Science Fiction space opera Economics capitalism AQUATIC ALIENS finance progress

Opportunity Space

By Nathan Hillstrom
Dec 8, 2020 · 12,984 words · 48 minutes


Art by Francesco Ungaro.  

From the author: The Washe transmit a desperate plea for help as their system is overrun by self-replicating blight. Kova answers the call, but to save the aquatic aliens, she must sell them on the investment coalition backing their defense…and the Washe are nowhere near as eager to naturalize as she had been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am [colorful flicker], the Washe signaled.

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

Hello, Profit. Where is Tulevuus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How close is the blight? Kova flashed.

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

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

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

Let’s move, she flashed.

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

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

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

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

I am, she responded, following the Washe upward.

By choice?

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

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

The passage leveled, and the Washe spread three abreast.

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

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

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

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

What? Kova slowed.

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

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

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

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

Evasive reversal, Profit flashed, dropping beside her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s starting, she flashed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Busy here,” she snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh, thank you, Kova replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A flinty minerality coated Kova’s tongue as she woke. Did her family still miss her? They’d been the ones to turn away, to murder her in their minds. But she’d been right about everything, hadn’t she? Young Kova would be so impressed, if she could see herself here, in unaffiliated space, helping a new species into the Fiscality. A direct participant in the universe’s optimization. If her younger self had been astonished by rents on Luna then, what would she make of the near-side condo she now owned, not even a decade later? Of the bonus she would soon earn? The here-and-now Kova swished water in her mouth, its oyster brine perhaps the taste of Washe living in close quarters. She thanked her younger self for making the hard decisions. But her time was limited—she shouldn’t be resting, even given the stress of adjusting to a new body.

Kova plunged her arms forward and kicked off the wall, towards the three Washe. She yawed to the left. Her left foot hung limp, its webbed toes pointing to the chamber’s floor. The extremity no longer belonged to her. It didn’t feel numb, or even absent: it just wasn’t. These were the first Standard Mind containers the Washe had built—but hers still had to keep her alive. She chewed her lip and resumed swimming, correcting for the lame foot.

The three Washe hovered in the center of the chamber, exchanging patterns of light with their displays, watery projections that appeared and vanished at a rapid clip.

Profit’s eyebundles pushed in her direction. Your director requires a status update through your hardware.

Later, she flashed, massaging her nonresponsive foot. They had at least a day before the planetoid; Tulevuus needed to let her do her job. This was her moment. First, Profit, we should talk about you.

Us. Profit’s feelers drifted. We need a self-sustaining bulwark against the eaters. You can help, but won’t.

Obviously, it didn’t trust her. She’d expected that. Kova held her hands together and looked directly into one of its eyebundles. I am going to help. That’s why I’m here. This hardware will be the start of your bulwark.

The eyebundle swiveled away, replaced by another. You promised complete technology. But we received license-restricted units. We had to build you to administer them, distorting our technology progress and opportunity space.

Kova nodded. I understand your frustration, but the Jhor are bearing the cost of this mission. It’ll prove the technology and buy you time to naturalize. Once you visit, trust me, you’ll negotiate full access to this hardware and much more.

We don’t want your change.

Kova crossed her arms, then dropped them to her sides, correcting the defensive body language. The Washe were suspicious, protective of their way of life, and she could respect that. They hadn’t even wanted her textbook explanation of consciousness. I’ll personally ensure no information is shared unless you request it, she flashed. No changes forced on you.

Young Kova would indeed be proud of her, hired directly by the Jhor, negotiating with an alien species.

You seek to standardize us into your pattern. Profit’s skin crinkled, feelers flaring. You’re after raw material, like the eaters.

No. A misunderstanding. She lifted her arms again, arresting an upward drift. What the Standard Mind standardizes is description, not content. It’s a model. How else could you extract meaning from billions of unlabeled neurons, across wildly diverse species? She considered Profit, looking from eyebundle to eyebundle. It abstracts the mind from the implementation. Physical details depend on local materials, operating environment, expertise. But I’m still me, whether visiting a hot Jupiter in a Jhor-built container, or here, in this container you built, since they implement the same description. Naturalizing maps you into a model shared across thousands of species, so you can travel the sunspan. That’s all.

Profit’s feelers brushed a display, color from the screen scrolling along its skin. You. How did the naturalization change you?

That’s what I’m saying. Kova ran her thumb between fingers, testing the webbing. It didn’t. I converted with over 99% fidelity. Less change, she’d been told, than a teen experienced at summer camp.

No. How did it change—Profit slowed its flashing—everyyou?

The sequence suggested a blurry concept of intersecting personhood, of community. She offered “humanity” to her translator, which accepted with reluctance.

Most people haven’t converted. She raised her palms. That reflected poorly on humanity, but she had to be honest. Our deal with the Jhor left Earth human-only for 289 years. Nobody has to change.

Profit’s interior cartilage tightened and slid. No. Your deciding. How did it change? Your engagement. How did it change?

Kova rubbed her temples, unsure what information Profit wanted. The translator had so little source data for the Washe, it might be making bad choices. Well, we’ve advanced quickly. Abundant energy, extensive space capabilities, leaps in material science and engineering. Our entire inner solar system is active.

No, not progression. Your mechanism of progression. Profit’s flashes simplified. Before, how did you select your discoveries?

I don’t follow. She frowned. You don’t select discoveries, do you? That’s what makes them discoveries. 

After fundamentals, breakthroughs require societal allocations. We expanded beyond our planet because our process shaped the opportunity space in that direction. How do you shape?

Kova wrapped her hands behind her head. The Washe’s exploration of their system was impressive. Aquatic species rarely made it off their home worlds, but the Washe had refined an underwater path to astronautical engineering. She remembered the old saw about the Apollo moon landing being the greatest achievement of communism. It would be no surprise if the Washe biased towards communal megaprojects.

Our choices are decentralized, she flashed. People have individual freedom. 

The Washe edged closer. The evaluation framework is what matters, not degree of centralization. You become the process you use to decide what to become.

Kova paddled back, away from the graze of its cilia. The Washe had no sense of personal space. Well, people invest where they expect a return. Where gain outweighs cost.

A return means an increase in personal financial allocations? That’s the contour you follow?

It’s not that simple, she flashed. But…mostly. It’s how the universe functions. She rubbed her chin, remembering the Jhor on Luna. Did you know, the vast majority of advanced species have an innate attraction to gold? Not because it’s objectively more alluring, but because it’s a perfect scarcity token—so long as everyone desires it. That makes gold-lust such an adaptive trait it’s on the evolutionary roadmap. To optimize, you need financial abstraction, profit-seeking.

Profit stopped. Discoveries optimized for financial allocations will lead to discoveries optimizing financial allocations. Its flashes brightened, illuminating long strips of cartilage. Bodies of knowledge conform to the optimization path you choose. You won’t find alternate futures.

The sloshing of water echoed through the chamber. Kova knew financial optimization had always driven human progress. Writing developed as accounting symbology in Uruk, businessmen pressing their abstractions into cuneiform. Gods and poets made their marks later. Mesopotamian lenders invented algebra to calculate compound interest against crop and livestock yields. Banks made Athens the hub of a maritime trade empire. Limited partnerships propelled exploration of the New World. Now, corporations bound the planet together, their money pumping through the veins of a single, investible Earth.

And profit-seeking had lifted Kova herself: her training, her opportunities to travel the sunspan, her ever-growing capital account. But she needed to convince the Washe to naturalize, not educate them. She leaned into the tickle of the alien’s cilia. That was how we progressed before the Fiscality, she flashed. So they didn’t change how we changed. You could strike a different deal—your path doesn’t need to look like ours. Surely you can come up with something better than letting the blight consume you.

A flutter passed through Profit’s feelers. What manner of deal could we strike?

Kova rolled her shoulders. She had them: with the threat of extinction bearing down on the Washe, it was almost too easy. They had to agree to something. And in her travels, Kova had encountered true arm’s-length agreements. Inner solar systems left alone, in perpetuity. Sunspan nodes with nothing but a depot and a prescribed route to an outer station, far from any inhabited planets.

You’re wealthy by location, she flashed. The only infected sun for hundreds of lightyears—it opens a gigantic sphere of virgin space for the Jhor. You can negotiate any arrangement that suits you.

Why must we naturalize to make an arrangement?

Until you naturalize, you can’t offer anything in return. You’re not an entity. You can’t even travel. When you have an identifier in the sunspan ledger, though, you can bind into agreements. Grant access to the Jhor. It protects you, really. The Fiscality had covenants and conditions for engaging new species on the sunspan, and the Jhor followed rules fastidiously. Kova had heard not all coalitions acted in such good faith; the Washe were lucky the wrong sort had not answered their call.

You taught us to build this hardware, but we can’t operate it because of a missing license. Why can’t you just share this license?

For…nothing? Kova stared at Profit. The Jhor are making an investment. They’re able to help new species because they retain some of the value they add.

Creases pinched along Profit’s skin. We will not naturalize.

Kova drew her hand’s webbing along her face. What was wrong with them? How could they resist an easy solution to their existential threat? But if they’d been an easy sell, the Jhor wouldn’t have offered an outsized bonus. Professional, natural-built negotiators had failed. None, though, had lifted themselves up like her.

I respect how you feel, she flashed. But naturalizing is the best decision I ever made. It’s the reason I get to be here with you, now. Can you help me understand what’s holding you back?

A screen opened next to them and stuttered light. Your director requires contact via hardware channel immediately, Profit flashed.

Ask him what’s the rush, she flashed. We’re in the middle of a discussion.

She swam to the display as Profit exchanged bursts with it. Strings of nonsense jangled across the wavering surface; her translator didn’t even try to engage.

He reiterates to contact him immediately, Profit flashed.

Fine. She’d made progress, at least. Tulevuus couldn’t expect her to close the sale in hours, when experts had been failing for months. Let’s go up.

Profit escorted Kova out of the water chamber and back to the bay. The ship had stopped accelerating, rendering them weightless. She pulled herself through the bay’s airlock, braced her good foot on its inside lip, and kicked off. Dendritic patterns coiled over every surface, spread by the particle efflux. She skimmed across a scoop as she sailed by, dusting off the design.

Kova grabbed the control pod, swung to a stop and sunk into a handshake with its interface. The skin under her wrists itched, but the feeling faded. It didn’t recognize her, despite the previous session. She closed her eyes and focused on the mental contours of the interface. The tickle returned, extended to her armpits, then evaporated. Why was this so hard? She visualized the sprawl of the mental map, the emotional lift of a successful handshake. With a jolt, the equipment’s awareness slicked over her.

“Wildly unprofessional,” Tulevuus’s audio broke in, as the map unfurled.

Kova crossed her legs and pulled herself to the floor, worming fingers into its hook-holds. “I was in the middle of doing my job.”

“You questioned my instructions in front of our prospects,” Tulevuus returned. “How do you think that reflects on the Fiscality? I direct this mission. I won’t remind you again.”

The local space topology seeped into Kova’s awareness. Empty void, save Tulevuus’s ship, kilometers away. Like her own, his spacecraft was an ovoid with a water chamber at its heart and a weapons bay on top. Spokes connected the craft to an encircling ring, which rotated independently of the main body and held the ship’s two engines. The design looked as suited to deep-sea exploration as to space.

She scanned his ship’s interior. Tulevuus floated inside the weapons bay, tethered to a control pod. Washe worked in the central water chamber below him.

“All right, director,” she sent. “What is it you need?”

“Were you successful in your stretch assignment?”

“What are you talking about? I just started.” She rolled her eyes and tightened the scan field, zooming in on his ship’s Washe. They hovered in her spectral cross-section. Folds of cartilage densified towards their interiors, protecting feathery organs and a squashed central cluster of eyebundles.

“Tough luck, then. We’re ending the mission,” Tulevuus replied. “Our implementations are not to agreed specifications and we’ve no obligation to assume that risk. We’re going back.”

Kova pinched the bridge of her nose. She couldn’t let this opportunity slip away. “A little more time and I can finish.”

“The Washe substituted their own tech for processes we transferred.” Tulevuus pulled himself down his tether, as Washe flitted between displays in the chamber beneath him. “Total breach of contract.”

She frowned. To avoid the taint of Fiscality knowledge, the Washe must have skipped learning any technology for which they had an analogue. Still, she could live with the lame foot, with some implementation risk. But Tulevuus wasn’t going to budge. And how would she convince the Washe, anyway? Did she even have a pitch? This should have been her audition for the Jhor, her entrance onto a bigger stage. But she would bomb, because of Tulevuus.

Two of the Washe paused in their duties and pushed together. Kova panned away, instinctively, but then closed back in. The aliens’ ghostly renderings locked into embrace. As they pushed together, their central caches of eyebundles stirred. Each wrenched an eyebundle from its central cluster, folded it to the underside of its skin, and pushed it opposite the other. The dislodged eyebundles stared at each other through the membranes of their trembling owners.

With a pucker of skin, almost too quick to catch, the eyebundles swapped and were paddled to the center of their new hosts. Kova gasped as the Washe pulled apart.

“What did you say?” Tulevuus asked.

“Just…a moment.”

Kova wrapped her hands behind her neck. She’d never heard of anything like this, trading bundles of neurons, chunks of minds. Her mouth remained open as the Washe returned to their displays. That explained everything. Of course the Washe didn’t want to naturalize: even if they converted with perfect fidelity, they wouldn’t be the same. They couldn’t swap brain parts after standardization. And the natural-built advantage, that repurposing of existing talent and expertise—they did that on their own. In fact, the natural-built just accepted their skills as a given; the Washe model was active, intentional. In that regard, they were almost more like her.

Kova could use this information. She’d find an arrangement. She wouldn’t sell the Washe on naturalization as a benefit, but instead sell Profit on naturalization as a sacrifice. A onetime ambassador to the Fiscality. Maybe Profit would still consider that death, but to defeat an existential threat to its species, the price would be worth paying. She could still succeed, still seize this opportunity to transcend her born status.

“Is leaving your decision,” she asked Tulevuus, “or the Jhor’s?”

“I don’t owe you an explanation.”

She panned her view back to him. If the system became overrun with blight before the Fiscality established a foothold, the infected sun would be of no use to her sponsors, or anyone—not for the thousands of years it would take to access through regular space, and that would be a race between the Jhor and every regional with a fast ship. In addition to controlling sunspan access, species like the Jhor could extract credit from a new node, applying meta-hydromagnetic techniques that had not been shared with humanity; proof of work that expanded the money supply of the sunspan itself.

“Management must still want to secure access. Give me another couple of days,” Kova transmitted. 

“The mission is over.” He crossed his arms. “Remember, Kova, this is unaffiliated space. There’s no one to help us here, no Fiscality infrastructure, no way home except one Washe-built sunspan depot. An unacceptable risk.”

She shook her head. “This is exactly what’s wrong with you natural-builts. You think you’re so elite. But you’re designed for a purpose, so you never learn to maximize your value. I’m more Fiscality than you’ll ever be. You’re welcome to go back. I’m staying for my bonus.”

The fields around Tulevuus began to swirl. He undid the tether and launched himself out of the bay. The airlock rolled shut behind him as his ship’s image blurred.

“What the hell?” Kova transmitted.

“You’re dangerously out of order.” The ceiling of his ship’s weapons bay opened.

Jesus, what was Tulevuus doing? Was she supposed to believe he would fire on her? He surely had no such authority. An ugly bluff…but also too easy to execute under cover of unaffiliated space.

Kova stumbled out a message to the Jhor: she explained the swapping she’d seen, that she understood the primary mission was ending, but felt close to a breakthrough, and wanted to complete her contract. As Tulevuus’s bay doors swung wide, she tight-beamed the missive to the Washe sunspan depot, now several AU away, to be relayed back to Sol-based Jhor management.

“Tulevuus, I notified management that I’m close to goal,” she sent. “And noted your displeasure that I’m staying on. Since your mission is over, my direct communication should breach no protocol.”

Her message would at least make a mysterious disappearance trickier for him to explain.

“Still there?” she transmitted. Her stippled view of his ovoid drifted and convulsed.

“You’re going to die out here, you idiot,” Tulevuus finally responded. “All for some piddling bonus? Nobody will want to work with you again.” He signed off with a snort, and the field interference dimmed, unscrambling her view of his ship.

Kova massaged her temples, letting the machinery unbraid from her consciousness. So, she was going to die and nobody would want to work with her again. She put it out of her mind—it didn’t matter what some cocksure natural-built thought. The Jhor had the real power. They would appreciate her willingness to take risks for the Fiscality.

Profit skittered into the bay as Kova lay back, seeking the thrum of the ship’s engines. She closed her eyes and let the sensation infuse her. She’d help the Washe engage the sunspan in a way that protected their unique system: she’d get paid for unlocking value, for doing good. And with her bonus, she could afford to visit Jupiter, maybe even take a Jhor-form, all flanges, gas-sacs and knotted muscle. Find the opportunities that came from brushing up against real power. The engine massaged away her isolation, her severance from the official mission. She couldn’t afford to rest, not now, but her eyelids had become too heavy to open.

Kova squinted into a gold flare. The sun glinted off a colossal bracelet—the orbital around the Washe home world. A slender hoop encircling a green marble. A masterpiece of engineering. Thousands of thread-thin spokes stretched from planet to orbital, lifting water molecules into and through the long stretch of space; driven by induced capillary-action, they refilled the bracelet as ships drained it: water as fuel, as hydration, as reaction mass, as mobility, as radiation shielding, as lubricant, as oxygenation, as nutrient, and as love, the connective tissue of a civilization and the gift of home. Each drop contained the whole.

Kova had only ever seen images of the Washe home world. That orbital bracelet—it must be spectacular in person. Her eyes gummed open. The dream slipped away as she took in the water chamber. Why had she been sleeping? A nest of tubes anchored her to the wall. Her chest seized. What the hell was going on? She shoved and twisted against the tightness.

Tubes suctioned away as she pulled out of the assemblage. Across the chamber, the Washe hung in front of their displays, tickling the glowing water. She thrust towards them but swung and slammed face-first back into the nest. The tubing still gripped her left leg. A leg she couldn’t feel: attached, but not a part of her.

Kova untangled the alienated leg. She’d been warned about Washe technology substitution after losing her foot, but had refused the chance to return. The argument with Tulevuus…what had she done? This wasn’t walking away from her family’s house. This was walking away from the known universe, a terrible risk. She kicked with her one leg towards the Washe and their displays. 

Profit, she flashed. What happened to me?

A few of Profit’s eyebundles shifted in her direction. Eyebundles it had exchanged—would exchange—with other Washe. You went to sleep, it flashed.  

I never go to sleep like that. What are those tubes?

All but one of Profit’s eyebundles shifted away. We know you become lost to your own maintenance, but we have no analogous shutdown.

She’d passed out and woken in a damned nest of tubes. Profit’s lack of ‘analogous shutdown’ wasn’t a sufficient answer. She swam closer. Tulevuus told me about your technology substitution. My parts are failing, she flashed. What’s going on?

Profit’s feelers stiffened. The sunspan depot certified you on arrival.

Yes, but this jury-rigged implementation is degrading.

It is not, Profit flashed. We disinterred your neurostrata and validated while you slept.

You disinterred—what? She pushed in front of Profit, breaking the projection of its screen. You operated on my mind without informing me?

Profit’s internal geometries coiled and yawed. We’ve been working on this container for weeks.

This container is me, now. Information squiggled across the display and over her chest. It’s occupied. It’s no longer yours.

The interrupted screen dissolved and reappeared on Profit’s opposite side. It paddled its eyebundles away and resumed its interactions.

Kova’s hands clenched into fists, bunching her fingers’ webbing. She’d stranded herself in unaffiliated space to help these creatures—at risk of attack from the blight, at risk of implementation failure, at risk of alienating the Jhor—and they dismissed her as readily as did her mission’s natural-built team.

Respect for minds is key to the Fiscality. It’s in your contract, she flashed. I’m a fully contained individual, even if you don’t have the same respect for self.

The other two Washe paddled eyebundles in her direction, but Profit focused on its display.

I saw how you share parts of your brains, Kova flashed, crossing her arms. You failed to mention any collective thought.

The Washe are entirely individuated, I assure you, Profit flashed. But we share understanding, as you attempt through flashing alone.

Kova rotated away and counted backwards from ten. The glow of the chamber wavered with the slosh of the water, the walls’ spokes and tubes trembling in sympathy. She shouldn’t have presented the Washe’s swapping in an accusatory light. What was it like, to share parts of yourself? To be part of an extended family, to genuinely understand one another? She was alone, floating in a dark corner of the universe, connected to nobody, understood by nobody. Fighting with Tulevuus, fighting with Profit, however justified—it just isolated her. She couldn’t battle everyone. Mission success mattered most.

She swished back around. Just respect that I own this container. The good news, Profit, is I understand why the Washe don’t want to naturalize. You’d lose your mind-sharing.

It’s impossible to understand by flashing alone.

Light from a Washe at a further screen caught her eye. A message from your headquarters is waiting, it flashed.

The Jhor’s response. Kova took a deep breath of water and swam to the display, brushing past Profit.

She squinted at the coiled lines on its watery screen. Her translator offered nothing, but she recognized her name in the weft and oscillations, the squiggles a representation of the Washe’s flashing language. 

Impulsively, she stroked a finger along the screen and swirled water under her name, materializing the Fiscality’s message. She blinked at her hand. Had she learned that interaction by watching Profit?

An encrypted map of characters spanned the display. She scanned them with the half-attention her translator needed to decode: Management thanked her for the transmission, approved the ambassador model, and confirmed her mission independence. Further, they raised her day rate to director level.

Wow, she flashed, exhaling the water from her chest. She’d made the right call. She felt the lines of connection from Sol stretching across space and sunspan, breaking her isolation. The message included a menu for negotiations. It offered astronomical sums, structured as debentures against future Washe system revenue. The amount they’d deposit into the capital account of a Washe negotiator who visited—just visited—exceeded the market capitalization of most Earth corporations. Responsibility for so much wealth felt like sitting to a lavish dinner; Kova’s stomach brimmed with anticipation. The offer was twice the ask for an unlimited license to the protective hardware: once Profit naturalized and received its funds, the Washe could purchase the technology to defeat the blight, with a fortune left over. And her personal bonus would still apply.

Kova closed the message and kicked back, drifting away from the screen. The Jhor trusted her to make an enormous deal, and their generosity meant the Washe would be saved. Her own compensation would be several years’ worth of income. Breaking from Tulevuus’s mission had been the right decision, the hard choice that would establish her career. She stretched in the water’s weightless caress.

Profit, I’ve been promoted. I’m now your official Fiscality representative. She stroked towards the Washe, a smile tickling her lips. And I have excellent news.

Profit swiveled an eyebundle.

You don’t want to naturalize as a species, she flashed. I understand now. But the Washe need you as an ambassador, Profit. In exchange, we’ll provide unlimited license to the defense hardware, just for visiting. You’ll be free to negotiate whatever relationship you want, or none at all. She nodded at the unblinking cluster of eyes. Your blight threat is over. The Washe are saved.

Nothing new. Profit’s eyebundle swiveled away. Your director made the same offer.

Kova opened and shut her mouth. The Jhor hadn’t even given her a unique proposal? And how could Profit not accept, after meeting her?

I’m proof naturalization isn’t destruction, she flashed. Even if it were, how could you be so fearful? Worrying about yourself when your species is under mortal threat?

I expect this cause will take my life. Profit’s feelers bristled. You’ve already proved disastrous to our methods of evaluation. We allowed you here because of dwindling options. Unchecked, the incoming swarm will exhaust our planetary defenses. You promised assistance and then fled.

I’m still here. The others feared for their safety, but I’m still here.

Only because the Fiscality would not actually allow the blight to overrun this space. You’ll buy just enough time to force us into an arrangement.

She hitched her arms and puffed her chest, in imitation of Washe bridling. This isn’t some ploy. I stayed in direct violation of orders, at personal risk. To help. My own decision. And I’d like to get back as soon as possible, thank you, before this implementation fails. If you don’t naturalize soon, get the protection you need from the Jhor, it’ll be too late for the Washe too.

The need for this endeavor has not changed, Profit flashed. The eater swarm is coming. If we don’t delay them, there won’t be a sunspan depot to return to.

Kova relaxed her shoulders. That’s fair. She had stayed behind to finish the installation, to buy the Washe some time. The discussions would ease once she’d accomplished something for them. How far are we from the planetoid?

The hardware components on just this ship are insufficient. And installing them would leave us defenseless to stray eaters on return. A pointless sacrifice.

Kova closed her eyes. She hadn’t considered why they’d come as a team in the first place, why Tulevuus had said she’d die out here. She’d only thought about her own role, about maximizing her bonus—but death might truly be waiting. Her insides twisted as she lost directional orientation.

She opened her eyes and reoriented. What were her options? The contract specified a defensive mission, and the Jhor took their contracts seriously. But as director, perhaps she had discretion. Perhaps she could take the defense to the blight, not just deny them a segment of space.

It’s dangerous, but maybe I can repurpose this mission to go after the swarm. Remove instead of redirect. If you agree to naturalize, I’ll take that risk. The Jhor might bless a deviation in service to a negotiation goal.

Profit paddled a barrage of eyes towards her. Your thinking is extractive, it flashed. Even your language is the language of contract, of scarcity triage, of exploitation. Every single flicker.

Kova swallowed, uselessly circulating water. She’d simply expressed her interest, the first step towards negotiated agreement—by definition, an improvement over the alternative for all parties. But who knew how she sounded in this language of light.

This is an automated interpretation of my own language, Profit. I’m not picking the words.

Then pick them.

Could she? Kova focused on her body’s strips and rolled light across them—she did have access beyond the autonomic. Had she picked up any language fragments from their conversations? Hello [flicker], she tried, bypassing her translator.

You can see, Profit exclaimed, its feelers drifting wildly. Her translator rendered the same flashes as Hello Kova. Profit continued, spelling out concepts more than words: Can…you…understand? Her translator simultaneously offered, I want to take.

She focused her attention on the lights, forcing the translator out of her active mind. I’m…not sure…I follow, she flashed.

Profit floated to her chest, its feelers tickling synthetic skin. This may be the end of the Washe, it flashed. But if avoidance requires changing our evaluation, deforming our opportunity space with your extraction framework, that would be a true structural end. An end we can avoid. Do you understand?

Kova chewed at her lip. She did understand, somehow. It made an esoteric sort of sense. If the Washe accepted the ultimatum as their only option, it forced a process of decision-making not their own. The Fiscality deformed their opportunity space, which distorted their decisions, which further deformed their opportunity space—finally, the Washe would no longer be Washe. The result would be no different than if they continued as parts and propulsion of the blight. No civilization was more than how it made its decisions. Whether to save the species was, then, a choice for her own evaluation. Yes, she flashed— 

—What? No. Her mind squirmed at the illogic. She shook her head, churning water. No. This didn’t make any sense. None at all. Magical thinking, like her family’s. Words twisted around the contours of some preconception. An excuse to resist change. No.

Kova reengaged her translator. She wanted to yank off the light strips and hold them at arm’s length. You’re arguing you can’t agree to naturalize in advance, because a mutually beneficial exchange would somehow ruin you. She ground her palms into the smooth velvet of her temples. All right, if I save you…then, will you be open to it? No ultimatum?

Open. Profit’s feelers sagged. All right. Open.

Kova considered the rumpled sack of broth, its sea of eyes, its drifting feelers. Fine, she flashed. The blight posed a risk to her safety as well. Fine. Enough of a deal, for now.

They returned to the bay once the Washe detected signs of the swarm. At the control pod, Kova sensed only a wisp of the interface, more memory than shape. Her mind slid off its faint contours. She splayed her webbed hands across the pod, as if to find by touch what her mind could not.

Can you see the eaters? Profit flashed.

I’m not able to connect. The machinery slumbered, cold under her hands. It’s been getting more difficult.

Kova wrapped her arms around the pod and laid her cheek on top. “Come on,” she whispered. Nothing. She visualized her last connection, the rush of information as her mind opened. A heat pricked beneath her nails. “That’s it,” she cooed. She willed the sensation into her fingers, her hands, her forearms.

Profit’s skin pocked inside its suit, feelers flaring in agitation. If we detected the eaters, they will detect us.

Her half-connection faltered, and the tingle began to burn. Kova embraced the pain. She recalled her training, the hours she’d spent reaching beyond the circumstances of her birth, her family, her naturalized humanity. This was it, the opportunity she’d sought. She would transcend.

The connection slicked over her, and she yelped in relief.

The local topology unfolded, her spatial awareness spreading with it. Warnings erupted across her map: the ball of space ahead frothed, rotten with blight. A drone swarm surrounded a field of nickel-iron asteroids and stuttering fusion reactors. Slender arms and heat-bursting cylinders performed a ballet of construction, scaffolding drone-parts onto broken rocks.

This wasn’t just an incoming blight cluster. It was a factory.

Too many, she flashed.

They’re within the specifications of your energy net. We built carefully.

Those specs are for use on a silicaceous planetoid. The net would melt your ship.

Motion drew her attention: Tulevuus’s ship, accelerating starboard, perpendicular to the blight. How had she missed its pin?

“What are you doing out here?” She transmitted. “Wasn’t this too much risk?”  

“I’m now being compensated for that risk.” His ship jumped in three directions at once, then fuzzed out of her awareness. He’d used his weapons’ defensive systems to baffle hers.

She turned to Profit. Are you in contact with Tulevuus’s crew?

We lost their radio.

She wrapped a hand around her neck, and a white bubble blinded her. The world tilted. She smacked into the control pod and the machinery pulsed alarm: laser strike. A shot had melted clean through the ship. She blinked at the undamaged room, dizzy. The blast had missed the weapons bay, its brilliance only in her machine-extended awareness.

Frantic indicators pointed to the factory as its source, but the blight didn’t have laser defenses. Fiscality intelligence had been sure of that. She steadied herself on the pod, then tensed. Her head cleared: intelligence had obviously been wrong. The factory did have a powerful laser, and it would fire again.

Open the bay, she flashed at Profit, open it now. Her hardware could shield against coherent electromagnetic radiation, once activated. She braced against the pod and kicked towards the airlock.

The ceiling split open and thin atmosphere rushed out, arresting her motion. She clutched the hook-holds on the floor and crawled, Profit clattering after her. The airlock rolled shut behind them.

Another white burst scoured her vision. Their ship rumbled and turned, shards of the demolished port engine peppering its hull. She launched the hardware’s protective field: its efflux swirled the undersides of the still-opening bay doors and billowed into space.

The next blast bit into the distortion of the field and scrambled, harmless. Kova exhaled, her breath’s moisture crystallizing in the now-void around her. Their ship still rotated from the earlier strikes, its protective field turning away from the threat.

Keep the bay oriented towards the blight, she flashed. It needs to face them.

The ship’s remaining engine spurted and spun, reorienting their bay and shield towards the factory. A host of drones detached from the swarm and burned in their direction. The cloud would contain the factory’s laser, but it blocked her own point weapons, protecting the drones. She was down to her last resort, already.

I need to use the energy net to take out the factory and laser, she flashed at Profit.

That is a good plan. A current brushed through Profit’s feelers.

It’s a terrible plan. Kova sighed, an unsatisfying gesture without air. She started the net charging. The net’s kickback will fry us too. I’m automating my point weapons to take out remaining drones once the factory is clear. We might not be around to operate them.

Profit clicked closer and touched her leg with its suits’ hooks. She blinked, then patted the top of its enclosure. This might be the end. An end to all her hopes, all her experience. She’d wanted to accomplish so much more. A taste of copper overwhelmed her palate as the net accumulated potential. She curled into a defensive brace: now was not the time for reflection. The energy net peeled off the scoops and heaved into space. She slammed into the floor. Her local senses and machine senses blurred together: target-markers crawled over Profit’s suit and Washe eyebundles caressed the blight-map. The ship’s hull warped and rent under the backwash of heat and radiation.

Reality stitched back together, and Kova pushed herself up on her arms, mind fuzzing. Neither leg responded, each as alien as the other. The corridor throbbed with the ache of her temples, the pain demonstrating that she was, at least, still alive.

The net’s aurora skipped across space towards the factory.

Well, this ship is done. We’ll need a ride home, she flashed, turning to Profit.

The Washe puddled inside its suit, feelers limp, eyebundles disengaged. Kova prodded the alien, jangling its suit’s hooks. With the hardware’s vision, she looked deeper, at its palpitating central mass. Some eyebundles lay dead, cracked and oozing. The image pained her; her own head pulsed with each convulsion of Profit’s damaged mass. She needed to help.

Kova scanned the central chamber. The other two Washe furiously worked their displays in the water’s protective embrace. She had to get Profit down there for medical attention.

The energy net struck blight elements between the factory swarm and their ship. It folded gossamer-like around the drones, melting them into undifferentiated blobs of rock and metal. She smiled, but the pain in her temples spiked, and her lips stretched to rictus.

Clutching her head, she scanned the hardware’s view onto herself. Her own implementation floated in ghostly cross-section. Beneath her velvety exterior, beneath her vacuum-resistant layers, alongside servos and scaffolding, a crowded reservoir stretched from her cranium to her sternum.

Kova screamed.

Seething eyebundles packed inside the reservoir. Eyebundles. Clutches of black eyes and tails of viscera, twitching and convulsing. Her mind. The mind now observing itself. Her. Herself. Eyebundles discovering they’re eyebundles. She ground her palms into the sides of her head.

Her inner voice tried to rationalize that implementation strata didn’t matter—fatty dendrites, ceramic microtubules, eyebundles, whatever—but she knew. She knew. The Washe built this implementation to swap eyebundles with her. The unexplained naps. The problems connecting to her machinery. The decreasing need for her translator. Even—no, especially—her appreciation for these sacks of broth. The Washe didn’t even have faces, and she was risking everything for them. Because they’d adulterated her to be part them.

How could you do this to me? She flashed at Profit.

Profit’s cartilage glimmered weakly.

Don’t deny. She balled a fist. I see into my own mind.

Two of Profit’s eyebundles roused from their torpor, pressing towards her.

Her head still throbbed. Several of her own eyebundles had cracked. Beneath the pain, she felt like herself, but how could she know? The adulterated self was her current self. Of course it felt like her.

Outside, the energy net neared the swarm and washed over scattered drones, dissolving everything in its wake. The factory continued to harmlessly pour its laser into her ship’s protective field.  

Profit’s insides shifted, and its suit-hooks grasped the corridor holds. Watching the alien struggle tugged at something in her: exchanging chunks of their mind was normal for the Washe, how they interacted with the world, how they understood one another. It had just been trying to share.

No—that was her Washe-brain talking. She accepted nothing about what they’d done. Nothing. She was stuck on a disabled spaceship, in the middle of nowhere, with a traitorous species and a damaged mind. But she would deal with the situation. She would get out alive, and with her bonus.

As the energy net reached the factory’s asteroid field, a curtain of distortion hit it from her starboard side, folding up its aurora, pushing its potential away from the blight. The factory continued its ballet. Unharmed.

Tulevuus’s ship reappeared, beside the swarm. “The factory is off-limits,” he transmitted.

“What the hell are you doing?” she shouted.

“Nothing in the contract permits offensive actions. I had to stop you.”

“It’s firing at me!”

“Listen, Kova, we haven’t worked together before, and never came to an understanding. That’s my fault too, and I’m sorry. But you’ve really gotten yourself into something here. Let me take you back. It doesn’t have to end like this.”

Her head felt like it would crack. The factory’s laser continued to batter her protective cloud, and another phalanx of drones detached, tracing a wide arc towards their ship. Did she have any option besides swallowing her pride and giving up everything, accepting transport back?

She considered the feeble alien. She didn’t know if it or Tulevuus were worse, but Washe teams still crewed both ships; they would want the factory gone.

Can you establish contact with Tulevuus’s crew? She flashed at Profit. Tell them not to follow his instructions?

No. But they’ll be watching. Its feelers flared. Wondering why the blight attack us and not them.

Kova ran her tongue over her teeth. “Tulevuus, why are the drones ignoring you?”

Profit ballooned to fill its suit. The Fiscality is also blight.

No. She shook her head. We think and improve. The blight is mindless expansion.

Idea blight, evaluation blight, Profit flashed, and puddled back in exhaustion.

“The stakes of a new sunspan node are enormous,” Tulevuus transmitted back. “You’re part of an intricate plan, and the biggest mistake I’ve seen the Jhor make. Count your blessings I’m here to get you out alive.”

The other Washe would be watching. Kova growled into the vacuum and blasted a particle beam at Tulevuus’s ship. It flashed into her protective cloud.

“Are you—are you trying to shoot me?” Tulevuus snorted. “Through your own shield? Good grief.” His voice broke into a higher register as he barked with laughter.

Kova wasn’t trying to shoot him, but she continued to fire in his direction, modulating the tempo as blasts flared into her shield: turn your ship turn your ship turn your ship, she flashed. Was the Washe part of her spelling out the words? Her own translator found nothing in the explosive display, but she hoped the other crew understood.

Copper drizzled down her throat as she recharged the energy net.

Tulevuus’s ship turned, pivoting his weapons bay towards empty space. His laugh broke. “What—”

Kova cut communication and launched a second energy net at the factory.

Reality whipped inside-out as sheets of radiance detached from her bay. Kova tumbled down the corridor, machine vision intertwining with local senses. Layers sloughed off the ship’s hull like dead skin. Her eyebundles convulsed and cracked, drooling ichor. Their remaining engine collapsed in on itself.

Kova hooked her fingers into the floor, arresting the tumble. She couldn’t feel anything below her midsection. Down the corridor, Profit quivered in its suit, eyebundles in worse shape than hers, broken and limp. It trickled electromagnetic radiation in every direction.

She willed her way back to her body’s senses and examined Profit with her own eyes. Light scrolled down the alien’s sides, a top-to-bottom repetition that meant nothing to her translator. A primitive display, autonomic.

Profit, she flashed.

Words bubbled under Profit’s coruscation. Her translator jangled with dissonance but offered: I want to take. 

Kova pulled forward, floating towards the alien. The net’s backwash had faded, but Profit’s remaining eyebundles thrashed violently, uncontrollably. She dismissed her translator.

Share your understanding, Profit flashed.

She grabbed Profit’s suit. I’ll get you to the others for help.

Profit’s hooks latched onto the floor. My trauma is cascading. I need healthy eyes to stabilize. Please. Share.

Let go. Kova tugged at the alien’s suit. You’re not getting any more of my mind.

Profit released, and they somersaulted down the corridor. She caught a wall and steadied them.

Not mind, Profit flashed. Just eyes. Your mind isn’t compatible.

Kova put her arm around Profit and pushed them down the corridor. I know what you’ve been doing to me.

Outside, radiance spilled from Tulevuus’s bay at an oblique angle: he was using his weapons’ recoil to rotate back towards the factory. But the ship’s regular engines lit and spun, reorienting him towards empty space as his Washe crew wrestled for directional control.

Nobody can understand by flashing alone, Profit slurred, words muddy beneath the scrolling repetition. Its inner eyebundles thrashed. No shared ideas. No true agreement.  

Other species do fine without invading brains, Kova flashed. Whatever you gave me, it wasn’t understanding.

No. Profit’s feelers dangled in its suit. Your algorithms are closed, even within Washe pathways. You spread your redundancy. Our eyes are raw material for your blight.

Closed algorithms. They sailed past a rift in the hull, the distant shimmer of her net pulsing across featureless black. The Standard Mind must have protections far beyond the Washe’s technological competence. Of course it must. Profit’s attempts could never have worked, her problems explicable by shoddy construction. Her mind was still her own. Kova’s remaining top-half felt limber, released from the grasp of an uncertain self.

I risked my life to help you, she flashed. And you attacked my mind.

The eaters had no way to understand. We thought you might.

It doesn’t matter anymore. Kova frowned. But it did matter: she’d gone through all this for a reason. The goal hadn’t changed, and now she’d called their bluffs. Will you naturalize and save the Washe from the blight? This is the opportunity space we’re in, Profit. No more ploys. How do you evaluate?

Ink from burst eyebundles feathered beneath Profit’s skin. Yes. If I make it. But I’ll be dead in minutes, for nothing, if you don’t share your eyes.

Kova caught the floor and rolled to a stop. Profit’s scroll of light dimmed to a trickle. It had actually agreed—she was on the cusp of success. She couldn’t return to the Jhor empty-handed, just a naturalized human out of her depth. And how would she even get home? Ask Tulevuus for a lift after sabotaging his sabotage? After failing in her own mission? No. She couldn’t give up. Not now.

She held Profit in front of her. How do I give you eyebundles? 

Profit’s feelers fluttered inside its watery bubble, scrabbling up and over her arms. Two hooks jabbed under her jawline. A flap of synthetic skin scooped out of her like a dewlap. A knot of muscles unfolded and the stub of her eyebundle reservoir slipped into the loose skin. Kova wheezed, silent in the vacuum. The front of her conscious mind had just pushed through her neck, sheathed in tender muscles she hadn’t felt a moment ago. Her fingers curled into the floor’s hook-holds.

Profit’s bubble suit pressed against her. Kova closed her eyes and watched with machine vision. Profit’s trembling feelers tugged open a seam in its suit. The water inside roiled and billowed into the vacuum as a white cloud of ice vapor. She hugged in to block the outflow, her synthetic skin brushing Profit’s mucus. The suit suctioned shut and seized her dewlap.

The front of her mind was sealed into a bubble suit, pushing against an alien’s skin.

She gritted her teeth. What now?

The Washe remained unlit and unmoving, active only at its spasming core.

Muscles along her reservoir twitched. Kova flexed and rolled them, tongue-like. Watching herself in the machine cross-section, she gripped an eyebundle and yanked. It detached with a bite of electricity. She pushed it to the end of her reservoir.

Profit’s cartilage sprang to life and grabbed. The eyebundle popped through her dewlap into the alien’s body, which paddled the offering to its center. The thrashing eyebundles adjacent to her healthy specimen calmed, but Profit remained unconscious. She detangled a second, and the Washe sucked it in as quickly.

A moment of confusion washed over Kova. Where was she? A ship with a rent hull. The machine view of a blight factory. She remembered: unaffiliated space. On a mission far beyond her pay grade, about to establish her career for real.

One corner of Profit’s mind still convulsed. Her resilience had held up, so she tongued out another eyebundle. As it detached, icy nails pierced her right side. Half her torso disappeared. She squeezed Profit’s suit with her remaining arm, hooks notching into her skin.

Kova took a long breath of void. Except for her mind, the synthetic body didn’t matter. It had no organs vital to survival. A temporary host. She’d be in a new implementation soon, and rich.

Profit stirred. Thank you, it flashed. I’m stable.

Outside, Kova’s energy net approached the factory. It struck, smelting the face off the manufacturing operation and collapsing its laser into molten blobs. Broken assembly arms and mechanical debris drifted into the black, their threat wiped away. Tulevuus stopped trying to turn his ship—he knew she’d won.

The protective cloud in front of her bay dissipated. She smiled wide. The Washe would get their defense. She would get her bonus, and the Jhor’s respect.

Still smiling, Kova took a cluster of Profit’s suit-hooks between her teeth, her dewlap sealed into its suit, and guided them down the corridor with her working arm.

Staccato waves pummeled the ship and vibrated their corridor. The neutral-particle lance she’d programmed earlier blasted incoming drones; an entire detachment had arced wide, around the net. The lance scored them off the map, one after another.

Profit’s feelers jagged inside the suit, clipping suit-hooks into her face. The alien’s eyebundles pulsed with each blast, ichor sluicing from cracks. As the shocks continued, the Washe broke into spasms, its old eyebundles convulsing around her healthy transfusions. Share, it flickered.

No. Kova’s gut wrenched. She couldn’t risk giving it more, could she? But she’d taken so many risks already. The mission was complete—everything had lined up perfectly. As long as Profit lived, she’d succeeded. She pushed one more eyebundle through.

Her hardware connection snapped like a rubber band. The machine vision disappeared, its extension to her mind severed raw. The topology of outside space crumbled away. She opened her eyes to a close-up of Profit’s suit and the mucus inside. Nothing more. Her remaining arm slipped from her awareness, as though she’d only ever been a head and a sliver of torso.

One more, Profit sparked, inches from her face.

No. Her weapons continued to fire. I can’t. She had lost something, but couldn’t remember what. Her sliver of torso evaporated.

All this for nothing. Ichor curled under Profit’s skin. The Washe won’t make it.

Her vision blurred as the corridor spun. She had come so close. So close. But she couldn’t destroy her mind with more brain surgery. Profit was going to die. She couldn’t sacrifice herself too. She had to hold on to what she had left, and let the rest go. Her bonus, her reputation, her family, her transcendence—the entire Washe species. She needed to let it all go.

As the blasts continued, the absence crept up Kova’s neck, seeped into her jaw. She wasn’t going to make it either. She held her writhing eyebundles still with her reservoir tongues. I need an eye back, Profit. I won’t let this be for nothing.

Profit’s cartilage dimmed. The failure was on the Washe, too. She’d tried. She’d risked everything for them, and they’d broken their contract, actual and implied. They’d invaded her mind. 

Kova bit down on the hook-holds, hard, and pressed her forehead against Profit’s suit. They’d invaded her mind, but she’d used their parts as raw material. Her mind had plasticity, resiliency, redundancy—idea blight. Perhaps she could save Profit, in a fashion, along with her mission. 

It’s not for nothing, she flashed.

No response. Kova wanted to reassure Profit. She wanted permission. But the Washe’s cartilage remained dark: this was her choice, her opportunity space. She flexed her reservoir muscles, bunching them behind the eyebundle cluster, tasting the leached ichor. She’d grown with naturalization, with each sunspan trip, with each new body: this would just be one more form of progress. It had to work. For the Washe. For her. She squeezed her eyes shut and shoved her entire eyebundle mass down and out of the dewlap.

Reality skittered and broke as the alien sucked in all the pieces of her mind.

Kova floated in light. She dragged her cilia through the water, tasting minerals and motion. They’d removed the healing plaster from vacuum-damaged stretches of her skin; she could see in all directions now. She sluiced water through her innards and wobbled towards a cluster of Washe, her mobility still a matter of trial and error.

She skimmed past Tulevuus. He floated, unconscious and infested with tubes, threaded into the wall of what had been his ship. After the catastrophic failure of Kova’s body, she had—as Profit—convinced him to deactivate for the return, out of caution.

Any residue of Profit surely remained lost to her. The Standard Mind pathways would be signed, ciphered, obscured—protected by the Fiscality from tampering across a thousand suns. Yet, Kova remembered a home world. She remembered lifting through warm upper currents, salted with tasty diatoms and protozoans. She remembered breaking the surface, paddling all eyes towards the bracelet, and marveling—just marveling—at the celestial band they’d ribboned across the sky.

Kova nudged into the group of Washe, her crew combined with Tulevuus’s. They huddled around a communication session with their sunspan depot.

We’ve arrived, she flashed.

The Washe on the display swiveled eyebundles to her. The Fiscality will activate our hardware license on your transit. Are you ready?

Kova sucked in clean water. She would lose her estate, including the bonus she’d sacrificed so much to achieve. Her family would inherit that windfall, along with confirmation of a death they’d long believed. She could still come clean to the Jhor and cancel Profit’s naturalization. She could still map back as Kova. But that old life felt remote and, anyway, her estate wouldn’t equal the monthly interest on what she’d control as ambassador.

And she forgave Profit. Of outsiders, it had known only blight, swarms that spread and devoured resources, constructing more of themselves, pushing onward and outward. Patterns that carved out contours that reinforced their patterns: engines of propagation. The Fiscality was different—but also, the same. Otherwise it wouldn’t be. A current wound through her feelers. She’d be happy to help the Washe survive, and to minimize the change to how they changed.

Kova understood the contours of knowledge now. She could maximize her progress with the Fiscality, or reshape her own opportunity space. She hadn’t decided which. What mattered was how she evaluated, and to return as a naturalized human just felt…too limiting.

I’m ready, she flashed.

This story originally appeared in Asimov's.