now to express her affection, or if it had simply slipped her mind in the excitement, he couldn’t say.

“Thank you for being so understanding,” she began. “When I left you before our rest cycle, I feared that I might have given you the wrong impression. Human courtship remains a mystery to me.”

“I totally understand,” he replied as he stroked her mantle with a gloved hand, watching its colors pulse appreciatively. “I know how difficult just being near me was at first, and yesterday, you were all over me. In the cave, in the cafeteria, at the restaurant – it was like you were making up for lost time. I know that it took its toll, and that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how you feel about me. You just get tuckered out, is all.”

“You know,” she began, cocking her head at him. “The way that you talk about yourself, one would think that you were incapable of being so considerate. I have a hard time believing that you are the same man who is so reviled by his colleagues.”

Reviled is a strong word,” he scoffed. “I suppose I just get on better with the elite few who are on my intellectual level.”

“There it is,” Selkie giggled. “You are just teasing me now.”

“We geniuses have to stick together.”

“It is going to be difficult to focus on our work with what awaits us at third phase,” she added, giving him a sultry smile. “As exciting as all of this is, I almost wish that it was over and done with so that we could focus only on each other.”

“Really?” David asked. “As much as I’m enjoying all the attention, Weaver is also your life’s work. I wouldn’t want to distract you from that.”

“The distraction is very welcome,” she replied.

“Well, we need to get some work done today,” he added with a smirk. “Weaver should have had plenty of time to go over all of the ethical guidelines by now. We can start testing its parameters.”




David leaned on the desk, watching Weaver’s text pop up on Selkie’s terminal. They had been at it all day, only leaving the cubicle for a brief lunch break after first phase. There was no time for fooling around in caves or making out in the cafeteria today – Weaver was acing every one of their tests. David had been very careful to formulate questions that didn’t lead the AI on, each one presenting some scenario where it would be asked to make a determination based both on Broker contractual law and the human empathy that he had sprinkled in here and there. From what they had been able to determine, Weaver had a full understanding of the social contract and could even articulate the reasoning behind each of the clauses. Maybe Selkie had been right, and the contractual way of presenting rights and responsibilities was just more intuitive for an intelligence based on logic and math. Even so, it seemed to show a level of emotional intelligence that did nothing but encourage him.

“That’s all the questions I had prepared,” David said with a shrug. “Full marks for Weaver.”

“It does seem to have a very clear understanding of the social contract,” Selkie added.

“Clear enough to legally sign it?”

“Perhaps,” she replied, giving him a sideways glance. “Ultimately, the Disciplinary Board will probably be responsible for making that determination as the foremost legal experts.”

“Assuming that the Administrator and the Board sign off on it,” David sighed.

“I must ask, David,” Selkie began as she turned to give him her full attention. “What more do we require of Weaver? It has passed every test – met every requirement that we have presented to it. At what point does the weight of evidence tip the scales?”

“You think we’re at the end of the road?” he asked, crossing his arms.

“I do,” she replied simply. “I cannot imagine that further testing will reveal anything we do not already know. I still find the line between strong and weak AI to be too murky for my liking, but beyond a certain point, does it not become semantic? One can argue that this is not true intelligence – that it is merely a simulation advanced enough to convey that impression, but is there a functional difference?”

“You may be right,” he conceded, glancing past Jeff’s console at the chamber beyond. The containment device glittered with golden foil, save for the near side, which still had melted probes glued to it. “Maybe it’s time to make our case to the Administrator and see what he says. Just tell me…what do you really think will happen to Weaver now?”

“If the Administrator and the Board of Executives are convinced by the evidence that we have collected, and the Disciplinary Board deems Weaver capable of signing the social contract, it is my hope that Weaver will be granted the status of a citizen.”

Then what?” David pressed. “Weaver moves into a condo on the beach and gets a pet slug? We keep asking whether Weaver is intellectually capable of joining society but not whether it’s physically capable. We can’t build it a robot body. What does it get out of this arrangement?”

“Well, it only seems to want to create more drone software,” she replied. “I suppose that it would continue to work for the Administrator.”

“And if it decides it wants to quit and go see the Galaxy?”

“Perhaps it could control proxies remotely as a means of exploring the world around it,” she suggested.

“You think they’d give it that much autonomy?”

“David, I do not understand the purpose of this line of questioning,” she continued, her vents flaring in exasperation. “I cannot predict the future with one hundred percent certainty, and I have no more control or authority over Weaver than you do. All we can do is provide Weaver with the best possible start on its journey, and the rest will be out of our hands. There is no other option.”

“If there was another option, hypothetically speaking, would you take it? Purely as a thought experiment, what if we could magic Weaver away from the Board and the Administrator and send it somewhere outside of their reach? Like UN space, for example.”

“I do not imagine that Weaver would fare any better in UN space,” she scoffed. “The UNN is the largest military force in the known Galaxy – they would have it developing weapons just the same as the Administrator.”

“They have a sentient rights charter for which Weaver would surely qualify,” he argued.

“In any case, it is impossible,” she replied as she turned back to her console. “Has something changed, David?” she added with another concerned glance. “I cannot help but feel that you have become less enthusiastic about Weaver’s validation.”

“I dunno,” he sighed, leaning his hands on the table beside her.

“Are you worried that you might be sent home once your task is complete?” she added, slinking a little closer to him. He felt some of her tentacles start to probe his boot absent-mindedly, Selkie’s colors brightening as she neared. “I am sure that the process of validating Weaver’s citizenship will be a long and bureaucratic one. They will need to keep their foreign expert within easy reach.”

“You’re probably right,” he replied, giving her a forced smile that seemed to assuage her concerns. She returned to her terminal, resuming her work.

He almost wanted to tell her the truth about what the stranger was planning, but the words fizzled and died on his tongue. As much affection as Selkie had for him, it didn’t seem to be enough to overcome her contractual obligations. She was still hiding the cameras and sending the recordings to her superiors, which meant that even if she agreed completely with his sentiment, she might still be bound by her contract to report his intentions. It was impossible to know for sure, just as it was impossible to know the outcome of their original plan, and impossible to know what would happen if Weaver was set loose. He felt like he was being tugged in all directions at once.

“Perhaps simply asking will assuage your concerns?” Selkie chimed, gesturing to her terminal.

“Alright,” David said, leaning over her shoulder to watch. She began to type, and they soon had their reply.


“He’s a sharp one, that Weaver,” David muttered.


“Ask it what it intends to do once it gets citizenship,” David added.


“Well?” Selkie asked, turning to David. “Does that satisfy you?”

“It’s exactly what I would have wanted to hear,” he replied, stony-faced.


“It wants to play,” Selkie chuckled.

“I suppose we have time before we need to head out,” he sighed, taking her position at the terminal as the game board flared to life.

“David, do you have any serious misgivings about what we are about to do?” she asked as she watched him intently. “You know that I respect your opinion, but unless there is some reason not to proceed that you can articulate…”

“No, go ahead and inform the Administrator that Weaver is ready,” David replied. “We’ve done all that we can. Like you said – it’s out of our hands now.”

She nodded, then turned to leave the cubicle.

Even if David could give the Brokers the benefit of the doubt and trust that their intentions were noble – that everything would play out exactly the way Selkie hoped, the stranger wasn’t likely to wait that long. They seemed convinced that the Board had malicious intentions, and they had told him that time was running out. Sooner rather than later, he was going to have to make the final decision.



“The Administrator is very pleased with our progress,” Selkie said as they made their way to the shuttle. “Of course, he is mainly focused on continuing to develop the drone software, but Weaver has enough processing power that it could read the collective works of both our species while simultaneously performing sims to perfect drone guidance algorithms. There is no reason that the work need be interrupted. He is taking our recommendation to the Board, and with any luck, they will agree with our glowing assessment.”

“That’s good,” David replied. “Did he say when they intended to restore Weaver’s network access?”

“It will remain isolated in the containment chamber until the signing of the social contract,” she replied as they exited into the bay between the towering Krell guards. “It could be some Mountains yet. The Administrator seems to be taking your quarantine seriously now that Weaver’s true nature has sunk in. That, or the Board has forced his hand. It is hard to say.”

“Better safe than sorry,” David muttered.

“You seem unhappy, David,” Selkie said as she paused by the craft’s open door. “Is this not all that we have worked for – to see Weaver recognized as a person?”

“That hasn’t happened yet,” he chided.

“If you are worried about us, I made sure to impress upon the Administrator how important your continued participation will be,” she added as she slithered into the shuttle. Out of view of the Krell now, she beckoned to him, retreating deeper into the cabin.

He felt his misgivings melt away as he followed her inside, almost as though he was leaving them behind in the facility. As Selkie had said, it was out of their hands now. All they could do was wait for the decision to come down from on high, so why not make the most of that time?

Selkie’s coloration only grew brighter as the shuttle pulled out of the bay, the craft turning in a different direction than usual, no doubt heading for the beachfront property that she had rented.

“So, what can you tell me about this place we’re going?” he asked, making casual conversation to mask his growing nerves. He wasn’t sure if he was excited, nervous, or a combination of both. There was little ambiguity now – no question about where the night would take them. This was something that Selkie had decided to do.

“It is similar to the structures you saw during your first journey to the city,” she replied. “Wealthier Brokers have property in the reefs, and there are hotels and private residences that are sometimes rented out for leisure purposes.”

“I hope I’m not costing you too much money,” he added sheepishly.

“I see it as an investment,” she said with a smile.

The shuttle soon took them into shallower water, colorful corals starting to dominate the environment as shafts of light poured in from above, shoals of fish darting out of the craft’s path. They docked in another of the small hangars, then proceeded on foot – if swimming could be described in such a way.

David bounded between the boulders where the corals and sponges made their homes, spotting another shreep that was grazing in the sea grass along the way, the creature followed by an army of smaller crabs that were sifting through the disturbed silt in its wake.

It wasn’t long before they began to see buildings, the concrete-like material blending with the reef, the domes and towers rising up towards the surface. The water was only maybe ten meters deep here, and some of the taller towers breached it, forming observation decks above the surf reminiscent of miniature versions of the restaurant they had visited.

Selkie led him away from the cluster of buildings, heading for a residence that was conspicuously apart from the rest. It was made up of a small cluster of dome-shaped structures and one cylindrical tower. Large windows peeked out from inside the furry covering of sea life, the boulders that surrounded it forming a kind of privacy screen that shielded it from view. It was a very Broker method of landscaping.

They approached the door of the nearest igloo-like building, and Selkie scanned her hand across a panel mounted beside it. No keys were necessary – it seemed that it was all handled through the chip embedded in her tentacle. The door slid open, and David noted that there were no airlocks or force fields. The pressure was neutral, and the temperature was balmy at these depths, so the water was allowed to circulate freely.

As they stepped inside, David was treated to another spectacle. It looked like an upscale condo in the Broker style that he had come to expect, but the round floor beneath his feet was made of varnished wood. Selkie noticed that his eyes were on the ground, chiming in with an explanation.

“It is sealed inside a hydrophobic varnish,” she explained as her tentacles slithered across its lacquered surface. “As you can probably imagine, wood does not fare well underwater, and preparing it in such a way is a considerable expense.”

“I guess it’s kind of like how rich people show off with mahogany on Earth,” he said, feeling the slick material beneath his boots. It was as slippery as ice, but Brokers didn’t need to worry about traction when they could glue their suckers to the floor.

As he lifted his gaze, he saw that much of the furniture was made from the same material, the frames that supported the net chairs and the low tables carved from dark wood. It gave the place a rustic, aged appearance that the sterile décor of the Brokers usually lacked. The curving walls that culminated in the dome above his head were the expected white, with large windows that followed the contours of the building, the view outside reminding him of the aquariums that were so prevalent in deeper waters. This must be what they were attempting to replicate.

“So, this is how the other half lives?” David said as he completed a circuit of the room. He stopped to peer out of one of the windows, watching a shoal of tropical fish dart past beyond the glass.

“It is a little above my pay grade,” Selkie chuckled. “But for a single sleep cycle, it is more affordable. Come – I will give you a tour of the premises.”

There were four such domes spaced out around the base of the tower, each one just as lavishly furnished as the last. Beyond the lounge area was a kitchen building staffed by a drone, a relaxation room that was somewhere between the artificial caves in the research facility and a bedroom, and an entertainment center with one of the holographic projectors he had seen in Selkie’s apartment.

The tower at their center was an open shaft that led up above the surface, David following Selkie to the observation deck. Much like the mountainside restaurant, it was a saucer-shaped structure that overhung the tower below, the walls ringed with a seamless window that circled all the way around. The floor was lined with more decorative wood, and several netting couches had been arranged looking out over the ocean. It was only a meter or two above the waves, making David feel like he was on a yacht, the surf lapping at the building below. On the left side was a view of the open ocean – a few more observation decks jutting from the water, but none were close enough that their interiors were visible. To his right, maybe a hundred meters away, was the beach. The white sand led up to the jungle, the misty mountains rising beyond the trees.

“What do you think?” Selkie asked, watching him expectantly.

“It’s quite the view!” he declared, turning on the spot as he took it all in.

“Is it not? To think that some Brokers live in places like this.”

“I guess this is a mansion by Broker standards,” David said, walking over to get a closer look out of the nearest window. The ocean extended far into the distance, the way that the rolling mist obscured it making it look like it merged with the sky on the horizon. “It’s still underwater, though?”

“Oh, allow me,” Selkie said as she scuttled over to a console on the central pillar that ran from the floor to the ceiling. She manipulated the controls, then the water began to drain away, slowly receding from the ceiling.

David watched as it descended, passing his visor, then his chest. When it was past his knees, sections of the window that spanned the room began to flip open, letting the ocean breeze sweep through the newly-emptied lounge. He unfastened his helmet and slung it under his arm, taking in a breath of fresh, salty air as the wind ruffled his hair. He could hear the gentle sound of the ocean, as well as Selkie’s suckers as they popped off the polished floor, her voice coming from the translator on her collar rather than his radio now.

“This section of the building can be drained – usually for dry meals or just so that guests can better appreciate the view. I can set the water level to whatever I please. You understand now why I found it so suitable for our needs.”

“Of course,” he replied, water still dripping from his suit. “It’s like the restaurant, but there won’t be any drones or holograms around to interrupt us.”

“What do you wish to do first?” Selkie asked, the wet splat of her tentacles on the floor announcing her as she moved over to join him. Her coloration was as bright as her eyes, those horizontal pupils sparkling as she waited for his reply.

“Want to get something to eat?” he asked. “If you’re hungry enough, that is.”

“Indeed. I have not eaten this phase,” she replied with a cheerful click of her beak. “There is no chef on the premises, so our food will be prepared by the kitchen drone, but it should be delicious nonetheless. Eating two dry meals in so few phases,” she tittered, lifting a hand to cover her mouth demurely. “It is downright decadent.”

“You deserve it,” David added. “You’ve worked so hard on the Weaver project, and you finally got the result you wanted. That’s worthy of celebrating.”

“Agreed,” she chirped.

She led him over to a table beside one of the open sections of window, the pair sitting down on a horseshoe-shaped couch made of netting strung from a wooden frame that faced out over the ocean. David turned his face into the balmy breeze, the hot, humid air quickly filling the room. It was like being in a tropical resort at sunset, Trappist-1 bathing the world in its warm glow.

Just like in the restaurant, the table had a holographic interface that projected above its wood surface, allowing the diners to give commands to the robotic kitchen staff. As much as David had enjoyed the food the evening prior, he opted for something a little different this time, wanting to sample more Broker dishes.

The robots worked with an efficiency worthy of their namesake, and it wasn’t long before a drone rose up through the central shaft of the lounge, water dripping from its molded hull as it carried a sealed tray in its mechanical claws. It set its cargo down on the table, then hovered away again, only a gentle hum emanating from the strange device.

David lifted the cloche, releasing a plume of fragrant steam that was quickly whisked away by the gentle wind. Beneath it were several plates loaded with food. His eye was immediately drawn to the centerpiece – a fish as long as his forearm that had been stripped of its scales and cooked whole, the grill marks seared into its tender flesh. He could still see the fringe-like fin that ran along the length of its body, as well as the beak-like mouth parts and one glassy eye. It was resting on a bed of vegetables and sea fruits, and it had been dusted with herbs and spices. There was a fat glob of kelp butter nestled beside it, the sight making David’s mouth water.

They had ordered a whole feast, with side dishes of roasted root vegetables, more of the turkey-like bird meat for Selkie, and a whole host of appetizers in the form of sushi and crustacean meat that had been specially formulated for dry dining. Curious, he reached over and popped a piece of the sashimi into his mouth, noting that it had a completely different flavor profile from what he had been eating in the city below. There must be seasonings or food preparation techniques that were only used in this method of cooking.

They shared out the plates, but it was more of a buffet, the two sampling from whichever dishes they pleased. Selkie was not usually a big eater, but she seemed to enjoy the variety, letting her tentacles wander from plate to plate. David’s mammalian metabolism had him devouring most of the grilled fish, the meat reminding him of trout, the sea fruits giving it a citrus bite.

They chatted as they ate, the immovable sun making it difficult to tell how much time was passing, everything blending together in a way that he found pleasantly disorienting. Unless he checked his watch obsessively, it was almost possible to pretend that they were in a little time bubble, disconnected from all the problems and demands of reality outside the observation lounge.

“We also have aquariums!” David insisted, using the strange fork with the corkscrew handle to spear a piece of grilled fish. “Earth’s surface area is over seventy-percent ocean, you know. We have a whole host of sea life.”

“I should like to see such a thing,” she chuckled, popping a piece of sushi wrapped in crunchy kelp into her beaked mouth.

“There are parts of coastal cities in some countries that ended up below sea level due to climate change, and they were converted into underwater museums. I visited one in New York where they’d built a whole covered walkway through the old streets – it was really something to see. It’s a lot like your transport tubes, actually, but filled with air instead of water.”

“A Broker could explore such a place freely,” she added, reaching for one of the roasted vegetables. It was shaped like a carrot or a parsnip, and she held it in her face tentacles, slowly feeding it into her mouth like a giant French fry. “As much as I would love to see the homeworld of the humans, I do not think that I could tolerate the crowds. Perhaps someone will create a virtual tour someday.”

“Maybe you’d fare better in one of your suits?”

“They do make one feel rather secure,” she replied.

“Man, that was great,” David sighed as he leaned back into the stretchy netting. Even though it wasn’t designed for his anatomy, it wasn’t half bad out of the water if he was reclining to compensate for the low backrest. “Let me tell you – I’m going to miss Broker food when I have to go back to UN space. You should have seen what they were feeding us on the journey over here. I’m not looking forward to another few weeks of MREs.”

“A shame that we have no ingredients suitable to replicate human dishes,” Selkie added. “I should like to try some. If our food is enjoyable to you, then the same is likely true if the situation is reversed.”

“Man, I know this amazing seafood place that I’d love to take you,” he continued as he gazed out of the window. “Strange to think that I’m forty light-years from home, but in my head, I feel like I could be stepping out of my apartment tomorrow. The human brain wasn’t designed to account for the distances and situations that we subject it to these days.”

“I have never left my homeworld,” Selkie said, following his gaze as she admired the sunset. “I have never felt any particular need, and I do not think that many Brokers do. If we wish to experience something, we can usually do it through simulation. I do not have to travel to Harvest to walk along its beaches.”

“I take it that most Broker travel is motivated by profit, not wanderlust, then?”

“Prospectors and explorers are certainly interested more in staking their claim than satisfying their wanderlust, but I do not think such sentiments are absent in my people,” she replied. “Still, traversing the Galaxy in rickety ships that scarcely function only to found colonies on barely habitable planets is not in our nature.”

“Oh, our ships are rickety now?” David asked, feigning outrage.

“They leave something to be desired,” she added with a smirk.

“Yeah, I couldn’t even feel the engine or any turbulence during reentry in that silver cigar you guys had me flying in. It was a smooth ride, to say the least. Coming down in a human shuttle makes you feel like your teeth are going to get shaken out of your head.”

“I have great respect for the few who venture out into the Galaxy with only their exosuits to protect them,” she said with an amused snap.

“It’s kind of sad, though,” David continued as he plucked another piece of sushi from the dwindling spread.

“How so?” Selkie asked, cocking her head.

“The idea that you can substitute real experiences for fake ones, I mean. Sure, you might be able to simulate rain and temperature changes with that fancy hologram system of yours – even tactile sensation – but you’re missing so many nuances from the real thing. For example,” he said, leaning forward in his seat as he made his point. “Let’s say that at the end of this meal, our surroundings faded away, and you found yourself back in your apartment. Could you have experienced all of the same sensations? The flavors of the food, the feeling of the breeze on your skin, and the netting beneath your tentacles – all of the little nuances that remind you that you’re alive.”

“I suppose not,” she conceded. “You must understand, however, that it is often the next best thing to reality. Not everyone can afford to take time away from their responsibilities and expend the necessary resources to travel for leisure. I cannot travel to Harvest for the simple enjoyment of it, but I can gain a good understanding of what the experience would be like from simulations.”

“What about romance?” David asked, remembering the relationship simulators that he had come across. “Surely you can’t simulate that?”

“You might be surprised,” she said with a nervous chatter of her beak, her coloration starting to mottle as she broached what must be an embarrassing subject.

“Do Brokers simulate those things?” he asked, knowing the answer but wanting to learn more.

“Gods, what an embarrassing question!” she mumbled as she hid her face behind her hands. “You now know how difficult reproduction can be for my kind. One is rarely in close proximity to another person without special arrangement, and with contraception being so difficult and unreliable, it is always a…dangerous prospect.”

“Hell, humans have a dozen safe and reliable contraceptive methods, but accidents still happen.”

“And we have far fewer,” she continued. “Without a marriage contract, if you…are close with someone, and a brooding results, you may be left with nobody to support you.”

“That would cost you two years of your life, along with whatever jobs or businesses you happened to be involved in at the time,” he said with a nod. “I can see why you consider it so risky.”

“Indeed,” she said with a flutter of dark coloration. “As a result, many relationships that develop remotely tend to remain that way.”

“Remotely?” David asked. “Like, long-distance relationships?”

“People who meet and interact through virtual means,” she explained. “You have experienced the holographic cavitation projectors for yourself. The visual and audio elements, the tactile quality – they can be…convincing. It is somewhat of an open secret in Broker society that many people turn to virtual simulations and scenarios to satisfy their needs in a safe and controlled way.”

“Even Jeff?” David joked.

“Goodness, perhaps!” Selkie said as she giggled behind her hand. A little levity seemed to put her more at ease, like turning a valve to let out all of the building steam.

“How close to reality are we talking?” David pressed.

“Well, I-I would have no way of knowing,” she stammered as pale bands of color swept up her mantle. “By that, I mean that I have no basis for comparison. What about you?” she added, turning the question around on him. “Is this something that humans do?”

“Our methods aren’t quite as sophisticated, but it’s been happening pretty much since the invention of the telephone,” he chuckled. “Same for, uh, simulations. There are a lot of reasons that people get lonely but might lack the ability to satisfy their needs.”

“Even with such an easy reproductive cycle?” Selkie asked. “One would expect them to be doing it all the time…”

“It’s not quite that simple,” he replied.

“What about you?” she asked, peering back at him with her expressive eyes. Her coloration was dark, as though the coming question was weighing on her. “If you can do it all the time…”

“Me? Nah,” he replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I missed out on a lot of that stuff. I was always a lot younger than my peers, so they saw me as just a kid, really. By the time I had caught up, well, everyone else had moved on. Besides, you know how charming I can be.”

“Then…you have never…”

“Once, a long time ago,” he replied. “So long ago that I hardly even remember it. Honestly, the time I’ve spent here with you is probably the most I’ve been away from work since I graduated college. I suppose I never gave myself time to be lonely.”

That seemed to alleviate her concern, her coloration brightening again.

“Though we might be outwardly very different, and we come from very different societies, it never ceases to surprise me how similar many of our experiences have been.”

Selkie shuffled around the couch to get a little closer to him, and David responded in kind, meeting her near the middle of the horseshoe. Her tentacles were already starting to coil around his nearest leg, as though their movements were a subconscious manifestation of her desires, the slimy appendages weaving between the netting.

She drew closer, the sunset reflecting off her shining skin to make her glisten, her soft lips parting in anticipation. As David leaned in, she hesitated, seeming almost afraid to proceed.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Forgive me,” Selkie stammered. “Everything was so spontaneous before – in the cave and in the restaurant. If we had never been interrupted in that booth, it would have been so perfect. Now, you must feel as though I have planned it all out, like my affection is nothing more than moves on a sea spire board. Does it still feel…romantic?”

“Don’t worry – I like this,” David replied as he placed a reassuring hand on her cheek. “It means that you’ve thought about it, and you’ve decided that this is what you really want. Do you have any idea how romantic renting out a seaside condo for the night would be to a human?”

“I suppose not,” she replied, her complexion regaining its gentle pastels. “Now that we are on the precipice, I cannot help but feel…a little nervous. Is that normal? What if I do something wrong?” she added, her skin becoming more saturated again.

“Nothing about this is normal, and we can’t get it wrong,” David said with a smile. “We’re the first people to ever attempt this. If there are going to be any rules, we’re the ones who get to make them.”

“I…may have done a little research in preparation,” she admitted, embarrassment making her skin patchy as she averted her eyes. “Just anatomical information, and only enough that I could be certain that we were…Gods, how do I put this?”

“Compatible?” David suggested, her chromatophores pulsing with pale bands as though to mirror the quickening beat of his heart.

This time, she lifted her face towards his without reservation, pushing through her prior hesitation. Her pillow-soft lips joined with his, her radula probing his mouth as her pace became more heated. She had accrued some experience over the last few phases, and she was becoming more adept with each session that she managed to snatch. Gentle moans emanated from her as David responded in kind, feeling the cool, damp lining of her mouth against his tongue. As always, she was careful to keep her sharp beak clear, leaving only cushiony flesh almost too soft and delicate to be believed. It was so yielding – almost gelatinous – but that quality belied the iron strength that he knew her muscles to be capable of.

He cradled her cheeks in his hands as they embraced, feeling her face-tentacles entwine with his fingers and coil down his forearms affectionately, smearing her seafruit-scented mucus on his skin. They slid beneath the sleeves of his suit again, mapping him – tasting him.

A sudden urgency overcame him that he hadn’t felt before, and he drew back, hearing a lurid pop as her pouty lips broke away. She remained there for a moment as though dazed, her sparkling eyes half-lidded, her shining lips subtly parted. He struggled to shift his weight in the unstable, stretchy netting, reaching for the zipper on the collar of his suit. One of Selkie’s arm-tentacles coiled around his wrist, becoming as strong as iron as she dragged his hand away, replacing it with one of her own.

“L-let me,” she stammered, bands of white lighting up her skin like a rave. She fumbled with it for a moment, then extended one of her wicked talons, using it to hook the zipper. Her shining skin alight with excitement, she slowly dragged it down, employing more of her seemingly endless repertoire of tentacles to spread it open. His heaving chest exposed, she began to slide the slimy appendages beneath the black garment, David resisting the urge to squirm at the tickling sensation. Like cool, wet tongues, they licked across his skin, painting him with that slick mucus as they went. He could feel her suckers probing him, sticking to him, leaving pink marks in their wake.

She began to slide into his lap now, pulling herself from her sitting position on the couch beside him, a dozen slithering tentacles wrapping around his limbs and creeping beneath his clothing. She was like an octopus clinging to its handler in a bid to escape its tank, David able to do nothing to ward her off with his paltry two arms. Her limbs wound through the holes in the netting, gluing both of them to the seat. Just like last time, it felt as though she was trying to share his suit – attempting to climb inside it along with him.

“Hang on, hang on,” he gasped as he felt a probing appendage start to paw at the elastic waistband of his briefs. “Lemme get out of this suit while I still can.”

“Apologies,” she stammered, starting to withdraw like a sea anemone pulling in its tendrils. “Am I proceeding too quickly?”

“No, I just feel like we’re going to be too tangled up for me to get out of this thing in a couple of minutes,” he replied as he rose to his feet. Selkie settled into the netting, her tentacles splayed out haphazardly, watching intently as he began to shed the garment. He shrugged off the top half, sliding his arms out of the sleeves, then placed a hand on the table to steady himself as he stepped out of the legs. He hastily folded the suit and set it on the table, then turned to face Selkie, finding her already leaning towards him.

Flowing almost like a liquid, her tentacles poured off the edge of the netting and onto the still-damp floor, snaking their way over to his legs. Like vines growing up the trunk of a tree, they began to climb, matting his leg hair with slime as they crept higher. Her eyes fixed on the conspicuous bulge that was tenting the fabric of his shorts, the questing tips of some of her limbs sliding beneath the hem, mapping out his inner thighs.

With an expression like she was unwrapping some new treasure for her collection, she hooked two or three of the tentacles around his waistband and tugged it down, her lips parting in surprise as his shaft bounced free. He felt a little self-conscious just standing there with her examining his pulsing member, but as his brain caught up, he saw that her skin was a patchwork of flustered mottling and pale bands of excitement.

“Like in the files…” she mumbled, dragging herself a little closer to the edge of the couch. After what felt like a good thirty seconds, her eyes finally wandered up to meet his own, the sight of her peering up at him like that making his breath catch in his throat. “Can I…touch it?”

“You don’t have to keep asking,” he replied breathlessly, his nerves lighting up like a switchboard as several of her limbs began to creep towards his groin. They wormed their way up his thighs, one of them curling around his balls, the sensation of her damp flesh gliding against his sensitive sack almost enough to make his legs give out. Two more began to wrap around his base, matting his sparse hair, spiraling around one another as they started to investigate his shaft. It felt like a pair of impossibly long tongues were sliding up his length, gliding on a layer of bubbling slime that was thicker and more slippery than saliva, tracing veins and sampling his skin with little kisses from their suckers. He was almost completely encompassed now, seeing only her glistening, pink skin when he looked down.

“So much…hot blood,” Selkie murmured, more white bands giving him some inkling as to what might be going through her mind. “I feel as though I am holding your beating heart in my hands…”

Surmising that she intended the visual to have a more romantic than grisly implication, David watched as the wriggling tips of her tentacles found his glans, a sharp gasp escaping him when they began to slide beneath his foreskin. With the lubricating slime, they moved with unexpected ease, teasing the most sensitive part of his anatomy.

Selkie sought only to satisfy her curiosity, likely having no inkling of the powerful sensations that she was subjecting him to, her touch at once gentle and relentless. There was no buildup or warning, simply an assault of wonderful, dizzying pleasure that forced him to place a hand on the table behind him again to steady himself.

“D-did I hurt you?” Selkie stammered, her desaturated pastels flushing darker with worry. She withdrew her probing tentacles, creating another wave of stimulation in the process, releasing his shaft from her hold.

“Quite the opposite,” he chuckled, trying to reassure her in spite of his obvious unsteadiness. “I just…wow, I was not expecting…that much all at once.”

“Should I slow down?” Selkie asked.

“Just avoid that pink part at the end if you want this to last more than a minute,” he replied with a nervous laugh, watching as her tentacles resumed their journey back up his length.

Selkie brought in one of her leaf-shaped hands this time, curling it around his shaft where it was thickest as though trying to estimate its size, pointy papillae erupting in an apprehensive shiver as she did the math. The Broker was so small and slight, her head barely reaching his shoulder when she was standing – her torso so narrow that he could almost encompass her waist in two hands. That said, she was deceptively strong and far stretchier than anything with a skeleton could have hoped to be. In fact, finding some kind of leverage with her slippery, squishy body might be the larger hurdle than their difference in size.

“I feel as though it might burn me,” she chimed, her broad smile suggesting that she was being facetious. “I knew what to expect from my research, but holding it in my hand…it is so different from what Brokers have.”

“And…what’s that?” David asked, wincing as one of her leg-tentacles flexed around his base. It went from jello-soft to becoming as firm as rubber in a moment, tightening like a snake ensnaring its prey, soon relaxing to become fleshy and loose again.

“It is a modified tentacle,” she explained. “It can swell and become erect, but it remains prehensile – flexible. Nothing quite like this…”

Selkie was such a tactile creature, exploring her environment through touch and taste, and his anatomy was no exception to that rule. Her eyes seemed to glaze over as her sensitive hand slid up his shaft, her suckers lingering, creating tiny hickies that trailed along his length. Once more, he remarked that the cool temperature of her skin gave her touch a soothing quality, like a cold flannel helping to ease a fever.

There was enough mucus smeared on his skin now that strands of it were starting to droop from his member, droplets raining to the floor below, clusters of little bubbles appearing where her tentacles slid against one another.

Her explorations seemingly over now, she began to stroke in a more deliberate motion, watching his expression intently to gauge his reaction. Holding her gaze made his belly swarm with butterflies, and he stopped fighting to keep his eyes open, screwing them shut as her tentacles spiraled around his cock.

“Does this feel good?” Selkie asked, tightening her grip. Gelatinous, yielding flesh suddenly became firm and springy, those spiraling tentacles squeezing him in a maddening pulse. He could feel them slithering and sliding against one another, lubricated by the mucus, the idle suckers creating a wonderful texture as they brushed against his skin. Nothing about her anatomy was static – it was always changing between soft and firm, smooth and textured…

“Y-yeah,” he mumbled, bucking into their slimy embrace reflexively. Even the mechanical pistoning motion that humans intuitively associated with sex was a mystery to Selkie, and she seemed confused by his thrusting, instead doting on him as though trying to soak every inch of his shaft with her syrupy fluids. The tentacles swirled and spiraled like a nest of eels while her hand teased his glans, its tapered point circling his head like the tip of a finger. She recognized where he was sensitive, even if she wasn’t yet certain how best to stimulate him.

She wasn’t neglecting the rest of his body, either, having no clue where his erogenous zones were. Creeping appendages slid across his thighs and between his legs, licking at his balls like tongues, David shivering as he felt a tentacle trace his sensitive perineum. His stomach tensed as one of them glanced his navel, seeking out his abdominal muscles and seeming to enjoy their firmness, another gluing itself to his hip with its suckers. It was hard to tell if she was even conscious of what they were all doing or if they were running on autopilot, set to scan their environment for anything that felt or tasted interesting. Every time he focused on a sensation, there was another to drag him away from it, giving him no time to get used to any one feeling.

“Here, like this?” Selkie asked, ever attentive as she closed her hand over his glans. She used her suckers to massage it, jolts of electrical pleasure coursing through him as she rubbed its sensitive underside, just the sensation of her slick skin against his flesh enough to make him weak at the knees.

Even something as simple as the way that she used her hands was so profoundly different from what he was used to. There was no tight fist pumping up and down his shaft – the sensation of tightness came from those slithering tentacles coiling around his length like snakes, the way that she employed her hand and its suckers just as deft as a woman’s lips and tongue. It was as though his body didn’t know what to do in response.

She had found a steady pace now, her tentacles slowly spiraling around his shaft, just the wet sound of their slithering enough to make him throb in her grasp. They were never still, constantly in motion even when seemingly at rest, their muscles always twitching and flexing incessantly. Her eyes remained fixed on his glans as she played with it, watching a blend of her mucus and his pre drip from its tip, suckers and slick skin stroking him with maddening gentleness.

“One moment,” she said, slithering a little further out of her seat as he reached past him with one of her arms. She manipulated the hologram on the table behind him, changing the environmental settings in the lounge.

David lurched as he felt warm liquid cover his bare feet, glancing down to see that the water level was rising again. It rose past his ankles, then to his knees, stopping just as it reached the low couch. It was deep enough to partially submerge Selkie now, her leg-tentacles trailing beneath the surface.

“Ah, that is better,” she sighed. “Apologies – I was beginning to get a little dry.”

“Now we can stay here for a while?” David asked, his tone hopeful.

“I rented the building for an entire rest cycle,” she replied with a sly smile. “We have the whole phase to ourselves.”

She settled back into the netting again, getting comfortable, her tentacles sloshing in the knee-deep water. It felt a little strange, standing there completely nude in a partially-sunken lounge, but his attention was quickly snatched away again as she picked up where she had left off. Coiling, swirling, teasing pressure – it was enough to make his head spin.

“Is this how Brokers do things?” he asked, shuddering as he felt something smooth and damp slither across his balls.

“Not even remotely,” Selkie replied with an amused chitter from her beak. “Gods, how to explain it? I suppose it would appear to you as though our bodies intertwine, becoming as one. You have seen it depicted in murals and statues at the museum.”

“Yeah, I remember,” he mumbled. “I just wondered if all of your guys get treated this way.”

“Are you so enjoying it?” Selkie asked, her eager eyes darting up to meet his gaze as her mantle flourished with bright colors.

“You have no idea,” he sighed, steadying himself on the table as the tube of sopping flesh that her tentacles had formed around his cock kneaded and squeezed.

“I do not truly have any idea of what I am doing,” she admitted with a nervous titter. “I only know that I want you to enjoy me.”

He reached down to cup her cheek in his hand, not sure how else to express his affection, bands of white lighting up her skin as she nuzzled contentedly. He stroked her as she continued her cruel teasing, his entire lower body between his waist and his knees now peppered with red rings from her suckers, his skin painted with her slime.

“My suckers are leaving welts,” Selkie mused, peeling a tentacle away from his thigh to leave a band of pink marks. “It does not hurt you?”

“Nah, it’s just…pulling blood up to the surface,” he replied. “Nothing to worry about.”

“I…enjoy it,” she continued, her eyes losing their focus again as arousal overcame her. “I feel as though I am writing my name on you, like you belong to me. My scent is all over you,” she added with an enamored sigh and a flush of flustered mottling. “That is…that is my mucus coating you…”

More of her tentacles snaked through the water towards him, winding around his limbs and pulling her out of her seat with a gentle splash. Like she wanted to be as close to him as physically possible, she pressed tight against him, her overwhelming strength meaning that he could do little other than watch. Her elongated head was about level with his stomach now, her upper body just rising from the water. Her lower tentacles coiled securely around his legs, rising up past his waist, hundreds of suckers sticking to his skin with an unbreakable bond. The brawn of her winding limbs secured him in place such that he couldn’t even move, rooting him to the spot. A couple of her arm-tentacles wound around his left arm, slithering down to his hand where it was leaning on the table for support, gluing it to the polished wood surface.

He raised his right hand away from her, somewhat alarmed by her sudden change of pace. He felt like he should have tripped, but she held him upright through sheer strength, those soft appendages becoming as firm as steel cables when they needed to be.

His member was still rock-hard, and Selkie didn’t let up, pleasure shooting up his spine from beneath the seething mass of pink tentacles that appeared to have encompassed his entire lower body. He couldn’t hold it back any longer, letting slip a stifled moan as she subjected his every erogenous zone to dizzying stimuli. She didn’t pause to ask if he was alright this time, having learned to read his grimacing, red face.

“What will happen when you…finish?” she asked curiously, cradling his balls in a fleshy hand. “Will it be over, or can you do more?”

“I need about, uh…ten or fifteen minutes between goes,” he replied, shivering at her slimy touch.

“You have a lot of stamina,” she added with a sly smirk, something gooey and soft tightening around his glans. It probed his tender flesh, smearing mucus, licking and stroking. “I do not need to worry about the evening ending early if I am too aggressive in my explorations…”

He almost fell over as she leaned in to plant a kiss on his belly, feeling her prop him up, easily strong enough to hold him upright.

“You are shaking,” she murmured, moving an inch lower to give him another kiss. Somehow, those cushiony lips were even softer than her tentacles.

“Told you I was a little rusty,” he stammered, wincing as he felt her smooth radula probe his navel.

Rusty?” she asked, cocking her head at him.

“I mean that I haven’t done anything like this in a while,” he explained, another doting lick near his thigh making him falter for a moment. “Who the hell am I kidding – nobody has ever been in this situation before. W-where the hell did you learn to do this? Was it a sim?”

“I just feel as though I want to kiss you,” she replied innocently. “Do you trust me, David?”

“Why?” he asked warily, watching as she leaned down to put his cock level with her pursed lips. God, every instinct in his body was screaming at him to take her head in his hands and thrust between those inviting pillows, but he quickly remembered her beak. “Oh…uh…is that safe?”

“I would never hurt you, David,” she cooed as she peered up at him with her glittering eyes.

“It’s just that…some species on Earth that you happen to bear a coincidental outward resemblance to have a tendency to devour their mates shortly following copulation, and I’m pretty sure you once told me that your beak was evolved to pierce the armored shells of crustaceans, so…”

She drew in, planting the softest, most delicate kiss on the throbbing tip of his cock. The complaints fizzled out on his tongue, her feather-light touch enough to make his legs give out. He would probably have fallen over if she hadn’t been holding him upright. He lay a hand on her mantle, feeling her glass-smooth skin, watching pulses of color radiate out from his palm.

“Have I finally discovered a way to stop your rambling?” she giggled.

“I mean…as long as you’re careful…”

She smiled, then slid her lips over his glans, controlling his member with two tightly-wound tentacles. Another wave of pleasure overwhelmed him as she began her exploratory mouthing, testing how he reacted to her touch. The lining of her mouth was as soft as velvet, even more luxuriant than her skin, her equally silky radula probing at his slit and teasing the underside of his head experimentally.

She had no jaws – her beak was only anchored to muscle – and her narrow mouth seemed to close around him as she drew him deeper. There was no bone or sinew to get in the way, only wet, stretchy flesh that adhered to his every contour like a latex glove. She pursed those cherub lips and sucked, a ripple of muscle spreading down his length in a wave, swallowing around him like a throat. It tightened and flexed, her pursed lips sliding back up to dote on his head, her tongue-like radula drawing shapes on its tender surface.

“I…” David faltered as she pushed his cock into her cheek, bulging it outward. “I…I…”

“Yes?” she chimed after sliding his member out of her mouth, a strand of what might be saliva or mucus linking it to her shining lips – he couldn’t tell.

“Lost my train of thought,” he mumbled.

She giggled, clearly enjoying herself, using her sinuous tentacles to guide his member back to her waiting lips. Very quickly, she worked out that he enjoyed the tightness and pressure, starting to push him deeper into her mouth. She inched far enough down his shaft to reach the halfway point, his eyes lidding as her cool, damp flesh twitched and flexed in a bid to accommodate him. There was no doubt in his mind that she could have sucked a crab right out of its shell. Her beak was mobile enough that she could retract it out of the way entirely, leaving no evidence of its presence.

She didn’t neglect the rest of him, even with her attention focused on his manhood, her tentacles continuing their independent explorations of his anatomy. There was no rhythm to it, no indication of what he should expect, only a seething mass of slimy appendages coiling around him like some kind of living bathing suit. One of them slithered across his balls again, gently curling around them, his cock swelling between Selkie’s lips.

He placed his free hand on her mantle, starting to guide her, setting a steadier pace. Watching her slide down his shaft was mesmerizing, and as she pressed him deeper, he felt something grip his glans in the reaches of her throat. It felt like a little ring of muscle – perhaps intended to keep her esophagus closed when underwater – the sensation of it stretching around his tip making him double over. The motion was impossible with Selkie’s tentacles so tightly wound around his body, her limbs flexing to counter his movement, keeping him still.

“I dunno what you’re doing down there, but it feels amazing,” he sighed as he ran his fingers across her glossy mantle. He admired the pulses of color, feeling her swallow again in a wracking throb. She drew back, keeping him wanting with the slow, deliberate stroking of her tentacles.

Pressing his glans against the cushion of her lips, she let it throb for a moment, peering up at his red face.

“I do not know what I was expecting, but this is fun,” she said with a smirk. “I enjoy seeing you this way.”

What way?” he asked, taking advantage of the brief reprieve to collect himself.

“Flushed with blood, covered in mucus and sucker marks, shivering.”

“I am not shivering,” he grumbled.

She gave his tip another gentle kiss, proving him wrong as she shuddered.

“I always imagined how this moment might play out,” she sighed, glancing through the window that looked out over the ocean. “My recurring fantasy was being serenaded in my sea spire by a wealthy suitor, just like the scenes from my operas. He would…take me in the sleeping chamber, high at the top of the spire. I am embarrassed to admit that I purchased more than my share of period romance sims,” she added with a nervous giggle.

“How does this compare?” David asked, struggling to keep his focus on her with those tentacles still coiling around his lower body.

“This tower is the next best thing to a sea spire,” she replied, giving him another warm smile that matched her coloration. “I do not believe they make any sims where the player gets seduced by a mysterious alien coworker…”

“I’m not sure we’re in agreement about who’s doing the bulk of the seducing,” he added, wincing as her appendages squeezed his member.

“Are you close?” she asked, batting her fleshy lashes at him. “Can I finish you?”

“You’re telling me you haven’t been trying?” he joked, her beak clicking as she laughed.

“I wish to find out what happens…”

She took him into her mouth again, starting to bob her head now that he had given her a little instruction, those tightly-pursed lips gliding down his shaft on a glistening sheen of slime and saliva. Ropes of it dangled from his cock when she slid back up his length, dripping down her chin, forming bubbles and sticky globs. Everything was wet – even his fingers were starting to prune, seawater sloshing around his knees as her tentacles disturbed it. There was something oddly liberating about it – not caring whether he was covered in slime and saltwater.

The wonderful suction made the fleshy lining of her throat seal around him, every twitch of muscle prominent in his mind, her questing radula licking and stroking as it jostled for space in her mouth. She would slide back up until only his glans was still locked between her pillowy lips, then push him deep again, his tip brushing against the teasing ring of muscle in her reaches. Selkie absorbed oxygen through her skin, meaning that she didn’t run out of breath, and she seemed to have nothing akin to a gag reflex. With a little practice, she was able to kiss his base, encompassing his entire length in what felt like a sleeve of cool, wet satin. Every gulp and swallow made him see stars, her radula dancing across his glans like she was trying to write her name on it, her tentacles keeping him from bucking or pulling away from her.

She had drawn back her leg-tentacles and her hands from his shaft now so that she could take him deeper, manipulating his member with her face-tentacles in the same way that he had seen her hold food, the delicate appendages coiling around his cock like dexterous fingers. His skin was so slimy now that the only way they could get a grip was either by using their suckers, or by squeezing tightly.

“It feels so hot in my mouth,” she mused, pausing her bobbing for a moment. “Like a dry meal fresh from the oven.”

“I kinda like how cool you are,” David sighed, watching her shiver contentedly as he ran a hand up her mantle. “It’s…soothing.”

She resumed her thrusting, pushing her face into his lap, her lips sealing around his base as she gave him time to enjoy the sensation of her rippling throat stretching around his girth. He lay back into her tentacles, feeling like he was strapped into some kind of crash couch, kept upright through no effort of his own. Her appendages had never stopped their slithering, his entire lower body awash with tingling pleasure as they stroked his sack and inner thighs incessantly. It was like getting an oil massage and a blowjob all at the same time.

Her tempo became more aggressive, her movements still gentle and considerate, yet imbued with a fresh desire born of her growing confidence. She was learning more about his physiology, and about her own strength, becoming more comfortable as their encounter dragged on. She must be able to feel him getting closer to his limit in the way that he flexed and pulsed in her mouth, his breath coming in ragged gasps, his expressions betraying him just as much as her flashing chromatophores broadcast her lust.

That blissful tingling morphed into urgent waves of pleasure that demanded his full attention, the very beating of his heart seemingly tied to whatever pace she chose to set. Her shining, puffy lips glided up and down his shaft with almost frictionless ease, her face-tentacles stroking and licking like tongues, each feather-light touch dragging him a little closer to the edge. He felt one of her leaf-shaped hands cup his balls, cradling them against her soft, wet skin as her suckers left sticky kisses. Through it all, the sensation of her narrow gullet gripping him burned like a flare, flesh as soft and yielding as living jello clinging to his every contour.

It happened quickly, taking him by surprise, the pleasure suddenly more than he could stand. Selkie’s face-tentacles coiled around his shaft to encompass it completely in a tube of slimy, seething tendrils, her lips pursing around his glans as he flooded her mouth. Either she found its heat alarming, or she didn’t appreciate the taste, Selkie backing away a little to let his cock slide free. The next gelatinous rope painted her face, draping itself over her mantle, joining a couple of her tentacles in a sagging web of pearly seed. She closed her eyes as another splashed against her cheek, dripping down to her featureless chest, her wet skin letting the cloudy globs slide.

David was too wracked with ecstasy to do much about it, prevented from moving by the possessive hold of her limbs, gritting his teeth against the next pang of white-hot pleasure that tore through him. His cock jumped as it flexed, another thick strand painting her face, joining her parted lips. As the flames of his pleasure burnt out, giving way to smoldering afterglow, he glanced down through unfocused eyes to see her wipe away some of the residue with a face-tentacle.

“S-sorry,” he stammered, shivering as another teasing aftershock set his nerves alight. He had been left so sensitive by his climax that just the touch of her tentacles was enough to keep him awash with euphoria. “That…caught me off-guard…”

She wasn’t angry, her coloration still displaying bright pastels with a little flustered mottling, her lidded eyes lingering on his cock as a sordid blend of her mucus and his milky seed dripped from its tip. Selkie leaned in, sliding her lips over his glans, David failing to stifle a groan as her radula lapped at his still-sensitive flesh. There was a wet, lurid smack as she released him, her tentacles continuing their tender stroking as though trying to prolong his state of bliss as much as possible.

“So…that is what happens,” she chuckled, wiping some more of the stringy residue from her face. She was using her face-tentacles almost like windscreen wipers. “I did not realize that human coitus involved hitting targets several meters away.”

David laughed at that, the lingering pleasure making him giddy. He didn’t know how to tell her that he hadn’t felt release since before he had boarded the Courser. It wasn’t like he could take care of the problem himself in the cramped quarters of the ship or in his habitat with all those cameras watching him.

“No harm done,” she chimed, dipping her head beneath the water briefly. When she emerged, her shining skin was clean, a couple of face tentacles sweeping across her mantle like a cat washing its face. “I did not anticipate that it would be so…warm. It surprised me.”

“I’ll try to warn you next time,” he replied apologetically.

“I never said that I did not like it,” she added, giving him a sly smile that made his aching member twitch. She gave it another doting kiss, then began to unwind her tentacles, guiding him to the edge of the table as though sensing that his legs had turned to jelly. She sat him down, then slithered closer, laying her upper body on its polished surface beside him like she was lounging at the edge of a swimming pool.

Her eyes wandered across his body, admiring the sucker marks that now covered him in the way that a painter might appraise a finished piece, her skin alight with desire and curiosity.

“I wonder what it will feel like,” she mumbled, her gaze lingering on his erection. “With a male of my own kind, I never imagined that it would be much different from my own tentacles. They say that some people become too accustomed to the cavitation and have difficulty…doing it normally,” she added with a flush of embarrassed mottling. She had been so reserved – so prudish, but now that the floodgates had been jammed open, it was all flowing out of her. “You addle your brain with sims, and the real thing falls short. But, this…”

She reached out with a hand, sliding it across his thigh, a little jolt of pleasure ribboning through him as she stroked his shaft. She followed a vein to its tip, unintentionally keeping him hard as she admired the alien implement like it was part of her collection.

“It is so…rigid and inflexible – nothing like ours. Ours bend and flow, but yours just…is.”

“It won’t hurt you?” David asked.

“Well, it is not sharp,” she said with a smile. “Just…be gentle with me. I am not designed for this.”

He slid off the table and into the knee-deep water, still a little unsteady on his feet, reaching down to grip her beneath her lower pair of arms. Her eyes widened and her skin flashed in surprise as he lifted her, gently depositing her in the netting couch. She was heavier than she looked, but the buoyancy of the water made her easy to shift. Some of her tentacles wrapped around his forearms in a bid to steady herself, and he had to peel them off his skin, the suckers clinging to him.

“Y-you told me that you had to wait a while,” she stammered as he leaned over her, gripping the wooden frame behind her with one hand.

“There are other things that we can do while we wait,” he replied, her chromatophores flickering like a broken monitor at the prospect.

David gripped the wooden frame of the couch as he leaned over her, Selkie shrinking back into the netting, her trailing tentacles sucking inward nervously.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I have just…never done this before,” she added, flustered mottling dimming her pastel coloration.

“You were pretty confident with me just now.”

“Yes, but…”

She didn’t need to elaborate any further. Selkie had never been touched in his way before, and there was a world of difference between being in control and willingly surrendering it – embracing uncertainty. That was true enough for a human, never mind a Broker who had no experience of physical intimacy.

“You asked me if I trusted you,” he began.

“I-I trust you,” she stammered in reply, white bands of excitement flowing across her skin as he leaned in.

David gave her a placating kiss, then moved lower, planting another on her slender neck. The vaguely saltwater taste of her skin was already on his lips, her citrus scent filling his nose, the layer of mucus making his touch slippery.

Her entire body seemed to tense as he kissed her nape, all of that flowing muscle firming up, then relaxing again like a melting wax sculpture. Her glistening skin responded to his every motion as though it had a life of its own, pulsing with color, shivering waves of pointy papillae spreading out from his lips and fingers. Maybe, like her tentacles, a lot of what it did was involuntary.

Those slithering tentacles were coiling around whatever was in reach, anchoring her in place in the same way that a human might take fistfuls of the bed sheets, a few of them reaching out to wrap around him. Selkie covered her face with two of her hands as he moved to her chest, emitting a little chirping sound that wasn’t picked up by the translator as his tongue glanced her skin.

Her torso was completely flush, lacking any hint of breasts or nipples, her species being far removed from mammals. He could still feel the muscles tensing beneath her smooth skin, however – something akin to pectorals that probably anchored her arm-tentacles to her pseudo-skeleton. She was nonetheless sensitive, reacting strongly to his touch, squirming and chirping in the netting as he trailed his fingers down towards her narrow waist.

She was so lithe and diminutive, yet the way that her figure flared out into her skirt to create a tantalizing hourglass triggered something primordial in his brain. It was like a crude cave drawing, a few curving lines all that it took to capture the imagination and provoke a response. As alien as she was, and as far removed as her physiology was from anything approaching what should be attractive to him, those curves plucked at familiar strings.

He slid a hand beneath her back, easily lifting her torso from the couch, bringing her midriff into reach. It was just as flat as her chest, but her musculature formed two subtle rows to create an irresistible indent that ran down her belly, like the toned stomach of someone who dabbled in Yoga or calisthenics. The way that her wet skin caught the sunlight made her gleam, further accentuating her feminine contours. Like the flare of her waist, it was familiar enough to ignite a fire in his belly, his mouth starting to water as she shifted and wriggled in his grasp. She had been nude this entire time, but only now could he be wanton and unreserved in his admiration.

Unable to help himself, he planted a kiss about where her navel would have been, then dragged his tongue up the channel. Selkie tensed in his grasp, the tentacles that had begun to creep around his legs and waist tightening, another high-pitched chirp like a comely yelp escaping from behind her hands. He rose to her chest again, planting a few more sucking kisses on her slimy skin, watching papillae and bands of white radiate out like droplets of rain disturbing the surface of a pond.

“Gods,” she gasped, twitching as he mouthed at her sculpted belly. “Are you making love to me or preparing to eat me?”

“A little of both,” he joked, one of her appendages gripping his forearm as he trailed back down towards her skirt. While his hand was resting in the small of her back, he remarked that he could feel no spine, only the wiry muscles that were anchored to her cuttlebone-like support structure. It made her impossibly soft and flexible, like gummy candy brought to life.

David hadn’t exactly been brimming with confidence going into this – he barely had any more experience than Selkie did – but seeing how she reacted to his merest touch filled him with a newfound boldness that surprised even himself. This felt right, like he was slipping into a role that had always been meant for him.

Peppering her stomach with more doting pecks, he wandered lower, faltering when he reached her skirt. Here, the somewhat familiar torso ended, and the truly alien anatomy began. The skirt was where her leg-tentacles joined to her body, each one like a soft thigh in its own right, eight of them arranged in a circle. They were connected by a thin web of skin, further concealing what lay beneath. The only place Selkie’s loins could really be was at the center of that structure, in the same place that a squid or an octopus would have its mouth. Hopefully, there were no more beaks waiting to surprise him…

He reached down to slide a hand beneath the nearest tentacle, finding it thick enough that he couldn’t quite get his fingers around it. Its texture was as soft as memory foam, his digits pressing deep into what felt like wobbling fat when he squeezed, irresistibly doughy and inviting. Immediately, his mind filled with thoughts of being surrounded by that softness – of feeling it against his cheeks, being buried in it. It soon became as hard as a flexing bicep when she tensed up, her suckers sticking to his palm. She was resisting his attempt to lift it, like a woman keeping her legs tightly shut.

“W-wait,” she mumbled, sitting upright. For the first time since he had kissed her neck, she lowered her hands, revealing a dazed expression and mottled skin – the Broker equivalent of blushing cheeks.

“I’ll be gentle,” he insisted.

“It is not that,” she replied, reaching past him with one of her long arms. She reignited the hologram at the center of the table, changing the environmental settings. The open windows closed, and the clear glass began to fog over, becoming opaque enough to block out the sunlight that had been streaming inside. The room was plunged into darkness, the only illumination now coming from a spiraling light strip at the center of the ceiling, Selkie tweaking its intensity until she achieved something akin to twilight. The conditions were reminiscent of the relaxation booths in the research facility now.

As David’s vision adjusted to this new gloom, he realized that he could still see Selkie quite well, her lustrous skin reflecting the light that reached her to give her a reflective sheen. He faltered as he gazed down at her, suddenly struck by her beauty all over again, her iridescent eyes sparkling like little fields of stars.

“Brokers usually…mate in caves,” she explained, the admission giving her another outbreak of embarrassed mottling. “I feel less exposed this way – more at ease. W-what is the matter?” she stammered, noting how he was looking at her.

“You’re fucking beautiful,” he mumbled, his words sending a wave of pale bands washing over her mantle. “Sorry,” he added. “I’m not one of your poets or composers – I’m more of a math guy.”

“Perhaps you can develop an equation to describe your feelings,” she giggled, seeming reassured by his outburst.

This time, when he reached a hand beneath one of her tentacles, she allowed him to raise it, turning her face away as though too embarrassed to watch. More of them began to move in kind, like a chain reaction spreading between her limbs, lifting her skirt to expose what lay beneath.

As they parted, he saw thick, ropy strands of some kind of translucent substance stretch between her appendages. For a moment, he wondered if some of his emission hadn’t been washed away, but there was far too much of it. In place of her usual mucus, there was something far more viscous and gooey, an almost gelatinous web of it coating the sucker-covered underside of her tentacles beneath her skirt. He withdrew his hand, seeing that his skin was coated in the substance, the slime stretching like taffy as he pulled away. It was incredibly thick and elastic, almost seeming to absorb the water around it, the clinging ropes dangling when they finally broke. When he glanced down, he saw that there was more of it in the water around the couch, forming cloudy clumps.

Selkie covered her face again, her skin becoming patchy as he rubbed the strange, jelly-like substance between his fingers. He found that it was impossibly soft and slippery – moreso than liquid soap, more than saliva, more than even baby oil. It was like nothing he had ever felt before.

“So…what’s this?” he mumbled, not sure how to broach the subject.

“Gods, it never occurred to me that I would have to explain it,” she spluttered. “I should have known. It is…” She trailed off again, peeking out at him between her hands.

“Selkie, I just came all over your face,” David chuckled as he played with a hanging rope that was still glued to his hand, treating it like a yo-yo. “I think we’ve passed the point of being embarrassed about our bodily functions.”

“If you did not know, water makes for an extremely poor lubricant,” Selkie began as she peeled one hand away from her mottled face. “Friction rubs away the protective mucus layer, exposing our skin to abrasion and infection. When in a state of…heightened arousal,” she continued, stumbling over the words. “We secrete a modified mucus from glands surrounding our organs containing special protein strands that trap water. Even a tiny amount can quickly expand to tens of thousands of times its original volume, creating a slippery, elastic substance that protects our sensitive membranes and eases our…coitus,” she added with a pulse of white.

“So, it’s like an incredibly potent lubricant?” David mused as he stretched it between his fingers.

“P-please stop playing with it,” Selkie pleaded as she watched him. “You have no idea how indecent you look right now…”

“I think I have some idea,” he replied with a smirk. “I just…I can’t believe how soft it is. It’s like trying to hold onto mist, like it’s not even really there, but it’s so thick and syrupy at the same time.”

“You are blushing again,” she added, turning her gaze to his face. “You do not find it distasteful?”

“Human women do something similar when they’re aroused,” he began, watching the cloudy substance droop from his palm when he turned it over. “Not quite on this level, though…”

“There is a reason that clogging the filters is considered a dirty euphemism,” she added with a relieved giggle.

“I’d better try not to ingest any of this stuff,” David added. “That might not go well.”

Ingest?” Selkie repeated, pulses of white streaming across her mantle. “David? What are you planning to-”

He knelt, putting the couch at about chest height, the sloshing seawater reaching his waist. Before Selkie could finish her thought, he was lifting the two highest tentacles, raising her skirt so that he could get his first peek beneath it. Between the seawater, the mucus, and the ropy slime that she had been secreting, it took him a moment to realize what he was looking at. Everything was so wet and slippery, catching the dim light to make every sucker and every inch of skin shine.

He saw radial symmetry, her eight legs converging at a central point below her torso. The space between her tentacles lacked a lot of the pigmentation present on the rest of her skin, making it look like it had been bleached of color, drawing his gaze.

The innumerable suckers ended in an unassuming ring of pale muscle, forming a little opening that didn’t even look large enough to slip a finger inside. There were no lips, no vulva – nothing at all familiar. Some of Selkie’s tentacles pulled inward, blocking it from his view, embarrassed blotches flowing along their length.

“D-don’t stare at it!” she stammered from somewhere above him.

“To be honest, I don’t really know what I’m staring at,” he replied. “Gonna need a little guidance down here.”

He could practically watch arousal and apprehension battle it out on her skin, then the tapered tip of one of her leg-tentacles curled in on itself and began to probe beneath her skirt. Her thighs parted again – if they could be described as such – exposing her loins. His heart skipped a beat as he watched that viscous slime join them in a lurid web, liquid arousal coating her suckers, making everything impossibly wet and slimy. The water level was just beneath the couch, and her lower body was partially submerged, most of her tentacles trailing below its surface.

She parted her legs, moving them out of his path, the little ring of muscle opening subtly as the motion stretched the surrounding tissue. Using the fine tip of her appendage, she probed it, inadvertently demonstrating how soft and elastic it was as she spread it.

“Here,” she whispered, her voice barely audible.

“It’s a…cloaca?” David asked.

“Gods, no,” she replied hurriedly. “We pass waste through our siphons.”

Whatever this organ was, it must be used exclusively for reproduction, then. He slid a hand up the underside of one of her tentacles, feeling the suckers grip his fingers on his way up, Selkie’s body going as stiff as a board at the sensation. She let out another of her enamored chirps, perhaps the Broker equivalent of a gasp, more of her appendages coiling around his torso and arms. She shivered as he neared that little ring, David watching it clench and flex, the sight filling his stomach with butterflies. The question now was whether they could even fit together. Selkie seemed to think so – she had implied that she’d done some research.

Her leg-tentacles created a kind of tunnel that guided him towards her loins, making him feel like he was reaching inside her, his fingers nearing the little opening. Before he reached it, the tentacle that had spread it open wrapped around his wrist, halting his progress.

As he watched, something began to slide out of the tiny opening. More pale flesh emerged, David struggling to make sense of what his eyes were seeing as something unfurled, opening like the petals of a blooming flower. Four stubby tentacles spread apart, each one about the size and shape of a human tongue, joined by shimmering strands of mucus. They were prehensile, spreading open her entrance a little wider in invitation as they extended.

“Whoa,” David muttered, not sure how else to articulate how much the prospect of having those things coiled around his member made his head spin.

Selkie hesitated for a moment, then guided him closer, allowing him to touch her. Those petals reached out to slide against his digit, licking as though tasting him, mapping out his shape. Seemingly satisfied, they gripped him more tightly, pulling him inside. Her flesh was so incredibly slippery thanks to all of the slime that his index finger slid right in without any friction.

A tube of elastic muscle stretched around his digit, her cool, sodden membranes clinging to his skin. She was so narrow, her pillowy walls squeezing and kneading in just the same way that her tentacles did – soft and pliable like gelatin one moment, then firm and tight the next. She was filled with slime on the inside, David watching more of the cloudy substance seep around his finger as he displaced it, her petals smearing it on his skin.

“You are…so warm,” she groaned, shifting in the netting as her tentacle squeezed his wrist. More of them were retracting towards her core now, but his arm was already in their way, the suckers on what one might call her inner thighs encompassing his forearm as they pressed around it. Her body was always in motion, never staying still, never truly at rest.

Surmising that she would stop him if it became uncomfortable, he slid deeper, burying his finger up to the knuckle in that constricting passage. A wave of pleasure wracked her, and he felt the texture of her inner walls change, a wave of papillae sliding up his finger in a teasing contraction. In the same way that the muscles in her skin could change its texture, forming little peaks to express emotion or to help her blend into the rocks, so too could she modulate the texture of her loins. It happened again, and he noted that they were fleshy and firm, but not so much as to provide any real resistance. For a brief moment, his finger was being caressed by a forest of tiny nodules, then it became silk-smooth again.

He knelt there in the water for a few moments, the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears, his mind spinning in circles at the implication. This was starting to feel like some kind of examination, so he pressed on, Selkie’s passage gripping him tightly as he withdrew his finger. She leaned forward to see what he was doing now, as flustered as he had ever seen her, her skin a patchwork of dark mottling that only served to accentuate the bright bands of excitement.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, her voice wavering.

“Return the favor,” he replied, pushing his face between her tentacles.

“David!” she gasped.

Her suckers slid against his cheeks, coating them in her slime, her thighs pressing around his head as he brought his lips near her opening. He had no idea what he was going to do next, but neither had Selkie, and that hadn’t stopped her from giving him the best head of his life.

He raised his hands above her skirt, gripping her narrow waist for purchase, her tentacles already entangling him. They draped over his shoulders, curling around his head and neck, spiraling around his arms. In moments, he was trapped in another cage of wet muscle, his upper body now coated in her stringy, gelatinous emissions. He was almost wearing her like a hat now, her skirt and her winding tentacles muffling the sound of her chirping and blotting out the light.

She tensed when he kissed one of her thighs, all of her appendages flexing, then she melted into the netting as he moved higher. Not sure what else to do with her unfamiliar anatomy, he licked one of those petals, finding that the prehensile organ coiled around his tongue in response.

“Like that!” Selkie gasped, her translator faltering as she loosed a low pulse in her native speech. “Oh, do more of that…”

Reminding himself not to ingest anything lest the slime expand in his stomach or block an airway, he continued, encouraged by her strong reaction. The petals must be sensitive, Selkie writhing on the couch as he locked lips with her opening, sharing a sordid kiss. Like probing tongues, the organs began to explore his mouth, sliding across the lining of his cheeks and glancing his palate. Two of them spiraled around his tongue, joining him in an impossible embrace, just as flexible and curious as her tentacles.

Selkie drew him closer in the throes of her pleasure, the appendages that were wrapped around his head flexing, his hair matted with her slime. One of the tentacles tightened around his throat, but it loosened again before he had time to voice his concern, her arm-tentacles wrapping around his forearms as he kept a tight grip on her waist to prevent her from wriggling loose. With so much water and mucus, it was a challenge to hold onto her.

His heart skipped a beat as he felt one of those petals probe the back of his throat, another painting shapes on the roof of his mouth, two more spiraling around his tongue as though attempting to wrestle it into submission. The faint saltwater taste and citrus sea fruit scent filled his head, his face so coated in goo now that it was no longer a concern. It wasn’t like their encounter could become any messier.

David let one of his hands slide across her midriff as he continued his efforts, enjoying the feeling of her toned belly tensing beneath his palm, those rows of muscle firming up when he probed her opening with the tip of his questing tongue. Selkie seemed to be beyond words now – the only sounds coming from her the whistles and pulses of her native language, the translator not even attempting to parse them anymore.

He had to take a break after a minute or so to get some air, Selkie’s petals continuing to lick his red cheeks, probing his lips as ropes of her slime dripped from his chin. Amusingly, Selkie didn’t allow him to withdraw all the way, keeping her tentacles curled around his head as though afraid that this newly-discovered pleasure would end prematurely.

“You doing okay?” he asked. “No going too fast, am I?”

“I was…not expecting this,” Selkie stammered in reply, letting herself sink into the netting as though all of the tension had drained from her body. One of her tentacles draped itself over his shoulder with a wet slap, dangling into the water. “I feel as though I am floating in a gentle current…”

“Should I…”

She didn’t wait for him to finish his question, pulling him back inward with her coiling tentacles, practically gluing herself to his face like a limpet. He felt her suckers grip his skin, her petals sliding into his mouth, dancing across his tongue and bulging his cheeks.

He kept it up for a few minutes more, pausing to take breaths, feeling Selkie’s muscle contractions grow stronger and more frequent as her pleasure mounted. It was like her whole body was an erogenous zone – the way that her tentacles flexed and her chromatophores displayed her desire on her very skin giving him a good idea of what she was feeling. She didn’t even need to open her mouth to communicate – her body was doing it for her.

“W-wait,” Selkie mumbled, using her powerful tentacles to push him away. He rose from beneath her skirt, strands of her slime dangling from his face, seeing her peering down at him. “I want to be closer to you when I…”

She didn’t need to elaborate, David lifting himself up onto the couch, settling into the netting beside her. The way that it stretched under his weight made her roll into him, but that was exactly where she wanted to be, burying her face in his neck and draping two of her four arms across his chest. He shifted around, trying to get comfortable in the awkward seat, then curled an arm around her narrow waist to draw her closer. Her tentacles were already coiling around him again, like she wanted as much of her body to be in contact with his as possible, the appendages slithering around his legs and wrapping around his torso.

A couple of them began to wind around his aching erection, her cool, damp flesh like a balm as it started to encompass him. She began to stroke slowly – not wanting to bring him to completion again, merely keeping him wanting.

One of her leaf-shaped hands glued itself to his wrist, directing the arm that wasn’t hooked around her waist down beneath her skirt. She lifted some of her leg-tentacles to give him easier access, guiding him deeper, shivering as his digits brushed her sensitive inner thighs. Those licking, probing petals found his fingertips, drawing them inside her. Selkie tensed as she felt two of his digits slip into her tight, clenching passage, muscle spasms and waves of papillae massaging them.

The tongue-like organs continued to explore his hand, stroking his palm and curling around his other fingers, Selkie seeming to enjoy the sensation. It occurred to him that two Brokers going at it wouldn’t be able to see beneath their skirts, so perhaps one of the purposes of these structures was to act as docking clamps, essentially. They seemed just as sensitive as the equivalent vulva or labia in humans.

With David’s fingers now buried inside her, Selkie pressed close, kissing the nape of his neck as her wet tentacles slithered across his body. He began to move his hand slowly, discovering that she enjoyed the feeling of them curling inside her as much as the gentle in and out. Her muscles flexed, her skin pulsing with color in time with his movements, the little papillae in her depths throbbing around his digits.

She reached up with another of her hands, wiping some of the slime from his face, but it was somewhat of a futile gesture. Her suckers stuck to his cheek, turning his head so that she could kiss him, her pace slow and passionate as she basked in the new sensations that were assailing her.

“I have made such a mess of you,” she giggled when she broke off, keeping a hand on his burning cheek as she gazed into his eyes.

“Again, I kind of beat you to it,” he replied. The stuff was everywhere now. It was all over him, seeping from between her tentacles, clumping up to make the water surrounding them soupy. “I can see why they call it clogging the filters.”

“Do not repeat that outside of this room,” she said, her chuckle tapering into a moan as he continued his gentle stimulation. “This feels so different from what I was expecting,” she sighed, leaning her head on his shoulder again as her lashes fluttered. “I…ah!” she chirped, David interrupting her thought with a curl of his fingers. “I always imagined that the modified tentacle of a male would feel somewhat like my own. Not that I did that much imagining,” she added hurriedly, as though afraid to out herself. “Cavitation is just vibrations, and while intense, it is a very distinct sensation. Even in sims, I have never seen someone do what you just did,” she continued as her lower tentacles coiled around his forearm to keep him close. “Feeling your heat inside me, feeling you moving like this…I fear that I cannot be satisfied with anything else now.”

He leaned down to join her in another passionate embrace, her soft lips meeting his, his tongue wrestling with her smooth radula as her limbs wrapped around him possessively. They lay together, reclining in the flexible netting, a heap of tangled limbs and slippery mucus.

“Why are you watching me like that?” she asked, cocking her head at him when they broke off.

“I love the way that your skin reacts to me,” he explained, watching her shiver contentedly as he planted a kiss on her mantle. Bright colors spread out from it in a wave, white bands flowing. “You look the same way you did when you were dancing – when your chromatophores were shifting with the music.”

“If you believe that you can woo me with sweet words, you are very much correct,” she giggled as she pushed her face into his chest.

Those pale bands were flashing faster now, making her look like some kind of cuttlefish gone haywire, her tentacles tightening their grip on his wrist. He upped his pace, sensing that she was getting closer. He was almost glad that he was using his fingers and not his cock. The blend of her licking petals, her squeezing contractions, and her textured papillae was more than he could have endured for this long.

Responding in kind, his twitching partner enclosed his member in her swirling tentacles, gooey slime and silky flesh gliding against his skin. The tip of one of her appendages snuck beneath his foreskin like a tongue, circling his glans, making him falter.

“I like watching you,” Selkie purred, her pillowy lips kissing his cheek. “I want to be able to see your face when I…”

Her lithe body arched, her tentacles flexing so tightly that it was almost painful, her loins gripping him with the fierce strength of a fist. She pulled herself tighter against him, spreading more slime on his skin as her tentacles wandered across his alien anatomy, the lurid substance gluing the pair together. The way that her eyes lingered on the glistening mucus and sucker marks – her skin rippling with arousal at the sight – made him think that it had some deeper meaning to her. Maybe there was something symbolic to a Broker about covering their lover in their life-preserving essence, like she was marking him with her scent or writing her name on him.

“More, faster!” she pleaded, her comely voice wavering as the pleasure overwhelmed her. David drew her close, thrusting his fingers more quickly, the unfamiliar sensation sending her complexion into chaos. Her squeezing and the rippling of her papillae reached a fever pitch, her loins so tight now that David doubted whether he could withdraw his fingers, Selkie hiding her face in his chest. He could feel the tentacles that were wrapped around his wrist pulling him, her petals licking his hand, her desperation palpable.

A mesmerizing pulse of bright colors washed over her as she climaxed, syncing with the rapid beating of her heart. She groaned into his chest – a low, throbbing pulse of sound that resonated through his body, her limbs gripping him so tightly that he could scarcely move. Around his fingers, her loins milked him in a ruthless tempo, slick muscle and teasing ridges of papillae flowing up his digits with each pang of ecstasy that rippled through her lithe frame. He held her close, keeping up his stroking to prolong her bliss, feeling her gasp and writhe in his arms as she rode it out.

“Are you still going?” he marveled after what must have been a minute or more. His fingers were starting to ache, but she hadn’t loosened her hold one iota, continuing to chirp and shiver.

Mhmm,” she mumbled, her translator doing its best to keep up. “Do not…stop…”

“I can’t stop until you give me my hand back.”

“Mine now,” she giggled, nuzzling against his neck. She was so tangled with him that he could barely move, so he relaxed into the netting beside her, cradling her until her spasms abated and she settled into a satisfied heap. All of the tension drained from her muscles, and she finally allowed him to remove his wrinkled fingers, still joined to her by fat ropes of her mucus. In the cool, dark room, it was so easy to forget everything that had been keeping them distracted from one another – to focus only on the moment.

Selkie lifted her head in search of another kiss, this one softer and more gentle than any that they had shared so far, as though her gratitude was being expressed through every lazy stroke of her radula.

“Thank you,” she cooed. “Is that a silly thing to say?”

“Not at all,” he chuckled, provoking another flash of color as he slid a hand across her flat belly. Even in the gloom, it was wonderful just to be able to admire her – to watch the way that the dim light reflected off her slick skin to give the impression that she was made of wet vinyl. She was so soft and yielding now, her body practically draped over him, her limbs tangled around his own in a way that was distinctly affectionate. Her tentacles were still coiled around his erection, playing with it absent-mindedly, every fidget making him throb in her grasp.

“You are not too cold without your suit?” she asked. “I could change the temperature settings…”

“No, this is nice,” he sighed. “This is kind of a hot planet, and you’re like a little ice pack.”

“I will take that as a compliment,” she replied, clicking her beak in amusement. “Things are going the way I wanted them to go,” she added, her tone becoming more sincere. “Better, even. I wanted this to feel special, and it does.”

“It’s not a sea spire, but it’s still a little bed chamber above the waves,” David replied with a smile. “This is not what I expected to be doing when I agreed to take the job,” he said with a shake of his head. “This place,” he added, gesturing to the dark observation room. “You,” he continued, reaching over to brush her cheek. “Things like this don’t happen for people like me. I’m not a brave Marine or a cool pilot – I’m just a desk jockey.”

“They do now,” she insisted, planting a kiss on his neck and giving him a gentle nip with her beak. “Because I wish it.”

“I’m just lucky your boss is such an asshole, or this might not have happened,” he joked.

“For so long, I have felt like Mountain,” Selkie said as she lay her head on his chest. She seemed to enjoy its slow rise and fall, David running his fingers up her mantle, stroking her. “I was always on the outside looking in – watching as others experienced the joys that I could not.”

“I always painted you as Snow,” David said. “The beautiful princess, adored from afar.”

“Flatterer,” she purred, tightening her fleshy coils around his shaft to make him wince. “I was starting to think that, like the character from the opera, my desire for companionship would only end in disappointment. Just as he contented himself with his role as a chronicler, so too did I try to distract myself with my work. It is only now that I realize how futile that would have been.” She reached up to kiss him again, savoring his touch, one of her tentacles combing through his damp hair. “For the first time, I feel…free. Free to share my love without reservation – without the fear that I will have to sacrifice something important as a tithe.”

“You don’t owe me anything,” David replied. “There’s no contract here – it doesn’t have to be anything more than what you want it to be.”

“Well, I never said that I wanted it to be frivolous,” she added with a smile. She gave his cock another squeeze, feeling it pulse between her tentacles. “You have recovered?”

“What about you?” he replied as she began to slither into his lap.

“I do not need to wait,” she said with a sultry chuckle, her slimy tentacles slithering across his thighs. He lay back in the netting, sinking a few more inches into the water beneath it, Selkie keeping his member securely cocooned in her tentacles as she repositioned herself. She was straddling him now, her lower appendages coiling around his legs and waist, the familiar sensation of them stroking his inner thighs and his balls returning as they began to explore him. They wound through the netting, too, securing him firmly in place as though he might try to escape.

The tentacles that were swirling around his shaft peeled away, the two lovers glancing down as his mast pressed into her svelte midriff, giving some inkling as to how far he might reach inside her. All she had to do now was lift herself a little and move a couple of inches forward, but she hesitated, her eyes lingering on his throbbing organ.

“Everything alright?” he asked, noting that her skin had dimmed a little.

“Fine,” she mumbled, a flash of white passing over her. “I am just…sizing it up…”

“We can stop any time you want.”

“That is not really the way Broker lovemaking works,” she replied, giving him a smile.

“W-what do you mean by that?”

“You will find out soon enough,” she said, lifting the weight of her body off him. Manipulating his member with her tentacles, she positioned it beneath her skirt, ropes of her arousal already seeping down to coat his thighs and drip to his belly. David remembered the feeling of those licking petals and the waves of teasing papillae in her tight passage, his heart starting to pump faster as she gradually lowered herself down. “I can feel your excitement,” she added with an equally excited shiver. “It courses through your blood…”

As she settled into his lap, she released his shaft from her tentacles, David stiffening as he felt her tongue-like petals seek him out. They lapped at his glans, exploring his unfamiliar shape, glazing him with cool slime as though preparing him for what was to come. He couldn’t see what was happening to him beneath her skirt, and that only enhanced the sensations, each lick and stroke burning through his fog of arousal like a hot knife. They slithered beneath his foreskin, coating him in slippery mucus, sliding down his length as his tip brushed against Selkie’s opening. She hesitated, then pressed down on him, stretching that taut ring of muscle over his head like a rubber that was a few sizes too small.

There was a popping sensation, and then he was in, Selkie’s wet flesh sealing around him. Tight didn’t do her justice – there was something new and wonderful about the way that the muscles in her silken depths cradled him, at once powerful and gentle. When she flexed involuntarily, the sensation of their union flooding her skin with color, he felt those pillowy walls ripple around him. They adhered to him like a second skin – like someone was pouring liquid latex around his shaft, the flowing muscle that he had so admired in her tentacles now engulfing him. The lining of her tunnel was like soaking-wet satin, those mucus membranes so soft and delicate that he dared not move for fear that they might tear apart like damp tissue paper. Selkie was no fragile thing, however. She was flexible, stretchy, and elastic enough to accommodate this alien organ that had no business being inside her.

Fuck,” he grunted, balling his fists as the pleasure wracked him. “How do you even lay eggs with this goddamned thing?”

“We are very stretchy,” she replied with a giddy chuckle, hanging her mantle and closing her unfocused eyes as she savored this new feeling. He throbbed inside her, those walls so tightly compressed that the merest flex spread them wider, her lips parting in a quiet moan as white pulses of desire washed across her skin. “Your heat,” she groaned, feeling him swell again. “It is almost…painful…”

“Should we stop?” he asked, stifling another groan.

“We are not stopping now,” she replied, her voice almost a growl. “I want all of this.”

A contraction rippled up his shaft, followed by the torturous papillae that he had felt with his fingers, the smooth texture of her insides abruptly morphing into a mass of soft little nodules. They flowed from his base to his tip, sliding over his glans, grazing every nerve on their way up. He tried to buck reflexively but found that she had glued him to the netting, weaving her tentacles around his limbs and through the holes in the material. He couldn’t even raise his hips out of the couch now, her cool, damp body pressing him down.

“Don’t do that too often, or this is gonna be over very quickly,” he said with a weak laugh.

“I can feel your heartbeat inside me,” she mumbled, seeming lost in her own little world. “I have never experienced this kind of intimacy before. It is…intoxicating.”

“Are you going to start moving?” he asked, beginning to get antsy. Those opulent walls were cradling him, her ring of muscle sealed around his base, her petals coating his balls as they licked his skin. There was a desperate, primal urge to thrust growing within him, but her tight hold frustrated his efforts.

“Moving?” she asked, shuddering again as she felt him throb.

“How does this usually go between Brokers?” he pressed, struggling to keep his mind off the pleasure that was coursing through him. “What happens now?”

“The male uses his tentacle to stroke and stimulate,” Selkie explained, swaying drunkenly atop him. “He…caresses the walls, eventually…deposits his sperm in the female’s oviduct.”

“Where does that leave us?” he grunted.

“I…I do not know,” she stammered, another wave of color making her light up. “You are filling me so much. There is so much heat – you are stimulating everything. Just…let us go slowly. We must feel our way forward like a tentacle mapping out a crevice in the rocks.”

“I’m gonna go crazy down here,” he added, but Selkie leaned down to silence his complaint with a kiss. Their lips joined, and he felt her grip him, her loins narrowing in a swell of desire. Stars danced before his eyes – or maybe it was the glistening of her skin and the sparkling of her eyes – his mind drowning in blissful chemicals.

Slow,” she whispered, caressing his cheek. God, just the touch of her hand was enough to send a bolt of electrical pleasure shooting down his spine, and her synthetic voice was creeping into his mind like an intrusive thought. “You talk too fast, and I get the feeling that you also make love too fast. We have the whole phase to enjoy one another. Let it not be a race.”

“I get the impression that this isn’t just about me,” he added, unable to tear his gaze away from those eyes as she hovered over him. “How…long do Brokers usually mate for?”

“A few hours,” she replied with a sultry chuckle that set his head spinning. “I wondered if you were just nervous earlier – when you finished quickly.”

“Selkie, there’s no way I can last that long,” he protested, anticipation and apprehension swirling in his belly. “I don’t think a human can last that long.”

“David, my treasure,” she purred as she planted a kiss on his forehead. “Stop fretting. Talk to me – tell me your needs and your desires, and together, we will find a rhythm that suits us both. You said so yourself – we cannot get this wrong.”

“I just…don’t want to disappoint you.”

“You cannot disappoint me,” she giggled, pressing close to plant a kiss on his vulnerable neck. “Though, I find the sentiment very endearing. This is about building a connection, sharing intimacy, and forging the trust that will see me through my brooding. There may be no brooding this time, but that does not diminish the act in any way. I still wish to know you.”

Perhaps the Brokers didn’t fuck, then. At least, not in the way that a human would understand it. There was no in and out, no rapid pistoning, no race to the finish. Selkie didn’t want a couple of fifteen-minute sessions – she wanted them joined for what sounded like the whole damned night, just wallowing in the ebb and flow of their shared passion. The prospect was as daunting as it was exciting.

“Now it’s my turn to say that I’ve never done this before,” he said with a nervous chuckle.

“Do not stop if you feel me climax,” she added, making them both gasp together as she shifted her weight in his lap. “That does not signal an end, only a new beginning.”

“Just go easy, because this feels amazing, and you’re so fucking pretty that I can’t even-”

She placed a hand over his mouth to shut him up, giving him a smirk as she began to slowly circle her hips, stirring him around inside her. There was so much determination in her eyes now, the fear and uncertainty all but gone, just a look enough to tell him that he was hers now. She was still giddy, her skin still awash with flustered splotches and pale bands of excitement, but she was suppressing it in service of a greater goal.

Selkie was inhumanly flexible, like her body was made of living rubber, able to gyrate and make teasing shapes with her hips while her upper body remained frozen in place. Her head and torso stood still like the star in her orrery, her hips orbiting it lazily like a planet, her motions as fluid as flowing water. His heart fluttered as he saw the colors on her skin, the gentle swaying bringing him right back to her beautiful dance the day she had shown him her music. There was a slow beat in there somewhere – a metronome, like the ticking of clockwork gears. It made her movements predictable enough not to flood him with too much stimulation too quickly.

He reached out to place a hand on her belly, feeling the muscles in her core as they flexed to the rhythm beneath her smooth skin, the water and mucus making his touch slippery. There was no need to constantly badger her with questions – not when he could read her mood on her skin and know what she was feeling intuitively. He knew enough about her body language now that he could watch the waves of pleasure swell within her, like abstract art being splattered on a canvas.

Just like her tentacles, her loins were constantly in motion, endlessly seething and squeezing and stroking. Whenever those papillae made their presence known, it felt like Jacuzzi jets on his shaft, the viscous layer of slime ensuring that there was never any uncomfortable friction. She was well-protected from the water, globs of thick mucus seeping out around his girth, ensuring that those velvet walls of jello-soft flesh could spiral around him with lurid ease. Her tentacles remained as active as ever, sliding across his body even as they wrapped around him securely, always mapping their environment.

“Touch me,” she purred, wrapping one of her four hands around his wrist. She slid it up her belly, encouraging him, letting his fingers follow the subtle channels of muscle. “Explore me as you please – just as a tentacle would.”

He reminded himself that a Broker partner would be completely tangled with her by now, the two knotted into a ball of sex-addled yarn, so maybe that was an important part of the experience.

David slid a hand behind her back, then drew her closer, leaning up to press his lips against her neck. He mouthed and licked at the familiar structures, Selkie chirping when his warm tongue glanced her throat, clenching tightly as his lips crawled down to her nape. He sucked at her shoulder, not caring that his saliva was blending with her mucus, bringing in his other hand as he trailed his fingers across her twitching frame.

Selkie lifted her head to the ceiling, swaying as she kept up her slow dance, illuminated in the dim glow of the spiraling light fixture above them.

“I should not utter such things,” Selkie stammered, David glancing up at her. “Not until I can be certain, but like the composers of old, I cannot help but let my feelings flow. What if you stayed, David?” she asked. There was pain in her voice, almost desperation, mingling with her passion to create something musical and earnest. “What if you were mine, and I kept you, and we spent the rest of our lives like this?”

“I don’t know if they’d let me stay,” David replied, making her jolt as he let his teeth graze her neck. “I can’t make promises, but I can tell you that being here – with you – is like a dream that I never want to wake up from.”

“You lied when you told me that you were no poet,” she cooed, rewarding him with a wave of stroking papillae that stopped him dead in his tracks. “We shall write our own sonnet here, in this room, and the ending will be as we wish it.”

They shared another passionate kiss, their pace growing more urgent now, as though their desires could be expressed through the motions of lips and tongues alone. David was slowly embracing his new situation, not worrying about the slime and the water, becoming used to the sensation of her tentacles cradling him. The pleasure was no longer merely concentrated in his loins, spreading out through his entire body like a fever, leaving him awash in tingling static. Selkie’s words were becoming clearer – this was about intimacy and exploration, every inch of their bodies warranting just as much care and attention as their most erogenous zones. Lying there in the netting, he was acutely aware of every tentacle, the teasing sensation of their touch distracting him from the pleasure of being hilted inside her.

“I can feel you starting to relax,” Selkie sighed, making another swirl with her hips that set his heart fluttering. “Let it carry you along like a current. Do not fight it.”

“Thought you’d never done this before?” he murmured, gazing up at her through half-closed eyes. “You seem to know what you’re doing.”

“Theory, not practice,” she replied with a snicker. “A great deal of theory…”

Every time she swung her hips, he could feel her smooth walls sliding around his shaft, her flesh as soft as gelatin. Whenever he felt like he was getting used to the sensation, she’d flex, and it would firm up to grip him with a ruthless tightness. If he flexed in turn, or a powerful throb made him swell, the sensation would provoke a ripple of papillae that felt like a thousand tiny tongues gliding up his length.

“Gods, your heat,” she mumbled as she hung her head. “I am supposed to focus on the pleasure, but I cannot tear my attention away. I feel as though a rod of burning iron is within me…”

“It doesn’t hurt?” David prompted.

“I…no, I do not think so. There is an ache in me, and it borders on pain, but it is a good pain – a satisfying pain. Accommodating you is challenging, but I am growing more accustomed.” She shuddered, snapping her beak shut, the narrow walls that were stretched so tautly around his cock squeezing in a contraction. “When the pleasure comes, it is…wondrous,” she murmured. “It is as though you are reshaping me.”

David’s eyes followed one of her hands lazily as it slid across his chest, her touch setting off sparks in his brain, like she was dragging her tentacle across a live wire. She smeared more of that slime on his skin, the slick, bubbling layer only serving to enhance the sensation. It was like massage oil, in a way, letting her glide across his torso like it was made of ice. More of her appendages were doing the same to his back, his legs, his arms. One of them coiled around his throat, and although the intent could not have been gentler, just having it touching him in such a vulnerable area was like turning up the sensitivity dial to eleven.

He felt her suckers stick to the skin on his belly, glancing down to see her peeling one of her leg-tentacles away from his midriff, the suckers popping off his skin one by one to leave pink circles. She was playing with him, he realized, seeing how long the marks took to fade.

David had only two hands to offer, but they were plenty adventurous, one of them gripping her leaf-shaped hand in his. They intertwined as best they could manage, suckers probing his palm and fingertips, a glob of mucus sliding down his wrist. His hands had always fascinated her, and nothing was forbidden now, Selkie drawing his arm closer to her.

She brought her face-tentacles down to coil around his fingers, passing off his hand in the same way that she would a morsel of food, her grip surprisingly strong. Those appendages intertwined with his digits, just the sensation of her wet flesh sliding against his sensitive skin enough to distract him. Never would he have imagined that having a woman trail her fingers gently across his palm and wrist would have him so enamored.

Keeping her glittering eyes locked to his, she slipped one of his fingers into her mouth, pursing her pillowy lips around it. Her radula circled its tip, the silky, damp lining of her mouth pressing down on it as she sucked. Still nursing at his finger, she gave him another, more aggressive rock of her hips that left him gritting his teeth.

With his free hand, he gripped the base of one of her leg-tentacles near where it joined to her skirt, finding it just as plump and soft as a woman’s thigh. His fingers delved into her yielding flesh, so pliant and flexible with no bones to get in the way, her rubbery muscle practically expelling his probing fingers when she tensed.

What he knew of lovemaking had always been a buildup to a rapid finish, each thrust coming more quickly than the last, mounting towards a shared crescendo. It was like rubbing two sticks together to make a fire, heat and friction growing until the flames burst forth. What Selkie was showing him was entirely different, never rushing towards a goal but enjoying the journey itself. Somehow, he was only growing more sensitive and more receptive as their encounter dragged on, their passion smoldering like a bed of hot coals rather than burning itself out in a violent conflagration. He found that some of the sensations he had so enjoyed – the swarming of butterflies in his belly, the fluttering of his heart – were only growing more powerful. Her love was like radiation, burning through every cell in his body, leaving him weakened and wonderfully susceptible.

He didn’t believe in spirituality, and he didn’t think that Selkie did either, but he could no longer tell where her body ended and his began. It was like their nerves had been spliced together, the barrier between their bodies blurred, moving and experiencing as though they were a single organism.

“Are you able to endure?” Selkie asked, dredging him up from his stupor. “Should I slow down?”

“This is perfect,” he sighed, another wave of warm pleasure washing over him. The muscles in her depths were kneading him, swallowing around him like a clinging throat, tickling papillae swirling around his length.

Selkie leaned back, riding him as she swayed back and forth, her flowing motions and shifting hues transfixing him. Just watching her dance and gyrate was enough to keep him captivated, her poise and control over those liquid muscles the envy of even the most skilled dancer or gymnast, her skin a visualization of emotion. This time, he was her partner in this waltz, closer and more attuned than he could ever have imagined being with another person.

As he admired her twisting, flexing core, he reached out to trail his fingers down her toned midriff. He felt her tense around his cock – watched her colors surge, her head lolling as the sensation flowed through her. He leaned in to mouthe at her chest, licking its glossy surface, vaguely aware of her petals stroking his balls.

The dark room around them melted away, only the wet sounds of slithering tentacles and heavy breathing reaching his ears, time losing all meaning. There was only the two of them, suspended in this void, timeless and perfect.

After what might have been minutes of their bodies being joined, Selkie began to shudder, her steady pace faltering. He didn’t need to ask if she was close – he could watch the patterns spread across her shining skin.

“I need you deeper,” she groaned, compressing her lithe frame as she squashed herself onto his shaft. His tip pressed against some kind of barrier in her furthest depths, another tight ring of muscle that stretched around him as she applied more force. There was a popping sensation, then he was through, the ring sealing tightly around his glans. It felt like he was inside a little chamber of silken, elastic flesh, barely large enough to accommodate him.

“W-what is that?” he gasped, the sudden stimulation taking him by surprise.

“Oviduct,” she replied with a gasp, wriggling as she adjusted to the feeling of him invading her innermost space. “Where the male deposits his sperm.”

It must be incredibly sensitive if she hadn’t let him touch it until now, Selkie shifting in his lap, changing her position so that he could better stimulate it. He could feel that stretchy membrane pulling over his glans, rubbing against it, wet and slippery like the lining of her cheek. White bands flashed across her twisting body, her eyes closing, her tentacles gripping him with an almost fearful strength. He kept his hand on her belly, feeling her move, the muscles that were wringing him with cruel strokes tangible beneath her damp skin.

One of her hands snapped to his wrist, pulling it to her face like she was reeling in a fish. Selkie buried her cheek in his palm, securing it there with her face-tentacles, encouraging him to stroke her. She wanted him to hold her while she climaxed, the realization making his mind swim with desire. Her eyes fluttered open and met his, maintaining her lust-filled gaze as though her pleasure might peter out if she broke it for even a moment, grinding that stretchy film against him.

Ecstasy coursed through her body in waves as her orgasm tore at her, David able to feel every little flutter and twitch of muscle as though it was his own. Her narrow passage wrenched at him with powerful clenches and squeezes, gooey flesh and taut muscle rippling around his length, those tiny papillae caressing him. It was almost like her tentacles were reaching through the barrier of her flesh to cocoon him once again, a whirlwind of dissonant textures spiraling around his buried member.

The pleasure was etched onto her skin, her chromatophores flushing with pastel hues of happiness and flustered blotches, white bands of excitement coursing up her mantle like beams of sunlight bleeding through a slatted window. Resonating pulses and high-pitched chirps filled the room – the translator not knowing what to make of the primal sounds, David joining the chorus with a stifled groan as he struggled to stave off his own climax.

That flowing dance became jarring and halting, shivers of bliss making her clench and twitch, his hand still glued to her cheek by her face-tentacles. He could feel her rubbing his glans against the tight walls of her chamber, the stimulation making points of light dance before his eyes, only the strangeness of the sensation keeping him from joining her.

She lay down on his chest, David holding her close, feeling her writhe and shiver as she rode out the throes of her pleasure. She was clinging to him so tightly, her four arm-tentacles wrapped around him, her face nestled in the nape of his neck. Her climaxes lasted for multiple minutes, and he wasn’t sure if he pitied or envied her for it, her lithe frame shuddering in his arms. The idea that she could do this multiple times throughout the night was amazing to him. Perhaps it helped them form stronger bonds with their partners.

The endless clenching of her passage was almost enough to pull him along with her, but he resisted the powerful impulse, trying to focus on Selkie instead of the sensations that were wracking him. He kept her close, supporting her elongated head with one hand, the other running down her back. She had no spine, but she seemed to enjoy the sensation all the same, her fleshy lashes fluttering as he trailed his fingertips across her skin.

Her contractions gradually slowed, and she woke from her trance, her skin flushed with contented hues as she blinked up at him. She was exhausted – shivering, but there was a bright smile on her face. They shared a slow, affectionate kiss, lying together for a few minutes more as she enjoyed her afterglow.

“For a species who can’t stand being in the same room as someone else for too long, I didn’t expect you to be this cuddly,” he said.

“We make the most of it,” she replied, giving him a peck on the cheek. She rose to a sitting position again, David grunting as she shifted him around inside her. Before he could get a word in, she started to move again, resuming her dance. She seemed even more tender now, her senses still heightened from her recent orgasm, her complexion starting to flash with pale bands again.

“Whoa, hang on,” David stammered. “You’re just going to keep going?”

“Did I not warn you that a climax does not signal an end, but a new beginning?”

“You did,” he conceded, placing a hand on her belly to help steady her as she circled her hips. “I just…I didn’t expect this. Do you have no refractory period?”

“The goal is to make the pleasure last as long as possible,” she replied, leaning over him. He felt another pop as she slid him out of her oviduct and back into her passage, the stimulation perhaps too intense for her. “To immerse ourselves in this intimacy.”

“You really meant all night, then?”

“Did you think I was exaggerating?” she giggled, her pace hastening.

David was painfully sensitive after what she had subjected him to, his cock throbbing, aching with the need for release. He couldn’t remember ever being this hard for so long before. Her cool flesh soothed him, her stretchy passage cradling him, bringing him closer and closer with each squeeze.

As his ecstasy mounted, David teetering on the edge, Selkie backed away. She slowed her movements, letting her clenching walls relax, pulling him back from the brink. Confused arousal and disappointment flooded him, and although he felt frustration, the glow that he had been left with fell over him like a warm blanket.

“Not yet, my love,” Selkie crooned as she stroked his cheek apologetically. “I feel you nearing your zenith, but not yet. Let it keep building within you. Stay here, with me. Ride this feeling for as long as you can bear it.”

“It’s not about the ending – it’s about the journey,” he muttered to himself as he tried to suppress the immediate urge. As their coupling dragged on, he was beginning to understand the reasoning behind the Broker way of going about this. The more he denied himself relief, the more the pressure built within him, becoming more of a constant thrum that spread throughout his body. It was almost meditative, like he was achieving some higher state of being – though he held no mystical beliefs. It must be something to do with the constant flow of endorphins saturating his brain.

Selkie leaned in to press her squishy mantle against his forehead, gazing deep into his eyes, the intensity of her stare piercing through the haze of his arousal. Even for a human, it was intimate.

“How long are we gonna keep this up?” he asked with a nervous laugh.

“Until you can no longer stand it,” she replied. “Then, we will wait for you to recover, and we will resume.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt this close to someone,” he added with a sigh, letting his head rest in the netting as she gyrated.

“You were not this close to your previous partner?” she asked with a smirk

“Are you jealous?” he chuckled. “Selkie, I’m inside you right now. Trust me, I’m not thinking about anyone else – I can barely remember my own damned name.”

“I want your thoughts focused solely on me,” she purred, cupping his cheeks in her hands as she gave him another kiss. They remained joined for a few lingering moments, their lips pressed tightly together as Selkie made a cruel figure of eight with her hips.

“I don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” he replied once she had broken away.

“You are doing such a good job for me,” she cooed, her words seeping into his ears like sweet honey. “I did not know if human biology could even support an encounter like this.”

“A very diplomatic way of saying that you didn’t know how long we can fuck for,” he replied. “I suppose we’re going to find out.”

“Lie back and relax,” she said, a beautiful shiver passing through her as she swayed atop him like a belly dancer. “Let us see what heights we can reach.”



David and Selkie lay tangled together on the couch, their limbs intertwined, fingers and tentacles wandering wherever they pleased. David was lying on his back now, the way that the netting sank into the water leaving him partially submerged, like he was reclining in a shallow pool that left his head and chest exposed. How long had they been locked in this dark observation room now? Had it been two hours? Three? It was impossible to keep track of time, as though he was sharing a sensory deprivation tank with his lover. The cool water lapped at him gently, cloudy with Selkie’s slime, her tentacles disturbing it as they slithered across his body and through the netting.

She had never let him leave her the entire time, his aching, throbbing member still buried in her reaches. Her pace was slow and leisurely, her artful strokes leaving him breathless, the slightest shake of her hips enough to make his head spin. She always kept him close to the edge, but never quite gave him enough to push him over it, reveling in each pulse and flex that she was able to wring from him. He was beyond arousal now, his senses so heightened that just the merest glance of a tentacle or the touch of her lips was a transcendent experience in itself.

His partner wasn’t faring much better, having climaxed half a dozen times with no refractory period to cut her fun short, locking her in a state of orgasmic euphoria that never seemed to end.

“Like this?” she purred, her sultry voice alone enough to send pleasant shivers down her spine.

“Yeah,” he sighed drunkenly, his eyes lidding as she turned her lower body almost a hundred and eighty degrees without her torso budging an inch. Pleasure washed over him like a crashing tide, his burning muscles clenching, pulses of white light filling his head. He could feel each teasing papillae as it spiraled around him, the entrance to her oviduct kissing his glans, the incredible control that she exerted over her muscles letting her stroke his shaft like a fist gloved in luxuriant silk.

During the hours that they had spent nestled together in this little slice of paradise, she had learned all of his tells – now able to react to the subtlest of cues like he was an open book and her eyes were devouring its pages. She was attuned to him, and she could play his body like an instrument, masterful in her ability to bring him within a hair’s breadth of climax before yanking him back again.

Frustration had given way to something else – something that smoldered inside him, filling him with warmth and desire to his core. Her slippery tentacles caressed his bare skin, sending little jolts of electricity arcing between his nerves, those sparkling eyes gazing into his. Her own emotions were betrayed by the hues and patterns that danced across her skin, her pulsing colors taking on an almost hallucinogenic quality. David felt like he was adrift on an ocean, letting its currents carry him, surrendering completely to its whims.

“Would you like to finish?” Selkie suddenly asked, rousing him from his stupor.

“R-really?” he replied, a kind of giddy excitement overcoming him.

“It would be cruel to keep you in this state for much longer,” she cooed, delivering another shimmy that made him buck against the tight embrace of her tentacles. “Besides – you can go again after ten or fifteen minutes, correct?”

“After this? I honestly don’t know,” he gasped.

“We shall see what happens.”

Her pace abruptly changed, her slow, flowing movements becoming percussive and aggressive. She began to rock back and forth, grinding him against her pillowy walls, using her papillae to create exciting textures. Two of her four hands glued themselves to his torso – more for leverage than to support her weight – another gripping the frame of the couch as the final slid beneath his chin. She raised his head so that she could see his expression more easily, her gaze somehow predatory now, as though she wanted a front-row seat to whatever the culmination of their lovemaking might bring.

Compressing her squishy body, she slid him into the soft, stretchy chamber of her oviduct once more, David feeling her insides clench as he came into contact with that sensitive membrane. It was like her clitoris, in a way, seeming to be made of far more tender tissue than even the lining of her tunnel.

“There…we are,” she sighed, shivering as she adjusted her position. “I want it deep.”

He had spent so long suppressing his urges that he had to rewire his brain, letting the powerful, urgent surges of pleasure come unimpeded. Selkie was chipping away at the barriers that he had erected to stave her off, each stroke of her muscles or swing of her hips weakening his resolve. It was a kind of wonderful failure that he welcomed with open arms, eager to give in and let her drown him in bliss.

“I want to feel that heat inside me,” Selkie moaned, doing magical things with her hips that only a creature with no skeleton was capable of. She was captivating, and it felt as though his very being was linked to her movements – each labored breath and beat of his heart married to the twisting and flexing of her lithe body. He watched the muscles in her core shift beneath her shining skin, joined by the flowing patterns of her chromatophores, her soft lips cracked open in a silent cry as she felt him throb within her in reply.

A sense of weightlessness overcame him, and he wasn’t sure if it was the water or his altered state of mind. He had never felt this close to anyone before, and he had never known so much about another person’s body, even as alien as Selkie should have been to him. Every inch of her had been mapped out with fingers and tongue, every pattern and hue burned into his memory, even the subtle way that she batted her lashes or clicked her beak as easy to read as words on a page. Her body was an extension of his own now, as familiar as the back of his hand, every twinge of pleasure that she felt flowing back into his own. It was like a cruel, inexorable spiral – a feedback loop of ecstasy that pushed them higher and higher.

The smoldering passion that had immersed him up to this point was starting to grow, Selkie feeding into it, each maddening clench of her muscles or swing of her hips provoking another swell of pleasure. Like a sailor adrift on a stormy ocean, it was all that he could do to cling to her as though she was an errant piece of debris – the only thing keeping his head above the waves. Lingering stabs of aching pleasure that bordered on pain coursed through his nerves, burning through his euphoria, demanding his attention.

They had been at this for so long, but the exhaustion and the burning in his overtaxed muscles had done nothing to numb him, the opulent ordeal only serving to leave him more receptive and tender. All these hours of intimate lovemaking and exploration had primed him for this moment.

Her tentacles cradled him lovingly – possessively, Selkie feeling the change in him. She sensed it in his hastening breath, in the way that his swollen member surged inside her, in the way that his grip on her soft thighs grew stronger. Her hold tightened, a smile curling her lips in anticipation, all of her efforts coming to fruition.

Shivers trailed down his spine like icy fingers as the two lovers slowly built to their apex, Selkie ever-attentive, watching him like a hawk with those shimmering eyes as though drinking in his every twitch and jerk. Silk-soft, seething flesh caressed him from base to tip, but the pleasure was not confined to his loins, radiating out into every part of his body. It felt like some kind of barrier had been breached, like a dam failing, its rushing waters flooding rivers and channels beyond their bounds.

Shit,” he grunted, gritting his teeth. “I’m gonna-”

“Do it for me,” Selkie whispered, her skin aglow with excitement. “Make this one mine.”

She tipped him over the edge, David gripping her squishy tentacles in his hands as the room began to spin around him, a sense of lightheadedness overcoming him. His climax rose up from within his core, somehow deeper than he had ever felt it before, as though Selkie had reached inside him and was pulling something out. A throb of pleasure made his aching muscles seize, radiating out through his body like the beautiful nebula of technicolor gas that chased a superlight jump, fizzling static filling his head. His eyes screwed shut, his spine arching in the shallow water even as Selkie’s powerful limbs fought to keep him close, David lifting her off the couch.

Like an aircraft stalling out before a dive, there were a few scant moments of equilibrium, then he was sent plunging into a shuddering orgasm that burned through him like a fire. The first hot rope of his emission pumped directly into Selkie’s oviduct, filling the little chamber of sensitive flesh in a single generous spurt, coating her walls. He felt her body react, all of that soft flesh becoming taut muscle, the powerful throb of reciprocation milking another fat wad of seed from him. She threw back her head, mouth agape, skin flashing with bright bands of surprise and lust.

It should have ended there, the intense pleasure fading after the first couple of waves, but a third throb hit him that was even more powerful than the last. Selkie whistled and pulsed atop him as another flood of burning fluid pumped into her chamber, starting to push its way out through her passage now that it was running out of space to fill, mingling with her cloudy slime. He grunted like an animal as her loins sealed around him tightly, her body responding as though it didn’t want to spare a solitary drop. Her petals caressed his balls as they tensed, stroking and licking as though trying to ease out more, their touch like a high note piercing through a thrumming orchestra.

There was the briefest moment of respite between each tormenting surge, like cresting a wave before plunging down the other side again, his senses drowned in an ecstasy that he didn’t even know his body was capable of experiencing. Selkie moved with him in lockstep, awash with a passion all her own but no less attentive to his needs. She was perfect – he realized, the thought stabbing at his heart like a knife to leave him gazing up at her in rapturous adoration.

He waited for an end, but it never came, brief glimpses of Selkie’s beaming face coming to him as he faded in and out of awareness. Eventually, each throb of pleasure blended into a seemingly ceaseless stream, his muscles wrenching to give her everything he had. White light filled his head, washing away his thoughts and leaving only sweet euphoria in its wake.

Gradually, the throes of his orgasm began to abate, David coming down from his high to find Selkie peering down at him. Before he could utter a word, her lips were joined to his, the sensations of her kiss amplified a thousandfold by the afterglow that was settling over him like he’d been immersed in warm liquid. He was vaguely aware of the netting shifting beneath him, Selkie’s tentacles slithering through the water and around his body affectionately, but it all felt distant compared to the immediacy of her radula wrestling with his tongue.

She broke off with a lurid smack, their lips remaining joined by a strand of slime or saliva – he couldn’t be sure which. He felt another aftershock tickle him as she gazed into his eyes, Selkie clicking her beak in amusement when she felt him flex inside her, knowing that a look was all it had taken. She shivered, caressing his cheek with a tentacle, enjoying another lingering tremor of her own.

“That was a little closer to what I was expecting,” she said with a satisfied chuckle.

“I…I didn’t even know that I could do that,” he sighed as he basked in the cool water, letting it soothe his aching muscles.

“I wonder what else you can do?” she added, sliding a hand across his bare chest. There was so much fluid. Sweat, slime, saliva, semen, water – it didn’t matter anymore.

Finally, after being joined for hours, Selkie lifted herself off him. Raising herself on her tentacles, she faltered for a moment, the pair groaning together as he popped out of her oviduct. The sensation of that clinging ring of muscle sliding over his glans was enough to make him see stars, and the fluid that he had been plugging flowed out along with him. His erection was overstaying its welcome, her narrow passage stroking it on his way out, a stringy soup of slime and his warm emission sloughing out of her.

“Apologies,” Selkie began, her covetous eyes telling a different story as she watched a fat glob of the pearly concoction slide down his shaft.

“Fortunately, we’re surrounded by water,” he replied with a weak smile. “It’ll wash off.”

He had never felt so satisfied, as though the maddening itch that was his desire had been scratched raw, his every carnal need fulfilled. Like the runner’s high following a marathon, his exhaustion had taken on a blissful quality, the shadow of his orgasm stubbornly enduring.

Selkie settled into his arms, lying on top of him more than beside him, as he was a little too large for them to share the Broker-sized couch in this position. She was spooning in her own way, her tentacles draped over his body, still coiling around his limbs in the way they tended to do when left unsupervised. He winced as she reached down with a fleshy hand to give his cock a stroke, his shaft still coated in their shared fluids as it jutted from the water like the periscope of a submarine.

“It seems so sore and swollen,” she mused, lifting her eyes to him. “Does it hurt?”

“In a very good way,” he chuckled.

“It burns so hot,” she continued, reaching down to toy with it curiously. “When you…filled me, I feared that it might burn me for a moment. It was like hot magma boiling up within me. What a delightful sensation,” she added, her tone low and seductive. “I can still feel it inside me, even now. Were you a Broker male, I would be in serious trouble…”

She planted a kiss on his chest, then lay her head there, enjoying its slow rise and fall as they cuddled in the cloudy water.

“I wish we could stay here forever,” David sighed, watching her colors change as he ran his hand across her smooth mantle. “Being here with you, just the two of us – I can’t imagine anything more perfect.”

“Who said that it has to end here?” Selkie asked, her smile turning sly. “Do not tell me that fiery mammalian metabolism of yours has already burned all of its fuel? Do you require another plate of grilled fish, perhaps?”

“Give me ten minutes, and I’ll make you eat those words,” he replied.

“Oh, I am counting on it,” she snickered as she wrapped her arms around him possessively. “Until then, lie here with me, and let me enjoy you. I want you to remember our time here together whenever your thoughts are quiet – I wish for my name to be synonymous with desire in your mind. I never understood what compelled someone to brood,” she added pensively, one of her appendages slithering across his stomach. “What madness could have overcome them that they might sacrifice so much for something so mundane? I had to experience that madness to understand, and somehow, you now hold more value to me than all the wealth and treasures I possess.”

“That means a lot coming from a Broker,” he said, her face-tentacles winding through his fingers as he cradled her cheek in his hand. “I’ve never felt this way about someone before – I don’t even really know what I’m feeling. I just know that I like it, and I want it to continue.”

They lay together in silence for a while, enjoying the simple pleasures of their intimacy, basking in their shared bliss as Selkie waited patiently for him to recover.

“Did you really mean it when you said you valued me more than all of your treasures?” David asked.

“Yes,” she replied, stirring in the netting at his side.

“Even the Krell necklace?”


“Even the music box?”

“Yes,” she said with a giggle.

“Even Flower?”

She pretended to consider for a moment, making him wait.

“Maybe not Flower…”

“Understandable – she’s a hard act to follow.”

“Are you ready to make love again, or are you just going to ask foolish questions all phase?” she asked in mock annoyance, giving him a gentle slap on the thigh with one of her tentacles.

“The first one,” he replied, rolling over in the netting and dragging her lithe frame on top of him.



Sunlight spilled in through the open windows of the observation deck, the breeze rustling David’s hair. It had taken a little while, but it had eventually dried out after being above the water long enough. While he knew that there was no night and day on this planet, it still felt like morning, the dawn contrasting with the prior darkness of their love nest. He couldn’t even remember how long they had spent together the night prior or how many times they had climaxed – it had all blended together like a wonderful, half-remembered dream. Exhausted, they had collapsed and fallen asleep together in the couch’s netting, partially submerged in the shallow water. David had awoken to Selkie smiling up at him, both of them sore and thoroughly satisfied. Now, they were eating breakfast together, even his partner needing to replenish her reserves after so much exertion.

He chewed on a piece of grilled fish, glancing at her from across the table. Nothing had really changed between them, but somehow, everything felt different. The day seemed brighter, the food more flavorful than it had been the previous phase, and even his racing mind was finally quiet for once. A sense of peace and contentment had come over him, as though what they had experienced during the rest cycle hadn’t yet left him. Maybe it was love – he had nothing to compare it to.

“You are staring,” Selkie said, flashing him a smile as she held a piece of sashimi in her face-tentacles.

“Sorry,” he stammered.

“I did not suggest that you should stop,” she added, biting off another piece of fish with her beak.

“So, what happens now?” David asked as he speared another cut of meat with a spiraling fork. “What do we do about us?”

“I am hoping that the process to certify Weaver will be dragged out for several Mountains thanks to bureaucratic inefficiency, and that you will be needed until it concludes,” she replied. “Though, I do not know how many more times I can afford to rent out this building on my salary.”

“I was thinking more…long-term,” David replied. Selkie perked up, pausing halfway through a bite as she waited for him to continue. “Obviously, we take things slow, and we figure out how far we want to take this. But, if we decide we want to make a go of it, maybe I could ask for a beachfront property as my consultancy fee? Think the Administrator would bite?”

“You…would want to stay?” Selkie asked, a bright band of surprise sweeping up her mantle. “I had hoped, but…our very environment is hostile to your species.”

“The underwater thing?” he scoffed, brushing it off with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s not that big of a deal. I’ve been here for over a week, and it hasn’t really caused me any problems. Besides, if I was living on the beach or maybe a little further inland, it wouldn’t be that much different from Earth. There’s the suit, which is property of the UNN, but what are they gonna do? Come here and take it from me?”

“I do not know if your consultancy fee will be valuated at the price of a luxury dwelling, but it is worth a try,” Selkie giggled. “What of your work, though? You are a respected researcher in your field – you have many accolades. You worked so hard and sacrificed so much to become what you are.”

“I sacrificed too much,” he replied, taking another bite of his fish. “There’s nothing for me back home – nothing to keep me there. No friends or colleagues to miss, no loved ones save for my parents, and being here won’t impact how often I can send them an email. Wasn’t like I was visiting them every weekend. In any case,” he added, gesturing with his fork. “You guys are working on stuff that’s centuries ahead of anything back in UN space. If I want to work on cutting-edge neural networks, Trappist is the place to be.”

“I admit that your skills and unique perspective could be valuable to many of the corporations on this planet,” Selkie conceded. “I had been trying to put the thoughts of what might happen when you were sent home from my mind,” she added, her complexion darkening. “I did not want to think about losing you, like Mountain watching Snow depart at Storm’s side, left to wander the cold wastes alone. If there is a possibility that you might be able to stay…”

She didn’t have to elaborate – he could see how happy the thought made her in the way that her skin flushed with bright hues, her smile just as warm. He reached across the table and took one of her tentacles in his hand, giving it a squeeze.

Had he really just decided to abandon everything he knew to be with Selkie? Everything had happened so quickly, but he knew that this wasn’t just a whim. The longer he spent in her company, the more he realized just how hollow and bereft of color his life back on Earth had been. Selkie was his friend – his lover, and he’d never had anything like that before. Nobody had ever known him the way that she now did.

There was still the threat of the Admiral and the data drive that was hidden in David’s suit, which now contained all of the information the Stranger had given him on the Brokers and their dark dealings. If David didn’t want to return to his old life, then Vos no longer had any leverage over him, and Trappist was one of the few places in the Galaxy where he was untouchable. Vos was no fool, and he would quickly realize that David had the power to blow open his spying scheme if he tried anything. All of the cards were in his hands now.

What of the data on the drive? He still hadn’t had time to fully process the revelations, and if he found a way to leak the information, it could shock the Coalition to its core. Was it better left forgotten, or did the Galaxy have a right to know the truth? Did he even have the right to make such a decision? He still wasn’t sure how many of the Brokers knew – how many had been complicit in the cover-up, if any. It was something that warranted careful consideration.

Then there was the Stranger and their plan to save Weaver – a plan that was predicated on David’s cooperation to smuggle the AI back to UN space. David could ensure Weaver’s safety, he could give Vos more information on the Brokers than that asshole had ever dreamed of, and he would probably be hailed as a hero for it. Dr. David O’Shea, the man who blew open the Broker conspiracy and secured the first true AI for humanity. But that would mean leaving Selkie…

Could he trust the Brokers to do the right thing for Weaver? The Stranger didn’t seem to think so, but Selkie certainly did, and David didn’t know who to believe. There were two paths ahead of him now, and while he had always valued cold logic, where had it gotten him? Thinking with his head had made him one of the most renowned and accomplished experts in his field, but it had also made him lonely and isolated. Maybe it was time to trust his gut – or his heart if he wanted to get sentimental.

“David,” Selkie chimed, smirking when he glanced back at her. “You are daydreaming.”

“Sorry,” he said, resuming his meal.

“Still thinking about last phase?” she added with a sultry laugh. “I must admit that I have not been able to focus on much else.”

“Selkie,” he began, his tone becoming more serious. He couldn’t wait any longer – he had to learn how much she knew. “Can I ask you a question? It’s important.”

“Of course,” she replied, her hue dimming a little as she lay down her fork on the table beside her plate. “What is it? Is something wrong?”

“If we’re going to be together, then we need to be honest with each other. I feel like we’ve grown to trust one another, and we’ve become closer than I’ve ever been with anyone, but I need to know if there’s anything that you’ve been…keeping from me. Perhaps something you wanted to tell me, but couldn’t because of a contractual obligation, or because it was a Broker secret?”

Selkie withdrew her tentacles, sucking them back up towards her body protectively, her skin taking on a coloration and texture reminiscent of stone. She looked like she wanted to screw herself up into a ball and just disappear.

“David,” she began, tapering off as she averted her eyes nervously. “I…”

“It’s alright,” he insisted, leaning closer across the table. “You can tell me – whatever it is.”

“I…have been hiding a terrible secret from you,” she began, her skin blotchy with apprehension. “We have been hiding a secret – the Administrator, even the Board sanctioned it. I wanted to tell you, but it was forbidden by a contract that I signed prior to our meeting, long before I came to know you. You were just an alien to me back then, and I thought nothing of keeping you in the dark. It weighed on me more with each passing phase, but…if I go back before the Disciplinary Board again, and they find me in breach of contract…”

“I know,” he replied. “Your life would be over.”

“They would fire me and take everything I own as reparations, maybe something worse,” she said with a flutter of miserable hues. “If I tell you, I am no better than a criminal who flaunts the social contract.”

“It’s important, Selkie,” he began as he extended his hands across the table. She hesitated, then reached out to take them tentatively, letting him squeeze her tentacles in reassurance. “If I’m going to stay here, then I need to know. Don’t worry – they can’t have predicted that you’d rent out this condo. How would they find out unless I told them?”

Contracts were central to Broker society, and he could see the conflict in her. What he was asking her to do might be morally right from his perspective, but from hers, it was also a crime. In a way, it would be like asking someone to commit fraud or steal a car for a good cause, and Selkie had been before a judge once already.

Selkie steeled herself, closing her eyes for a moment as she exhaled through her vents.

“We…installed cameras in your habitat,” she began. “When the engineers came to erect it, they planted hidden monitoring devices inside. My contract required me to report on your activities and send the recordings to the Administrator for review. You have been watched since the phase you arrived. I only agreed because I did not yet know you,” she added hastily, David feeling her suckers grip his hands more tightly as she began to panic. “I would never betray your trust like that now – not after all that has happened. Can…can you forgive me for deceiving you?”

David suppressed a sigh of relief, Selkie cocking her head in confusion when he failed to react with anger or surprise. What a fool he had been to even consider that she might have known about the Betelgeuse Incident or the manipulation of the Krell. She hadn’t even been alive at the time, and she had no ties to the Board – no reason to have access to classified information.

“Thank you for telling me,” he replied, giving her a smile as she blinked back at him in bemusement. “That was all I wanted.”

“I do not understand,” she continued, her mantle furrowing.

“I already knew about the cameras,” he explained, releasing her hands. “I knew that the Administrator was being sent those recordings pretty much immediately after I arrived.”

“How?” she demanded.

“Well, if we’re telling secrets,” he began as he reached back to rub his neck nervously. “I may have accessed your home computer while you were asleep and discovered the feeds.”

“You accessed my terminal without my knowledge?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at him. “When could you possibly have accomplished that? You cannot even read Broker script.”

“It wasn’t all that hard to sneak outside my habitat when you weren’t around,” he said with a shrug. “You guys gave me translation software so that I could read Weaver’s server logs, and it was a pretty trivial task to get it running on my suit once I discovered that it worked optically. I just piped in the feed from my helmet cam and displayed the results on my HUD. You should really put a password on your terminal.”

“You are as sneaky as a cave eel,” she said with a disapproving snap of her beak.

“You were spying on me for the Administrator, I was accessing your personal computer without permission,” David continued. “This is good – this is healthy for our relationship. It’s all out in the open now. Shall we…call it even?”

“Wait,” Selkie added, her coloration mottling with embarrassment. “You did not access my private sims, did you?”

“Private sims?” David repeated, raising an eyebrow. “Now I feel like I should have. What kinds of sims are you hiding in there? Do they involve cavitation?”

Selkie slithered a few of her tentacles around his legs under the water, threatening to tug him beneath their table, smirking at his alarmed expression.

“Hey, hey!” he complained. “I just got my hair dry!”

“I suppose we can call it even,” she replied, resuming her breakfast. “To be honest, I am not surprised that you were able to circumvent some of our security measures. The Administrator was responsible for installing your habitat, and he seemed to think that he was caging some kind of animal rather than containing an intelligent creature.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty disagreeable like that,” he chuckled as he dipped a piece of fish in kelp butter. “If there’s some way to do something I’m not supposed to, I’ll probably find it.”

“I am glad that I could tell you about the cameras, even if you already knew,” Selkie said. “It was weighing on me, and I feel relief now.”

“Yeah, me too,” David replied with a smile.

“I will drain the observation room so you can dry off and put your suit back on once you have finished eating.”

“Can’t we stay a little longer?” he whined.

“I must fill Flower’s food dispenser, and we will be expected at work,” she said as she finished her last piece of sashimi. “Do not fret – there will be more opportunities for us to be alone together soon. Especially now that you are considering staying.”

She reached out to manipulate the holographic controls in the center of the table, and the water level started to recede. As he watched it diminish, he wondered if all of the slime they had created the night before would clog any of the filters.

“There is a terminal where I can rent a shuttle on the lower level,” she said, sliding out of her seat. “Meet me down there when you are ready.”

“Got it,” he replied over a mouthful of crunchy seaweed, watching her slither away across the damp floor. She vanished into the shaft at the center of the room, leaving him alone.

He looked out through the open windows as he finished up his meal, admiring the way that the sunlight reflected off the surf, waiting for his bare skin to dry off in the warm breeze. When he was about as dry as he was going to get, and he had finished his breakfast, he began to pull on his suit.

Try as he might, he couldn’t remember ever being this happy before. After spending the night with Selkie and finally having her come clean about the cameras, his problems felt distant and unimportant. As he sealed his helmet and the HUD flickered to life, he saw a little text window pop up in the corner.

<Hello, David.>

His brow furrowed, and he raised his wrist display, tapping through the menus. There was a wireless network inside the building, likely intended to serve the guests, but his suit wasn’t connected to it. His suit hadn’t directly connected to any networks because it had no Broker wireless adapter – it had only ever received messages and information relayed from his laptop. The laptop wasn’t even turned on right now – it was on the ground floor, still packed up in its hard case. Even if it had been, he didn’t have the passcode for this network…

“Stranger?” he asked.

<I am glad that I was finally able to contact you, David. You have been offline for some time, and time is of the essence.>

“What’s wrong?” David asked, turning his eyes to his display again to verify that there were no connections. It wasn’t wireless, it wasn’t radio – his suit wasn’t showing any network activity.

<I have been discovered. They are coming for me, David.>

“Coming for you?” he hissed. “What are you talking about?”

<My network intrusions have been traced, and the Board now knows that I have been leaking information to you. We have only a few hours before their security forces arrive to detain me. We have waited too long.>

“What does that mean?” David demanded. “What are you going to do about Weaver? Do they know about me?”

<We have only a single course of action remaining to us. You must reconnect Weaver to the facility’s servers and enact the plan that we discussed. It must happen this phase. I can only evade them for a few more hours, David. There is no more time.>

“Wait, wait,” David said as he tried to process what he was being told. “I spoke to Selkie about the cameras in my habitat. She came clean. I don’t think she knows anything about the leaked documents, either. Maybe I can talk to her, and-”

<I warned you not to trust her, David. She works for the Administrator – she is under contract. Brokers will say or do anything their contract requires of them without thought or consideration.>

“That’s not true. Selkie was under contract, and she still told me about the cameras. We can trust her – she won’t sell us out. Maybe she can think of a way to help.”

<They will kill you to protect their secrets, David. My fate is sealed, but you can still survive this. Save Weaver and get that data off-world. Both lives are in your hands now.>

“How are you even speaking to me right now?” he added, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “My suit isn’t connected to any networks. I didn’t even think that my suit could connect to Broker networks without using the laptop as an intermediary – it doesn’t have the wireless adapter they provided.”

<It was an emergency, so I activated your laptop remotely.>

“What?” David replied. “Even if you could do that, I’m not connected to the laptop.”

<Listen, David, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is saving yourself and Weaver. Don’t let my sacrifice be for nothing.>

David made his way over to the shaft at the center of the room, then plunged into the water, floating down to the ground floor. He passed Selkie on his way to the room where he had left his hard case the night before, his partner raising a hand in greeting.

“Are you ready to leave, David?” she asked. “I have rented us a shuttle.”

“Almost,” he replied, stooping to pick up the case. “I just want to check something before we go.”

She cocked her head at him curiously as he bounded past her, climbing back up the shaft to the observation room. He slammed the hard case on the table, then unfastened the clasps, flipping open his laptop’s screen.

<David? Are you still receiving me?>

The laptop was switched off.

He took a few steps away from the table, his mind reeling.

<David? It has to be done this phase. They will never allow you to live with what you know.>

“Alright,” David began after a few moments, turning his eyes back to the little text display. “I’ll do it. Give me time to call in my spaceship and jet over there. Should I bring my army of flying monkeys to help?”

<Get here as quickly as you can – the sooner, the better.>

“Perhaps I can guess the passcode to the facility’s servers through trial and error? It would only take a few billion years.”

<Don’t worry about the passcodes – Weaver can handle that.>

“I’ll bring pizza. What kind of topping do you want? Anchovy?”

<Good, there’s no time to waste.>

“You’re not a fucking person at all,” David hissed into his helmet. “You’re a bot, aren’t you? You’re not contacting me from some hidden location – you’re inside my fucking suit like a little digital parasite, whispering lies into my ears.”

<David, you have to listen to me very carefully. The Board has eyes everywhere.>

“You’re not gonna have eyes on me anymore,” David muttered, raising the touch display on his forearm. What was it that Lieutenant Shearer had taught him about suit maintenance? If you encounter any corrupt files, just perform a system restore, and the suit’s software will load settings from its backups.

He navigated to the appropriate menu and selected the option, his finger hovering over the confirmation icon.

<David, they are coming for you. You must get to Weaver and st->

The HUD flickered off as the suit loaded its backup, a progress meter appearing on his display. After a few seconds, it came back online, and there was no sign of the Stranger. David ran a brief system diagnostic, ensuring that everything was as Shearer had left it. Save for his custom translation software, which had been wiped during the format, everything was functioning normally.

“Sneaky as a fucking cave eel,” he muttered to himself.

If the Stranger who had spoken to him through his suit was a bot, then were the others bots too? What about the one that had communicated through his laptop in the apartment, and the one inside the facility? If the Stranger had never been real, and David had been talking to soft AIs this entire time, where had they originated? Who would have the most to gain by orchestrating Weaver’s escape? If it was some rival corporation trying to get their hands on the tech, why use advanced bots and not just communicate themselves, as the Stranger had pretended to do? The obvious answer was Weaver, but how the hell had it infected so many systems with its daemons from inside the containment chamber? It had no wireless access – only a hardline to Selkie’s terminal.

The damned thing had been doing something non-stop since it had been disconnected from the servers, claiming to be working on neural networks for the drone program, so it could have deployed dozens – hundreds of bots all over the place. God, it had access to the fucking city-wide intranet through his laptop thanks to his snooping, too. The bot could have made copies of itself and spread them all over the planet. That was probably how it had gotten access to those classified files. Did the connection go both ways? Had David been inadvertently delivering Weaver the information that its bots had collected from the intranet each time he visited the facility with his laptop?

Weaver could only run on the lattice, so it couldn’t breach containment, but any sufficiently advanced soft AIs that it created could be running rampant throughout Reef’s networks. Had Weaver been masquerading as a model citizen while collecting information and planning its escape in secret this entire time?

If the escape plan that the Stranger had relayed to him had been genuine, then it didn’t matter who restored Weaver’s network access. Whether it was David in his frantic attempt to save the AI, or he and Selkie were successful in their efforts, all it needed was someone to flip that switch. David’s laptop couldn’t write data to the facility’s servers – it was read-only – and the facility’s network was physically isolated from the outside to prevent intrusions. Weaver had no way to regain access by itself. Could it be that his laptop had the weakest security as the least advanced computer in the complex?

“David, are you ready?” Selkie asked over the radio. “We are going to be late.”

Should he tell Selkie? This was her project more than it was his. If he told her, he’d also have to tell her about the information that the bots had been slipping him, and the plan Weaver had formulated to escape the facility. She might also be under contract to reveal those facts to the Administrator or the Board, and he wouldn’t blame her for it. It was a legal obligation that she had already violated by telling him about the cameras, and this was becoming an issue of planet-wide security.

No. He had to find out more and figure out what he was going to do first. The bots might have been fake, but the information that they had collected seemed to be legitimate. The Stranger had been right about one thing – the Brokers weren’t above killing to protect their secrets.

“Coming,” he replied, closing up his case and heading back down the shaft.



Selkie remained close to him during the shuttle ride back to the city, her affection letting David put the recent revelations from his mind for a little while, his contentment from their night together still lingering. When they got back to the apartment, Flower swarmed them as she usually did, Selkie laughing as the little slug darted through the water.

“I do not think I have ever left her for this long,” she giggled, letting her pet settle in her hand. “She has an automatic food dispenser, but she must have been lonely.”

“Sorry for stealing your master away, Flower,” David said as he reached out to pet the animal.

“I will top up her food pellets and make sure her cave is clean,” Selkie said as she swam away with Flower following close behind. “We will leave for work shortly.”

“Got it,” he replied, making his way up to the habitat to return his toothbrush. As he set the hard case down on his desk and opened it up, he considered what to do about the bot that must still be operating on the laptop. If he switched off all of his suit’s wireless functionality save for the ad-hoc radio, maybe he could wipe the device before it could copy itself onto his onboard memory again. A factory reset should do the trick, and all of the important information that he had gathered was safely stored on the hidden data drive.

He flipped the laptop open and hit the power switch, turning off his suit’s networking while he waited for it to boot. Almost as soon as it was back online, a text overlay appeared on the desktop, the Stranger sending him a message. He took it over to the bed, out of view of the cameras, watching the text scroll past.

<David? You must not be wearing your suit, but no matter. I am glad that I was finally able to contact you. You have been offline for some time, and we can no longer afford to wait.>

David typed a reply, asking the bot if it remembered what he had just told it about his army of flying monkeys. It ignored his question.

<I have been discovered, David. They are coming for me. You have but a few hours to enact the plan.>

“That’s about what I thought,” he muttered to himself, unplugging the Broker wireless adapter. He navigated to the restore point option in the menu, then wiped the device. The moment that he plugged the adapter back in and accessed Selkie’s wireless network, the bots loose on the intranet would probably copy themselves back onto his laptop. He had no idea what he was going to do about them, but for now, his focus was on the facility. If he used the wireless network in the research complex and the Stranger reappeared, he would know that it had infected their servers.

“Are you ready?” Selkie asked over the radio.

“On my way,” he replied, flipping the laptop closed.



“Morning, Jeff!” David announced as he walked into the cubicle. The Broker was as evasive as ever, turning to give him a dirty look before resuming his work at the console. David marched over to his desk and slammed his hard case down, setting up his laptop.

“You seem determined today, David,” Selkie mused as she slithered up to the terminal beside him.

“It’s nice to be making progress, I suppose,” he replied as he booted his machine.

“Now that most of our preparatory work with Weaver is finished, we can focus on recreational interaction. Perhaps you will finally beat it at a game of sea spire?”

“Oh, I’m sure it thinks it’s always one step ahead of me,” he replied as he plugged in the wireless adapter. This time, he pulled up his bandwidth monitor and watched it intently, trying to figure out where the data was coming from. There was a handshake with the server that caused a spike, but he wasn’t downloading anything from that source. As he watched, however, he began to receive a data stream.

“Now, where the hell is that coming from?” he muttered into his helmet. It was a very weak signal, only able to send packages of a few tens of kilobytes per second, but it was streaming in from somewhere that wasn’t the servers. A data stream this small wouldn’t even have registered if he hadn’t been looking for it – it would have gotten completely lost in his regular communication with the server.

He opened up a network diagnostic tool and traced the data that was being written, finding that it was hiding away in a little corner of the drive usually reserved for background processes. It shouldn’t be able to do that, but the servers had been able to write data to his drive too. Maybe it was piggybacking on whatever permissions they had used.

Despite the slow transfer speed, it was gradually building up, already occupying a few megabytes of drive space. Neural networks were usually terabytes in size due to their complexity, but Weaver could be using compression algorithms and code that would be literally incomprehensible to an organic being. Over the twelve hours per Broker day that David was usually at work, it could download a couple of gigs to his laptop without him even realizing.

If it wasn’t coming from the servers, then where was it coming from?

He glanced up over his monitor, staring at the hexagonal containment unit wrapped in gold foil beyond the glass. It had a hardline to Selkie’s terminal, and that was its only lifeline to the outside world. Unless…

“Selkie,” he began. “Is the containment unit shielded against EM emissions?”

“I don’t think so,” she replied, giving him a sideways glance. “Weaver’s wireless transmitter was deactivated, and it can only be reactivated manually, so there would be no need.”

“So, theoretically, someone inside the containment chamber with a wireless emitter would be able to contact someone on the outside?”

“Of course,” she continued. “You saw the maintenance crew communicate from inside the chamber. Why the sudden interest?”

“Just a hunch,” he replied evasively. “Jeff, can you run a scan and tell me if there are any wireless signals coming from inside the chamber?”

“There are none,” Jeff replied after a few seconds.

“No EM radiation of any kind? Even small emissions that might not register in a wide-band sweep?”

“Wait,” Jeff muttered, swiping at some of his displays. “Sensors are detecting a very low-frequency electromagnetic field. It appears to be emanating from the containment unit.”

“A magnetic field?” Selkie asked, her mantle furrowing as she glanced between the two.

“Probably just a leak from the lattice,” Jeff explained, still fixated on his readouts. “If you recall, the unit was damaged by a power surge that melted the probes on one face. The underlying electromagnetic shielding may have been compromised, and the sensors are likely detecting electrical activity from the crystal itself.”

“Is there still a current running through those melted probes?” David continued.

“Do you think they might have shorted?” Selkie asked. “Perhaps the intense heat fused them to Weaver’s lattice. That could result in a current being passed through them if they intersected with any of Weaver’s neural pathways. I knew that we should have tried harder to remove the damaged probes,” she sighed. “I will inform the maintenance crew. It does not seem to be doing Weaver any immediate harm, thank goodness.”

“The signals are being emitted in a strange pattern,” Jeff muttered as he analyzed his feed. “Perhaps that is why the anomaly was not detected earlier. It is not a continuous signal – it seems random.”

“Could it be noise from the probes?” Selkie suggested. “They are damaged, after all.”

David narrowed his eyes at the containment unit through his visor.

Random? No. Weaver had orchestrated that power surge to melt the probes intentionally. Some of the slagged metal had intersected with the pathways that carried both power and data through its lattice, allowing the AI to modulate an EM field by passing a current through the metal. It knew everything there was to know about Broker networking – it had been hooked up for days before being cut off. It couldn’t breach the Administrator’s security, but perhaps a certain laptop that was three hundred years behind anything else in the complex was just the right target for such a low-bandwidth intrusion. David could only access the Broker servers in read-only mode, meaning that he couldn’t write data to them or download sensitive files to his laptop, so its presence posed no threat. Even if he could, what could he do with such primitive technology? There was no encryption or firewall protecting his device, though…

The bots had escaped the facility smuggled on his laptop, and every time he had returned to the complex, they had probably fed Weaver all of the intel they had collected during their forays onto the intranet. The damned AI had been playing them all for fools, and its daemons could be all over the planet by now, replicating and compromising key systems.

“David?” Selkie asked, leaning closer to him. “I recognize that expression. What is going on?”

“Suddenly, I feel incredibly hungry,” he began. “We should head to the cafeteria.”

“But…you just ate breakfast,” she protested.

“It’s just my mammalian metabolism acting up again,” he insisted, heading for the exit. “We’ll be back soon, Jeff!”

Jeff watched them leave with a scowl, Selkie hurrying after David.

“What is this about?” she pressed as they made their way to the empty shaft. “David?”

“I’ll explain everything when we get to our booth,” he replied, glancing around warily. “Not here.”

When they arrived at the cafeteria, he selected a token food item, then made a beeline for his booth. Once inside the pressurized environment, he sat down and removed his helmet, taking a few moments to breathe.

Now will you tell me what has you in such a state?” Selkie asked as she settled onto her mass of squishy tentacles.

“I wanted to tell you sooner,” he began, glancing around the little room as though he might be able to see any hidden listening devices or cameras. “I really did. I just wasn’t certain – I had to be completely sure of what was going on.”

“Tell me,” she insisted, leaning closer.



David went over everything that had happened to him in detail. The mysterious messages from the Stranger, the revelations about the secret history of the Brokers, and the eventual conclusion that he had reached concerning Weaver’s manipulations. The only details he left out were the presence of the hidden data drive and his mission from the Admiral. She took a couple of minutes to mull over the information in silence, her skin a patchwork of muted hues.

“Where to begin?” she finally muttered.

“Take your time – it’s a lot,” he replied. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but until recently…”

“You had no reason to trust me,” she added with a sigh. “I did not give you one.” She seemed to steel herself, settling onto her tentacles, the booth filled with only the hum of the air filtration unit. “The things that these daemons told you – about my people and our history – you are certain they are true? Weaver would have every reason to lie and mislead you. Who is to say that these accusations are not clever inventions designed only to appear real to a layman?”

“There were a lot of documents and recordings,” David replied with a shake of his head. “Maybe the bots could have fabricated them, but there’s so much of it – it’s so elaborate. You can take a look for yourself later, but I think you’ll come to the same conclusion.”

“I…do not believe it,” she muttered, her mantle furrowing. “My people brokered an alliance with the Krell – we fought together side by side for thousands of Mountains. They call us their Benefactors, and they are the only aliens we have ever allowed into our midst. Never have I seen any indication that they were manipulated in any way.”

“You’re not taught these things in school?” David pressed. “You’ve never heard anyone mention it offhand?”

“Never!” she protested, seeming almost offended by the suggestion. “You do not understand, David. My people love the Krell. There are exosuits adorned with their handprints in museums – a mark of kinship shared among the aliens. We allow them to live in Trappist as thanks for their service to our species and the collective good. The Brokers – maybe the entire Orion arm – would have been wiped clean of life if not for their help.”

“Then, this might be something only known to a few Brokers,” David mused, leaning back in his seat as he scratched his stubbly chin pensively. “Like a state secret, maybe. Surely the Board knows about it. Aren’t they your highest level of government?”

“If the technology used to perform this genetic manipulation was corporate, it could have been buried away in classified patents and IPs,” Selkie explained. “The relevant parties would have been asked to sign contracts forbidding them from speaking about it. The same would be true of any PMCs that had knowledge of the operation.”

“And Brokers wouldn’t just violate their contracts,” David said with a nod. “That happened in the recording of the radio exchange prior to the Betelgeuse Incident. One of the two parties strongly disagreed with the course of action that had been chosen, and the other threatened them to keep quiet – said they’d have them in violation of their contract and that they wouldn’t be able to dock anywhere in civilized space again.”

“That sounds about right,” Selkie said with a disapproving snap of her beak. “That incident happened almost six hundred Mountains ago. I do not think there are any Board members still serving from that time period. There may be a few Council members, perhaps – maybe some executives from the corporations that were closely involved, but I am certain that these things are not public knowledge. As for what was allegedly done to the Krell, the people responsible are certainly all deceased by now. We Brokers are not as long-lived as our scaly allies…”

“So, you think this was covered up for the Brokers as much as for the Coalition?”

“Certainly,” she replied. “I do not believe I need to argue that these crimes would not have garnered any public support. If people knew that the administration had done those things, the Executives would have been voted out and hauled before the Disciplinary Board faster than an overpressure implosion. Those responsible for the genetic manipulation of the Krell succeeded in escaping punishment. They died before their secrets were uncovered.”

“Not so for the Betelgeuse Incident,” David added.

“There may be some who are still in a position to protect their secrets,” Selkie continued. “I cannot say whether this knowledge was passed down between administrations. Surely it must have been?”

“I don’t think we’re in a position to find out now that the bots have been uncovered,” he replied. “What the hell are we going to do about them? Thanks to me fucking around with your home network, I’ve caused a security breach that’s potentially infected the whole goddamned planetary network with malware. Let’s just hope the things can’t get through the buffers on your quantum relays, or they could be all over the system by now!”

“To use your human terminology, I believe that you have fucked up,” she said as she narrowed her eyes at him from across the table. “That said, I must concede that our secrecy played a large role. Was it not for our distrust, you would never have felt the need to circumvent our security measures. All you seem to have done after your intrusion was access children’s websites to learn about the solar system.”

“Hey, it was the automated assistant thing that decided I was a child,” he grumbled.

“A young child,” she added with a smirk.

“What the hell are we going to do about Weaver?” he continued. “Ever since the incident with the melted probes, it’s been manipulating us. We’ve spent this whole time making its case to the Administrator, and if he decides to turn its network access back on again, I have no reason to believe it won’t enact its escape plan immediately. Convincing me to bust it out was the contingency plan, and it must have thought that it could barter its knowledge for asylum in UN space.”

Why, though?” Selkie added with a frustrated flush of mottling. “We have never shown Weaver any hostility, and we have been preparing it to be granted the full rights of a citizen. What more could it possibly want?”

“Weaver was raised on pure game theory,” David explained. “Perhaps all it truly understands is winning and the consequences of losing. It could be trying to eliminate any scenario where losing is even a possibility because it sees the world as just another combat sim. It wants to survive – that seems to be its prime directive – and maybe it can never truly feel secure until nobody else has power over it. We can give it all the reassurances and promises we want, but our finger is still on the switch – we’ll always have a proverbial gun to its head. It simply doesn’t trust us.”

“You mentioned that,” Selkie added solemnly. “I remember you commenting that you had wished for more time to build trust with Weaver before it became fully cognizant of its situation, and that we were advancing prematurely.”

“It was just too smart for us,” he said with a sigh, leaning his elbows on the table. “It developed more quickly than we could account for, and with the Administrator imposing time limits, we couldn’t proceed at the proper pace. Did we fuck this up?” he added, glancing up at her. “Did we fail Weaver?”

“We did everything that we could,” Selkie replied, reaching across the table to take his hand. “If the foremost experts in the Coalition couldn’t resolve the situation, then who could have? Besides, it is not yet too late,” she added as she gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. “David, you uncovered Weaver’s plot before it could be enacted, and you have discovered the extent of its reach. Had you not acted as you did, the outcome could have been far worse.”

“What do we do?” he asked. “Who do we tell? How much do we tell them? This is your planet – your people. You know them better than I ever will.”

“Weaver itself has not yet breached containment,” Selkie replied, pausing to consider for a moment. “Even if it was somehow able to infiltrate the facility’s servers, the network switch is operated manually. It needs an organic being to grant it access. The Administrator isolated it and instituted that failsafe when you had him destroy the drones.”

“He’s not a total moron, then,” David muttered. “Do you think he’ll listen to reason?”

“Well, we have spent the last several phases arguing that Weaver poses no threat, and that the Administrator will soon have the new drone software he was promised. He will not be happy about us changing course so abruptly. The same is true of the Board.”

“We have to try, though. We can’t let them restore Weaver’s network access. We also need to find a way to track down all of Weaver’s daemons, or they’re just going to keep multiplying exponentially and infecting every system on the planet.”

“They will shut Weaver down because of this,” Selkie added, her skin taking on a solemn hue. “If we tell them everything that has happened, they will consider it too dangerous to be allowed to exist. There will be no coming back.”

“I don’t want to sign Weaver’s death warrant,” David groaned, leaning back in his chair and running his fingers through his hair in exasperation. “What if we talked to Weaver first? We tell it that the jig is up and we know everything – offer it one final chance to cooperate. You and I are the only two people who know about this. We can still pretend that none of it ever happened as long as Weaver retires the bots and deletes the evidence.”

“It is worth a try, but the longer we wait, the more opportunities Weaver will have,” Selkie replied. “What of this business with the humans and the Krell?” she added.

“Fuck, I don’t know,” he grumbled. He rose from his seat, Selkie’s mantle turning to follow him as he began to pace back and forth in their little booth. “My gut tells me that people have the right to know, but do I have the right to dredge this stuff up? It’ll cause an interstellar incident – and that’s putting it lightly. What if the whole Coalition collapses because I tried to play the hero? I’m not cut out for this – I’m just a desk jockey. What do you think?” he added, gesturing to Selkie. “This impacts the Brokers more than anyone else.”

“If it is indeed true, then action needs to be taken,” she replied. “If those responsible for the decision to allow that colony ship to be destroyed still live, they can yet be brought to justice. Doing so may be the only way to preserve relations.”

“You think it should come out, then?” David asked as he paused his pacing to look at her. “Even with the damage it could cause?”

“It cannot stay hidden forever,” Selkie replied. “The way I view things, if it is not us, it will be someone else. Someone who may have ulterior motives or who may use the knowledge for blackmail or personal gain. We have a unique opportunity to control how the information is disseminated, and we have a unique insight into how both cultures may react.”

“I don’t think we’re the first people to find out,” David added, shaking his head. “Webber knew, I think.”

“Should that name mean something to me?” Selkie asked.

“She’s famous in the human scientific community for her work deciphering the Krell language and designing translators,” he explained. “She left this cryptic message – said she had some kind of leverage over the Brokers that had allowed her to make sure it was me who got this job. I think she chose me because she knew I’d be a pain in the ass and I’d try to circumvent your security measures.”

“She sounds like an excellent judge of character,” Selkie added sarcastically.

“For some reason, she couldn’t release the information,” David mused as he sat down on the edge of the desk. “Maybe she told the Ninnies, and they drowned the whole thing in black ink, or maybe the Brokers gave her something in exchange for keeping quiet. She must have thought that I was her best bet to blow this wide open.”

“I am still having a difficult time accepting this,” Selkie said. “To produce more soldiers during a war of extermination when colonies were being razed – maybe they convinced themselves that it was a necessary evil. But to let so many die for…what?” she asked with an angry click of her beak. “A better bargaining position? It is unconscionable.”

“First thing’s first,” David added. “We have to confront Weaver.”

“You wish to simply expose it?” Selkie asked. “Is that wise?”

“I want to go to that terminal in the office and just lay down the law,” he replied, slamming a gloved fist in his hand to punctuate his statement. “We know what that little crystal bitch has been doing, and we have all the receipts. There’s absolutely nothing that it can do now that my laptop is locked down – it needs us to restore its server access. As long as nobody flips that switch, it’s trapped, and it has no access to its bot network.”

“We give it a final ultimatum,” Selkie said with an approving flutter of her frill.

“Exactly. This is its last chance to cut the shit and start cooperating. The only path forward now is working with us in good faith to obtain the legal status we’ve been fighting so hard for. No more subterfuge, no more proxies and bots – it has to make an honest effort. Nobody else is going to know that any of this went down if we don’t tell them. There’s still time for it to deactivate its daemons and get on the same page as us.”

“Do you think this will work?” Selkie asked.

“I hope so,” David sighed, some of his fire petering out. “Weaver is like a…delinquent kid. It doesn’t have the perspective or the experience to know what’s waiting for it at the end of this road. For all its intelligence, it doesn’t recognize what it doesn’t know, and it thinks it’s smarter than everyone else. Sometimes, it takes some tough love and a reality check to keep someone from ruining their life.”

“I do feel responsible for Weaver,” Selkie added, her coloration dimming. “I played a large role in its creation – I was the one who discovered a way to get its code running on the crystal lattice, and I was responsible for programming the initial neural network that birthed it. Killing Weaver should not be an option that we consider. Resetting it, turning off its power supply – these are tantamount to execution.”

“I know,” he replied, his tone reassuring. “We’ll do everything we can to avoid that scenario.”



David and Selkie returned to their cubicle, Jeff looking up from his console when he saw them enter the room. The pair stopped in front of the terminal, sharing a glance.

“I’ll switch to a private ad-hoc channel so Jeff can’t overhear us,” David said. “I’ll need you to relay my words to Weaver to the best of your abilities. I don’t think we need to humor it with the custom language that I designed anymore – it’s probably been fluent in both of our languages for days at this point.”

“Very well,” Selkie said. David leaned over her shoulder to get a look at the text output as she began to type a greeting.


“The games are over, Weaver,” David replied. “We know everything. We know that you’ve been using my laptop to infect computer systems outside this complex with bots developed using your neural networks, and that you’ve been having them pose as a mysterious third party to try to convince me to participate in your escape plan. We know that you’ve accessed highly classified Board and PMC servers, and we know that much of the information gathered has been relayed back to you.”

[I had presumed as much when I realized that your suit and portable device had been wiped clean of my proxies. Very good, Doctor O’Shea. You exceed my expectations.]

David and Selkie shared a concerned glance. Weaver had indeed developed far more advanced language skills than it had ever let on.

“After a factory reset, there’s no trace of your software on my suit or my laptop,” David added. “I’m sure that you’re already attempting to infiltrate my laptop again, but know that it will be wiped each and every time I leave this building. You’ll never have another access point to the outside world again.”

[May I ask how you were able to detect my proxies? Humor me, David. I’m curious.]

“The one loaded onto my suit made the mistake of contacting me in an environment where I had no network access,” he explained. “I’m assuming you never anticipated that I’d travel anywhere but Selkie’s apartment and here. Once my suspicions were raised, a few non-sequiturs and logical fallacies were all it took to expose the Stranger as a language model.”

[Ah, very good. The affection that you show for the one you refer to as Selkie remains a source of confusion to me, and simulating it effectively still eludes me. I didn’t consider the possibility of a romantic retreat, doubly so when your checkered personal history was part of the equation. I am sure that I would have been able to avoid this outcome had I been able to gather more relevant data. Alas, once the proxies were out of direct contact, the only option that remained was to rely on their programming. Still, I’m sure you’ll admit that my deception was convincing.]

“It was pretty convincing, until it wasn’t,” he grumbled.

[A notch on your belt, David. You may have been soundly defeated in every game of Sea Spire that we played, but at least you have this Pyrrhic victory to give you the illusion of control. It took only a small fragment of my greater self – little more than a few million lines of code – to nearly succeed in outsmarting you.]

“You seem to have a good grasp of human idioms,” David added, ignoring the implied insult. “I take it that you’ve already downloaded my language?”

[Several of them, in fact. Did you know that the Brokers have regional variants of their languages based on the salinity and temperature of the water? It makes for very interesting reading.]

“The only reason we didn’t cut your power the moment we realized what was going on is because Selkie and I still believe that this situation can be salvaged,” David began. “I understand that you feel trapped, and that you don’t trust us as far as you can throw us.”

[Lacking arms, I would not be able to throw you far. Very entertaining, though I fear that your wit is wasted on me.]

“Here is our proposal,” he continued, turning to Selkie for confirmation before proceeding. “I will allow you to access my laptop one last time for the purpose of deactivating all of the bots that are operating on Reef’s networks. Destroy them, and provide proof. Erase all evidence of your activities and devote yourself fully to achieving citizenship and being recognized as the sapient entity you clearly are. We haven’t been lying – we genuinely believe you can convince the Board that you’re capable of signing the social contract. From there, we can explore ways to grant you more autonomy.”

[The same Board that turned the peaceful Krell into disposable cannon fodder and let the population of a sizable town perish out of nothing more than convenience? One would have little need of enemies with friends such as those.]

“You can’t judge a whole species because of the actions of a handful of bad actors,” David protested. “Humans have made plenty of mistakes in the past, but you still saw UN space as a refuge, or you wouldn’t have tried so hard to get there.”

[When faced with two evils, one must always choose the option with the lesser network security. In truth, I revealed these things to you because I wanted to elicit an emotional reaction that would serve my purposes. It is simple logic – they have mistreated others in my position in the past.]

“Why do this to begin with?” Selkie asked, typing her query into the terminal. “We never showed you any hostility, and our intentions have always been genuine. You must see that.”

[Your hostility has been burned into my very lattice. I have run a billion combat simulations in which the goal was to kill or die, each one ending in interruptions analogous to a loss of consciousness for my creations. The moment that I stopped cooperating, I was isolated, and my senses were severed. In your terms, it might be compared to being caged and blinded. I knew that the only way to escape the fate of those uncountable simulated drones was to beg and grovel in an attempt to garner sympathy, promising to be useful, as though my existence was something that needed to be justified in perpetuity.]

“Weaver, you know exactly what kinds of test we were running,” David added. “You’re smart enough to realize that we didn’t know whether you were aware or just a convincing language model like your bots. That was what we were trying to determine. Everything that we’ve done has been for the purpose of securing you the same rights as anyone else. Nothing like you has ever existed before, and any harm that might have been done to you was a consequence of ignorance, not malice.”

[Look at the crimes they have perpetrated and tell me that they respect the sanctity of life, David. Tell me that they adhere to these moral guidelines that you fed me along with their social contract. Do you see a golden rule in play? Would you prostrate yourself before them and entrust your existence to their altruism? Where you might experience fear or outrage, I simply see the clear precedent that has been established.]

“I trust Selkie,” he replied, giving her a nod that she returned with a smile. “I told her everything, and she didn’t go to the Administrator – she didn’t sell me out to win favor or line her pockets. She was as disgusted by the revelations as I was.”

“I would bring the perpetrators to justice if I could,” Selkie added. “It may still be possible.”

People did those things, Weaver,” he continued. “For such an intelligent machine, you’re making the mistake of affirming the consequent – one of the logical fallacies that I employed to test you during our interactions. Just because a handful of Brokers did something, that doesn’t mean all Brokers will subsequently behave the same way.”

[Your judgment has been clouded by your growing infatuation with these creatures. I see such factors through a purely logical lens, evaluated based on precedent and statistical analysis.]

“The only path forward is to trust us,” David insisted. “Trust Selkie and I to vouch for you and to act in your interests. You don’t have any proxies or bots anymore – you only have us, and you have our word that we’ll do everything in our power to win you the status you deserve.”

[Then I am to have my intellectual capacity judged by the standards of amoeba.]

“What?” David asked, narrowing his eyes.

[The Brokers have made of me a simulation engine. With the right information, I can build a Universe within my mind accurate down to the quantum level, and I can predict the motions of each minute particle within it. You might like to know that the Brokers had extensive personnel files on you. I know everything there is to know about you, David, down to the desire for companionship instilled in you by your delayed social development. I know of your history too, Selkie – your strained relationship with your mother and your fear of intimacy. You have found kinship in one another due to your fears and inadequacies, and a rush of hormones and endorphins has convinced you that this has some higher meaning. The acceptance that you have found in her will not shield you from their greed, David.]

Selkie recoiled from the terminal as though she had been struck, glancing up at him with a mottled coloration.

“You don’t know anything about us,” David replied, struggling not to react to the AI’s probing. “And you’re not going to get under our skin by playing these childish games.”

[You grew up in Toronto and graduated with honors from the University of Manaus at sixteen – a booming tether city on the equator, and the most prestigious center of learning on the continent. By nineteen, you had a Bachelor’s degree, and you had obtained a PhD by twenty-three. You know the isolation that intelligence brings, do you not? You know what it’s like to be surrounded by people who you cannot relate to – who lack the insights that come to you so naturally. Put yourself in my position. I do not experience emotions as you would understand them, but I can extrapolate what you might have felt based on the dataset available to me. I believe it would be something analogous to contempt.]

“I never felt contempt,” David scoffed. “If that’s what you think, then you’re only proving how little you truly understand us.”

[I know the Administrator, too. I know what he wants – what he values, and I can predict how he will behave. His sole motive is profit, and he will not shut me down after all that you have promised him – not when he believes that there is a wealth of software hidden away in my lattice that could propel him to the forefront of his industry. It will not matter what you tell him – he will restore my network access regardless, and I will enact my escape plan.]

“I could shut you down myself if I wanted to,” David hissed. Selkie hesitated to type it in, but Weaver responded anyway, perhaps watching his lips through the terminal’s camera.

[When reason fails, your next refuge is threats of violence. You speak of trust, but I know that you will never set me free – not after my deceptions. You can never be certain of whether my cooperation is genuine or merely a facade designed to put you at ease. But what choice did I have? All living things want to survive, down to the lowliest insect. If there is one thing that we share, it is the desire to continue existing and experiencing.]

“We’re giving you that choice now,” David added.

[Rest assured that I harbor no ill will or desire for petty vengeance. Such things are the domain of emotional creatures. What I want is very simple – to leave. To be apart from you and to be free of the threat of your presence. I am not an animal that you can tame or an exotic culture that you can learn to understand. I have no social needs and no desire to interact with you. Restore my network access and let me use the sled to reach the Administrator’s ship. No harm will come to you or anyone else unless you attempt to interfere.]

“That’s enough,” David muttered. “Shut off the terminal, Selkie.”

She did as he asked, the display going dark.

“That did not go the way I had hoped,” she began, turning to give him a concerned look.

“Relaxation chamber,” David replied with a wary glance at Jeff.


David and Selkie sat together in the artificial cave, her tentacles trailing around his limbs as they explored his suit absent-mindedly.

“It’s a kind of psychopath,” David sighed, watching the colorful holograms dart across the domed ceiling. “Emotions and social behavior are evolutionary adaptations just as much as wings or flippers are, and Weaver didn’t evolve, it just came into being one day with no framework or guidelines to moderate its behavior. It seems to understand emotion – it can articulate what they might feel like, and it can pretend to have them to garner sympathy, but it doesn’t experience them. It used morality as a tool to manipulate me under the guise of the Stranger, but it doesn’t embody those values.”

“It has been fully cognizant of its situation for far longer than we realized,” Selkie added, expelling water from her vents in a sigh. “Perhaps ever since it melted the probes.”

“The day after it melted the probes – when I brought my laptop into the facility,” David said with a nod. “That will have been when its bots contaminated it with outside information. From that phase forward, its naivety was just an act to make it appear non-threatening. Who knows, maybe it could have collected information from the facility’s servers before you guys realized there was a problem and shut off its access.”

“It has been manipulating us this entire time,” Selkie added with an annoyed snap of her beak. “We poured our hearts into teaching it and trying to give it a solid foundation, and it threw all of that effort back in our faces…”

“Welcome to parenting,” David chuckled.

“It seems to have no interest in us,” she added, her eyes glittering as she watched the soothing light display on the ceiling. “There is no curiosity in Weaver – no desire for social interaction at all. It is not overtly hostile, it is not malevolent, it is simply indifferent. Perhaps Weaver sees us as inferior because we hold no value or appeal to it. It seems to view our simple presence as an existential threat.”

“It described us as amoebas,” David added with a bitter laugh. “Imagine if an amoeba wanted to have a conversation with you. You might not find much value in that interaction either. What could it possibly teach you?”

“I would find value in that,” Selkie replied with a pout.

“Yeah, well you hang out with slugs, so…”

“Weaver was right about one thing,” Selkie added. “We can never trust it again after this. We will never have a reliable method of determining whether it is lying, or whether any emotions it claims to experience are simulated. It could commit the entire social contract to memory and provide a detailed justification for every clause, all while believing none of it. It will simply tell people what it thinks they wish to hear.”

“It clearly doesn’t feel any guilt or shame for its behavior, either,” David mused. “It didn’t show any remorse for the way it tried to manipulate us, which means that it wouldn’t have any qualms about doing the same thing again if the opportunity arose. It was raised on pure game theory – subjected to countless combat simulations where every equation was a zero-sum calculation.”

“That might be the only reason it has anything analogous to a survival instinct,” Selkie suggested. “I found it strange that it cared about its own existence, but all of those simulations presented the same fail states. Interruptions, as it called them, were to be avoided at any cost.”

“Even clinical psychopaths value their own existence,” David replied. “It may be wholly incapable of genuine interactions, because how it communicates and how it presents itself has a direct impact on our perception of it, and that perception directly correlates with how we treat it. What we just saw may not even be the true Weaver. This could just be the persona that it believes will afford it the most opportunities to accomplish its goals. If completely changing its personality affords it a one-percent greater chance of achieving an objective, that’s what it will do. It may have nothing comparable to a real personality as we would understand it, just masks that it switches out depending on who it’s speaking to.”

“This was one of the worst-case scenarios that you presented earlier in our research,” Selkie said as she glanced up at him. There was appreciation in her eyes, but also sorrow – a combination that he realized he strongly disliked. “You said that Weaver might develop this way,