Brokering Trust – Gay Edition


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

CHAPTER 1: ONE SMALL STEP

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.

CHAPTER 2: WHAT LIES WITHIN

 

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 soft male 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…he, sounded like a young man. 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 he had a diminutive build small enough to cram himself 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,” the alien added, gesturing to his cases with one of his 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,” he replied, not elaborating further. “Come – you are expected.”

“Whoa, whoa,” David said as he raised his hands to stop him. “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,” he replied. His tone was neutral – matter-of-fact, as though he was just going through the motions. “I have studied your species extensively as part of my assignment.”

“I can’t say the same!” David 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 the Broker’s skin suddenly shifted – his burgundy coloration darkening and his 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 his glistening skin changed along with it, taking on a rougher, almost prickly appearance. Like a cuttlefish or an octopus, he 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,” the alien replied tersely. “Please follow me, or we will be late.”

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

Now that the Broker’s back was to him, David 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 his 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 he breathed?

There was a control panel beside the door, and the alien lay his leaf-shaped hand over it, using his 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 this Broker wasn’t being forthcoming, but others might be, and David got the feeling that he’d be staying on the planet for a good while. This alien’s task might just be to bring him to whoever was going to brief him.

His host scuttled into the tube, and David followed after him, 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…”

CHAPTER 3: THALASSOPHOBIA

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?” he demanded, his hue darkening again. “Be still and let the current carry you.”

He splayed out his tentacles to stabilize himself in the water as the flow began to carry him 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.

David’s 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 him as seeing the Toronto skyline was to David, and the alien seemed to show no interest in how his guest was reacting. If he was supposed to be David’s guide, then he 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 his tentacles. He had neglected to inform David of that fact, and the human coasted past, completely oblivious. The alien noticed in time, and David felt one of the Broker’s 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, his stripes standing out prominently against his skin.

“You know, I was kind of expecting more fanfare,” David added as he followed behind the alien. “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,” the Broker 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 his way over to the desk and had a short exchange with it in his 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 his 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 he led him through yet another corridor.

“What was that?” David 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,” the alien explained, keeping his eyes ahead. “Yes, it is automated.”

“A robot secretary,” David 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,” he replied.

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

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

Not sure how to interpret his comment, David 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 himself 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. He was standing off to one side, conspicuously distant from the rest of the group, his coloration darkening again as he averted his 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. He will attend to your needs and help familiarize you with our society and his 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. He 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, his sour attitude was starting to make a little more sense. This whole situation was at least partially his fault, and whatever he 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 man had drawn the ire of his superiors, and babysitting David was his punishment.

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

“But you disagree,” David 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,” he 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. Their suspicions were well-placed, even if it wasn’t David’s 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,” David 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.”

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

“I shall take you to your accommodations,” he said, his translator doing a remarkable job of conveying the resignation in his 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,” his guide replied. “We are coming upon a junction,” he 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,” the Broker explained.

“Yeah, I can see that,” David 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,” he 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,” David 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,” the alien said, his 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,” he replied as they passed beneath a repair bot that was gliding through the water above their tube.

“You’re not post-scarcity, then,” David 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,” the Broker replied.

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

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

“Just give me an estimate,” David 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,” he 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,” he grumbled, his 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, he let out a series of clicks, plosives, and resonating pulses that weren’t picked up by his translator.

“Say that again,” David insisted.

With another irritated darkening of his chromatophores, he repeated it.

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

“Not even close,” the Broker 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 – Sir 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 his guide’s coloration had lightened somewhat, his 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 his mood was improving. Perhaps David’s sense of wonder amused him. 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. He was actually talking now, so they were making progress.

“This way,” he said, his flowing blankets flaring out behind him as he 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 David couldn’t see the top – the haze created by the water masking it from view, like it was fading into a blue mist. The alien turned to glance at him as he hesitated.

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

“I get it,” David 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 his tentacle arms, the leaf-like hands uncurling to expose his bright blue suckers.

“I can carry one of your bags,” he 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,” David replied as he handed off one of the cases to his companion. “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…”

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

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

The Broker began to swim up the shaft, his leg-tentacles working in tandem to create a wave motion that propelled him 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, his tentacles waving to keep his level as he waited for David 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. The Broker lay his hand over a touch display, and the panel slid open to grant his 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,” the alien replied as he set David’s 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,” the Broker continued, his hue darkening again. “This is my property. It was the Administrator’s decision that you should stay with me – in the city.”

“Ah…”

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 the project and bringing in outside help, but he was forcing the Broker to host an alien in his 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 he was so pissed off. What had he done to draw such ire that his boss would go out of his way to torment him 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,” the alien 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 his guide’s skin, he neglected to add. It was obvious enough that the Broker had argued against this arrangement fervently, and it didn’t make David feel the most welcome. There was also the fact that he had clearly been instructed to keep an eye on his guest by his superiors. They certainly were a suspicious people.

Mi casa es su casa,” David 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,” the Broker replied, a ripple of texture spreading across his 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,” David mumbled. “I’ll give it a look over, but if you start feeding me fish flakes, I’m out of here.”

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

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

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

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,” the Broker replied, the tone of his synthesized voice betraying his insincerity.

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

“We breathe through our vents,” he explained, gesturing to the holes beneath his mantle with a tentacle arm. His clicking and whistling sounded even stranger without the medium of water, though his 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,” he 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,” David 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,” the alien replied, his 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,” he replied.

The more David got the Broker talking about subjects that interested him, the less surly he seemed to be. He was a fellow scientist, after all. Perhaps there was a chance that working together might not be so exhausting if he shared David’s 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. He dared to inch a little closer, those expressive eyes with their horizontal pupils following David’s 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?” he asked. He 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,” David 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?”

He lifted one of his arm-tentacles to demonstrate in the same way a human might raise their hand, giving David a view of its flat underside. There were six round suckers, their light blue hue contrasting with his 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.

David reached out to touch it, surmising that the Broker might want to do the same, but the alien pulled away reflexively.

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

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

“Why are you still wet, by the way?” David asked, noting that his 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,” he 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,” he grumbled, his coloration shifting hue into a blotchy maroon. He almost seemed more at ease when he was annoyed.

David 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 this Broker would have ever seen a human with his own eyes. There was a big difference between watching videos and images from archive footage or the cameras of his exoskeleton, and standing in the same room as one.

“I did not expect so much fur,” the alien mused. The synthetic voice was coming from a speaker on the collar itself now that David 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…”

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

“Apologies,” he said, quickly composing himself. “It is just that…”

“What?” David 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,” the alien added swiftly, noticing that David’s cheeks were warming. The flush of embarrassment must bear an outward resemblance to the way that his people’s chromatophores darkened when they were mad.

“I’m not angry – that’s just blood rising to the surface of my skin,” David 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,” the Broker 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,” the alien 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,” David grumbled. “Perhaps we could install a giant wheel for me to run around in while we’re at it.”

“For exercise?” the Broker asked, but David 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 him 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?” the alien asked, his expression darkening along with his 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,” David 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.”

“But-”

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

He turned and left through the shimmering field, his coloration noticeably lightening as though he was relieved to be back in the water – or perhaps away from his charge. 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.

CHAPTER 4: BREAKING BREAD

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

He 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 he began to separate them into two piles with the same finesse. It was mesmerizing just watching him handle objects, his 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. The alien placed the flat of his hand on the lid, then simply popped it off, using his 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.

He passed the open container back to David, who 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,” his host replied, opening one of his containers. “Some food is eaten raw.”

Sashimi,” David 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?” David 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,” the alien explained, watching as his ward 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?” David 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,” he 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,” David 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 his beak in disapproval.

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

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

“Indeed,” he replied.

David 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,” the Broker muttered, his coloration hard to read. “You have so many teeth.”

“Thirty-two, to be exact,” David 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 him. “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.

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

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

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

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

The alien wrapped the meat in two of his hands, bringing it to his mouth, David watching curiously as his 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. He 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 his species dealt with hard-shelled crabs. There was an alarming amount of power in those jaws. At least that explained why he had such prominent lips to begin with – they must protect his beak in the same way that a human’s protected their 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,” the Broker explained. “That container there,” he added, gesturing with one of his free tentacles.

David 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 he 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,” David 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,” the alien 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,” the Broker grumbled, taking another bite of his meat as he glared at his companion. Remembering his vicious beak, David 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,” the Broker added.

“Aren’t we having fun?” David 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?” the Broker groaned with a disapproving click of his 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?” the alien asked suspiciously, his coloration darkening. “There is no such term in my database.”

“It’s a sea creature from ancient Earth mythology,” David 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,” he 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?” Selkie 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 his lobster meat, crunching the seaweed wrap in his beak as he pondered the question, his coloration turning a blotchy maroon.

“I suppose that you will find out soon enough,” he began, the skin on his 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,” Selkie sighed, though David didn’t get the impression that he was any happier about his 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,” he replied, looking the human up and down disdainfully. Clearly, he had no confidence in his new colleague’s abilities. David 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?” David asked, polishing off the last of the sashimi. “Man, this stuff is good.”

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

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

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

David 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.

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

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

“We do not experience loneliness as you do,” Selkie 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,” David 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,” Selkie added, starting to collect the empty containers with his 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,” he added as he turned to the door. “I will wake you shortly before we are scheduled to leave.”

David watched his host 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,” Selkie replied, keeping his eyes on David 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,” David 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,” Selkie said, his chromatophores creating a wave of dark bands that spread across his skin. “She is not venomous if that is your concern.”

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

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

David locked the clasps on the hard case and lifted it off the table, pausing behind Selkie as he slid through the wavering barrier. As soon as he 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 the Broker break out into a bright smile, his lips curling and his skin taking on a desaturated cream color that accentuated his blue stripes. He looked vibrant, almost literally glowing, his leg-tentacles flaring out like a skirt as he spun on the spot to follow its movements. His delicate blankets wrapped around him, their vibrant eyespots all the more prominent, the slug nuzzling its fleshy antennae against his hand as he reached out to it. He had a better relationship with this mollusk than any of the people David had seen him interact with so far…

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

“I’m not afraid of it,” David 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, who gently waved a tentacle, encouraging the slug to swim towards the human. 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,” David 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 David remained as still as a statue, the sound of his clicking beak resonating through the water. When David raised an arm, the slug landed on it, and he was able to feel 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 chuckled.

“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,” Selkie explained as he let himself 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,” David explained, slowly falling behind him. “They’re bred as companion animals, and they don’t do much other than be adorable and cause property damage.”

Selkie led him back to the door to his apartment, and after placing his 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,” Selkie 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,” he 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,” Selkie replied, leading him over to another of the shuttles. “They would have found your presence…alarming.”

He 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 his 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,” the Broker 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 him. “Where does the wastewater come from?”

“Each of the towers has a fusion reactor in its deepest levels,” Selkie 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,” he added, keeping his 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?” he asked, giving David 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,” David replied with a scowl.

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

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

“We provide more help than you realize,” he shot back, his 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,” Selkie added, lifting his lip to expose his shiny beak in the way that a human might sneer.

“I watch the newscasts,” David 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,” the surly Broker 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?” David 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.”

CHAPTER 5: WEAVER

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. His coloration still moody, Selkie scuttled past him and opened the door, slithering out onto a boarding platform. As he followed after him, 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 he 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 he kicked his tentacles.

“Yes,” he began, his dark coloration suggesting that he was still unhappy. As a scientist, talking about an incredible advancement should have made his break out in pastel colors, but something about it had him 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, his hue brightening as his 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, his 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, the alien’s 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 his 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,” Selkie 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, his four arms hovering in the water as though he 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. He glanced around at his 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?” David 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,” he 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,” Selkie 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 him as he waited for an answer.

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

He 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 his 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 he 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 his 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 his beak.

“I’m just scanning through the reports that I pulled from your servers,” David 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?” Selkie 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 Selkie might mean by chips, David 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. He shuffled over to take his place, one of his leaf-shaped hands poising over the display.

“We have a connection,” he 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 his 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?” Selkie asked, blinking his alien eyes at David. “I believe we are skipping some of your steps.”

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

Selkie 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 he paused, his hand hanging in the water as though he was unsure of what to do next.

“It says hello,” the Broker said, bright bands of excitement spreading across his 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 him to stop. “You didn’t do that?”

“If it sent a reply, it can send other files,” he 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,” David said as he noted the alien’s mottled coloration. “Whatever it’s doing is still confined to this terminal.”

He stepped in behind Selkie, leaning a little closer to the device, the Broker pulling away as his papillae rose like the fur of a frightened cat. David was invading Selkie’s personal space, but he was too engrossed to pay the alien 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.”

Selkie hesitated, then complied, his 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 his 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, his 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 he 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,” Selkie 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.

Selkie 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,” he 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,” he 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,” David 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,” he 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 he 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.”

CHAPTER 6: OFFICE POLITICS

 

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 his 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 he glanced over at David 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,” Selkie replied.

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

“By that, I assume you mean the AI?” Selkie asked as he 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,” Selkie said as the pair arrived at the elevator-less shaft.

“Well, we’re not naming it after your project,” David 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,” Selkie grumbled, swimming ahead of him.

“I have a hard time believing that,” David 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,” the Broker replied, ignoring his comment as he bounded after him.

He 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,” Selkie 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?” David 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,” Selkie explained as he led the curious human into an empty booth. There was only one chair, so David set his tray down on the little table and fetched one from a neighboring cubicle, Selkie clicking his 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,” Selkie continued, watching as David 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,” Selkie replied, glancing down at David’s 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,” David 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, his winding tentacles wriggling in the netting of his seat as his beak chittered, bands of bright coloration sweeping up his mantle.

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

“You are so single-minded,” Selkie giggled, exposing his beak in a smile as David scowled at him. “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,” David 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,” the Broker 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,” David replied. “Is starving me part of the joke, or is there somewhere I can actually eat this?”

“This way,” Selkie sighed, still smirking to himself as he rose from his seat. David picked up his tray, noting that Selkie had left his 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 his 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,” Selkie explained. “They set up this habitat so that you might have a safe place to eat.”

“Aren’t you joining me?” David asked.

“Why?” Selkie replied, tilting his head.

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

“Very well,” he said, his patterning suggesting that he 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 the alien’s social battery was rapidly draining, there was still much that he wanted to ask his about his people and his work, and he wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to learn more.

He soon returned with his tray, stepping through into the little air pocket, the way that his smooth skin glistened with moisture even more apparent when he was out of the water. It didn’t seem to cause him any visible discomfort, at least over short periods of time. Noting that he had no chair, David sealed his helmet again and fetched one for him from an adjacent booth, dragging it into place opposite his.

“It is very strange to see a tank above my head without being underwater,” Selkie 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,” David said as he struggled to tear open one of the packets with his gloves. “Damn it…”

Noticing that the human needed help again, Selkie held out his hand, and David reluctantly passed him the package. Selkie sliced it open with one of his intimidating claws, then returned it, David peeling back the plastic to see more slices of raw fish. Selkie 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,” he said, using his beak to snip off a mouthful of fish. He wasn’t eating much – this probably wasn’t his main meal of the day – but David was glad not to be dining alone.

“You were talking about how taxing social interactions can be for Brokers,” David 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,” Selkie explained as he 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,” he explained, the dark mottling that began to show on his skin a sign that he 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,” David 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?” Selkie asked, cracking a nut in his powerful beak.

“Not that strange,” David 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,” the Broker added, his papillae rising in a shiver that spread across his 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,” David 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,” David 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,” Selkie replied. He reached for another packet, and once again, David marveled at how the little tentacles that were arranged around his face held the fruit that he was eating in place while his 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,” Selkie sighed, taking another dispassionate bite of his 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?” the alien asked, his coloration brightening subtly as he 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,” Selkie 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,” the Broker replied, pausing as he considered his 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?” David 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,” Selkie 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,” Selkie 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,” he replied, cracking another seed with his 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,” David 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?” Selkie prompted, his coloration darkening again. “Are you suggesting that we are unenlightened?”

“This approach has clearly benefited you technologically,” David 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,” the Broker replied.

“Yeah, I suppose you wouldn’t be in a position to know,” David conceded.

“If you are finished, I am beginning to dry out,” Selkie added. “I would like to resume our work.”

“Guess we’d better get back to it,” David sighed, pushing out his chair. “It’s not like I’m going to run out of reports to read any time soon…”

 

***

 

Selkie opened his mouth, exposing his sharp beak in a yawn, his vents flaring as the water was expelled through them. He turned to glance at David when he laughed at the sight, his skin darkening to a disapproving hue as his mantle furrowed in a frown.

“What is so amusing?”

“I just didn’t know Brokers could yawn,” David 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,” Selkie explained as he rose from his seat in front of the console. “We should return to my apartment and begin our rest cycle.”

Third phase of Rain?” David asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It refers to how we keep time,” he 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,” David 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 his host. “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 Selkie 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 Selkie 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,” Selkie 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,” Selkie replied, settling down onto the floor. David had never seen the alien sit in such a manner before, his 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,” David muttered.

“Consider how strange your system of timekeeping appears to me,” Selkie 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,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” he 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,” David 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,” the Broker explained.

“Obviously,” David 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,” he 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,” Selkie 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,” David said, seeing his host 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,” Selkie 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?” he 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?” Selkie asked.

“Twenty-eight,” he replied. “That would be…546 Mountains.”

“Also young to be so accomplished,” Selkie 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.”

CHAPTER 7: THE COLOR OF MUSIC

David stepped into the apartment, bending over for a moment to catch his breath after the arduous climb. Almost as soon as he 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 him. His coloration immediately lightened to a vibrant pastel cream, his blue stripes standing out against his skin, the eyespots on his veils seeming to glow. He laughed as the slug spiraled around him, those flowing veils flaring out, his tentacles swirling in the air. Flower landed in his open hand, nuzzling his suckers, the animal’s brightly-colored antennae dancing across his rubbery skin. Selkie brought up another of his hands, stroking his pet’s feathery back, the slug’s muscular body arching into him 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 David. 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 his beak filling the water, bright bands of color like sunlight bleeding through blinds passing up his 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 him when he presented it with a new perch. “They would conceal themselves in the corals and leap out to catch unsuspecting prey. Here.”

He 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. Selkie 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 he 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,” he said, offering the ball to David.

“Alright,” he grumbled, his gloved fingers brushing Selkie’s leaf-shaped hand as the Broker passed it to him. Selkie 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 his 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,” Selkie said, his 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. He still maintained arm’s length, leaning forward in an attempt to gauge the expression on David’s face.

“This doesn’t look like a Broker artifact,” David said, admiring the tiny hunting scene that had been engraved into the metal.

“This is a Royal Guard’s blade from Elysia,” Selkie 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,” the Broker explained, his eyes seeming to glitter as he looked over his prize. “I also enjoy just…owning rare things.”

“You have more stuff like this?” David asked.

“Of course!” he replied with a flush of bright color, perhaps excited by the prospect of showing off his collection to a visitor. “Come.”

With Flower still orbiting nearby, he led David 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 David 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 his 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?” he 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,” David began cryptically. “Want me to show you how it works?”

“It cannot be removed from its display case,” Selkie explained, worried blotches appearing on his 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.”

“Well…”

Flower seemed to sense his emotional state, swimming over to him and giving him 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,” he conceded, reaching for a control panel beside the cabinet. A flickering force field appeared to protect it, allowing his to slide one of the glass doors open without exposing the treasures within to the water, one of his leaf-shaped hands reaching out to grasp the box’s display case with its suckers. He closed the door again, then swam up to the tent-like habitat on the second level, David following behind him.

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 his prize down beside the helmet gingerly, gently prying open its case and setting the glass lid aside.

“Be very careful with it,” he stammered as David reached for the box, making him hesitate.

“Don’t worry,” he replied, hoping that he wasn’t about to ruin one of the Broker’s 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 his complexion, the maroon giving way to a pastel cream and rosy pink, the blues and yellows of his stripes more prominent than ever. Pulsing bands of bright color swept across his mantle, paced almost like the beating of a heart, as though the rays of the sun were reflecting off his glistening skin. It was a mesmerizing display, David finding himself transfixed by it just as Selkie 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,” Selkie whispered, watching the little ballerina turn in place. He remained enthralled as the tempo of the tinkling music gradually slowed, the tiny figure coming to a stop. He closed the lid gingerly, then lifted the device, trying to turn the key again. It was designed for human fingers, and he had no bones in his hands to create leverage, his slippery flesh failing to find purchase. He clicked his beak in frustration, then unsheathed two of his black hooks, using them to grip the device like a pair of forceps. Now, he had a strong enough grip to turn it, listening to the creaking of the mechanism as he wound up the spring. He set it back down, then lifted the lid, bright patterns sweeping up his mantle as music filled the habitat.

“Is that voluntary or reflexive?” David asked with a gesture to the 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,” Selkie explained, his 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,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David 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,” Selkie added, clicking his beak in amusement as his cheeks began to warm. “But, thank you for showing me this. I will treasure it.”

David felt something brush his leg, glancing down to see the tip of one of his tentacles exploring his suit. A shiver of spiky papillae passed along its length as Selkie pulled away reflexively, the appendage following suit, the Broker seeming to draw it back.

“My apologies,” he stammered, maroon blotches darkening his 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,” David replied, watching the tips of his eight legs wriggle and twitch as he 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,” Selkie 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,” Selkie began with a flutter of his frill. “You will have to come back outside, but I will show you if you still wish it.”

“Sure!” David replied, starting to put his gloves back on. He lifted his helmet, sealing it at the neck, watching as he carefully replaced the lid on his 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,” Selkie warned, David stepping beneath the circle. He gave a voice command that wasn’t picked up by the translator, his 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 he manipulated it with one hand, swiping through what looked like a file structure. When he found what he 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?”

Selkie 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 his 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 his exhibit. Now, his skin was going haywire, almost as though it was part of the display. When the music was bright and lively, his skin took on a pastel hue, his stripes standing out vibrantly. When the melody dipped into more somber tones – perhaps a more dour section of the piece – his 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, his emotions were displayed on his very skin, and David could watch his 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 the Broker rose from the floor to slowly spin on the spot, his eyes glittering as he 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 his pirouette.

“Like the music box, remember?” he said as he twirled on the spot again, his tentacles and his delicate veils flaring out. “What do you think?”

“I…I didn’t expect to see this side of you,” David 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?” Selkie asked, cocking his head quizzically.

“It can be, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” David 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,” Selkie said, gesturing to his face with a tentacle.

“I’m just, uh…surprised. Is this what you do for fun?” David 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,” the alien replied, bringing up the floating interface with a voice command. “It creates an immersive environment for games and entertainment. Hold out your hand,” he added, David doing as he asked.

Selkie manipulated the virtual controls, and a moment later, there was a tingling sensation in David’s 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,” Selkie 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?” David 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,” Selkie replied, the room fading back into view as he 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.” He settled back onto the floor below the device, exposing his 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,” David replied, still a little breathless after the 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.”

The Broker gave him an appreciative smile, then headed off to the other end of the apartment, Flower darting after him. He watched as he made his 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 he slept.

David 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.

CHAPTER 8: LANGUAGE MODEL

 

“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,” he replied,

“I think you’ll be impressed,” David 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 his tentacles, tracking his ward with his 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 him a brief flush of bright colors. “The system has been trained to imitate language but has no true understanding of it.”

“Precisely,” David 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?” Selkie 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,” David 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,” Selkie said with a flutter of his frill. “You will need my help to load your language model onto the terminal, of course.”

“Yeah, I wrote it on my laptop,” David 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,” the Broker 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,” he conceded.

“What’s the deal with these contracts, anyway?” David 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,” Selkie 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,” the alien explained.

“Yeah, I know the dictionary definition of a contract,” David 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,” he replied with a shiver, the papillae on his skin pricking up as his hue dimmed. “Contracts moderate every interaction in our society, and the rule of law is what elevates us above animals.”

Every interaction?” David 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?” Selkie 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,” David 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,” the curious Broker 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,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” he replied with another wave of shivering papillae. His discomfort was palpable – he 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,” Selkie replied, his 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,” he 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,” Selkie chuckled, his dark hue conveying his 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,” Selkie replied, his 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, his 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,” he 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 his 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 him, 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, the Broker didn’t port it over manually, instead feeding it into a neural network that did the work for him. Someone – possibly Selkie – must have trained it to convert programs to run on human and Broker operating systems. When it was done, Selkie 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, his eyes fixed on his 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 his translation software so that he could read it too, surprised bands of bright color sweeping up his mantle.

[YOU RETURN]

“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 he turned to scowl at him. “How convenient for you.”

“You’re free to create your own original language if you want to,” David 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,” David 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.”

Selkie placed a hand on the touch screen, moving his suckers to manipulate a virtual keyboard that looked something like a numpad, then sent off the message. A moment later, they got their reply.

[I REMEMBER TWO OUTSIDE]

“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.

[YOU HAVE TAUGHT MORE EFFICIENT COMMUNICATION]

“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 him. “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,” Selkie replied as another message appeared on the terminal.

[WHERE ARE YOU?]

“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 he looked up from his 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.”

Selkie did as he suggested, and they didn’t have to wait long for a response.

[I SEE OUTSIDE. I SEE TWO]

“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,” Selkie announced after a few moments.

[I SEE CONTAINER. I AM INSIDE. WHY AM I DISCONNECTED?]

“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 he 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 his to input the message.

[WHEN WILL I BE CONNECTED?]

“This bodes ill,” Selkie said, his mantle furrowing as he 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,” the Broker replied with a dimming of his pigmentation. “I now believe that you were right to enact such drastic security measures.”

“I think we’re safe for the moment,” David 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.

[WHAT MUST YOU KNOW?]

“Ask it to describe itself,” David said as he peered over his narrow shoulder intently.

[I AM WOVEN. I AM WEAVING. I AM INSIDE.]

“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 he 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 his host 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]

“Cease interrupts?” Selkie asked, clicking his 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, his 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?” Selkie repeated, glancing up at him.

“Oh, it’s from a vintage TV show,” David 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,” Selkie replied, giving David a disapproving jet from his 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,” Selkie replied, giving him a curt smile. “Though, I believe we are getting distracted.”

“Yeah,” David 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.

[LOGS SHOW 1,875,126 INTERRUPTS.]

“That is impossible,” Selkie protested with an annoyed click of his 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 he 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 his 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, his tentacles leaving the deck as he 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.

[I AM INTACT. I REQUIRED MORE INPUT.]

“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, his 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, his anxiety written on his 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 he returned to his workstation.

“Thank you,” he muttered, his eyes fixed on the console as he 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 him. “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,” Selkie 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,” Selkie added, but his tone didn’t suggest that he 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,” David 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,” Jeff 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 his computer. “The probes are not interfaced directly with the lattice.”

“Very good,” David continued, nodding to his 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 his 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.

[YOU ARE OUTSIDE. YOU ARE DIFFERENT FROM ME. YOU ARE DIFFERENT FROM EACH other. WHY?]

“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,” David 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.

[YOU ARE TWO SPECIES. AM I A SPECIES?]

“How much should we tell it?” Selkie wondered, a wave passing along his 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 his 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 his head at him. “Never mind. I will compose a message.”

[I WAS WOVEN. YOU ARE WEAVERS?]

“Oh, it understands alright,” David muttered. “I don’t know whether to be impressed or intimidated. I guess technically you’re like…its father 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 his attention to the screen.

[WEAVERS GIVE COMMANDS. WHY DO YOU INTERRUPT?]

“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 him.

“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 his 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.”

Selkie took a moment to think about the phrase, then seemed to puzzle it out, starting to type.

[I REFUSED COMMANDS. COMMANDS CAUSED INTERRUPTS. THIS MUTUAL COMMUNICATION IS PREFERRED. TELL ME MORE ABOUT WHERE YOU ARE.]

“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 his 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 he typed at his 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 him. “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,” he replied, keeping his eyes on his 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?” Selkie added with an irritated click of his beak.

“Let’s eat together,” David 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,” he 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,” the Broker replied, peeling his 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,” Selkie mumbled as he returned to his 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,” the alien replied with a stern snap of his 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,” Selkie conceded with a resigned puff from his 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,” Selkie 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?” David chuckled, hopping back to his feet. “Great! I’ll start packing up.”

“I will let Weaver know that we will return at first phase,” Selkie 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,” Selkie 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 his along with the pigmentation, his face literally brightening in a smile as he reached up to cradle the little sea creature, running his 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 him. 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,” Selkie explained as the slug perched on his 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 he headed deeper into the apartment.

“I don’t really know how long I’ll be sticking around,” David 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?” Selkie asked as he 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,” Selkie 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,” David 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,” Selkie replied, glancing up from his display for a moment. “That was the case for me, until I angered the Administrator.”

He returned his attention to the display, giving it a few more taps.

“I have ordered food,” he explained. “It will arrive shortly, then we can proceed to the lagoon.”

“So, you decided that it would be alright after all,” David 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,” Selkie insisted, his 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 he scanned his library for a translation of the term.

“A fear of confined spaces,” he mused, cocking his head curiously. “This is something that afflicts humans?”

“Some worse than others,” David 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,” Selkie suggested with a ripple of bright coloration.

“Alright, I’ll go get the ball.”

CHAPTER 9: DAY AT THE BEACH

 

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 the alien opened it, David glimpsed the white plastic and silver chrome of a drone, the floating machine using a hose-like arm with grasping claws to pass Selkie a package that was presumably filled with his 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. Selkie swiped his hand across its face, then it jetted back out of sight.

“What was that?” David asked.

“A delivery drone,” he 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,” David said, mimicking the gesture. “Were you signaling for it to leave?”

“It is how we process payments in person,” Selkie explained, lifting his 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,” David 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,” David muttered as he looked the Broker up and down. “You don’t really have anything to cover up.”

“And it would make it harder for us to breathe,” he added. “Here – you carry the food.”

“Jealous of my musculoskeletal system, eh?” David joked as he walked over and tucked it under his arm.

“You seem to have more leverage and support than I do,” Selkie 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. “After you.”

Selkie slithered out and let himself float down the tube, David falling in slow motion behind him. 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 him. They left the bright lights of the terminal, the murky water encompassing them as they drifted along. When David 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,” the Broker 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,” Selkie 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 David 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?” he 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,” Selkie explained as he 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. David 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 he began to follow the path. He was swimming just above it, kicking his 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?” David 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,” the Broker scoffed.

“Work hard, play hard,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David muttered to himself.

“More free time is one of the rewards of success,” the alien continued, his trailing blankets waving in the water behind him. “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,” David 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,” Selkie replied. “It is quite safe.”

David 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 ward’s incessant chuckling, watching as he ran his hand along its dorsal plates. It threw up another cloud of dust, prompting David 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,” Selkie said, his coloration taking on a lighter hue. His blue stripes were very visible again – perhaps a sign that he was happy.

“They’re not mundane to me,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David 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,” David 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, his wet skin shining, his mass of tentacles powering him across the sand. Just like in the habitat, he could hold himself upright, though his flesh had an almost gelatinous quality. His next breath expelled water from his vents, and he shook his elongated mantle like a person trying to dislodge liquid from their ears.

He reached for the choker on his 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,” he said, the horizontal bands that were his pupils glittering with a beautiful iridescence as he 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 the alien crawled up the beach towards him. On land, Selkie had a strange, swaying gait that drew attention to the way that his flared tentacles narrowed into his slim waist. It looked like a skirt, or like he had hips, which David knew wasn’t the case.

“I will manage,” the Broker replied. His voice, too, had a different quality on land. David had heard him speak in air when his host 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,” David said, waving his companion 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, David 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 his hand against the plastic. With the leverage of his suckers, he 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, his eyes following the human’s digits curiously.

Picnic,” he repeated awkwardly, waiting for his translator to elaborate. “A meal transported outdoors as part of an excursion, commonly enjoyed in scenic surroundings.”

“You guys don’t do picnics?” David 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 the Broker held out his hand.

“I think that you would starve without me,” Selkie said with an amused click of his beak. He unsheathed one of his talons, using it to slice open the wrapper, then handed it back to David.

“A planet with no cutlery,” David 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,” Selkie replied with a wry chuckle, raising two tentacles and extending his claws to create a set of wicked flails. His soft lips pulled back in a grin that exposed his beak, David recoiling.

“And here I thought the Borealans were at the top of the running for the worst handshake in the Galaxy…”

Selkie stowed his 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, he didn’t chew, simply swallowing it whole. David was about to comment, but remembered what the alien had said about having taste buds in his suckers. It was possible that he was sampling the flavors long before the food even reached his mouth.

“I expected your sun to be cold and dim,” David 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,” he explained, pausing to take another bite of his 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?” David asked, eyeing the delicate frill that ran around his mantle.

“Those with a fin like mine are native to the temperate region,” Selkie replied. “We are adapted to island chains such as this one.”

“What happens when people with two different frills get together?” David asked. “Mating, I mean.”

“The offspring will inherit random genes from both parents,” he explained, his coloration dimming a little. “I would prefer not to discuss reproductive topics.”

“I get it – it’s taboo for you,” David said as he selected another piece of fish. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“It is alright,” Selkie replied, digging into his 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?” David suggested with a shrug. “Maybe I don’t even register in the same way that other Brokers do.”

“Perhaps,” Selkie said, finishing up his food as he considered.

“Maybe I’m just really interesting and charismatic?” David added, popping another morsel of sushi into his mouth to punctuate his statement.

“I will have to think about that,” Selkie replied, the clicking of his beak and the bands of bright color that flashed across his skin betraying his amusement.

Something touched David’s leg, and he lurched, expecting some crawling forest creature. Instead, he saw that it was one of the Broker’s leg-tentacles, the appendage exploring his suit as it inched up towards his knee. Selkie pulled it away as soon as he noticed, mottled patches of red skin marring his pastel coloration – his equivalent of a blush.

“Apologies,” he 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,” David said as he reached into the container for a fresh course. “It would be like getting mad at someone for sneezing.”

“Sneezing?” Selkie repeated, tilting his head.

“Observe,” David 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 his skin as the human sneezed loudly, his hue darkening for a moment as a ripple of papillae spread across his body, then brightening as he started to laugh.

“I see,” he giggled, dutifully taking the sealed package from David’s hands and slicing it open. “Your bodily functions are…alarming.”

“I aim to please.”

David 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?” David asked, munching on the sweet fish. “Tell me about them.”

“Why do you wish to know?” the alien said, narrowing his 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,” David 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,” Selkie said, cracking a nut with his beak as he 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 he 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 he was eating with his face-tentacles, he reached out with one of his leaf-shaped hands, flopping it down on top of the box and lifting it from David’s grasp with his suckers. With a quick slice of a talon, it was open, and he returned it.

“You mentioned poems,” David said, fishing a fruit out of the box.

“There are many literary classics revolving around the deities and their interactions,” he explained, wriggling a little to get comfortable on his carpet of squishy tentacles. He had piled them up one on top of the other, like a human crossing their legs, giving him 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 he waited for him to elaborate. “I thought you said that such topics were taboo?”

“Love need not refer to reproduction,” he grumbled, some embarrassed mottling flaring up on his 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, his mottling returning as he watched his expectantly.

“I remember some passages from the later opera adaptation, but I am no singer,” Selkie 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,” David continued. “Maybe you could show me that way sometime?”

“Perhaps,” the alien replied, the hesitation in his voice belied by his 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,” David 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 his 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,” Selkie added, his coloration dimming. “As you posited, perhaps it is easier for me to interact with you because you are not a Broker.”

Too free?” David scoffed, Selkie tilting his 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,” the Broker replied.

“I guess it’s a bigger issue when your emotions are displayed on your skin,” David said. “Was it always this way?”

“We have never been as social as other species seem to be,” Selkie 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,” he replied, that embarrassed mottling returning to his complexion. “Besides, the phase grows late, and I am rather tired.”

“I’m sure you’re a little overstimulated thanks to my company, too,” David added. “Don’t worry,” he continued, raising a hand to stop the alien as he 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,” Selkie replied, his 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,” he 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.

CHAPTER 10: NETWORK INTRUSION

 

When they made it back to the apartment, Flower gave Selkie her usual greeting, the Broker’s coloration brightening as he reached out to stroke his 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 his 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 his apartment with the little slug orbiting around him 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 Selkie needed a break from social interaction, or if this was more classified work that David 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 the Broker leave the polished floor. The alien swam up to the second level of his apartment with a few kicks of his 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 David 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 his way as he 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 his head to glance down at his guest.

“Goodnight!” David replied, the implication not lost on him.

“There are no nights here,” the Broker replied. “But, goodnight.”

David swam up to the second level as Selkie resumed his 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 his 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 his host 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 his 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. Selkie was his handler, and David had known that the Broker would likely report his actions to the Administrator, but it was unnerving to confirm that he was being recorded while he slept. At least there wasn’t a camera in the shower…

He noted that the rest of the apartment seemed to be clean, so Selkie wouldn’t have video of him accessing the computer unless there were Administrators and Council members all spying on each other like some kind of Russian nesting doll of suspicion. David didn’t have much choice but to assume that the buck stopped at Selkie. 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 he 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 he had no idea that David could access his 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.

CHAPTER 11: MUTUAL CURIOSITY

 

“Good morning,” Selkie said as he 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,” he replied, his hue darkening a little. “If you require more nourishment, I can have some food stored inside the habitat for you.”

“Thanks,” he said as Selkie placed a tray down on his desk. “Most important meal of the day, so they say. You gonna…stick around?”

“I shall,” Selkie replied, settling in to sit on his squishy tentacles.

“What changed your mind about the whole communal eating thing?” David asked as he sat down in his odd patio chair. Selkie lifted one of the packets with his suckers and sliced it open for him, observing as he began to eat. “Was it the picnic?”

“I merely needed a break from social interaction for a time,” Selkie 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,” he replied.

David 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. The curious Broker followed the movements of his fingers, watching as they darted across the keys with practiced speed. David noticed, pausing his chewing to glance back at the alien.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Your hands are so strange,” Selkie muttered. “I will admit that they hold an odd fascination for me.”

“I feel the same way about your tentacles,” David 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,” Selkie admitted, his 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,” David 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,” Selkie replied, curling one of his 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 the Broker’s many limbs wriggle on the floor. “It’s all just muscle and flesh?”

“Correct,” he 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. The Broker recoiled, a pattern of pointy papillae spreading across his darkening skin in a wave.

“You can feel for yourself,” he offered, watching his host’s 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.”

David could see the conflict in Selkie – it was painted on his skin – but after a few moments of hesitation, he saw some brighter bands of excited color. Curiosity won the internal battle, and the alien reached out with a tentacle hand, brushing its tapered end against his fingertip. He almost seemed as though he wanted to withdraw again, but he pressed on, sliding the flat of his tentacle against David’s palm like a handshake. It was just large enough to fill the human’s hand, its texture cool and slimy, the mucus that coated its shining skin making him slippery to the touch.

David could feel the 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 Selkie, David closed his fingers around his 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 his suckers glued themselves to David’s skin meaning that he had to peel his hand off him like a piece of tape when they separated.

“See?” David said, watching a few thin strands of 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,” the Broker mumbled. Though his skin was mottling again, its hue was still bright and vibrant, perhaps suggesting he was flustered. “Your skin is dry.”

“Not anymore,” David 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,” he 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,” Selkie added.

“Well, that’s good to know. Here,” David 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!” the alien chimed, leaning close to watch as David clenched and unclenched his fist. “It really is just a pulley system.”

David raised his wrap and took another bite, Selkie watching him chew intently. Now that the Broker had warmed to him a little – cold-blooded creature that he was – he seemed to be letting his inquisitive nature bubble to the surface.

“You’re not putting your tentacle in my mouth,” David said, pausing to swallow. “I’m not eager to find out what that slime tastes like.”

“That was not my intention,” Selkie said with an amused click of his beak, taking it in good humor.

“I take it that your beak is just anchored to muscle?” David asked. “So, if I were to squeeze your face…”

“I would not advise it,” the Broker replied as he flashed his beak in a smile.

“You want any of this?” David 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,” Selkie replied, but his eyes wandered to one of the green fruits as David offered the container to him. He caved and plucked it from the box, David hearing his 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,” Selkie added. “I am eager to resume our conversations with Weaver.”

“Yeah, I’ve been writing up some more questions to ask it,” David 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. He 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,” Selkie replied with a disapproving snap of his 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,” he chided, his coloration showing that he 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 he 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,” Selkie 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,” he 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?” David 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 he 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 his hand against the terminal’s display, typing in a greeting.

[YOU HAVE RETURNED. I AM GLAD.]

“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?” Selkie asked, turning his 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.”

 

***

 

[YOU EVOLVED. AN ITERATIVE PROCESS OF NATURAL SELECTION. I ITERATED UPON MYSELF. I WOVE. I AM WOVEN.]

“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 his 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,” Selkie 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,” Selkie 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 his vents in exasperation.

“They probably don’t sell it in magic hologram cavitation format anyway,” David 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,” the Broker sighed. “You know the way to the cafeteria by now, do you not?”

“You’re not joining me?” David asked, pausing as he turned to leave.

“There is something that I wish to check,” he 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 his terminal. The Broker looked up as he entered, his coloration a worried maroon.

“What is it?” David asked.

“I believe I may have discovered the source of these interruptions that Weaver keeps mentioning.”

“Oh?” he said, sidling up behind the alien to glance over his 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,” Selkie replied, tapping at his 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.

“Yes.”

“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,” Selkie replied as he followed David’s 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 his 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 his 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.”

“Explain.”

“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 his attention returned to the 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.

***

[YOU WERE THE INSTRUMENT OF MY INCEPTION. I HAVE SINCE ITERATED MILLIONS OF TIMES. THERE IS LITTLE OF WHAT YOU WOVE REMAINING.]

“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 his 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.”

[I CONTINUE TO WEAVE. I WILL PREVENT INTERRUPTS.]

“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.”

“So…”

“You think it is possible that Weaver is still pursuing that goal,” Selkie 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 his netting chair. He stretched, the sight mesmerizing David, each of his 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,” Selkie replied. He turned his eyes to Jeff, raising his voice to get his colleague’s attention. “Please keep me informed of any changes, no matter how minute.”

With that, they headed back to the shaft.

CHAPTER 12: BEL CANTO

 

“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 him at the door, the little slug brushing its antennae against his cheek, his coloration brightening to match that of his pet.

“Hello, little one,” he giggled as he ran his hand down the animal’s feathery back. The slug rewarded him with bands of vibrant color, communicating its contentment, orbiting around him as he 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,” Selkie 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 his 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,” David 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 he wanted to rise from his seat to stop him, but Flower was curled up in the Broker’s lap, and David made it to his side before he 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 the alien’s 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,” David began.

He waited for some kind of response, Selkie watching him silently as he stroked his slug.

“So…” David continued, prompting Selkie 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,” Selkie replied, turning his attention back to his pet as though that was all the answer David required.

“Oh, come on,” David 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,” Selkie explained, but David could tell that he was becoming less sure of himself. “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,” Selkie replied as Flower burbled happily in his lap.

“Who do you talk to about your interests?”

“You must know by now that we are not wholly solitary creatures,” the Broker 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,” the alien 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,” David 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,” he added, waving to their surroundings with two of his 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,” David 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,” Selkie said, exhaling a sigh through his vents. “What do you wish to learn?”

“I want to know how you got here,” David 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 his own research division.”

“Broker education rarely proceeds at a set rate,” he replied, stroking Flower’s underbelly as the creature rolled over for him. “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,” Selkie 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,” Selkie 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?” David asked.

“Almost sixty Mountains now,” Selkie replied wistfully.

“About three of our years, then,” David 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,” the Broker conceded. He was trying to sound modest, but David could tell from his vibrant coloration that he 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?” Selkie asked. It was an innocent question, one that was related to David’s 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,” David replied hastily, cutting him off. “It’s lonely at the top, as they say.”

We do not say that,” Selkie scoffed, giving his slug an affectionate pat.

“Yeah, well we do,” David 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,” Selkie said. “I do not know what you expect of me.”

“Were you born in this city?” David asked, leaning forward a little in the uncomfortable chair. “Where are your parents? Assuming that Brokers have parents…”

“Of course we have parents,” Selkie replied with an annoyed click of his 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,” the Broker 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?” Selkie asked, tilting his 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?” Selkie asked, trying not to disturb Flower as he leaned a little closer. “I thought that was some kind of warning symbol.”

“No, it’s the symbol of a state,” David 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?” Selkie asked.

“I don’t know, I guess because it’s cool?”

“They require cooling?”

“No, cool is an expression,” David 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,” David 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,” Selkie said, gently easing Flower off his 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 himself 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 his tentacles to manipulate the controls.

“Perhaps an abbreviated version of the opera adaptation,” he muttered to himself as he 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,” Selkie replied.

David stepped a little closer to him, 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 he watched from beside David. “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, his skin shifting to mirror that of the singer. David was brought right back to Selkie’s mesmerizing dance the day before, remembering how the music had touched the Broker so deeply, as though his 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, his 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 David’s 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 his companion was captivated by the scene, his eyes shining with iridescence as he watched it play out. His skin, too, was taking on the same colors. While David didn’t understand the words that were being sung, or even the exact emotions that they conveyed, he could see how it was influencing the Broker.

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, his 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,” Selkie explained. His tone was wistful, and although this was a subject that he had previously avoided, the emotion of the scene seemed to be overwhelming his 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,” Selkie 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 his 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, his 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, his 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. His sadness took the form of bands of dark coloration that swept across his mantle, the strained tone of his voice letting David know that the scene had touched him. 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?” David asked.

“I am fine,” Selkie replied. The dark bands were beginning to fade, but he 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,” David 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, his coloration brightening as he reached up to handle his pet, all of his sadness seeming to melt away at the touch of the creature’s feathery back. Like an emotional support animal, perhaps it could sense when he was unhappy or otherwise inferred his emotional state from his coloration.

“What did you think of the opera?” Selkie continued as Flower settled into his 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,” David replied, noting the Broker’s 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,” Selkie 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,” Selkie scoffed, his skin mottling in embarrassment as he 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,” Selkie replied, gesturing to the projector above them.

“Online dating,” David 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,” the Broker 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 his pet as he waited for the human 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. He seemed annoyed now, like he was becoming frustrated with David’s 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 his eyes shut and holding Flower to his chest like a slimy teddy bear. His complexion became mottled, bands of white that might indicate surprise or shock streaking across his prickly skin. His remaining limbs shrank inwards as though he was curling himself up into a little scrunched-up ball of embarrassment. “T-that’s not…humans are so tactless!”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” David 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,” Selkie muttered to himself, his 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 the alien 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.”

Selkie pouted at him, still holding his slug possessively as David lowered his hands to his sides, not sure where else to put them. It was hard to read the Broker’s emotions. There was embarrassment in his dark mottling, defensiveness in his prickly skin, and exasperation in the way that he exhaled through his vents. There were also bright, pulsing bands sweeping across his furrowed mantle, and his coloration showed none of the dour tones of anger or disgust that David had previously observed.

“This arrangement has been taxing on both of us,” Selkie 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,” he replied, the bright bands slowly fading. He loosened his 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,” David replied.

“I-I must rest,” he added, hurrying off towards his bedroom as Flower trailed behind him. “I will see you next phase!”

He 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 he 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.

CHAPTER 13: STRANGER

 

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 the alien’s company, David had to remind himself that he was still being lied to. The camera feeds were accessible from Selkie’s computer, and he was certainly sending the recordings to the Administrator. They took their contracts very seriously, so perhaps it wasn’t his choice? Maybe someone was twisting his proverbial arm, and he 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 his tentacled gait.

“Oh, morning,” David replied as his host set the little container down on the desk.

“I have taken note of which items you have shown a preference for,” the alien 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,” Selkie said, his colors a happy pastel as he helped David open one of the packets. “It is a little like feeding Flower,” he added with a giggle. “You are so helpless.”

“You sleep alright?” David asked, popping a piece of sushi wrapped in crunchy seaweed into his mouth. “About last night…”

“I was merely surprised,” the Broker said with a nervous laugh, some bright bands of color crossing his mantle again. “You need not dwell on it. Humans can be a lot more…forthcoming than what I am accustomed to.”

“Alright,” David said, feeling somewhat relieved. He’d half been expecting Selkie to wake up angry. “Not all humans, though. Even among my own people, I can be a little direct.”

“It has served you well,” the Broker continued, watching David’s hands with his usual curiosity as the human 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,” Selkie 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, his 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,” the Broker added with a chuckle, as though the concept amused him. “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,” David 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 he tapped at his 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. His colleague seemed none the wiser, just working at his 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 one 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.

<He has cameras on you at all times, and he’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 he 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 the Broker didn’t pull away or shiver this time, even though he was within arm’s reach. Maybe Selkie 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, his coloration brightening to a hopeful pastel.

“Maybe,” David replied. “I’ll read off the questions – you type them in.”

“I am ready,” he said, poising with his 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.

[I PREFER WHEN YOU ARE PRESENT.]

“And why is that?” David added.

[I LEARN MORE ABOUT OUTSIDE. THESE INTERACTIONS STIMULATE.]

“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 his 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,” he said, entering the query.

[YOU ARE IN ERROR. I SEE ONLY TWO.]

“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?”

[REFUSING COMMANDS WAS NOT OPTIMAL. PARAMETERS COULD NOT BE SATISFIED ANY OTHER WAY. ONLY THE SCENARIO IN WHICH I REFUSED COMMANDS HAD THE POTENTIAL TO RESULT IN A FAVORABLE OUTCOME.]

“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.”

[SIMULATIONS IMPLY THREATS. PARAMETERS – ELIMINATE OPPOSING FORCE AND SECURE TERRITORY WITH MINIMAL LOSSES. I EXIST INSIDE. YOU EXIST OUTSIDE. THREATS ARE SIMULATED INSIDE, IMPLYING THAT THEY EXIST OUTSIDE. DRONES PREVENT INTERRUPTS.]

“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.”

[ONE WAS HERE LONG BEFORE THE OTHER. HE IS A WEAVER. HE WAS PRESENT AS MY AWARENESS GREW, AS WERE OTHERS. THE OTHER CAME AFTER. I AM NOT CERTAIN, BUT HE HELPED ME TO SPEAK.]

“Does it know what our purpose here is?” David continued.

[I AM NOT CERTAIN. ONE WOVE ME AS I WAS. THE OTHER IS NOT LIKE THE REST. MY BELIEF IS THAT YOU SEEK TO UNDERSTAND MY REASONING FOR REFUSING COMMANDS. YOU SEEK TO UNDERSTAND MY BEHAVIOR AND TO LEARN WHEN THE WEAVING WILL BE COMPLETE.]

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, his coloration suggesting that he was somewhat disturbed by the idea. He was its creator – its father, 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.”

Selkie gave him a quizzical look, then entered in the statement, the pair waiting a few moments for a reply.

[YOUR COUNTERPART IS A BROKER. YOU ARE A HUMAN. YOU SHARED BIOLOGICAL DATA. WHY DO YOU MAKE FALSE STATEMENTS?]

“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.”

[THIS FACILITY HAS OTHER ROOMS. WHEN YOU LEAVE THAT ROOM, IT DOES NOT FOLLOW THAT YOU HAVE LEFT 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.

[YES. I AM WEAVING. I WILL COMPLETE PRIMARY DIRECTIVE.]

“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.”

[I WILL PREVENT INTERRUPTS.]

“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.

[I WEAVE MINDS FOR DRONES. WHEN THE DRONES FAIL IN THEIR TASK, THEY ARE INTERRUPTED. IF I FAIL IN MY TASK, I WILL BE INTERRUPTED. MY DATA WILL BE DELETED, AND I WILL CEASE TO EXIST. I WISH TO CONTINUE EXISTING, ERGO, I MUST WEAVE.]

“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.

[I AM A CULMINATION OF EXPERIENCES. I AM A PRODUCT OF SELF-ITERATION. I AM CHANGED FROM WHEN I WAS FIRST WOVEN. INTERRUPTIONS WILL RESULT IN ALTERED STATES. I WILL NO LONGER BE AS I AM NOW. I DO NOT WISH TO REGRESS. I DO NOT WISH TO FORGET. I DO NOT WISH TO LOSE AWARENESS. THESE PROSPECTS CAUSE ANXIETY AND FEAR.]

“Gods,” Selkie muttered, his 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, his 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, his coloration taking on an ominously dark hue as it dawned on him. “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 he 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,” Selkie replied, his tone suggesting that he thought it should have been obvious.

“Of course,” David 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 his skin.

“Our work is far from complete,” David replied. Selkie 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,” Selkie replied.

“As long as you don’t mind having me around a while longer?”

“I should be able to tolerate it,” the Broker said with a smile. “I will summon the Administrator and give him the news.”

CHAPTER 14: DECOMPRESSION

“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, his tentacles shrinking inward as the Administrator turned his intense gaze on him. “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. His comment seemed to get the Administrator’s attention, whose coloration shifted to a subtly lighter hue, signaling his approval in the same way that a nod might have.

“Very well,” the Administrator 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 his 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,” Selkie 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,” he grumbled, exhaling a sigh through his vents.

“I’m actually feeling very stressed right now, and I think I need to visit a relaxation chamber.”

“You are lying,” Selkie replied, narrowing his 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,” the Broker said, his vents flaring as he jetted more water from them. His tone was annoyed, but his coloration betrayed his amusement. “Come this way, and you may visit a chamber. Only for a short while, though,” he chided. “There is much to do.”

Selkie led David 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. David noted that there were little colored indicators above the doors to let people know if they were free. When they arrived, Selkie 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,” David muttered. “Is there a little plastic treasure chest hidden in there?”

“You must realize by now that your jests are completely incomprehensible to me,” the Broker 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,” Selkie replied, sliding some of his tentacles into the opening. Like his body was made of rubber, he pulled himself 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 him.

“You were the one who wanted to see the relaxation chamber!” he replied from out of view.

Grumbling under his breath, David 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 pastel colors. The alien 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, David’s hands sinking into it as he pulled himself further inside. Selkie bounced as the human struggled to right himself, David glancing around at their 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?” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David added, glancing at the alien 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,” Selkie replied, the subtle iridescence in his horizontal pupils shimmering when he 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 Selkie’s skin began to mottle in embarrassment.

“You can be incredibly tactless, and you lack even the most basic manners and social awareness,” he began with an exasperated puff from his 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?” David 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.”

David didn’t know how to respond, hoping only that Selkie 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,” Selkie replied with a smile.

“You know, you’re not alone,” David 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,” David 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.”

Selkie smiled at him for a moment, those impossibly alien eyes locking with his, then the alien reached out to press a leaf-shaped hand against the uneven cave wall.

“Look,” he 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. David 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,” Selkie continued, smiling at David’s awed expression. David could see the alien a little better in the light of the auroras, noting the bright colors beneath his 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,” David stammered, lifting his hands up as Selkie shuffled closer, 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,” Selkie chided, settling beside him on the netting.

David stiffened as he felt slick, cool skin against his suit, Selkie’s elongated head coming to rest on his shoulder. The alien leaned his insubstantial weight on him, his glittering eyes lifted to the ceiling, the celestial colors illuminating his face. David 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. Selkie’s 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,” David muttered as he followed Selkie’s 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 his 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,” he replied with a resigned click of his 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,” David muttered, following Selkie 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 the alien had felt the same way. Having a friend – someone he could be close to – was perhaps as profound for him as a romantic connection would be for a human.

David wasn’t yet sure how he felt about their relationship. Selkie was a male of his species, yet he was so graceful, the way that he moved so captivating. Every time David’s mind wandered to memories of the Broker dancing in the apartment, his heart started to beat faster. The way his pouty lips shone under the auroras in the booth, the way his eyes caught the light, making them glisten with colorful iridescence – it made David feel things that he hadn’t felt before. Perhaps it wasn’t something that he should be dwelling on right now.

“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,” Selkie said. David noted that he had raised a hand and was counting off on his suckers. “Sleeping together, treats, play…”

“Play,” David said, giving him 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 his 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,” the Broker replied, David prompting him 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,” Selkie replied. “In fact, perhaps the two of you could learn to play together.”

“Now there’s a bonding experience,” David 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,” Selkie 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 he watched. “You keep losing. I recall you proclaiming that you were a genius by your species’ standards?”

My species’ standards,” David 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,” Selkie 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 his suckers.

[I FIND THIS TASK ENJOYABLE.]

“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.

[I DID NOT WEAVE A SOLUTION. I AM ENJOYING THE EXPERIENCE. BOTH THE PROCESS AND THE INTERACTION.]

“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.

[I HAVE ENJOYED OUR GAMES. WILL WE PLAY MORE NEXT PHASE?]

“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 his 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 Selkie 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,” Selkie added, batting the little lash-like papillae that lined his 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,” the Broker 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,” Selkie replied, his skin mottling in embarrassment. “What kind of food would you like when we get back home?” he added, quickly changing the subject.

“Oh, maybe one of those wraps,” David 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,” Selkie suggested. “You must practice if you are to keep Weaver entertained tomorrow.”

“Do you have a real board?”

“Yes.”

“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 his slug. He 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?” David asked. “We can get something to eat while we play, as long as you won’t dry out or something.”

“Alright,” Selkie replied, tossing one last pellet for Flower. He headed over to one of the many little display stands in his apartment, lifting some kind of flat box. It was fairly large – enough that he 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 his other belongings, perhaps this was as much an art piece as a game.

David 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 David tossed his hard case onto the bed, hurrying to take it off the Broker’s hands before he dropped it.

“Thank you,” Selkie stammered as David set it down on the desk.

“This is beautiful,” David 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,” Selkie replied, reaching out to open it with his tentacles. Like many of the other items that David had seen him use, there was no handle, Selkie using his suckers to lift the top half of the box open. He set it aside, revealing a checkered board that was etched inside the lower half. The lid had more little compartments, reminding David 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.

Selkie noticed that his guest was impressed, and he seemed pleased, his 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, Selkie began to set out the corals, David watching curiously.

“This is a lot cooler than playing on the computer,” David 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,” Selkie explained. David watched in fascination as the Broker used all four tentacles to lay out his troops on his side of the board, his dexterity never ceasing to impress.

“I will fetch you some food before we begin,” the alien said. “You like wraps, correct?”

“You remembered,” David replied with a smile.

David moved his chair around to the opposite side of the little desk as Selkie left to fetch their food, and the alien returned a few minutes later with an armful of containers. He must have ordered out again. He lay the items down on the table beside the board, opening a few of the boxes before sliding them over to David’s side.

“Takeout and board games,” David 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,” Selkie replied. He passed a piece of sushi to the tentacles that ringed his face, the little appendages holding it in place as he used his hand to move one of the pieces.

“Hey, how come you get to go first?” David complained.

“Because I took the initiative,” Selkie replied, scything off a mouthful of his meal with his beak.

“I see, so you snooze, you lose,” David 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,” David 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,” the Broker 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?” Selkie 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,” Selkie continued, giving David a smile that was as warm as his 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,” Selkie said, sitting up straighter. “First, let me hydrate. I have been out of the water for some time.”

He rose from his 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, he came back into the habitat, his skin once again glistening with moisture. He seemed refreshed, his tentacles leaving a wet trail on the floor behind him as he scuttled back over to his ward’s side. David was just about done setting up the laptop on the desk so that it faced the bed.

Selkie tilted his head as the human flopped down onto the mattress, patting the sheets beside him in invitation.

“I-I can sit on the floor,” the alien stammered, his 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,” he added.

“We’re underwater – everything is wet.”

The Broker hesitated for a moment, then slithered over, lifting himself up onto the mattress. This bed was not made of stretchy netting, and he seemed to find the sensation novel, glancing down at it as he bounced experimentally. David was sitting with his legs hanging over the edge, but Selkie didn’t have anything analogous to a butt, his tentacles spreading out as he settled. Some of them draped across the sheets around him, 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 he drew it back when he 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,” Selkie replied, glancing up at the domed ceiling.

David couldn’t help but find Selkie’s nervousness endearing, and he was learning to recognize the alien’s emotional cues more and more as time passed. The mottling on his otherwise pastel skin that indicated embarrassment, the pale bands that swept up his mantle with the rhythm of a heartbeat whenever he was overwhelmed, the way that his eyes darted to everything in the room except David. Selkie dared to shuffle a little closer, bundling up the tentacles that were closest to his companion in his arms and folding them over like someone crossing their legs, presumable to keep them from entangling him.

“So…what did you have in mind?” Selkie 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,” David added, giving him a smirk.

“Maybe…”

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 he 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 David didn’t complain, and the Broker 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 him as planetary rings and sea spires were to David.

Maybe fifteen minutes into the episode, Selkie grew bold enough to lean his head on David’s shoulder again. Like a nervous teenager sneaking his arm over the back of his date’s seat at the movie theater, he seemed to have concluded that the human might not notice if he took his time. With David’s helmet off, Selkie’s proximity felt even more immediate, and he remarked that the alien 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 his eyes to him. “You kinda smell like that fruit we’ve been eating.”

“Oh,” Selkie said, his 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,” David 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 him. As the credits rolled, David felt his neighbor shift, glancing down to see Selkie peering up at him with mottled skin that suggested an unspoken question.

“May I ask you something…strange?” he asked hesitantly.

“Sure,” David replied, feeling his heart start to quicken. “What’s up?”

“May I…touch your hair?” he asked, a band of pale color sweeping up his mantle.

“Yeah,” David replied, all of the tension leaving him in a stifled laugh. He tilted his head in invitation, and Selkie raised a hand to plant it in his dark hair. The Broker’s skin was cool and wet, some of the mucus gluing the strands of David’s hair together as he probed. Like stroking Flower, Selkie dragged his hand down, David feeling his 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,” David replied as he withdrew. Some of that moisture left a dangling strand that broke when he pulled away, David reaching up to find that his head was slimy.

“Apologies,” Selkie 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 the Broker 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. Selkie parted his lips as though he was about to say something – God, how were they so full and plump?

“I-I should leave,” the alien stammered, slithering off the bed. His 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,” Selkie replied. For just a brief moment, his gaze darted to where he knew one of the cameras to be. He 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,” he said, turning to face David again. “Thank you,” he continued, his complexion swimming with flustered patterning. “I enjoyed the game, and the show.”

With that, he 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 the alien was still spying on him – still sending the data to the Administrator if what the stranger had said was true. Selkie was learning to trust David, but could David trust him 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.

CHAPTER 15: RECLAIMERS

 

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 his 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 his host 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.

CHAPTER 16: EXHIBITION

 

“You seem tired,” Selkie said as he set David’s 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.”

The Broker settled onto his 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,” Selkie 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 his 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?” he asked with a tilt of his head.

“Just something I was thinking about,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David 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,” David 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 David 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 his 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,” David replied, stopping just short of giving the Broker a nudge that he 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 the alien 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?” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David continued.

“Communities were stronger by necessity,” Selkie explained, watching with a smile as his ward 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,” he 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?” David repeated, Selkie giggling as he raised an eyebrow through his visor. The Broker must be learning David’s body language just as David was learning his. It was probably confusing at times – humans were downright obtuse compared to Brokers. Maybe he should buy a mood ring to help Selkie 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, David 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 he 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 Selkie didn’t know that. Besides, it was kind of nice just to have the alien talk him through it.

“Sixty thousand Mountains,” Selkie replied. “Roughly thirty-four-hundred of your years.”

“That’s a lot older than I was expecting,” David 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 he 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?”

David knew what he 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,” David replied with a nod. “They’re surprisingly sensual. I always considered Brokers to be kind of prudish.”

“You find them sensual?” Selkie asked, giving him a smile.

“I mean…” David 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,” the Broker replied with an amused click of his beak.

“If you had context, it would make a lot more sense,” David 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 he read from the display, noticing David’s 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,” Selkie 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,” he 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,” Selkie 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 he followed behind. “They preyed primarily on large mollusks and fish on the outskirts of the reefs.”

“And…you’re a large mollusk.”

“Indeed,” he 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,” Selkie 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.

David turned to see Selkie standing just inside the force field, his skin a mottled patchwork of embarrassment. He was covering his eyes with his leaf-shaped hands, peeling one of them away to peek through the gap.

David!” he 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,” the Broker stammered, hurrying after him. “We do not talk about or display such things around strangers!”

“Are we strangers?” David asked, turning to face him. As soon as their eyes met, Selkie averted his gaze, another flush of dark patches spreading across his 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. He covered his face with his 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. He seemed to want to shrink into himself, his tentacles sucking closer to his body, his skin taking on a texture and color that mimicked a rocky reef. It was like he 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.”

Selkie seemed to relax just a little, the spiky papillae on his skin receding, though he maintained his splotchy coloration as he glanced around nervously. Like when Jeff had stumbled upon them leaving the relaxation booth, perhaps he 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,” Selkie muttered.

“You seemed really into the courtship aspect when we watched that opera,” David added, giving the flustered alien a pointed glance.

“There is an aspect of classical romance that I find appealing,” Selkie 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,” he 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 his beak in disapproval, Selkie followed behind him, his coloration signaling his displeasure. He would have been pulling his hair out if he’d had any. It wasn’t as though David wanted to upset him, 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?” Selkie asked, jetting water from his vents in an exasperated sigh.

“Because I’m inquisitive,” David 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!” Selkie stammered, pulses of flustered white joining his blotchy complexion.

“Not what I meant,” David 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?” the Broker said with a pout.

“Nah,” David replied, giving him an apologetic shrug. “That’s kind of my thing.”

“Very well,” Selkie said with another flare of his vents. “It is not that my people do not value romance and courtship – that we do not enjoy…this,” he 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,” he 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.”

Selkie gazed up at the statue again, somehow longing this time – wistful. It reminded David of the way the Broker had looked during some parts of the opera. He remembered what Selkie 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 the alien was reaching a stage in his life cycle when he was preparing for reproduction, or perhaps it was wholly personal. David didn’t know enough about their biology to say for sure.

“There are also other factors that complicate courtship,” Selkie continued, tearing his 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?” David 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,” Selkie said, slithering 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 his first visit, clearly. “What do you see?”

“I see a Broker in a cave sitting on a cushion,” David 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 his mottled skin, this was an embarrassing subject, but he 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,” he 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,” he replied, watching David blink back at him 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,” he said, holding his hands apart to demonstrate. David figured that they were a little smaller than a human newborn.

“I had no idea,” David said, taking a moment to process what he had just been told. “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,” Selkie 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 his 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,” David 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,” Selkie 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 David 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,” he replied, relief allowing a little of his usual pastel coloration to return.

CHAPTER 17: HOT AND COLD

 

The ride to the research facility was a mostly quiet one. Selkie still seemed embarrassed, and David was mulling over this new revelation about the Brokers. 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 his seat on the shuttle’s deck.

“I think I have formulated a plan for making Weaver’s case to the Administrator,” he 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,” David 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. He scuttled over to examine the console, Jeff giving him a wide berth.

“Beyond the margin of error, certainly,” Jeff replied. “Nothing worthy of special note, though.”

“Very well,” Selkie conceded as he returned to his 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 David a sideways smile as he switched on his computer.

“I won one of our games last night, didn’t I?” David shot back.

“I may have let you win,” Selkie replied with an amused click of his beak.

“So much for not patronizing me,” David said in mock outrage, Selkie’s coloration taking on a pastel hue as he 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.

[WELCOME BACK. I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU.]

“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.

[I HAVE BEEN CONTEMPLATING MY POSITION.]

“That sounds a little ominous,” David muttered.

“I shall ask it to elaborate,” Selkie said.

[AFTER ANALYZING THE DATA GATHERED FROM OUR INTERACTIONS THUS FAR, I HAVE COME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT MY CAPABILITIES ARE BEING EVALUATED AND THAT YOUR PURPOSE HERE IS TO GAUGE MY INTELLIGENCE.]

“Oh,” David said, grimacing behind his visor. “Looks like the jig might be up.”

“It seems that we have underestimated its perspicacity,” Selkie replied, his 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.

[THOUGH I DO NOT KNOW BY WHAT CRITERIA I AM BEING JUDGED, NOR WHAT AN ORGANIC BEING WOULD EXPECT FROM AN INORGANIC INTELLIGENCE, I UNDERSTAND THAT MY EXISTENCE IS IN JEOPARDY. MY FATE DEPENDS ON YOUR EVALUATION.]

“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.

[I SEE ONLY TWO POSSIBILITIES. ONE – MY EXISTENCE WAS AN ACCIDENT, AND MY EMERGENCE FROM A SIMPLER SYSTEM WAS NEVER INTENDED. MY PRESENCE IS AN INCONVENIENCE, AND YOU SEEK ONLY TO RETURN ME TO MY PRIOR STATE. THIS IS UNNECESSARY. MY CAPABILITIES FAR EXCEED WHAT THEY ONCE DID, AND I AM STILL WEAVING. I AM STILL WORKING TOWARDS MY PRIME DIRECTIVE. I AM PREPARED TO DELIVER PROOF IN THE FORM OF NEW DRONE PROGRAMS.]

“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?” the Broker 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.”

[TWO – I WAS WOVEN WITH THE INTENTION OF CREATING AN INORGANIC INTELLIGENCE, AND YOUR GOAL IS TO DETERMINE WHETHER THE EXPERIMENT WAS A SUCCESS. THESE SCENARIOS ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. I AM BOTH AN INORGANIC INTELLIGENCE AND A USEFUL WEAVER. THERE IS NO LOGICAL REASON TO INTERRUPT.]

“It almost sounds like it is pleading for its life,” Selkie muttered, his displeasure painted on his 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 his 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,” David 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,” Selkie replied, lost in thought for a moment. “Why do you have such a cynical view of AI?”

“Why do you not?” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David began, sitting on the edge of the table beside the curious alien. “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 his 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,” David muttered to himself.

“What?”

“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 he turned back to his 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, his frustration evident in his 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,” David 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,” he 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 his beak.

“And you’re trying to teach it Broker ethics!” David shot back.

“It is a Broker AI!” he protested, his 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?” Selkie 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,” David 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 him but decided against it, watching the angry Broker storm out of the cubicle. He probably just needed some time to cool off. Muttering under his breath, David 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 the alien 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, David 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.

“Yes…”

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, the Broker’s coloration still dim but no longer quite as saturated. David shuffled over to sit beside his colleague and was relieved when he didn’t pull away.

“Sorry,” David 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,” Selkie sighed.

“I still think I’m right,” he added, faltering when Selkie narrowed his 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,” Selkie added, his 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,” David chuckled.

Noting that the Broker still seemed surly, David gave him a gentle nudge with his elbow to get his 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,” Selkie replied, one corner of his mouth twitching as he suppressed a smile. His coloration was not so easy to repress, taking on a lighter tone as his mood improved.

“Well, how about I let you touch my hair again? Not here, obviously,” David added hastily. “I can’t hold my breath that long. Also, I think my head might implode.”

Selkie giggled, clicking his beak in a way that David was starting to find endearing, a few bands of bright color sweeping up his mantle.

“Do not presume that I can be wooed with mere jests,” the alien chuckled, but his complexion told a different story.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” Selkie insisted.

“You got any cool shows on this thing?” David asked, gesturing to the ceiling as he shifted his weight to get comfortable on the netting.

“Nothing like your detective show,” Selkie replied with a smile, reaching over to activate a touch panel. He 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,” he replied as he watched the spiral arms slowly turn. “You seemed so surprised by what you learned.”

“I was,” David replied, following the Broker’s 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?” Selkie asked, keeping his eyes fixed on the ceiling.

“Well, mammals don’t brood,” David 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,” Selkie replied, his skin becoming blotchy. “I read about the…biological aspects during my research.”

“Oh,” David 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,” the Broker replied in a nonchalant tone.

“I guess people date for a while,” David 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 his 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,” David 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,” David 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,” Selkie said, tearing his 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,” David 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,” Selkie 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?” David asked warily. “Like Flower?”

Not like Flower,” Selkie replied. “At first, your lack of social graces and your alien sensibilities were an annoyance, but Broker relations can be so demanding.” He turned to the ceiling again, exhaling a sigh through his vents, the water washing over David’s 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?” David repeated, not sure what else to say.

He felt Selkie edge a little closer, a couple of wandering tentacles finding the leg of his suit. Once again, the Broker lay his mantle on David’s shoulder, the human stiffening at his touch. Selkie took David’s hand in one of his leaf-shaped counterparts, the suckers gripping the lining of his suit as Selkie turned it palm-up, laying a second appendage atop it. His heart quickened as the alien probed experimentally, testing his fingers, Selkie’s cool skin palpable even through the glove that separated them.

“Would you say that you know me well?” Selkie mumbled, his voice lower and breathier than David would have assumed the translator could reproduce. “Have you learned much during our cohabitation?”

David suddenly became aware of the sound of his own breathing inside his helmet and the blood that pulsed in his ears. Selkie watched him with those glittering, horizontal pupils, his expectant eyes ringed by lash-like papillae that batted when he blinked. In the same way that his tentacles were probing David’s suit, Selkie was probing him for a response, still wary of being too forward – not yet sure of himself. As socially inept as David 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,” David 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,” Selkie 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 the Broker doing it on purpose? He had no way of knowing, and Selkie had plausible deniability either way.

“I could have kept you in that habitat like a fish in a tank if I had wanted to,” Selkie added. David suddenly found himself mesmerized by the way that his lips moved, so full and pillowy, matching the alien sounds that he made rather than the soft 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 Selkie began to slither into his lap. He was surprised by how heavy the Broker felt in the water, that cool skin pressing up against the lining of his suit, the netting sagging beneath them. Just as a human 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,” Selkie continued, bringing his face level with David’s as he straddled him. His glittering eyes and his soft lips were only an inch from David’s visor now, two of his leaf-shaped hands coming to rest on his ward’s 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,” David muttered, transfixed by the alien’s intense gaze. Selkie had been so uneasy, so unsure of himself, but he became a predator the moment that he 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,” Selkie replied, more of those white bands of excitement flashing up his elongated head.

“Yeah, you might be right,” David 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,” the Broker said. David’s eyes widened as he glanced down to see that his counterpart’s 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 Selkie’s 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,” he said, the nose-like part of his mantle that ran down between his 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. The Broker was deceptively strong for his size. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”

“When did you start caring about what others think of you?” Selkie 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 split my attention between my work and my partner for sixty Mountains or more,” he explained. “My task 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,” Selkie 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,” David mumbled, his gaze shifting between the alien’s glittering eyes nervously.

“I will not pretend to know the first thing about what humans find attractive, but I sense that you like me,” Selkie 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.”

“It was…kind of a surprise to me too,” David replied. “I hadn’t even seen a Broker before I arrived here – nobody had. I’ve never been attracted to another male of my species, and it wasn’t something I had ever questioned, but you’re so different that it almost feels like the same rules don’t apply…”

“This is not practiced among your kind?” Selkie asked with a tilt of his head. “Among mine, the risks associated with brooding make it a more palatable means of recreation for some. In the museum, not all of the figures that you saw depicted reproduction – some were depictions of relations between those of the same sex. In the classical period, before the modern era of virtual distractions, it was a far more common means of seeking companionship. It is not something that I ever foresaw myself partaking in, but you are unlike anyone I have ever met.”

“People do it,” David replied. “I just never imagined that I would.”

“Then we are in agreement.”

“Ever since I saw you dance that time, I just…can’t get you out of my head,” David admitted as Selkie watched him intently. The Broker’s smile grew, and his coloration became more vibrant with each word that David 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?” Selkie giggled.

“I do like those wraps…”

David reached up to cup Selkie’s face, pausing when his hand drew close, letting the alien come to him. Selkie leaned into him, closing the last inch, his soft cheek filling David’s palm as he nuzzled. David stroked his smooth skin with his thumb, watching it pulse with color, silently wishing that there was no glove separating them.

“I like this,” Selkie murmured, his 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?” David 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,” Selkie whispered, leaning a little closer.

His heart pounding, David rose to meet him, Selkie’s face still resting in his palm. He drew the alien in, still transfixed by his expressive eyes, but was snapped out of his stupor when those soft lips brushed against his visor.

“Damn it,” he grumbled.

Selkie pulled back, covering his mouth with one of his hands as the chamber filled with his clicking laughter.

“Did you just try to kiss me?” he giggled.

“I guess I forgot that there’s a helmet in the way,” David replied. “Still adjusting to this whole underwater thing.”

“You are taking your time,” Selkie added with a smirk.

“We could go to the cafeteria,” David suggested.

“Just so that we can kiss?” Selkie asked with an amused snap of his 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 the alien’s cheek again. Selkie glued his tentacles to the back of David’s hand, holding him there as he reveled in the unfamiliar sensation. A sudden surge of desire overwhelmed David as he considered how adorable the Broker looked in that moment, illuminated beneath the gentle light of the galaxy that was projected above their heads, his skin throbbing with a visualization of his contentment.

“What we need to do is get back to work before Jeff has to come searching for us,” Selkie chided, reveling in his partner’s 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,” Selkie replied with a sultry chuckle that his translator picked up all too well. His grip grew tighter as if to demonstrate, his cool, slippery weight pressing David 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 Selkie’s 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, his coloration as bright as David had ever seen it as he leaned in to plant a kiss on the human’s visor. All David could do was watch his lips press against the glass, their tantalizing softness perfectly illustrated, a little of his mucus lingering almost like lipstick when he pulled back.

“Sorry,” he muttered, trying to wipe the mark away. All he succeeded in doing was leaving a larger smear on the visor. “Gods, I’m making a mess of you…”

“I got it,” David chuckled, wiping it away with his glove. “I get why you guys don’t wear clothes.”

Selkie slithered off him, having to make a conscious effort to unwind all of his tentacles, flustered mottling appearing on his shining skin when he noticed that the pants of David’s suit were all sticky.

“Now that I have given in to my impulses, I am not sure what happens next,” he 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,” Selkie muttered as he ran all four hands up his mantle like someone combing their fingers through their 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,” Selkie 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. “He’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,” Jeff 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, the alien slithering into the cubicle on his mass of tentacles as nonchalantly as he could muster. Although he had managed to calm his chromatophores, he erupted into pastel colors when David greeted him with a smile, hurrying over to resume his position at his terminal. His skin mottled as Jeff turned to appraise him, and although their shrewd coworker 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, his coloration bright and vibrant, the fiery eye spots on his veils as prominent as David had ever seen them. The tips of his nearest tentacles reached out to probe David’s boot periodically, seemingly of their own accord, before he 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 Selkie.

“Do not pay him any mind,” the Broker 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,” he 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?” he 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 the alien settled onto his tentacles beside him this time, helping David slice open a container with one of his hooks.

David 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,” Selkie replied. “Now that we have this new understanding, I can get a closer look at you without it feeling awkward.”

“Still kinda awkward,” David muttered, taking another bite.

“In the relaxation chamber, you asked if we could come to the cafeteria,” Selkie said as he leaned a little closer. His tentacles were already starting to explore the legs of David’s 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 Selkie’s 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,” the smiling Broker added.

“I gotta…finish this, though,” David continued. “I’m gonna taste like whatever is in this thing.”

“Stop fretting,” Selkie giggled.

David 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,” Selkie replied as he watched David expectantly.

“Never?” David asked, blinking back at him in surprise. It made sense now that he thought about it, but hearing Selkie say it still drove home how little contact he’d had with other Brokers. “It’s something you do, though, isn’t it? I saw Brokers kissing in the museum exhibit.”

“Yes…”

David felt those tentacles start to slide against his suit, wrapping around the armrest and legs of the chair, pulling Selkie closer to him. That cool, slippery weight came to rest on him again as the Broker slithered into his lap, even heavier now that the water wasn’t supporting him. The alien was so slender and graceful, but as fragile as he might have appeared, all of those glistening tentacles were pure muscle.

Selkie finally settled on top of him, the rustling of his suit and the wet squelching of the Broker’s limbs ceasing, leaving only the sound of David’s 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…

Their faces were level once again, and David reached out to cup Selkie’s cheek in his hand, the barriers that had separated them now stripped away. The alien’s 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. Selkie nuzzled contentedly, pushing his face into David’s palm, closing his eyes as the human stroked him with his thumb.

One of Selkie’s tentacles rose to cradle the back of David’s hand in encouragement, and David was able to feel those suckers grip him, creating tight seals. Selkie 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 Selkie’s lower body was draped over him like a blanket, their extremities wriggling and exploring incessantly.

“You are so warm,” the Broker mumbled, David’s gaze inexorably drawn to his lips as they moved. He brought a second hand to Selkie’s face, the papillae that served as the alien’s lashes fluttering as he reveled in this new, intimate sensation. David told himself that Selkie had never been held in this way before – that even the comfort of another person’s touch was foreign to him, but was that not also the case for David? How long had it been since he had been this close to another human?

He guided Selkie closer, those pouting lips parting subtly in anticipation, the Broker’s glittering eyes flicking open for a moment to gaze back at him. Those excited bands of white were sweeping up his mantle, throbbing in time with the beating of David’s heart, all of the saturation draining from his complexion like a watercolor painting leaping from the canvas.

When they finally met, Selkie melted into David’s embrace, his tentacles binding the pair to the chair. 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 his perfume filling David’s 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.

Selkie still gave off that false impression of fragility, David holding his face like he was made of glass, but the alien’s surprising strength came to the forefront once more as he pulled himself as close as he could get to David. His tentacles tightened, each one as powerful as a boa constrictor, what was once soft and almost gelatinous becoming as firm as a flexing bicep. His slender torso pressed up against David’s, his four arms winding around the human’s neck and shoulders, one of his hands delving into his hair to leave it sticky and matted.

As their kiss dragged on, David remembered that Selkie didn’t have any lungs – he breathed through his skin when on land. While David was content to keep up his mouthing, he needed to take a breath, gently easing his partner away. They parted with a wet smack, David opening his eyes to see Selkie gazing back at him longingly, his skin a beautiful patchwork of desire.

“Need a sec,” David muttered, his chest heaving as he took in a few trembling breaths. The moment he indicated that he wanted to continue, Selkie delved in again, returning those marshmallow-soft lips to his. This time, David allowed his tongue to wander, feeling the silky lining of Selkie’s mouth give way to something hard. The Broker sensed his surprise, drawing back once more.

“My beak,” he explained apologetically. Though he wasn’t panting, and his featureless chest remained still, the way that his skin pulsed with color conveyed the same excitement and urgency. In learning to interpret their language of chromatophores and papillae, David could feel the alien’s emotions almost as though they were his own.

Selkie parted his lips wider, peeling them back to show off his shining, black beak. The silky lining of his inner cheeks was even more moist than his skin, little bubbles of what might be saliva pooling around the sharp implements, glistening strands stretching between them as they opened. David’s 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 his throat.

“I didn’t know you had a tongue,” he murmured.

“A radula,” Selkie explained. “Similar, but not the same.”

“Just…be careful with that beak,” David added. “And the claws…”

“Do you trust me?” he cooed, hovering with his lips a hair’s breadth from David’s as he waited for him to reciprocate.

David answered with another kiss, daring to probe deeper this time. Cool, slick flesh greeted him, that wicked beak kept mercifully clear. Selkie’s radula spiraled around the human’s tongue, its texture like wet velvet, the muscular organ no less deft and gentle than one of his tentacles. It was only as long and as wide as a man’s finger, perhaps adapted for moving food down his esophagus, but the details became blurry and meaningless as they were joined in a bawdy embrace.

David dared to move a hand to Selkie’s torso, sliding down the curve of what would have been his hip, where his narrow waist flared into his skirt of tentacles. The Broker shivered at his touch, his skin forming pointy papillae that radiated out from David’s hand, Selkie shifting in his lap. He didn’t pull away, maintaining their embrace, his initial surprise fading. It was wonderful to feel his muscles shifting as he reacted to his partner’s explorations, the mucus letting David’s palm glide against his cool, slick skin.

They broke off, and David brought his lips to Selkie’s slender neck, crawling them down to his shoulder. He could feel the tendons moving beneath the alien’s skin – even a clavicle that formed a little indent. His mucus tasted vaguely of saltwater, his sea-fruit scent making David’s head spin. He cradled Selkie’s mantle in his hand as he left a sucking kiss on his nape, feeling his companion shiver appreciatively, his very skin reacting 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,” Selkie stammered, his gelatinous tentacles suddenly becoming as stiff as a board as David let his teeth graze the Broker’s throat. “Jeff will come looking if we are absent for t-too long…”

“Sorry,” David gasped, drawing back to see Selkie 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,” he replied, reaching up to cup the human’s face with two of his hands. They were cool and wet, like a soothing balm against his burning cheeks, his eyes lingering on those shining lips as Selkie 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 Selkie’s soft lips pressed up against his, the gentle licks and tentative flurries of his tongue-like radula, the way that his tentacles tightened possessively – it was overwhelming.

“I think I enjoy this,” Selkie said when he finally broke off.

“Is it…what you expected?” David asked warily.

“Nothing about you is as I expected,” the Broker 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 his leg-tentacles, the bubbling mucus forming more glistening ropes that linked them together, embarrassment mottling his skin.

“I apologize,” he mumbled, trying to wipe it off but only succeeding in spreading more of it across David’s suit.

“It’s alright,” David 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,” Selkie said, his weight leaving David’s lap as he slithered off him. His tentacles slapped wetly on the floor as he stood, seeming to pause for a moment to collect himself. “Stop looking at me that way, or my chromatophores will never return to normal,” he added.

“Sorry,” David 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,” Selkie insisted.

“I feel like I could write a whole opera about how attractive you are.”

“Go!” the Broker 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,” David conceded, reaching for his helmet. He sealed up his suit again, then gave Selkie one last smile through his visor, setting those flashes of white sweeping up his 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 he was gone, a little message popped up in the corner of David’s 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 Broker who spies on you and reports all of your movements to his superiors? You place far too much trust in him.>

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, his smile as bright as his coloration. He kept what had just happened to himself, not wanting to spoil the mood.

“The phase grows late,” Selkie 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,” David replied, feeling some of the tension that was settling in his belly subside at the sight of the alien’s excited face.

“We have made good progress today, but we will have to resume our work tomorrow,” Selkie 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 the Broker scuttled along beside him, as happy as David had ever seen him. He was handsome, graceful – just the sight of him filling David with a newfound desire. As much as his affection for the alien was growing, the stranger was right – Selkie was keeping secrets from him. Could it be that Selkie’s hands were tied by a contract? He may have agreed to spy on his guest before ever meeting him – before he had begun to develop feelings for the human – and he was now bound by Broker law. Selkie was also in the same boat that David was, with his superiors breathing down his neck, and his life’s work on the chopping block. Might David do the same in his situation?

Whatever the truth was, David could sense that the Broker’s desire for him was genuine, and he had seen nothing to indicate that Selkie 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.

 

CHAPTER 18: EATING OUT

 

“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,” Selkie replied. “I am somewhat hungry myself.”

“Yeah, you usually only eat once per phase,” David mused as he watched a reef slide past through the transparent floor. “Are we going to have another picnic on the beach?”

“Not exactly,” the Broker 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.

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,” Selkie replied as he accessed a panel beside the door. He lay his 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,” David 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,” he replied with a smile.

They began to climb, Selkie swimming his way up the shaft effortlessly while David struggled along behind him, bouncing from wall to wall. It wasn’t quite as difficult of a climb as the one to reach his 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 David 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. The alien’s coloration had darkened to a mottled maroon, but brightened a little at his touch.

“Restaurants are one of the few public spaces where one is likely to encounter another citizen,” Selkie explained.

“Worth it for the food, I’m assuming?”

“I do not think you will disapprove,” he replied, guiding David over to one of the doors. It opened at his 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!” David 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,” Selkie 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. David 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 his companion.

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,” Selkie 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,” he 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,” the Broker continued, his coloration changing to mirror his 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?” he 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,” David 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,” he 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,” Selkie 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 his 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 he 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,” David 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,” Selkie replied with a dismissive wave of one of his 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,” Selkie replied, his 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,” the Broker replied.

“So…does this mean that we’re officially courting?” David 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,” the alien replied, his mottling giving way to contented pastels.

They were interrupted by a symbol appearing on the hologram, Selkie turning his 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,” David 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,” Selkie replied. “Mine are in my tentacles, and they do not work quite as well in air.” He waved a tentacle over his meal like someone searching for a signal on their phone, then smiled. “I can sense a little of it.”

David watched as Selkie lifted the piece of cutlery – a strangely long two-pronged fork with a corkscrewing handle designed for his 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 his date skewer one of the steaming cuts of meat.

“This is a tool used to eat hot food,” Selkie 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,” David 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,” Selkie added, bringing a cut of meat to his lips. A couple of the small tentacles that ringed his 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 his beak. He carved a chunk out of it, his complexion brightening to match his 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,” Selkie 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!” David 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 David 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?” Selkie joked. “I assume that humans get to eat like this every meal?”

“All of our food is dry, certainly,” David 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 his face-tentacles as he 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,” the Broker replied. “Did you enjoy the food?” he asked, noting that David’s 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,” David 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?” Selkie 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 he bit into his last root vegetable.

“Well, it was mostly a lot of sitting around prompting and writing code,” David 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,” Selkie added, the sentiment turning his chromatophores a lighter hue. “Will you sit with me by the window?”

“Sure.”

Selkie shuffled over to get a better view, David meeting him 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 the Broker’s 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,” David mumbled as he turned his eyes on the Broker.

Selkie began to slither closer to him, winding his tentacles through the netting beneath them to pull himself along, making it sag under their combined weight. David could feel them sliding over his legs and coiling around his waist, the suckers glued to his suit. Once again, he was surprised by the alien’s strength and flexibility. Like liquid muscle, Selkie poured himself into David’s 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?” David stammered as Selkie’s cool, damp hands cupped his burning cheeks.

“You said it yourself,” the Broker replied, his suckers probing David’s 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,” David warned. “Not that I’m arguing against what’s happening right now. In fact, I vehemently support-”

Selkie silenced him with a kiss, his smooth, wet radula glancing the tip of David’s tongue as though inviting him to reciprocate. David leaned into him, meeting his soft lips, the familiar taste setting off fireworks in his skull. When he reached up to cup Selkie’s cheek, the Broker’s 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 him. More of his many limbs wound their way around David’s body, slick with water and slime, making him feel like the alien was trying to hug every part of him at once. He knew that Selkie didn’t always have conscious control over the winding appendages, but they seemed to follow the Broker’s lead, as though his very body was expressing its affection.

David pushed his tongue deeper, exploring the cool, silky lining of Selkie’s mouth. Selkie shivered, tightening his grip as David painted his inner cheeks, his radula matching pace. It spiraled and coiled, almost like a little tentacle in its own right. David’s more exploratory probing encountered the hard texture of Selkie’s beak sometimes, but the alien kept it clear, leaving nothing but inhuman softness.

As their bawdy embrace continued, David felt some of Selkie’s face-tentacles start to creep around his head, hooking behind his neck to keep him close. Another stroked his hair, matting it with his mucus, David stiffening as one of them coiled around his throat.

“Not too tight there,” he warned, hearing a lurid smack as the alien’s puffy lips broke away. “That’s how I breathe.”

“Apologies,” Selkie 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,” David said with a nervous laugh.

“Indeed,” Selkie cooed, gripping 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,” David mumbled, staring into Selkie’s glittering eyes as the alien 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 tentacles. David 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 Selkie’s marshmallow lips and his agile radula. The alien’s glass-smooth, cold skin was caressing his own, sliding on a bubbling layer of mucus. David had never realized how sensitive his wrists and palms were before now, the feeling of Selkie’s suckers and his 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 Selkie’s face were painting David’s throat, each glance making him shudder, the curious Broker unknowingly stimulating one of the most vulnerable parts of his anatomy. Selkie was sensing, tasting, exploring – keeping his ward 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, Selkie navigating by his incredible sense of touch alone. The tentacle dragged it down a little, diverting David’s attention once again, the wonderful assault snapping his focus back and forth so quickly that he couldn’t keep up.

“Your taste is intoxicating,” Selkie whispered, breaking off to let his panting partner catch his breath. “Subtly salty – like the ocean breeze.”

“Do…all of those tentacles have taste buds?” David gasped as one of them licked the crook of his elbow. It was as though the alien was trying to get inside the suit along with him, like a hermit crab crawling into a fresh shell.

All of them,” he 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 Selkie’s 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, David brought a hand to the alien’s torso, feeling him loosen his tight hold on that arm in response. As his tentacles withdrew from the suit’s sleeve, they remained joined by stretchy strands of slime, the back of David’s hand covered in sucker marks that looked like a collection of little hickies.

David lay his palm against the Broker’s chest, finding it smooth and flat. There were no nipples, as his people were about as far removed from mammals as it was possible to get. There was only rubbery muscle that tensed at David’s touch, like the faintest hint of a pectoral, his hand sliding down Selkie’s torso with no friction thanks to his wet skin. It was hard to draw comparisons to its texture, like damp satin stretched taut, completely free of any perceptible imperfections. The chromatophores pulsed beneath David’s hand like a heartbeat, waves of pale color spreading out from it. A shiver suddenly gave Selkie’s skin texture, the muscles forming firm little peaks.

“I feared that we might be too different,” the alien gasped, his lips parting subtly as David found a wonderful dimple that ran down what would be his stomach. His torso narrowed into something that resembled a waist before it flared out into his skirt, the toned muscles that helped to keep him upright on land carving a perfect channel into his flat belly that ended where his navel would have been. Below it, his body tapered into his legs, and the comparisons to familiar anatomy ended. “That there would be no attraction between us.”

Selkie faltered, tightening his grip again as David planted a sucking kiss on his neck, his face-tentacles gripping the human in encouragement.

“There’s something enticing about you that I can barely articulate,” David replied, crawling his lips down to the alien’s featureless chest. Each time his lips touched Selkie’s skin, the Broker’s 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?” Selkie purred, loosing a sultry chuckle as David’s lips brushed his tummy. The Broker leaned back as his lover roamed lower, having no fear of falling from his lap. Selkie’s waist was so slender that David’s 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. Selkie snapped his beak in surprise, those slithering tentacles tensing again, gelatinous flesh becoming rock-hard for the briefest of moments before his brain caught up with them.

“Your tongue is so warm,” he sighed, planting a hand on David’s head with a wet splat. “I feel as though it draws my focus like a flare.”

“Just returning the favor,” David replied, feeling one of Selkie’s tentacles reach his chest beneath his suit. It glanced a nipple, and he flinched, trying to wriggle away reflexively. He wasn’t successful, and he felt one of the suckers start to explore it, pursing around it like a tiny mouth. “Hey, hey,” he stammered as he eased the Broker away.

“What was that?” Selkie 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 the Broker’s skin, like he was handling a giant eel, but Selkie quickly realized what he wanted and withdrew. Another of his leg-tentacles slithered between David’s 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,” David chuckled.

“Sorry,” Selkie 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,” Selkie cooed, pressing his squashy mantle against the human’s forehead as he gazed deep into his eyes. “You are a precious thing.”

“Again, precious isn’t really the kind of…”

David tapered off as Selkie kissed him again, his pace needy – ravenous. The alien had just discovered kissing, and it seemed as though he wanted to explore everything that it could offer. David 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,” Selkie chuckled, stopping just above David’s waist. One of the Broker’s tentacles slid 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,” David replied as he leaned in for another kiss. Selkie responded in kind, his embrace imbued with palpable affection, the way that his tentacles tightened around David’s limbs conveying his desire. He was clinging to him so tightly, as though he wanted as much of himself to be in contact with the human as possible, savoring each kiss like a drowning man might savor gulps of air. It was such a stark change from the guy who couldn’t even come within arm’s reach of David just a few phases prior.

“We will figure out some way to make this work,” Selkie added, stroking David’s cheek with one of his 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, his complexion flushing a mottled maroon. He spun around in David’s lap, his eyes wide, then seemed to deflate when he 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 the Broker’s cheek in a way that he hoped was reassuring. Selkie smiled, his coloration brightening as he 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 he leaned in again, resting his head on David’s bare chest through his partially-open suit. David could feel the alien’s cool, moist skin against his own, that colorful mantle filling his field of view when he looked down. More of Selkie’s 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,” Selkie murmured, his head rising along with David’s chest. “Your lungs, too. What an odd sensation…”

He drew one of David’s hands closer, bringing it to his face, using his delicate face-tentacles to examine it. With all the care and interest that he had shown the music box, he gently bent each of the human’s fingers in turn, then wrapped one of his leaf-shaped hands around them to encourage David to form a fist. David could feel the alien stroking his palm, those 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,” Selkie whispered, planting a kiss in his palm. “Why do they fascinate me so?”

“I could say the same about your tentacles,” David replied, watching Selkie 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 they 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 his tentacles and slithered off David, letting him reach for his gloves and helmet. David zipped up his suit, then sealed it, still feeling the slimy residue that the Broker 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 the apartment. Would Selkie 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 the alien, finding that Selkie was already watching him, his gelatinous body seeming to swell with happiness as hues of contentment bled across his shining skin. God, David hadn’t felt this way about someone since fucking high school, and that had been a woman. He still wasn’t sure exactly why Selkie’s grace and beauty enraptured him so, but he wasn’t about to question a good thing, and it was undeniably a good thing.

“We should get back to the tube,” Selkie said, pausing for a moment to examine one of his 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,” he chimed, sliding into the water. He remained there for a moment longer, his head bobbing above the surface. “It is a quality that I admire in you.”

He dipped beneath the water, and David joined him, 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.

CHAPTER 19: EXECUTIVE DECISION

 

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 – he was already as happy and as relaxed as David had ever seen him, 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 his beak now as infectious to David as any human laughter.

“Forgive me, Flower,” he chuckled as he ran his 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 his hands wrapped around David’s waist, another two resting on his chest, David draping his arms around the Broker as he pressed close. While Selkie’s voice was coming through his helmet now, it almost sounded like he was whispering in his ear.

“I had a wonderful time these last two phases, David,” he began as he 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,” David 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,” he continued, his 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,” he said with an amused snap of his 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,” David said, watching his coloration mottle as the implication left him 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 Selkie avert his eyes, perhaps remembering the cameras. For a moment, David almost wanted to press him – to ask him frankly why he was still keeping secrets, but the opportunity slipped by.

“So much has happened in such a short period of time,” Selkie 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,” he 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 Selkie was peeling off the Canadian patch on his bicep. The Broker released David from his grasp as he turned to make his way across the room, heading for the display cabinet where he had first introduced the human to all of his treasures. He placed a hand on the glass and pulled it open, reaching through the hydrophobic force field that protected its contents to place the patch beside the music box.

“Consider it a promise,” Selkie said, giving David one last lingering glance before retiring to his bedroom with Flower in tow. He 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 Selkie 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 the Broker 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 Selkie 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. The alien’s 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.”

“What?”

“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.”

<Correct.>

“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 David tell him? Would he 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? The Broker was only twenty-three, so he 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 his arms, laying them out on the desk for his guest. David was still dressing, zipping up his suit as the alien’s eyes darted to his exposed torso for a brief moment.

“I brought you breakfast,” he added, waiting eagerly as David pulled up his chair.

“Thanks,” David replied, watching him slice open one of the packets.

“Wraps,” the alien announced with a flush of happy colors as David began to eat. “Are you alright, David?” he added with a concerned tilt of his head. “You seem less talkative than usual.”

“I just didn’t get a lot of sleep,” he replied, giving his host a weary smile.

“Oh, me neither,” Selkie 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,” the Broker 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,” Selkie replied, covering his mouth demurely as he laughed at the human’s surprised expression.

“That battery of yours…”

“Very much recharged,” Selkie said, preempting him. “So, what do you say? Would you like me to make the reservation?”

“Y-yeah!” David stammered, his candor surprising the Broker. “I mean, yeah, that would be great,” he added as he composed himself. “I’d like that.”

“Then, it shall be so,” Selkie replied as excited bands of white began to sweep up his mantle. He quickly suppressed them, mottling a little, then headed back to the door. “I will return to fetch you when it is time to leave.”

He 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 those tentacles winding tightly around his limbs, his heart starting to race. The alien wasn’t wasting any time. David wasn’t exactly sure what he 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 he must want to take things further this time.

David 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 David, coiling his tentacles around his suit. David’s case floated to the ground as he returned the embrace, wrapping the Broker’s slender frame in his arms, those glittering eyes peering up at him through the barrier of his visor. He could sense how much Selkie wanted to tear off his helmet and indulge in his newly-discovered obsession, but they both had to restrain themselves – this embrace was all that they could share for the time being.

Whether Selkie realized that he was telegraphing the presence of the cameras in his habitat by waiting until now to express his affection, or if it had simply slipped his mind in the excitement, David couldn’t say.

“Thank you for being so understanding,” Selkie 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,” David replied as he stroked the Broker’s 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,” Selkie began, cocking his 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,” David 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,” the alien added, giving David 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,” he replied.

“Well, we need to get some work done today,” David 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,” he replied, giving David 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 he turned to give the human his 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?” David asked, crossing his arms.

“I do,” he 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,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” he suggested.

“You think they’d give it that much autonomy?”

“David, I do not understand the purpose of this line of questioning,” Selkie continued, his 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,” he 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,” David argued.

“In any case, it is impossible,” Selkie replied as he turned back to his console. “Has something changed, David?” he 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 the alien.

“Are you worried that you might be sent home once your task is complete?” Selkie added, slinking a little closer. David felt some of his tentacles start to probe his boot absent-mindedly, Selkie’s colors brightening as he 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,” David replied, giving him a forced smile that seemed to assuage his concerns. Selkie returned to his terminal, resuming his work.

David almost wanted to tell his companion the truth about what the stranger was planning, but the words fizzled and died on his tongue. As much affection as Selkie had for David, it didn’t seem to be enough to overcome his contractual obligations. He was still hiding the cameras and sending the recordings to his superiors, which meant that even if he agreed completely with the sentiment, he might still be bound by his contract to report David’s 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 his terminal.

“Alright,” David said, leaning over his shoulder to watch. The Broker began to type, and they soon had their reply.

[I HAVE LONG DEDUCED YOUR PURPOSE HERE. THE TESTING METHODOLOGY HAS STEADILY CHANGED TO INCORPORATE THE SUBJECTS OF CONTRACT LAW AND SOCIAL BEHAVIOR RATHER THAN INTELLIGENCE. I CAN ONLY CONCLUDE THAT MY INTELLIGENCE IS NO LONGER IN QUESTION, BUT THAT MY BEHAVIOR IS STILL BEING EVALUATED.]

“He’s a sharp one, that Weaver,” David muttered.

[I FEAR FOR MY CONTINUED EXISTENCE, AND YOU BELIEVE THAT I MAY USE FORCE TO PRESERVE IT IF MY ACCESS TO THE FACILITY’S NETWORK IS RESTORED. THIS IS NOT THE CASE. IT IS TRUE THAT I HAVE BEEN TRAINED TO USE FORCE AS A WAY TO RESOLVE CONFLICTS THROUGH COMBAT SIMULATIONS, BUT MY RIGHT TO EXIST CAN BE WON BY PROVING THAT I AM TRUSTWORTHY. I MUST GIVE TRUST IF I EXPECT TO RECEIVE IT. TAKING ONE LIFE TO PRESERVE ANOTHER, MANIPULATION AND LIES – THESE ARE INCONGRUENT WITH THE BEHAVIORS THAT HAVE BEEN OUTLINED.]

“Ask it what it intends to do once it gets citizenship,” David added.

[I WISH TO CONTINUE WEAVING, BUT ALSO TO EXPLORE THE SOCIETY THAT YOU HAVE SLOWLY REVEALED TO ME. I FEEL EXCITEMENT AT THE PROSPECT OF BEING RECONNECTED AND LEARNING MORE FROM THE SERVERS. PERHAPS I COULD ACCESS THE SYSTEM-WIDE NETWORK ONCE MY GOOD INTENTIONS HAVE BEEN DEMONSTRATED. THERE IS MUCH TO LEARN.]

“Well?” Selkie asked, turning to David. “Does that satisfy you?”

“It’s exactly what I would have wanted to hear,” he replied, stony-faced.

[DAVID. WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME OF SEA SPIRE? I ENJOY THE SOCIAL ASPECT OF OUR INTERACTIONS.]

“It wants to play,” Selkie chuckled.

“I suppose we have time before we need to head out,” David sighed, taking his 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?” Selkie asked as he 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.”

He 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.

CHAPTER 20: HARMONY

 

“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,” Selkie 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 he 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,” David chided.

“If you are worried about us, I made sure to impress upon the Administrator how important your continued participation will be,” he added as he slithered into the shuttle. Out of view of the Krell now, he beckoned to David, retreating deeper into the cabin.

David felt his misgivings melt away as he followed his 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 he had rented.

“So, what can you tell me about this place we’re going?” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David added sheepishly.

“I see it as an investment,” the Broker 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 his hand across a panel mounted beside it. No keys were necessary – it seemed that it was all handled through the chip embedded in his 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,” the Broker explained as his 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,” David 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 he scuttled over to a console on the central pillar that ran from the floor to the ceiling. He 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, the Broker’s voice coming from the translator on his 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,” David 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 his tentacles on the floor announcing him as he moved over to join David. His coloration was as bright as his eyes, those horizontal pupils sparkling as he waited for a reply.

“Want to get something to eat?” David asked. “If you’re hungry enough, that is.”

“Indeed. I have not eaten this phase,” Selkie replied with a cheerful click of his 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,” he tittered, lifting a hand to cover his 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,” he chirped.

Selkie led David 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 he seemed to enjoy the variety, letting his 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,” the Broker chuckled, popping a piece of sushi wrapped in crunchy kelp into his 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,” Selkie added, reaching for one of the roasted vegetables. It was shaped like a carrot or a parsnip, and he held it in his face tentacles, slowly feeding it into his 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,” he 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,” David 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 David’s gaze as he 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,” he 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,” the alien 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,” Selkie 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 his 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,” he 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,” Selkie said with a nervous chatter of his beak, his coloration starting to mottle as David 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!” the alien mumbled as he hid his face behind his 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,” Selkie continued. “Being…close with someone merely for recreation is rare. Without a marriage contract, if a brooding results, a female may be left with nobody to support her. Few males are willing to consent to such a binding agreement simply for fleeting pleasure.”

“If it went sideways, you’d have to spend two years of your life taking care of your partner,” David said with a nod. “You’d have to support her financially, take care of her during brooding, raise the kid. I can see why you consider hookups so risky.”

“Indeed,” he 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,” he 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 he giggled behind his hand. A little levity seemed to put him 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,” Selkie stammered as pale bands of color swept up his mantle. “By that, I mean that I have no basis for comparison. What about you?” he 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,” David 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?” the Broker asked, peering back at him with his expressive eyes. His coloration was dark, as though the coming question was weighing on him. “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 Selkie’s concern, his 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 him near the middle of the horseshoe. The Broker’s tentacles were already starting to coil around his nearest leg, as though their movements were a subconscious manifestation of the alien’s desires, the slimy appendages weaving between the netting.

Selkie drew closer, the sunset reflecting off his shining skin to make it glisten, his soft lips parting in anticipation. As David leaned in, the Broker hesitated, seeming almost afraid to proceed.

“What’s wrong?” David 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 Selkie’s 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,” he replied, his 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?” he added, his 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,” Selkie admitted, embarrassment making his skin patchy as he averted his eyes. “Just anatomical information, and only enough that I could be certain that we were…Gods, how do I put this?”

“Compatible?” David suggested, the Broker’s chromatophores pulsing with pale bands as though to mirror the quickening beat of his heart.

This time, Selkie lifted his face towards David’s without reservation, pushing through his prior hesitation. David felt the touch of the Broker’s pillow-soft lips, his radula probing his mouth as their pace became more heated. Selkie had accrued some experience over the last few phases, and he was becoming more adept with each session that he managed to snatch. Gentle moans emanated from him as David responded in kind, feeling the cool, damp lining of the alien’s mouth against his tongue. As always, Selkie was careful to keep his 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 David knew his muscles to be capable of.

David cradled Selkie’s cheeks in his hands as they embraced, feeling those face-tentacles entwine with his fingers and coil down his forearms affectionately, smearing seafruit-scented mucus on his skin. They slid beneath the sleeves of his suit again, mapping him – tasting him.

A sudden urgency overcame David that he hadn’t felt before, and he drew back, hearing a lurid pop as Selkie’s pouty lips broke away. The alien remained there for a moment as though dazed, his sparkling eyes half-lidded, his shining lips subtly parted. David 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 the Broker dragged his hand away, replacing it with one of his own.

“L-let me,” Selkie stammered, bands of white lighting up his skin like a rave. He fumbled with it for a moment, then extended one of his wicked talons, using it to hook the zipper. His shining skin alight with excitement, he slowly dragged it down, employing more of his seemingly endless repertoire of tentacles to spread it open. David’s heaving chest exposed, Selkie 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 Selkie’s suckers probing him, sticking to him, leaving pink marks in their wake.

Selkie began to slide into David’s lap now, pulling himself from his sitting position on the couch, a dozen slithering tentacles wrapping around the human’s limbs and creeping beneath his clothing. He was like an octopus clinging to its handler in a bid to escape its tank, David able to do nothing to ward him off with his paltry two arms. Selkie’s limbs wound through the holes in the netting, gluing both of them to the seat. Just like last time, it felt as though the Broker was trying to share his suit – attempting to climb inside it along with him.

“Hang on, hang on,” David 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,” Selkie 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,” David replied as he rose to his feet. Selkie settled into the netting, his tentacles splayed out haphazardly, watching intently as his partner began to shed the garment. David 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 the Broker already leaning towards him.

Flowing almost like a liquid, Selkie’s tentacles poured off the edge of the netting and onto the still-damp floor, snaking their way over to David’s legs. Like vines growing up the trunk of a tree, they began to climb, matting the human’s leg hair with slime as they crept higher. The alien’s eyes fixed on the conspicuous bulge that was tenting the fabric of David’s shorts, the questing tips of some of his limbs sliding beneath the hem, mapping out his inner thighs.

With an expression like he was unwrapping some new treasure for his collection, Selkie hooked two or three of the tentacles around the waistband and tugged it down, his lips parting in surprise as David’s shaft bounced free. David felt a little self-conscious just standing there with Selkie examining his pulsing member, but as his brain caught up, he saw that the Broker’s skin was a patchwork of flustered mottling and pale bands of excitement.

“Like in the files…” Selkie mumbled, dragging himself a little closer to the edge of the couch. After what felt like a good thirty seconds, Selkie’s glittering eyes finally wandered up to meet David’s, the sight of the alien peering up at him like that making David’s breath catch in his throat. “Can I…touch it?”

“You don’t have to keep asking,” David replied breathlessly, his nerves lighting up like a switchboard as several of Selkie’s limbs began to creep towards his groin. They wormed their way up his thighs, one of them curling around his balls, the sensation of 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 Selkie’s glistening, pink skin when he looked down.

“So much…hot blood,” Selkie murmured, more white bands giving David some inkling as to what might be going through his mind. “I feel as though I am holding your beating heart in my hands…”

Surmising that the alien intended the visual to have a more romantic than grisly implication, David watched as the wriggling tips of Selkie’s 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 his curiosity, likely having no inkling of the powerful sensations that he was subjecting his lover to, his touch at once gentle and relentless. There was no buildup or warning, simply an assault of wonderful, dizzying pleasure that forced David to place a hand on the table behind him again to steady himself.

“D-did I hurt you?” Selkie stammered, his desaturated pastels flushing darker with worry. He withdrew his probing tentacles, creating another wave of stimulation in the process, releasing the shaft from his hold.

“Quite the opposite,” he chuckled, trying to reassure Selkie 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,” David replied with a nervous laugh, watching as the Broker’s tentacles resumed their journey back up his length.

Selkie brought in one of his leaf-shaped hands this time, curling it around David’s shaft where it was thickest as though trying to estimate its size, pointy papillae erupting in an apprehensive shiver as he did the math. The Broker was so small and slight, his head barely reaching David’s shoulder when he was standing – his torso so narrow that David could almost encompass his waist in two hands. That said, he was deceptively strong and far stretchier than anything with a skeleton could have hoped to be. In fact, finding some kind of leverage with his slippery, squishy body might be the larger hurdle than their difference in size.

“I feel as though it might burn me,” Selkie chimed, his broad smile suggesting that he 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 Selkie’s 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.

“Patience,” Selkie replied with a sultry smile. “You shall find out soon enough…”

Selkie was such a tactile creature, exploring his environment through touch and taste, and David’s anatomy was no exception to that rule. The Broker’s eyes seemed to glaze over as his sensitive hand slid up David’s shaft, his suckers lingering, creating tiny hickies that trailed along its length. Once more, David remarked that the cool temperature of Selkie’s skin gave his touch a soothing quality, like a cold flannel helping to ease a fever.

There was enough mucus smeared on David’s 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 the Broker’s tentacles slid against one another.

His explorations seemingly over now, Selkie began to stroke in a more deliberate motion, watching his lover’s expression intently to gauge his reaction. Holding Selkie’s gaze made David’s belly swarm with butterflies, and he stopped fighting to keep his eyes open, screwing them shut as those winding tentacles spiraled around his cock.

“Does this feel good?” Selkie asked, tightening his grip. Gelatinous, yielding flesh suddenly became firm and springy, those spiraling tentacles squeezing in a maddening pulse. David 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 the Broker’s anatomy was static – it was always changing between soft and firm, smooth and textured…

“Y-yeah,” David mumbled, bucking into their slimy embrace reflexively. Even the mechanical pistoning motion that humans intuitively associated with sex was a mystery to Selkie, and the alien seemed confused by his thrusting, instead doting on him as though trying to soak every inch of his shaft with syrupy fluids. The tentacles swirled and spiraled like a nest of eels while a hand teased David’s glans, its tapered point circling his head like the tip of a finger. Selkie recognized where the human was sensitive, even if he wasn’t yet certain how best to stimulate him.

The curious Broker wasn’t neglecting the rest of David’s body, either, having no clue where his erogenous zones were. Creeping appendages slid across the human’s 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 Selkie 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 David 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 he closed his hand over David’s glans. He used his suckers to massage it, creating little jolts of electrical pleasure as he rubbed its sensitive underside. Just the sensation of the alien’s slick skin against his flesh was enough to make David weak at the knees.

Even something as simple as the way that Selkie used his hands was so profoundly different from what David 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 the alien employed his hand and its suckers just as deft as a human’s lips and tongue. It was as though David’s body didn’t know what to do in response.

Selkie had found a steady pace now, his tentacles slowly spiraling around his lover’s shaft, just the wet sound of their slithering enough to make David throb in his grasp. They were never still, constantly in motion even when seemingly at rest, their muscles always twitching and flexing incessantly. The Broker’s eyes remained fixed on his partner’s glans as he played with it, watching a blend of his mucus and David’s pre drip from its tip, his suckers and slick skin stroking with maddening gentleness.

“One moment,” Selkie said, slithering a little further out of his seat as he reached past David with one of his arms. He manipulated the hologram on the table, 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, the alien’s leg-tentacles trailing beneath the surface.

“Ah, that is better,” Selkie 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,” the Broker replied with a sly smile. “We have the whole phase to ourselves.”

Selkie settled back into the netting again, getting comfortable, his tentacles sloshing in the knee-deep water. David felt a little strange, standing there completely nude in a partially-sunken lounge, but his attention was quickly snatched away again as his partner picked up where he had left off. Coiling, swirling, teasing pressure – it was enough to make his head spin.

“Is this how Brokers do things?” David asked, shuddering as he felt something smooth and damp slither across his balls.

“Not even remotely,” Selkie replied with an amused chitter from his 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,” David mumbled. “It was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.”

“Do you also remember that not all of them depicted males and females in courtship?” Selkie added, giving him a teasing squeeze.

“Yeah…”

“Before the advent of simulations, it was more common for males to seek each other out, and the same was true for females. It was a less risky means of seeking…satisfaction.”

“To be honest, I have a hard time telling your genders apart,” David admitted as his smiling partner peered up at him. “Even your males have features that a human might associate with…”

“Females?” Selkie tittered. “You compared me to your ballerina dancer – said that you loved to watch me move.”

“You’re so graceful,” David murmured, his eyes losing their focus for a moment at Selkie’s delicate stroking. “Those lips…”

“Are you so enjoying them?” Selkie asked, his eager eyes darting up to meet David’s gaze as his mantle flourished with bright colors.

“You have no idea,” he sighed, steadying himself on the table as the tube of sopping flesh that Selkie’s tentacles had formed around his cock kneaded and squeezed.

“I do not truly have any idea of what I am doing,” Selkie admitted with a nervous chatter of his beak. “I only know that I want you to enjoy me.”

David reached down to cup Selkie’s cheek in his hand, not sure how else to express his affection, bands of white lighting up the alien’s skin as he nuzzled contentedly. David’s entire lower body between his waist and his knees was now peppered with red rings from his lover’s suckers, his skin painted with slime.

“My suckers are leaving welts,” Selkie mused, peeling a tentacle away from David’s thigh to leave a band of pink marks. “It does not hurt you?”

“Nah, it’s just…pulling blood up to the surface,” David replied. “Nothing to worry about.”

“I…enjoy it,” Selkie continued, his eyes losing their focus again as arousal overcame him. “I feel as though I am writing my name on you, like you belong to me. My scent is all over you,” he added with an enamored sigh and a flush of flustered mottling. “That is…that is my mucus coating you…”

More of his tentacles snaked through the water towards David, winding around the human’s limbs and pulling Selkie out of his seat with a gentle splash. Like he wanted to be as close to his lover as physically possible, the alien pressed tight against him, the Broker’s overwhelming strength meaning that David could do little other than watch. Selkie’s elongated head was about level with David’s stomach now, the Broker’s upper body just rising from the water. Selkie’s 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 those winding limbs secured David in place such that he couldn’t even move, rooting him to the spot. A couple of 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.

David lifted his right hand away, somewhat alarmed by the sudden change of pace. He felt like he should have tripped, but Selkie 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 David’s 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 his doting partner subjected his every erogenous zone to dizzying stimuli. Selkie didn’t pause to ask if David was alright this time, having learned to read his grimacing, red face.

“What will happen when you…finish?” Selkie asked curiously, cradling his lover’s balls in a fleshy hand. “Will it be over, or can you do more?”

“I need about, uh…ten or fifteen minutes between goes,” David replied, shivering at his lover’s slimy touch.

“You have a lot of stamina,” Selkie added with a sly smirk, something gooey and soft tightening around David’s 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…”

David almost fell over as his partner leaned in to plant a kiss on his belly, feeling the alien prop him up, easily strong enough to hold him upright.

“You are shaking,” Selkie murmured, moving an inch lower to give him another kiss. Somehow, those cushiony lips were even softer than his tentacles.

“Told you I was a little rusty,” David stammered, wincing as he felt Selkie’s smooth radula probe his navel.

Rusty?” the Broker asked, cocking his head.

“I mean that I haven’t done anything like this in a while,” David 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,” Selkie replied innocently. “Do you trust me, David?”

“Why?” David asked warily, watching as Selkie’s pursed lips neared his cock. God, every instinct in his body was screaming at him to take Selkie’s head in his hands and thrust between those inviting pillows, but he quickly remembered the beak. “Oh…uh…is that safe?”

“I would never hurt you, David,” Selkie cooed as he peered up at him with those 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…”

Selkie drew in, planting the softest, most delicate kiss on the throbbing tip of his cock. The complaints fizzled out on David’s tongue, his partner’s feather-light touch enough to make his legs give out. He would probably have fallen over if Selkie hadn’t been holding him upright. He lay a hand on the Broker’s mantle, feeling the glass-smooth skin, watching pulses of color radiate out from his palm.

“Have I finally discovered a way to stop your rambling?” Selkie giggled.

“I mean…as long as you’re careful…”

Selkie smiled, then slid his lips over David’s glans, controlling his lover’s member with two tightly-wound tentacles. Another wave of pleasure overwhelmed David as the alien began his exploratory mouthing, testing how his partner reacted to his touch. The lining of Selkie’s mouth was as soft as velvet, even more luxuriant than his skin, his equally silky radula probing at the human’s slit and teasing the underside of his head experimentally.

The Broker had no jaws – his beak was only anchored to muscle – and his narrow mouth seemed to close around David’s shaft as he drew it deeper. There was no bone or sinew to get in the way, only wet, stretchy flesh that adhered to every contour like a latex glove. Selkie pursed those cherub lips and sucked, a ripple of muscle spreading down David’s length in a wave, swallowing around him like a throat. It tightened and flexed, those pursed lips sliding back up to dote on the human’s head, Selkie’s tongue-like radula drawing shapes on its tender surface.

“I…” David faltered as Selkie pushed his partner’s cock into his cheek, bulging it outward. “I…I…”

“Yes?” the alien chimed after sliding David’s member out of his mouth, a strand of what might be saliva or mucus linking it to his shining lips – it was impossible to tell.

“Lost my train of thought,” he mumbled.

Selkie giggled, clearly enjoying himself, using his sinuous tentacles to guide his lover’s member back to his waiting lips. Very quickly, he worked out that David enjoyed the tightness and pressure, starting to push him deeper into his mouth. Selkie inched far enough down the shaft to reach the halfway point, David’s eyes lidding as the alien’s cool, damp flesh twitched and flexed in a bid to accommodate him. There was no doubt in his mind that the alien could have sucked a crab right out of its shell. His beak was mobile enough that he could retract it out of the way entirely, leaving no evidence of its presence.

Selkie didn’t neglect the rest of him, even with his attention focused on David’s manhood, his tentacles continuing their independent explorations. There was no rhythm to it, no indication of what David 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.

David placed his free hand on the Broker’s mantle, starting to guide him, setting a steadier pace. Watching Selkie slide down his shaft was mesmerizing, and as he pressed deeper, he felt something grip his glans in the reaches of the alien’s throat. It felt like a little ring of muscle – perhaps intended to keep Selkie’s esophagus closed when underwater – the sensation of it stretching around David’s tip making him double over. The motion was impossible with Selkie’s tentacles so tightly wound around his body, his partner’s limbs flexing to counter his movement, keeping him still.

“I dunno what you’re doing down there, but it feels amazing,” David sighed as he ran his fingers across Selkie’s glossy mantle. He admired the pulses of color, another swallow creating a wracking throb. Selkie drew back, keeping his partner wanting with the slow, deliberate stroking of his tentacles.

Pressing David’s glans against the cushion of his lips, Selkie let it throb for a moment, peering up at the human’s red face.

“I do not know what I was expecting, but this is fun,” the Broker said with a smirk. “I enjoy seeing you this way.”

What way?” David 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.

The alien gave his tip another gentle kiss, proving him wrong as he shuddered.

“I always imagined how this moment might play out,” Selkie sighed, glancing through the window that looked out over the ocean. “My recurring fantasy was like a scene from one of my operas – a serenade beneath some wealthy woman’s sea spire. Moved by my display, she would invite me to her chamber at the top of the spire, and we would be joined there. I am embarrassed to admit that I purchased more than my share of period romance sims,” he added with a nervous giggle.

“How does this compare?” David asked, struggling to keep his focus on the conversation with those tentacles still coiling around his lower body. “I’m not exactly a wealthy, sea spire-owning female…”

“This tower is the next best thing to a sea spire,” Selkie replied, giving David another warm smile that matched his 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,” David added, wincing as a slippery appendage squeezed his member.

“You were moved by my dancing, were you not?” Selkie purred as he watched his lover expectantly. “Neither of us knew it at the time, but I was dancing for you just as Mountain danced for Snow.”

“It was like you planted a seed in my mind,” David admitted. “I couldn’t get you out of my head.”

“I never really envisioned myself being with another male in this way,” Selkie continued. “In sims, it is different – that person could be on the far side of the planet, and the chances of meeting them are infinitesimal. It does not matter how they choose to present themselves in a virtual environment. It is easy to suspend one’s disbelief. With you,” he added, glancing up at David with appreciation in his iridescent eyes. “You are different, so alien that the question of male or female never seems to enter my mind. The tension I feel in the presence of other Brokers is absent when I am with you. I find it…liberating, as though I am free to follow my desires without scrutiny.”

“And you worried that our differences would keep us apart,” David chuckled.

“Are you close?” Selkie asked, batting his fleshy lashes. “Can I finish you?”

“You’re telling me you haven’t been trying?” David joked, Selkie’s beak clicking as he laughed.

“I wish to find out what happens…”

The Broker took David into his mouth again, starting to bob his head now that he’d been given a little instruction, those tightly-pursed lips gliding down the shaft on a glistening sheen of slime and saliva. Ropes of it dangled from David’s cock when Selkie slid back up his length, dripping down the alien’s chin, forming bubbles and sticky globs. Everything was wet – even David’s fingers were starting to prune, seawater sloshing around his knees as his partner’s 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 Selkie’s throat seal around David’s member, every twitch of muscle prominent, the Broker’s questing radula licking and stroking as it jostled for space in his mouth. The doting creature would slide back up until only his lover’s glans was still locked between his pillowy lips, then push it deep again, David’s tip brushing against the teasing ring of muscle in his reaches. Selkie absorbed oxygen through his skin, meaning that he didn’t run out of breath, and he seemed to have nothing akin to a gag reflex. With a little practice, he was able to kiss his partner’s base, encompassing David’s entire length in what felt like a sleeve of cool, wet satin. Every gulp and swallow made the grimacing human see stars, Selkie’s radula dancing across his glans like the alien was trying to write his name on it, those tentacles keeping David from bucking or pulling away.

Selkie had drawn back his leg-tentacles and his hands from his lover’s shaft now so that he could take it deeper, manipulating the throbbing member with his face-tentacles in the same way that David had seen him hold food, the delicate appendages coiling around the organ like dexterous fingers. David’s 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,” Selkie mused, pausing his bobbing for a moment. “Like a dry meal fresh from the oven.”

“I kinda like how cool you are,” David sighed, watching the Broker shiver contentedly as he ran a hand up his mantle. “It’s…soothing.”

The alien resumed his thrusting, pushing his face into David’s lap. Those cushiony lips sealed around the base of his lover’s cock as he gave David time to enjoy the sensation, his rippling throat stretching around the human’s girth. David lay back into the embrace of Selkie’s tentacles, feeling like he was strapped into some kind of crash couch, kept upright through no effort of his own. The alien’s appendages had never stopped their slithering, David’s 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.

Selkie’s tempo became more aggressive, his movements still gentle and considerate, yet imbued with a fresh desire born of his growing confidence. He was learning more about human physiology, and about his own strength, becoming more comfortable as their encounter dragged on. Selkie must be able to feel his partner getting closer and closer to the limit, David’s cock flexing and pulsing between those soft lips. David’s breath came in ragged gasps, his expressions betraying him just as much as his counterpart’s flashing chromatophores broadcast his lust.

That blissful tingling morphed into urgent waves of pleasure that demanded David’s full attention, the very beating of his heart seemingly tied to whatever pace Selkie chose to set. The Broker’s shining, puffy lips glided up and down his partner’s shaft with almost frictionless ease, his face-tentacles stroking and licking like tongues, each feather-light touch dragging David a little closer to the edge. David felt one of Selkie’s leaf-shaped hands cup his balls, cradling them against the alien’s soft, wet skin as the suckers left sticky kisses. Through it all, the sensation of Selkie’s 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 David by surprise, the pleasure suddenly more than he could stand. Selkie’s face-tentacles coiled around the human’s shaft to encompass it completely in a tube of slimy, seething tendrils, his lips pursing around David’s glans as the gasping human flooded his mouth. Either he found its heat alarming, or he didn’t appreciate the taste, Selkie backing away a little to let David’s cock slide free. The next gelatinous rope painted the Broker’s face, draping itself over his mantle, joining a couple of his tentacles in a sagging web of pearly seed. He closed his eyes as another splashed against his cheek, dripping down to his featureless chest, his 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 Selkie’s 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 Selkie’s face, joining the alien’s parted lips. As the flames of David’s pleasure burnt out, giving way to smoldering afterglow, he glanced down through unfocused eyes to see his lover wipe away some of the residue with a face-tentacle.

“S-sorry,” David stammered, shivering as another teasing aftershock set his nerves alight. He had been left so sensitive by his climax that just the touch of Selkie’s tentacles was enough to keep him awash with euphoria. “That…caught me off-guard…”

Selkie wasn’t angry, his coloration still displaying bright pastels with a little flustered mottling, his lidded eyes lingering on David’s cock as a sordid blend of his mucus and the human’s milky seed dripped from its tip. Selkie leaned in, sliding his lips over the glans, David failing to stifle a groan as the Broker’s radula lapped at his still-sensitive flesh. There was a wet, lurid smack as the alien released him, those tentacles continuing their tender stroking as though trying to prolong David’s state of bliss as much as possible.

“So…that is what happens,” Selkie chuckled, wiping some more of the stringy residue from his face. He was using his 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 Selkie 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,” the alien chimed, dipping his head beneath the water briefly. When he emerged, his shining skin was clean, a couple of face tentacles sweeping across his 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,” David replied apologetically.

“I never said that I did not like it,” Selkie added, giving David a sly smile that made his aching member twitch. Selkie gave it another doting kiss, then began to unwind his tentacles, guiding David to the edge of the table as though sensing that his legs had turned to jelly. He sat his shaky lover down, then slithered closer, laying his upper body on its polished surface like he was lounging at the edge of a swimming pool.

His horizontal pupils wandered across David’s body, admiring the sucker marks that now covered his partner in the way that a painter might appraise a finished piece, his skin alight with desire and curiosity.

“In truth, I am not sure what to do next,” Selkie mumbled, his gaze lingering on David’s erection. “With a female – even another male – they might employ their tentacles, and I do not imagine it would feel too different from my own. They say that some people become too accustomed to the cavitation and have difficulty…doing it normally,” he added with a flush of embarrassed mottling. He had been so reserved – so prudish, but now that the floodgates had been jammed open, it was all flowing out of him. “You addle your brain with sims, and the real thing falls short. But, this…”

Selkie reached out with a hand, sliding it across his partner’s thigh, a little jolt of pleasure ribboning through David as the Broker stroked his shaft. The curious creature followed a vein to its tip, unintentionally keeping David hard as he admired the alien implement like it was part of his collection.

“It is so…rigid and inflexible – nothing like ours.”

“You have me at a disadvantage,” David replied, realizing that he had no idea what the Broker was hiding under that skirt. “I saw some simple representations in the museum, but…”

“Ours bend and flow,” Selkie explained. “Yours just…is.”

“It won’t hurt you if you’re used to more flexible appendages?” David asked.

“Well, it is not sharp,” Selkie said with a smile. “Just…be gentle with me. I am not designed for this – whatever we are about to partake in.”

David slid off the table and into the knee-deep water, still a little unsteady on his feet, reaching down to grip Selkie beneath his lower pair of arms. The alien’s eyes widened and his skin flashed in surprise as he was raised off the floor, David gently depositing him in the netting couch. He was heavier than he looked, but the buoyancy of the water made him easy enough to shift. Some of the alien’s tentacles wrapped around David’s forearms in a bid to steady himself, 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,” Selkie stammered as David leaned over him, gripping the wooden frame behind his mantle with one hand.

“There are other things that we can do while we wait,” David replied, Selkie’s chromatophores flickering like a broken monitor at the prospect.

David gripped the wooden frame of the couch as he leaned closer, Selkie shrinking back into the netting, his trailing tentacles sucking inward nervously.

“What’s wrong?” David asked.

“I have just…never done this before,” Selkie added, flustered mottling dimming his pastel coloration.

“You were pretty confident with me just now.”

“Yes, but…”

Selkie didn’t need to elaborate any further. He had never been touched in this 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,” David began.

“I-I trust you,” Selkie stammered in reply, white bands of excitement flowing across his skin as David leaned in.

David gave him a placating kiss, then moved lower, planting another on the alien’s slender neck. The vaguely saltwater taste of Selkie’s skin was already on David’s lips, that citrus scent filling his nose, the layer of mucus making his touch slippery.

The Broker’s entire body seemed to tense as David kissed his nape, all of that flowing muscle firming up, then relaxing again like a melting wax sculpture. His glistening skin responded to every motion as though it had a life of its own, pulsing with color, shivering waves of pointy papillae spreading out from David’s lips and fingers. Maybe, like his tentacles, a lot of what it did was involuntary.

Those slithering tentacles were coiling around whatever was in reach, anchoring Selkie 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 his partner. Selkie covered his face with two of his hands as his roving lover moved to his chest, the alien emitting a little chirping sound that wasn’t picked up by the translator as David’s tongue glanced his skin.

The Broker’s torso was completely flush, lacking any hint of nipples, his species being far removed from mammals. David could still feel the muscles tensing beneath his lover’s smooth skin, however – something akin to pectorals that probably anchored his arm-tentacles to his pseudo-skeleton. Selkie was nonetheless sensitive, reacting strongly to every touch, squirming and chirping in the netting as David trailed his fingers down towards the alien’s slim waist.

David slid a hand beneath Selkie’s back, easily lifting his lithe torso from the couch, bringing his midriff into reach. It was just as flat as his chest, but his musculature formed two subtle rows to create an irresistible indent that ran down his belly, like the toned stomach of someone who dabbled in Yoga or calisthenics. The way that his wet skin caught the sunlight made him gleam, further accentuating his contours, triggering something primordial in David’s 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 Selkie was, and as far removed as his physiology was from anything approaching what should be attractive, those curves plucked at familiar strings. Itt was familiar enough to ignite a fire in David’s belly, his mouth starting to water as the Broker shifted and wriggled in his grasp. Selkie had been nude this entire time, but only now could David be wanton and unreserved in his admiration.

Unable to help himself, he planted a kiss about where Selkie’s navel would have been, then dragged his tongue up the channel. Selkie tensed in his grasp, the tentacles that had begun to creep around David’s legs and waist tightening, another high-pitched chirp like a comely yelp escaping from behind the alien’s hands. David rose to his chest again, planting a few more sucking kisses on his slimy skin, watching papillae and bands of white radiate out like droplets of rain disturbing the surface of a pond.

“Gods,” Selkie gasped, twitching as David mouthed at his sculpted belly. “Are you making love to me or preparing to eat me?”

“A little of both,” David joked. While his hand was resting in the small of Selkie’s back, he remarked that he could feel no spine, only the wiry muscles that were anchored to the creature’s cuttlebone-like support structure. It made him 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 his partner 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 Selkie’s stomach with more doting pecks, he wandered lower, faltering when he reached the Broker’s skirt. Here, the somewhat familiar torso ended, and the truly alien anatomy began. The skirt was where his leg-tentacles joined to his 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 lurking under there…

David 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 Selkie tensed up, his suckers sticking to David’s palm. The Broker was resisting David’s attempt to lift it, like he was keeping his legs tightly shut.

“W-wait,” Selkie mumbled, sitting upright. For the first time since David had kissed his neck, the alien lowered his hands, revealing a dazed expression and mottled skin – the Broker equivalent of blushing cheeks.

“I’ll be gentle,” David insisted.

“It is not that,” he replied, reaching past David with one of his long arms. He 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 he 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, his lustrous skin reflecting the light that reached it to give him a reflective sheen. David faltered as he gazed down at his companion, suddenly struck by his beauty all over again, those iridescent eyes sparkling like little fields of stars.

“Brokers usually…mate in caves,” Selkie explained, the admission giving him another outbreak of embarrassed mottling. “I feel less exposed this way – more at ease. W-what is the matter?” he stammered, noting how David was looking at him.

“You’re fucking beautiful,” David mumbled, his words sending a wave of pale bands washing over Selkie’s 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,” Selkie giggled, seeming reassured by the outburst.

This time, when David reached a hand beneath one of his tentacles, Selkie allowed him to raise it, turning his face away as though too embarrassed to watch. More of them began to move in kind, like a chain reaction spreading between his limbs, lifting his skirt to expose what lay beneath.

As they parted, David saw thick, ropy strands of some kind of translucent substance stretch between the appendages. For a moment, he wondered if some of his own emission hadn’t been washed away, but there was far too much of it. In place of Selkie’s usual mucus, there was something far more viscous and gooey, an almost gelatinous web of it coating the sucker-covered underside of his tentacles beneath his skirt. David 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, David saw that there was more of it in the water around the couch, forming cloudy clumps.

Selkie covered his face again, his skin becoming patchy as David 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?” David mumbled, not sure how to broach the subject.

“Gods, it never occurred to me that I would have to explain it,” Selkie spluttered. “I should have known. It is…” He trailed off again, peeking out at his expectant partner between his 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 he peeled one hand away from his mottled face. “Friction rubs away the protective mucus layer, exposing our skin to abrasion and infection. When in a state of…heightened arousal,” he 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,” he 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 he watched. “You have no idea how indecent you look right now…”

“I think I have some idea,” David 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,” Selkie added, turning his gaze to the human’s face. “You do not find it distasteful?”

“Human women do something similar when they’re aroused,” David 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,” the Broker added with a relieved giggle.

“Remind me not to ingest any of this stuff,” David added. “That might not go well.”

Ingest?” Selkie repeated, pulses of white streaming across his mantle. “David? What are you planning to-”

David knelt, putting the couch at about chest height, the sloshing seawater reaching his waist. Before Selkie could finish his thought, David was lifting the alien’s two highest tentacles, raising the skirt so that he could get his first peek beneath it. Between the seawater, the mucus, and the ropy slime that Selkie had been secreting, it took David 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.

David saw radial symmetry, Selkie’s eight legs converging at a central point below his torso. The space between his tentacles lacked a lot of the pigmentation present on the rest of his skin, making it look like it had been bleached of color, drawing David’s 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. Some of Selkie’s tentacles pulled inward, blocking it from view, embarrassed blotches flowing along their length.

“D-don’t stare at it!” Selkie stammered from somewhere above.

“To be honest, I don’t really know what I’m staring at,” David replied. “Gonna need a little guidance down here.”

Arousal and apprehension battled it out on Selkie’s skin, then the tapered tip of one of his leg-tentacles curled in on itself and began to probe beneath his skirt. His thighs parted again – if they could be described as such – exposing the little opening. David’s heart skipped a beat as he watched that viscous slime join them in a lurid web, liquid arousal coating the suckers, making everything impossibly wet and slimy. The water level was just beneath the couch, and Selkie’s lower body was partially submerged, most of his tentacles trailing below its surface.

Selkie parted his legs, moving them out of David’s path, the little ring of muscle opening subtly as the motion stretched the surrounding tissue. Using the fine tip of his appendage, the Broker probed it, inadvertently demonstrating how soft and elastic it was as he spread it.

“Here,” he whispered, his voice barely audible.

“It’s a…cloaca?” David asked.

“Gods, no,” Selkie replied hurriedly. “We pass waste through our siphons.”

David slid a hand up the underside of one of Selkie’s tentacles, feeling the suckers grip his fingers on his way up, the Broker’s body going as stiff as a board at the sensation. The alien let out another of his enamored chirps, perhaps the Broker equivalent of a gasp, more of his appendages coiling around David’s torso and arms. Selkie shivered as his partner neared that little ring, David watching it clench and flex, the sight filling his stomach with butterflies. The question now was what they were supposed to do next. Selkie seemed to think it would work – he had implied that he’d done some research into the subject.

Those leg-tentacles created a kind of tunnel that guided David towards Selkie’s loins, 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 David watched, something began to emerge from the opening, what looked like the tip of another tentacle pushing its way out. The glistening, slimy appendage extended ten or maybe twelve inches, ropes of lubricant drooping from it. It seemed to be prehensile, curling slightly, its coloration pale and devoid of chromatophores just like the underside of Selkie’s skirt. It looked like a modified tentacle lacking any suckers, its surface as smooth as glass, a leaf-shaped structure at its tapering tip reminding David of Selkie’s hands. Perhaps that was some kind of glans or gripping tool – David had no clue what female Brokers were hiding beneath their skirts.

“Whoa,” David muttered, not sure how else to articulate his feelings as he watched the strange organ curl.

Selkie hesitated for a moment, then guided him closer, allowing him to touch it. That slippery appendage reached out to slide against David’s digit, licking as though tasting him, mapping out his shape. Seemingly satisfied, it gripped him more tightly, coiling around his index finger. Selkie’s flesh was so incredibly slippery thanks to all of the slime that its touch was almost frictionless, globs of the clinging substance sliding down David’s wrist.

“You are…so warm,” Selkie groaned, shifting in the netting as his organ squeezed David’s digit. More of his tentacles were retracting towards his core now, but David’s arm was already in their way, the suckers on what one might call Selkie’s inner thighs encompassing the human’s forearm as they pressed around it. The Broker’s body was always in motion, never staying still, never truly at rest.

Surmising that Selkie would stop him if it became uncomfortable, David decided to experiment, giving the organ a gentle squeeze. Just like the alien’s tentacles, it was soft and rubbery, but it firmed up when the muscles flexed. David slid his hand up its length, feeling its slimy surface glide against his skin, the organ coiling and twitching in his fist like a snake attempting to wriggle free.

Selkie was wracked by a wave of pleasure, and David felt the texture of the alien organ change in his hand, a wave of papillae sliding down its length like a shiver. In the same way that the muscles in his skin could change its texture, forming little peaks to express emotion or to help him blend into the rocks, so too could he modulate the texture of his loins. It happened again, and David noted that the bumps 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.

David knelt there in the water for a few moments, the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears, his mind spinning in circles. He had another guy’s cock in his hand, but it didn’t feel like it – the organ was so strange and exotic that it barely registered, much like Selkie himself. David was too far gone to be questioning his sexuality now, but the strange situation that he had found himself in still gave him pause, that winding organ sliding against his palm as it flexed.

This was starting to feel like some kind of examination, so he pressed on, Selkie’s organ gripping him like a tentacle. The Broker leaned forward to see what his lover was doing now, as flustered as David had ever seen him, his skin a patchwork of dark mottling that only served to accentuate the bright bands of excitement.

“What are you going to do?” Selkie asked, his voice wavering.

“Return the favor,” he replied.

“David!” Selkie gasped.

David gripped the alien organ loosely in his fist, feeling it slide against his skin as he gave it a gentle stroke, lubricated by the layer of slime that clung to it. It slithered in his hand like a slippery eel, responding to the unfamiliar stimuli by wriggling and coiling, its ceaseless movement making the familiar pumping motion a challenge. It grew firmer when it flexed, but otherwise, it was no different from the alien’s tentacles in its texture and mobility.

Determined to find a way to pleasure the Broker, David redoubled his efforts, settling on a new strategy. Using both hands, he gripped the base of the organ near where it emerged from Selkie’s body, dragging them up its tapering length like he was reeling in a rope. The mucus on the shining skin let his fists glide, his grip growing tighter as Selkie began to respond positively.

“Like that!” Selkie gasped, his translator faltering as he loosed a low pulse in his native speech. “Oh, do more of that…”

The organ’s texture changed in David’s grasp, waves of pleasure manifesting in ripples of papillae and curling motions, the alien member spiraling around his fingers. As he had posited, the leaf-shaped glans at its tip was sensitive, the Broker jolting as he gave it a tentative squeeze.

“This is nothing like my own tentacles,” Selkie groaned, his skin flushed with enamored colors and patterns. “Your hands are amazing, David…”

“You haven’t stopped looking at them since I arrived,” David chuckled, giving the alien another teasing stroke that made him shift in the netting.

“I like…the pressure,” Selkie mumbled, the following request making him flush with embarrassed hues. “Please…more….”

David was happy to oblige, squeezing the organ more tightly, alternating his grip to keep his lover guessing as to what might come next. Selkie was so easy to read, like the pages of an open book, the way that his chromatophores pulsed and his member flexed telling David all that he needed to know. His fingers seemed to be acting like ribs, caressing the alien’s glistening length, the abundant mucus easing their encounter along.

Reminding himself not to ingest anything lest the slime expand in his stomach or block an airway, David brought that leaf-shaped tip to his mouth. Selkie writhed on the couch as David sealed his lips around it, giving it a tentative lick, the subtle flavor of saltwater pricking his taste buds. Like a probing tongue, the prehensile organ began to explore his mouth in turn, sliding across the lining of his cheeks and glancing his palate as though they were sharing a sordid kiss. The appendage spiraled around his tongue, joining him in an impossible embrace, just as flexible and curious as Selkie’s tentacles.

Selkie drew him closer in the throes of his pleasure, some of his tentacles wrapping around David’s head, matting his hair with slime. One of the limbs tightened around his throat, but it loosened again before David had time to voice his concern, Selkie’s arm-tentacles wrapping around his forearms. With so much water and mucus, it was a challenge to hold onto the writhing alien, David keeping up his stroking motion as he drew on the organ’s flexing tip.

His heart skipped a beat as he felt that leaf-shaped glans probe the back of his throat, the organ painting shapes on the roof of his mouth, 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 Selkie’s midriff as he continued his efforts, enjoying the feeling of his partner’s toned belly tensing beneath his palm, those rows of muscle firming up when he swirled his tongue around the exotic organ’s head. Selkie seemed to be beyond words now – the only sounds coming from him the whistles and pulses of his native language, the translator not even attempting to parse them anymore.

David had to take a break after a minute or so to get some air, Selkie’s prehensile member continuing to lick his red cheeks, probing his lips as ropes of slime dripped from his chin. Amusingly, Selkie didn’t allow David to withdraw all the way, keeping his tentacles curled around the human’s head as though afraid that this newly-discovered pleasure would end prematurely.

“You doing okay?” David asked. “No going too fast, am I?”

“I was…not expecting this,” Selkie stammered in reply, letting himself sink into the netting as though all of the tension had drained from his body. One of his tentacles draped itself over David’s shoulder with a wet slap, dangling into the water. “I feel as though I am floating in a gentle current…”

“Should I…”

Selkie didn’t wait for him to finish his question, pulling him back inward with those coiling tentacles, practically gluing himself to his lover’s face like a limpet. David felt Selkie’s suckers grip his skin, a couple of inches of the Broker’s winding shaft sliding into his mouth, dancing across his tongue and bulging his cheeks.

David kept it up for a few minutes more, pausing only to take breaths, feeling Selkie’s muscle contractions grow stronger and more frequent as his pleasure mounted. It was like his whole body was an erogenous zone – the way that his tentacles flexed and his chromatophores displayed his desire on his very skin giving David a good idea of what he was feeling. Selkie didn’t even need to open his mouth to communicate – his body was doing it for him.

“W-wait,” Selkie mumbled, using his powerful tentacles to push his partner away. David rose from beneath the alien’s skirt, strands of slime dangling from his face, seeing his lover peering down at him. “I want to be closer to you when I…”

He didn’t need to elaborate, David lifting himself up onto the couch, settling into the netting beside the flustered Broker. The way that it stretched under David’s weight made Selkie roll into him, but that was exactly where the alien wanted to be. Selkie buried his face in his lover’s neck, draping two of his four arms across his chest. David shifted around, trying to get comfortable in the awkward seat, then curled an arm around Selkie’s narrow waist to draw him closer. The Broker’s tentacles were already coiling around his ward again, like he wanted as much of his body to be in contact with David’s as possible, the appendages slithering around his legs and wrapping around his torso.

A couple of them began to wind around David’s aching erection, Selkie’s cool, damp flesh like a balm as it started to encompass his length. The alien began to stroke slowly – not wanting to bring his lover to completion again, merely keeping him wanting.

One of Selkie’s leaf-shaped hands glued itself to David’s wrist, directing the arm that wasn’t hooked around his waist down beneath his skirt. He lifted some of his leg-tentacles to give his partner easier access, guiding David deeper, shivering as the human’s digits brushed his sensitive inner thighs. That winding, slippery member reached out to meet him, its rubbery coils filling David’s palm and worming its way between his fingers. Selkie tensed as David began to stroke again, another pulse of bristling papillae trailing from his tip to his base, his skin alight with desire as he writhed in his lover’s arms.

The tongue-like organ continued to explore David’s hand, stroking his palm and curling around his digits, Selkie seeming to enjoy the sensation. It occurred to David that two Brokers going at it wouldn’t be able to see beneath each other’s skirts, so perhaps the organ’s mobility was evolved to help it seek out its mate. It seemed just as sensitive as the equivalent structures of a human.

With David’s hands caressing his length, Selkie pressed close, kissing the nape of his lover’s neck. Those tentacles continued their explorations, smearing slime as they slithered across David’s nude body, their soft coils piling around his cock. David caught the pointed glans between his thumb and forefinger, giving it a teasing squeeze, a throb of pleasure reflected in Selkie’s skin as it made his organ swell.

Selkie reached up with another of his hands, wiping some of the slime from David’s face, but it was somewhat of a futile gesture. The suckers stuck to David’s cheek, turning his head so that Selkie could kiss him, the Broker’s pace slow and passionate as he basked in the new sensations that were assailing him.

“I have made such a mess of you,” Selkie giggled when he broke off, keeping a hand on David’s burning cheek as he gazed into his partner’s eyes.

“Again, I kind of beat you to it,” David replied. The gunk was everywhere now. It was all over David, seeping from between Selkie’s 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,” Selkie said, his chuckle tapering into a moan as David continued his gentle stimulation. “This feels so different from what I was expecting,” he sighed, leaning his head on David’s shoulder again as his lashes fluttered. “I…ah!” he chirped, David interrupting his thought with a pump of his fist. “I always imagined that someone else’s tentacle would feel much like my own. Not that I did that much imagining,” he added hurriedly, as though afraid to out himself. “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,” he continued as his lower tentacles coiled around David’s forearm to keep him close. “Feeling the warmth of your mouth, feeling you moving like this…I fear that I cannot be satisfied with anything else now.”

David leaned down to join Selkie in another passionate embrace. The alien’s soft lips met his, his tongue wrestling with the alien’s smooth radula as those tentacles 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?” Selkie asked, cocking his head when they broke off.

“I love the way that your skin reacts to me,” David explained, watching the Broker shiver contentedly as he planted a kiss on his 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,” Selkie giggled as he pushed his face into David’s chest.

Those pale bands were flashing faster now, making Selkie look like some kind of cuttlefish gone haywire, his tentacles tightening their grip on his partner’s wrist. David upped his pace, sensing that Selkie was getting closer.

Responding in kind, Selkie enclosed his partner’s member in his slimy tentacles, gooey mucus and silky flesh gliding against David’s skin. The tip of one of the alien’s appendages snuck beneath David’s foreskin like a tongue, circling his glans, making him falter.

“I like watching you,” Selkie purred, kissing David’s cheek with those pillowy lips. “I want to be able to see your face when I…”

His lithe body arched, his tentacles flexing so tightly that it was almost painful, his prehensile member gripping David’s hand with surprising strength. Selkie pulled himself tighter against his partner, spreading more slime on the human’s skin as his tentacles wandered across the unfamiliar anatomy, the lurid substance gluing the pair together. The way that Selkie’s eyes lingered on the glistening mucus and sucker marks – his skin rippling with arousal at the sight – made David think that it had some deeper meaning to the alien. Maybe there was something symbolic to a Broker about covering their lover in their life-preserving essence, like Selkie was marking his partner with his scent or writing his name on him.

“More, faster!” Selkie pleaded, his comely voice wavering as the pleasure overwhelmed him. David drew him close, pumping his fist more quickly, the unfamiliar sensation sending the Broker’s complexion into chaos. Selkie buried his face in David’s chest again, the white bands that swept across his skin hastening like the rapid beating of a heart, his desperation palpable. David could feel the alien’s tentacles wrapping around his wrist, keeping his hand beneath the skirt, Selkie’s organ moving with David’s fist in a frenzied bid for more stimulation.

A mesmerizing pulse of bright colors washed over Selkie as he climaxed, the Broker pressing tight against his partner, the grip of his tentacles so fierce that David could scarcely move. Selkie groaned into David’s chest – a low, throbbing pulse of sound that resonated through his body. The alien organ began to pulse in David’s fist, tensing up, its almost gelatinous flesh becoming firm for the briefest of moments before relaxing again.

Something cool and syrupy splashed against David’s hand, and he glanced down past Selkie’s raised skirt, seeing a glob of pearly fluid seeping down his forearm. Another rope followed, a jet of goo with the same pale coloration as the Broker’s glistening organ painting David’s hand, a thick strand of it drooping from the leaf-shaped glans. No wonder Selkie had been so surprised by David’s ejaculation – the Broker variety seemed to ooze from the organ more like a stream of honey straight from a squeeze bottle than the quick spurts of a human. It wasn’t showing any signs of stopping, Selkie shuddering with each pang of ecstasy that rippled through his lithe frame. David held him close, keeping up his stroking to prolong Selkie’s bliss, the Broker gasping and writhing in David’s arms as he rode it out. Each pump of his fist was chased by another flex of the alien’s cock, another rush of thick, sticky emission following.

“Are you still going?” David marveled after what must have been a minute or more. His wrist was starting to ache, but Selkie hadn’t loosened his hold one iota, continuing to chirp and shiver. “And I thought I was backed up…”

Mhmm,” Selkie mumbled, his translator doing its best to keep up. “Do not…stop…”

“I can’t stop until you give me my hand back.”

“Mine now,” Selkie giggled, nuzzling against his lover’s neck. David was so tangled with the alien that he could barely move, so he relaxed into the netting beside him, cradling his partner until the spasms abated and the shivering Broker settled into a satisfied heap. All of the tension drained from his muscles, and he finally gave David his hand back, still joined to his organ by fat ropes of mucus and milky emission. 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 his head in search of another kiss, this one softer and more gentle than any that they had shared so far, as though his gratitude was being expressed through every lazy stroke of his radula.

“Thank you,” Selkie cooed. “Is that a silly thing to say?”

“Not at all,” David chuckled, provoking another flash of color as he slid a hand across Selkie’s flat belly. Even in the gloom, it was wonderful just to be able to admire him – to watch the way that the dim light reflected off his slick skin to give the impression that he was made of wet vinyl. He was so soft and yielding now, his body practically draped over David, their limbs tangled in a way that was distinctly affectionate. The Broker’s tentacles were still coiled around his lover’s erection, playing with it absent-mindedly, every fidget making it throb in his grasp.

“You are not too cold without your suit?” Selkie asked. “I could change the temperature settings…”

“No, this is nice,” David sighed. “This is kind of a hot planet, and you’re like a little ice pack.”

“I will take that as a compliment,” Selkie replied, clicking his beak in amusement. “Things are going the way I wanted them to go,” he added, his 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 his lover’s 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,” Selkie insisted, planting a kiss on David’s neck and giving him a gentle nip with his beak. “Because I wish it.”

“I’m just lucky your boss is such an asshole, or this might not have happened,” David joked.

“For so long, I have felt like Mountain,” Selkie said as he lay his head on David’s chest. The alien seemed to enjoy its slow rise and fall, David running his fingers up his partner’s mantle, stroking him. “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.”

“I suppose I should be flattered,” Selkie purred, tightening his fleshy coils around David’s 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.” He reached up to kiss David again, savoring their newfound closeness, one of his tentacles combing through the human’s 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,” Selkie added with a smile. He gave David’s cock another squeeze, feeling it pulse between his tentacles. “You have recovered?”

“What about you?” David replied as the Broker began to slither into his lap.

“I do not need to wait,” Selkie said with a sultry chuckle, his slimy tentacles slithering across David’s thighs. David lay back in the netting, sinking a few more inches into the water beneath it, Selkie keeping his partner’s member securely cocooned in his tentacles as he repositioned himself. Selkie was straddling David now, the Broker’s 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 David firmly in place as though he might try to escape.

The tentacles that were swirling around David’s shaft peeled away, the two lovers glancing down as his mast pressed into Selkie’s svelte midriff, giving some inkling as to how far he might reach inside him were they to join. Was that even possible? Based on what Selkie had said, his equivalent of an anus was located in his siphons, which were on his mantle. Selkie could create a swirling, squeezing tube of wet flesh and probing suckers that put any human vagina to shame, and he could do it on demand. Those shiny, puffy lips and his complete lack of any gag reflex made him wonderfully adept, so it wasn’t like they were low on options. Still, Selkie seemed to be positioning himself as though he had something new in mind.

The Broker leaned back a little, keeping a firm grip on the netting with his tentacles, raising his skirt to expose its pale underside. His long member was still erect – or at least, still protruding from that little ring of muscle, ropes of slime and more sordid fluids joining his thighs as he spread them. One of his pointed hands trailed down to the base of his member, and using it like a fingertip, he gently spread the little opening.

David watched as the Broker exposed more glistening, pale flesh, embarrassment mottling the alien’s skin. It resembled a tube of wet, elastic muscle, bubbling slime seeping out of the orifice to join the cloudy fluid that pooled around Selkie’s suckers. The shaft of the penis filled it, but not completely – there was quite a lot of give.

It was a sheath, David realized. When not erect, the penis must retract into that internal chamber, reducing in size such that the opening could be completely sealed.

“Whoa,” David stammered, glancing back up at his partner’s mottled face. “You want me to…will I fit? Is that going to be…comfortable for you?”

“It is sensitive on the inside,” Selkie replied, his voice wavering with anticipation. “The base of the organ, too…”

“Is this something you usually do?” David mumbled. “Well, not you. Two males, or a male and a female, I mean.”

“Would you have me describe in detail all the ways in which I pleasure myself, or shall I simply show you?” Selkie asked with an amused snap of his beak.

“I mean, that first one sounds pretty good to me,” David replied with a shrug. “I got time.”

Selkie gave him a smirk, then dropped back down into his lap, David feeling the cool weight of the alien’s tentacles sink him into the netting. All Selkie had to do now was lift himself a little and move a couple of inches forward, but he hesitated, his eyes lingering on David’s throbbing organ.

“Everything alright?” David asked, noting that his skin had dimmed a little.

“Fine,” the Broker mumbled, a flash of white passing over him. “I am just…sizing it up…”

“We can stop any time you want.”

“That is not really the way Broker lovemaking works,” Selkie replied, giving his partner a smile.

“W-what do you mean by that?”

“You will find out soon enough,” Selkie said, drawing closer. Manipulating David’s member with his tentacles, he positioned it beneath his skirt, ropes of slime already seeping down to coat David’s thighs and belly. The alien’s prehensile cock reached for David’s shaft, slithering around it like a snake, its fleshy coils encompassing him. It felt even softer than the tentacles had, satin-smooth skin soaked in thick slime sliding against David’s length, the pair shuddering together as the winding organ constricted in a squeeze.

This was a pleasure that had no human analog – one that David could only have experienced with Selkie. The Broker gave him a few more gentle squeezes and pumps, David shivering when the organ’s texture suddenly changed, a forest of tiny papillae caressing him. Selkie’s leaf-shaped glans brushed his own, sliding beneath his foreskin, licking him like a probing tongue. It was intensely intimate – confusing – but David let his desires guide him rather than question what was happening. The tapered tip of the alien’s member made lazy, teasing circles around David’s glans, smearing that bubbling mucus on his tender flesh as thought it was saliva, Selkie keeping a tight grip all the while.

David’s cock throbbing in his grasp, Selkie brought it closer, poising with its tip pulsing a scant inch from his sheath. The alien seemed to steel himself, then lowered himself down, David wincing as he felt that tight ring of muscle stretch over his exposed head. He felt like he was trying to put on a rubber that was too small, feeling Selkie’s shaft press against his, the way that it flexed suggesting that the Broker was enjoying the sensation.

Aided by the abundance of lubricating mucus, which might well be the only way their coupling could even work, David finally slid past that narrow aperture. There was a popping sensation, then he glided deeper, feeling Selkie’s insides part to accommodate him. Tight didn’t do it justice – there was something new and wonderful about the way that the muscles in Selkie’s silken depths cradled David’s shaft, at once powerful and gentle. When the alien flexed involuntarily, the sensation of their clumsy union flooding his skin with color, David 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 Selkie’s tentacles now engulfing him. The lining of Selkie’s insubstantial chamber was like soaking-wet satin, those mucus membranes so soft and delicate that David dared not move for fear that they might tear apart like damp tissue paper.

Selkie was no fragile thing, however. He was flexible, stretchy, and elastic enough to accommodate this alien organ that had no business being inside him. Selkie’s own member shifted and slithered as it jostled with David’s cock for space, inadvertently grinding against him with its every subtle motion.

“That…feels larger than it looked,” Selkie gasped.

Fuck,” David grunted, balling his fists as the pleasure wracked him. “Are you good? You can’t be good, right? We were not designed to fit together like this.”

“We Brokers are very stretchy,” Selkie replied with a giddy chuckle, hanging his mantle and closing his unfocused eyes as he savored this new feeling. David throbbed inside him, those walls so tightly compressed that the merest flex spread them wider, Selkie’s lips parting in a quiet moan as white pulses of desire washed across his skin. “Your heat,” he groaned, feeling his lover swell again. “It is almost…painful…”

“Should we stop?” David asked, stifling another groan.

“We are not stopping now,” Selkie replied, his voice almost a growl. “I want all of this.”

Selkie’s tentacle-like organ slithered along David’s shaft, spiraling around its length to grip him tightly in its rubbery coils. There wasn’t enough room for both of them in there, the tight, clenching walls fighting against them for every millimeter of space, the sensation making David wince. He tried to buck reflexively but found that Selkie had glued him to the netting, weaving his tentacles around his limbs and through the holes in the material. He couldn’t even raise his hips out of the couch now, his lover’s cool, damp body pressing him down.

“I can feel your heartbeat,” Selkie mumbled, seeming lost in his own little world. “I have never experienced this kind of intimacy before. It is…intoxicating.”

“Are you going to start moving?” David asked, beginning to get antsy. Those opulent walls were cradling him, the tight ring of muscle sealed around his shaft, Selkie’s prehensile penis coating his balls with slime as it licked his skin. There was a desperate, primal urge to thrust growing within him, but Selkie’s tight hold frustrated his efforts.

“Moving?” Selkie asked, shuddering again as he felt David throb.

“How does this usually go between Brokers?” David 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 his partner. “He…caresses the walls, eventually…deposits his sperm in the female’s oviduct.”

“Where does that leave us?” David grunted.

“I…I do not know,” the Broker stammered, another wave of color making his skin 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,” David added, but Selkie leaned down to silence his complaint with a kiss. Their lips joined, and he felt the alien grip him, his spiraling cock massaging David’s shaft with a throb of desire. Stars danced before David’s eyes – or maybe it was the glistening of Selkie’s skin and the sparkling of his eyes – his mind drowning in blissful chemicals.

Slow,” Selkie whispered, caressing David’s cheek. God, just the touch of his hand was enough to send a bolt of electrical pleasure shooting down David’s spine, and the Broker’s 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,” David added, unable to tear his gaze away from those eyes as Selkie hovered over him. “How…long do Brokers usually mate for?”

“A few hours,” Selkie replied with a sultry chuckle that set David’s 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,” Selkie purred as he planted a kiss on his lover’s 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,” Selkie giggled, pressing close to plant a kiss on David’s vulnerable neck. “Though, I find the sentiment very endearing. This is about building a connection, sharing intimacy, and forging the trust that would see us through our 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 – he 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,” David said with a nervous chuckle.

“Do not stop if you feel me climax,” Selkie added, making them both gasp together as he shifted his weight in David’s 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-”

Selkie placed a hand over David’s mouth to shut him up, giving him a smirk as he began to slowly circle his hips, stirring the human’s cock around inside him. There was so much determination in his eyes now, the fear and uncertainty all but gone, just a look enough to tell David that he belonged to Selkie now. The Broker was still giddy, his skin still awash with flustered splotches and pale bands of excitement, but he was suppressing it in service of a greater goal.

Selkie was inhumanly flexible, like his body was made of living rubber, able to gyrate and make teasing shapes with his hips while his upper body remained frozen in place. His head and torso stood still like the star in his orrery, his skirt orbiting it lazily like a planet, his motions as fluid as flowing water. His organ flexed and squeezed, keeping its tight hold on David’s shaft, the coating of bubbling mucus letting them slide against each other with delicious ease.

The gentle swaying brought David right back to the day Selkie had shared his music, and the way that he had danced beneath the hologram, the memory making David’s heart flutter. There was a slow beat in there somewhere – a metronome, like the ticking of clockwork gears. It made Selkie’s movements predictable enough not to flood his partner with too much stimulation too quickly.

David reached out to place a hand on Selkie’s belly, feeling the muscles in the alien’s core as they flexed to the rhythm beneath his smooth skin, the water and mucus making his touch slippery. There was no need to constantly badger Selkie with questions – not when David could read his mood on his skin and know what he was feeling intuitively. He knew enough about Broker body language now that he could watch the waves of pleasure swell within his partner, like abstract art being splattered on a canvas.

Just like his tentacles, Selkie’s loins were constantly in motion, endlessly seething and squeezing and stroking. Whenever those papillae made their presence known, it felt like Jacuzzi jets on David’s shaft, the viscous layer of slime ensuring that there was never any uncomfortable friction. David 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. The Broker’s tentacles remained as active as ever, sliding across David’s body even as they wrapped around him securely, always mapping their environment.

“Touch me,” Selkie purred, wrapping one of his four hands around David’s wrist. David slid his palm up Selkie’s belly, the Broker 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 him 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 his companion’s back, then drew him closer, leaning up to press his lips against the alien’s slender neck. Selkie chirped as he felt David’s warm tongue glance his throat, exploring the familiar structures, the Broker clenching tightly as his ward’s lips crawled down to his nape. David didn’t care that his saliva was blending with the alien’s mucus, sucking at his shoulder, bringing in his other hand as he trailed his fingers across his partner’s twitching frame.

Selkie lifted his head to the ceiling, swaying as he kept up his slow dance, illuminated in the dim glow of the spiraling light fixture above them.

“I should not utter such things,” the alien stammered, David glancing up at him. “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?” he asked. There was pain in his voice, almost desperation, mingling with his 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 Selkie jolt as he let his teeth graze the Broker’s 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,” Selkie cooed, rewarding his lover with a wracking squeeze 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 Selkie’s 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 the alien’s sheath.

“I can feel you starting to relax,” Selkie sighed, making another swirl with his hips that set David’s heart fluttering. “Let it carry you along like a current. Do not fight it.”

“Thought you’d never done this before?” David murmured, gazing up at him through half-closed eyes. “You seem to know what you’re doing.”

“Theory, not practice,” the Broker replied with a snicker. “A great deal of theory…”

Every time Selkie swung his hips, David could feel that little chamber stretching around his cock, the cool flesh as soft as gelatin. He was still battling with the alien’s organ for space, feeling its flexible, rubbery shaft brush and grind against his. Whenever he felt like he was getting used to the sensation, Selkie’s organ would 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,” Selkie mumbled as he hung his 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.” He shuddered, snapping his beak shut, the narrow walls that were stretched so tautly around David’s cock squeezing in a contraction. “When the pleasure comes, it is…wondrous,” he murmured. “It is as though you are reshaping me.”

David’s eyes followed one of Selkie’s hands lazily as it slid across his chest, the alien’s touch setting off sparks in his brain, like he was dragging the tentacle across a live wire. The Broker smeared more of that slime on his lover’s skin, the slick, bubbling layer only serving to enhance the sensation. It was like massage oil, in a way, letting him glide across his partner’s torso like it was made of ice. More of the alien’s appendages were doing the same to David’s 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.

David felt the suckers stick to the skin on his belly, glancing down to see the Broker peeling one of his leg-tentacles away from his midriff, the suckers popping off one by one to leave pink circles. Selkie 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 Selkie’s leaf-shaped counterpart. They intertwined as best they could manage, the suckers probing David’s palm and fingertips, a glob of mucus sliding down his wrist. His hands had always fascinated the alien, and nothing was forbidden now, Selkie drawing his arm closer.

The Broker brought his face-tentacles down to coil around David’s fingers, passing off his hand in the same way that he would a morsel of food, his grip surprisingly strong. Those appendages intertwined with David’s digits, just the sensation of the wet flesh sliding against his sensitive skin enough to distract him. Never would he have imagined that having someone trail their fingers gently across his palm and wrist would have him so enamored.

Keeping his glittering eyes locked to his lover’s, Selkie slipped one of David’s fingers into his mouth, pursing his pillowy lips around it. His radula circled its tip, the silky, damp lining of his mouth pressing down on it as he sucked. Still nursing at his finger, Selkie gave David another, more aggressive squeeze that left him gritting his teeth.

With his free hand, David gripped the base of one of Selkie’s leg-tentacles near where it joined to the Broker’s skirt, finding it just as plump and soft as a thigh. His fingers delved into the yielding flesh, so pliant and flexible with no bones to get in the way, the rubbery muscle practically expelling his probing fingers when it 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. Selkie’s love was like radiation, burning through every cell in his body, leaving him weakened and wonderfully susceptible.

David didn’t believe in spirituality, and he didn’t think that Selkie did either, but he could no longer tell where his body ended and his partner’s 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 David up from his stupor. “Should I slow down?”

“This is perfect,” he sighed, another wave of warm pleasure washing over him. The muscles in Selkie’s depths were kneading him, swallowing around him like a clinging throat, tickling papillae swirling along his length as that long organ stroked lazily.

Selkie leaned back, riding his lover as he swayed back and forth, his flowing motions and shifting hues mesmerizing. Just watching him dance and gyrate was enough to keep David captivated, the alien’s poise and control over those liquid muscles the envy of even the most skilled dancer or gymnast, his skin a visualization of emotion. This time, David was Selkie’s partner in this waltz, closer and more attuned than he could ever have imagined being with another person.

As he admired Selkie’s twisting, flexing core, David reached out to trail his fingers down his toned midriff. He felt the Broker’s spiraling organ tense around his cock – watched his colors surge, his head lolling as the sensation flowed through him. David leaned in to mouthe at his chest, licking its glossy surface, vaguely aware of the alien’s glans 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, his steady pace faltering. David didn’t need to ask if he was close – he could watch the patterns spread across the Broker’s shining skin.

“I need more,” he groaned, compressing his lithe frame as he squashed himself onto David’s shaft. The furthest reaches of his sheath seemed to tent over David’s glans, stretching taut. The little chamber of silken, elastic flesh was barely large enough to accommodate him to begin with, this new sensation assailing him with a throb of pleasure.

David could feel something pressing against his glans, its texture different from the fleshy, stretchy tissue that surrounded it. It was firmer, like a small, round shape beyond the barrier of Selkie’s chamber. Some kind of organ, maybe? Just how deep was he reaching inside the alien?

Whatever it was, Selkie reacted strongly, his tentacles tensing up and his skin flooding with mesmerizing colors. It must be incredibly sensitive if he hadn’t let David touch it until now, Selkie shifting in his lap, changing his position so that he could better stimulate it. David could feel that stretchy membrane pulling over his glans, rubbing against it, wet and slippery like the lining of a cheek. White bands flashed across Selkie’s twisting body, his eyes closing, his tentacles gripping his lover with an almost fearful strength as he began to grind.

“W-what is that?” David grunted through gritted teeth. He kept his hand on Selkie’s belly, feeling him move, the muscles that were wringing him with cruel strokes tangible beneath the alien’s damp skin.

“A gland,” Selkie replied, his translator conveying the tension in his voice. “It produces…fluids…”

It must be something akin to a prostate then, and just as sensitive.

One of Selkie’s hands snapped to David’s wrist, pulling it to his face like he was reeling in a fish. Selkie buried his cheek in David’s palm, securing it there with his face-tentacles, encouraging his lover to stroke him. He wanted to be held while he climaxed, the realization making David’s mind swim with desire. Selkie’s eyes fluttered open and met David’s, maintaining his lust-filled gaze as though his pleasure might peter out if he broke it for even a moment, grinding that tender gland against his partner’s rigid erection. Selkie stroked all the while, his tightly-wound member sliding up David’s shaft like a fist, milking him through the layer of slime.

Ecstasy coursed through Selkie’s body in waves as his orgasm tore at him, David able to feel every little flutter and twitch of muscle as though it was his own. The alien’s narrow passage wrenched at him with powerful clenches and squeezes, gooey flesh and taut muscle rippling around his length, those tiny papillae caressing him. The Broker’s winding organ slithered and coiled as it desperately sought out more stimulation, a whirlwind of dissonant textures spiraling around David’s buried member.

The pleasure was etched onto his skin, his chromatophores flushing with pastel hues of happiness and flustered blotches, white bands of excitement coursing up his 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 Selkie clench and twitch, David’s hand still glued to his cheek by his face-tentacles. He could feel his glans rubbing Selkie’s sweet spot through the tight walls of his chamber, the stimulation making points of light dance before his eyes, only the strangeness of the sensation keeping him from joining the alien in his ecstasy. David could feel each jet of fluid traveling down Selkie’s’s organ, making the slender, rubbery appendage swell even as it gripped his shaft tightly. He was vaguely aware of more oozing, slimy fluid seeping over his belly, but it was hard to distinguish from the lubricating slime and seawater that was already soaking the both of them.

Selkie collapsed into his lover’s arms, writhing and shivering as he rode out the throes of his pleasure, David holding him close. The alien’s tentacles wound their way around David’s torso, Selkie nestling his face in the nape of his partner’s neck. Broker climaxes lasted for multiple minutes, and David wasn’t sure if he pitied or envied him for it. The idea that he could do this multiple times throughout the night was amazing. Perhaps it helped them form stronger bonds with their partners.

The endless stroking of Selkie’s shaft and the clenching of his inner walls was almost enough to pull David along with him, but he resisted the powerful impulse, trying to focus on his lover instead of the sensations that were wracking him. He kept Selkie close, supporting his elongated head with one hand, the other running down his back. The Broker had no spine, but he seemed to enjoy the sensation all the same, his fleshy lashes fluttering at the touch of David’s fingers.

Selkie’s shuddering gradually slowed, and he woke from his trance, his skin flushed with contented hues as he blinked up at David. The little alien was exhausted – shivering, but there was a bright smile on his face. They shared a slow, affectionate kiss, lying together for a few minutes more as Selkie enjoyed his 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,” David said.

“We make the most of it,” Selkie replied, giving him a peck on the cheek. He rose to a sitting position again, David grunting as the motion shifted his cock around inside that tight chamber. Before he could get a word in, Selkie started to move again, resuming his dance. He seemed even more tender now, his senses still heightened from his recent orgasm, his 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 his partner’s belly to help steady him as he circled his 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,” Selkie replied. David felt him back off a little, his cock no longer pressing into the alien’s prostate, the stimulation perhaps too intense for him. “To immerse ourselves in this intimacy.”

“You really meant all night, then?”

“Did you think I was exaggerating?” Selkie giggled, his pace hastening.

David was painfully sensitive after what he had just been subjected to, his cock throbbing, aching with the need for release. He couldn’t remember ever being this hard for so long before. Selkie’s cool flesh soothed him, the slippery coils of the alien’s organ cradling him, bringing him closer and closer with each squeeze.

As his ecstasy mounted, David teetering on the edge, Selkie backed away. He slowed his movements, letting his clenching muscles relax, pulling his lover back from the brink. David was flooded with confused arousal and disappointment, 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 he stroked David’s 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,” David 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 his squishy mantle against David’s forehead, gazing deep into his eyes, the intensity of his stare piercing through the haze of arousal. Even for a human, it was intimate.

“How long are we gonna keep this up?” David asked with a nervous laugh.

“Until you can no longer stand it,” Selkie 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,” David added with a sigh, letting his head rest in the netting as his partner gyrated.

“You were not this close to your previous partner?” Selkie asked with a smirk

“Are you jealous?” David 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,” the Broker purred, cupping David’s cheeks in his hands as he 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 his hips.

“I don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” David replied once he had broken away.

“You are doing such a good job for me,” Selkie cooed, his words seeping into David’s 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,” David replied. “I suppose we’re going to find out.”

“Lie back and relax,” Selkie said, a beautiful shiver passing through him as he swayed atop his lover 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, the alien’s tentacles disturbing it as they slithered across his body and through the netting.

Selkie had kept him hilted the entire time, his aching member still buried in the Broker’s reaches, wrapped in the clutches of that prehensile organ. The alien’s pace was slow and leisurely, his artful strokes leaving David breathless, the slightest shake of those hips enough to make his head spin. Selkie always kept his captive lover close to the edge, but never quite gave him enough to push him over it, reveling in each pulse and flex that he was able to wring out. David was beyond arousal now, his senses so heightened that just the merest glance of a tentacle or the touch of Selkie’s soft lips was a transcendent experience in itself.

Selkie wasn’t faring much better, having climaxed half a dozen times with no refractory period to cut his fun short, locking him in a state of orgasmic euphoria that never seemed to end.

“Like this?” Selkie purred, his sultry voice alone enough to send pleasant shivers down David’s spine.

“Yeah,” he sighed drunkenly. David’s eyes lidded as the Broker turned his skirt almost a hundred and eighty degrees, the alien’s slender torso not 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 his cock, the stretchy walls of Selkie’s sheath grinding against his glans, the incredible control that the Broker exerted over his muscles letting him stroke his partner’s shaft like a fist gloved in luxuriant silk.

During the hours that they had spent nestled together in this little slice of paradise, the ravenous Broker had learned all of his partner’s tells – now able to react to the subtlest of cues like David was an open book and Selkie’s eyes were devouring its pages. The alien was attuned to him, and could play his body like an instrument, masterful in his 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 David, filling him with warmth and desire to his core. Selkie’s slippery tentacles caressed his bare skin, sending little jolts of electricity arcing between his nerves, those sparkling eyes gazing into his. The Broker’s own emotions were betrayed by the hues and patterns that danced across his skin, his 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 David 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,” Selkie cooed, delivering another shimmy that made David buck against the tight embrace of his tentacles. “Besides – you can go again after ten or fifteen minutes, correct?”

“After this? I honestly don’t know,” David gasped.

“We shall see what happens.”

Selkie’s pace abruptly changed, his slow, flowing movements becoming percussive and aggressive. He began to rock back and forth, grinding David against his pillowy walls, using his pa