At the risk of borking my browser again (I don’t exactly have the best of computers) I am going to publish a novella here.
Cross your fingers.
Oyeah. RTFM stands for the techie-favourite acronym: Read The F[laming/expletive deleted] Manual. Also the most common advice to noobs encountering new technology.
C M Weller
Dave groaned. On the upside, the painful part was over. On the downside, both his arms were now in permanent casts. More permanent than the circulation-restricting inflatable casts he’d had for the shuttle/ferry back to the mining base. They’d be taken off as soon as his bones healed, which was going to be a long, slow process. Even with medical intervention.
Six centuries ago, they’d have amputated my arms. Be thankful I’m here and now, eh? Dave could have shot his inner optimist. Why did his hobby have to be the goriest parts of medical history?
One biometric bunk over, the Drongo slumbered on, innocent to the path of destruction he had wrought. As always. Mama Ore would bill him, later. If he didn’t somehow come out of it with another metaphorical gold ring.
Dave could hear Doc in the next room. Arguing with the Lizard who had shared the flight over. Woz the armchair xenobiologist had said he was a B'dauss, which lead to some interesting and squicktastic speculation about the Thing in the box the Lizard had carried with him.
“Might as well trial and train at the same time,” Doc was saying as he bustled into the medbay. “Good news, Banner. Not only do you have Light Duties, but you also have a brand new helper-monkey.”
“Actually, the Faiize is–” began the Lizard.
“Neither of us care,” said Doc. He stepped aside to reveal the Thing in all it’s glory.
Yikes. They could not have gone deeper into the Uncanny Valley without spelunking equipment…
The thing standing slightly behind Doc was sort of humanoid, in the same sense that a gingerbread man is sort of humanoid. It had bulbous curves intersecting badly with cylinders for most of its body. The skin, what little of it lay exposed by the silver, emblem-emblazoned suit, was a horrible shade of pale, cyanotic blue. The face was almost a cartoon face. Too-round eyes stared unblinking from a bare sketch of a face. The mouth was an expressionless slit, as if freshly cut into that weird, sad imitation of a face.
“This is Wave of the Future’s newest biotech solution for the working environment, the Faiize. This one you’re development-testing is designated Rael.” It could have been pronounced ‘rail’, if not for the Lizard’s insistence on emphasising the 'el’ part of the creature’s name. “It is fully programmable, interactive, and adaptable to almost any situation.”
“Its manual and accessories are cluttering up my desk,” said Doc. “Some techies are installing the feeder machine in the mess.”
“Ee-ouk,” muttered Dave. “Why’d I get saddled with this? I wasn’t even in that damn bar fight.”
“You got both arms broken. You need a helper monkey.”
“The Faiize is not an ape. It is, for the most part, a cohesive biosilicate mass, capable of changing its form to any number of basic configurations.”
Dave looked to Doc for a translation.
“They made it a shapeshifter. When they say 'fully adaptable’, they mean it.”
“Ee-ouk,” muttered Dave.
The creature stood perfectly motionless. Not even moving its plastic eyes to pay attention to the people talking about it. It didn’t need lungs, so it didn’t appear to breathe.
The Lizard, unheeded, was prattling on about features and bonus points.
“All right, all right,” growled Doc. “You already sold it to the company, you don’t need to sell it to us. Get goin’ while the getting’s good, or you’ll be stuck with us for half a month.”
The Lizard, thank whatever Gods were listening, took the hint and absconded.
Dave didn’t get much time to sigh in relief, because Doc handed him a deceptively slim datreader, also emblazoned with the stylised sunrise wave logo of Wave of the Future.
Dave should have known that he was in trouble when the manual spent a minute or three searching for updates. He definitely guessed that the Faiize known as Rael was trouble when he realised that the index of the manual had an index all of its own.
Once upon an ancient past, data was printed on thin sheets of cellulose, leading to the adage, never trust any technology that weighs less than its owner’s manual. Converting any data package into its equivalent weight in a fictitious 'dead tree’ version was left to stunt mathematician/historians. This manual could have cheerfully taken up half an ancient library, Dave was sure.
But then, he was disinclined to trust it based solely on its motionless, doll-like stare.
And since he had little better to do until Doc cleared him for Light Duties, Dave skimmed past the indexes and began reading. Even that was a chore.
Light Duty was, in essence, low grade scut work. The stuff that did not require much in the way of knowledge, skill, or dexterity to perform. Simple-minded bots did most of it, a collection of if-then-else statements and hobby parts that occasionally bumped into walls or got stuck in the grating. Anyone caught kicking the things too hard won the instant sentence of maintaining and improving them for a week.
Light duties only included bot maintenance if the incarceree was dextrous enough to do the fiddly bits. Dave currently wasn’t, so he lucked out of that, at least.
What he did have to do was program Rael on the mind-numbing details of helping him with the scut work. This included introducing new concepts like “turn” and “loosen” or “tighten”.
His tongue felt about ready to fall out inside half an hour. Dave was reminded of a third-grade project called teach a robot to make tea, which went into iterative details until every last assumption was wiped from the mental map.
At least this thing didn’t bump into walls and clued in on how to steer the maintenance cart with a minimum of fuss. As long as Dave didn’t pay too much attention to the complete lack of elbows and knees when the thing moved, he was fine. Or the blank, expressionless face with that permanent, emotionless stare. Or mind that it expected payment in the form of stinky kibble for absolutely every last order that it obeyed. Or that it didn’t so much eat as… engulf its fodder.
In brief, as long as he didn’t look at it too long, he could tolerate his technologically advanced helper monkey.
The manual was anally precise about the measurements used to reward the creature, to the point of making Dave wonder about malfunctions due to overfeeding. And given the length of chemical prohibitions against other foodstuffs, the idea of feeding it people-food was plain out of the question. Underfeeding it was not a problem at all, given how it ate after every task.
Dave had had to add a sack of small-task reward baggies and a tool for opening them to the maintenance cart, just to cut down on the trips to the mess hall and the vendor machine that dispensed them.
He groaned under his breath. Rael had stopped to let a Cleaner go by. Something the manual just didn’t cover, apart from the cheerfully useless fact that Cleaners and Faiize were as distantly related as humans and chimps.
“Rael, follow,” he snapped. “Init!” The 'init’ command made as much sense as 'stat’ for the medics or 'pronto’ for greasers. It was just another word for ’hurry up and do it’ as far as Dave was concerned.
Rael edged around the cleaner, its awkward, rubber-band gait replaced by an even more awkward shuffling as it attempted to get around the Cleaner without allowing any part of its body to get within a standard distance unit.
Dave rolled his eyes and trundled the trolley to the next maintenance point. This one needed emptying. “Rael, macro empty, here,” he indicated the spigot and passed the thing a hazard bag with the right size interlock.
Rael, when it spoke, did so in a low, gravelly rasp. “Screw on bag,” it muttered, repeating the verbal commands of the new macro to itself. “Right turn tight. Open valve. Left turn loose.” The junk fluid filled the bag quickly, but at least did so without needing a second bag. “Close valve. Right turn tight. Unscrew bag. Left turn loose. Locate hatch.” One was usually to the left or the right of the spigot. This one wasn’t. “Locate hatch. Locate hatch.”
Great. It was stuck. Dave cast around him and found the hatch it was looking for. “Hatch locate,” he said, kicking its door to make it bang. “Here.”
Rael, having found its objective, hauled the bag to the disposal hatch and rolled it through the portal. “Done job.”
Which meant it was stinky baggie time. Dave had already reached for the bag and the opener. He tried not to breathe in the stench as he handed it over.
There was nothing in the manual about the creature eating its food containers as well as its food. He’d have to send an enquiry along. After shift, when he didn’t have to look at the critter any more. And since his job was also to read, learn and inwardly digest the damn manual, he could actually work while relaxing in his bunk. Which meant that he could log every minute that he was looking at the damn manual.
“Hey, Doc. can I borrow your Visible Man for a while?”
Doc looked up from his perpetual backlog of paperwork and boggled at him. “What? Why? It’s just a toy…”
A toy he kept because no doctor’s office was complete without some example of anatomy collecting dust in a corner. “Yeh, I know. The thing’s interface can be changed if I show it an example, and shy of downloading Grey’s Anatomy in holovision….”
Doc nodded understanding. “Have my copy. Maybe you could fix its eyes while you’re at it.”
Dave grinned as he accepted the device. “Head, shoulders, knees and toes, Doc.” He waved a lazy salute in lieu of a farewell and passed through the mess to get an armful of medium-reward baggies and a spare opener. It was going to be a long shift, working through both the medical text and the manual, but if he could get that thing even halfway less creepy, he’d consider himself ahead of the game.
Well. The good news was, the critter was climbing slowly out of the uncanny valley. The bad news was that it was climbing the wrong Powers-damned side. At least it had elbows and knees. And something approaching shoulders and hips. The spine was giving him trouble. It trouble.
Hell, it was giving the both of them trouble.
Dave ran the running man again, everything but the bones set to translucent, and paged through the interface keywords again. “Interface change open,” he recited. “Internal structure upgrade init.”
Bits of Rael moved in peculiar ways as the critter lost its mashup structure of basic forms and became… slightly more humanoid.
It was the cyanotic blue, Dave decided. It made him - it - him look dead. Nothing was deeper in the famous valley than something that looked like an animated corpse. He flipped the running man’s skin back on. “Interface change open. External interface upgrade colour init.”
The thing did not entirely comply. It turned a sort of mauve that Dave had last seen on a Jacaranda flower. It was probably the best the critter could do.
He sighed and opened the reward, not looking as Rael engulfed his food. Someday, Dave swore, he would unearth the commands to help him teach the critter how to chew and blink. But for now, elbows and knees were a great improvement.
Mauve skin, he could deal with. The lack of blinking… Maybe if he didn’t look at the critter’s face for too long.
And, since he was doing weekly reports back to Wave of the Future, Dave had to appreciate that the critter was getting easier to handle. He wasn’t wearing his tongue out as often with repeated commands.
Heck, sometimes Rael would up and do what it/he was supposed to before he was told. Dave put it down to the adaptive nature of the critter and tried to absorb more manual before the next shift.
“Didja hear the news?” said Woz. Judging by the tool belt around his waist, he’d been kicking bots again. He didn’t wait for inquiry. “Turns out th’ Drongo got a bonus from the bar fight.”
Typical damned Drongo. “How the flying flakk did he swing that one?”
“One of the guys he busted a face for? He was a long-runner.”
“Long-runner?” Dave echoed in disbelief.
“Yeh, those guys who take bootleg merch down a one-way wormhole and wait the time back so’s it’s aged properly.”
“I know what they do,” said Dave. “And I know the Drongo wasn’t aiming…”
“As if he ever does,” Woz rolled his eyes. “He’s a Lucker, the f–”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” sighed Dave. “Flakking Drongo.”
Every organisation had at least one person like the Drongo. If it had two of them, that organisation was wise to keep said Drongoes far, far away from each other. Drongoes in an enclosed space fissioned.
Unfortunately, the luck gene came with the caveat of karmic rebounds. Good fortune was inevitably paired with a swathe of destruction that almost negated any boons. Almost. Drongoes, or Luckers, as they were known in wider areas, were sought out on the basis that predictable serendipity was worth the occasional disaster. Sometimes, they even made a profit.
None of that, however, stopped anyone swearing at the Drongo or his antics. Even though he couldn’t help how he was, the assembled crew of Mining Station Hippo also couldn’t help thinking he somehow did it on purpose.
Dave just realised. “Isn’t it about a fortnight since the bar fight?”
Woz got the expression of one facing incoming doom. “A bit over. We’re overdue.”
Mama Ore tried to limit the Drongo to one of his famous “good ideas” per fortnight. Just so the accountants could justify the man’s wages. The Drongo, in turn, kept his “good ideas” in a little notebook that the rest of Mining Station Hippo attempted to steal as frequently as humanly possible.
“Hey fellas. I just had a great idea,” said the Drongo as he pounced.
Crud. Too late. And no hard hats anywhere in view.
Woz groaned, “What’s your good idea, Drongo…”
“We can teach your monkey - hi, monkey - to service the still.”
And just like every organisation had to have a Drongo, every station had to have a still. It wasn’t as officially official as, say co-ordinating Drongoes was, but as long as each station had only one still, the mother companies were prepared to look the other way.
And the last time the Drongo had had a “good idea” concerning the still, it had exposed a potentially life-threatening flaw in some low-bid piping by blowing up several square metres of explosion-proof ducting.
“Nobody lets you near the still, Drongo,” said Dave. “Not after what happened the last time.”
“That’s why it’s such a great idea! I won’t have to go near the flakkin’ thing, and your monkey does anything it’s told. Right, monkey?”
“Rael,” gargled Rael in its gravel-bubble voice.
Wow. It had never done that, before. Direct exposure to the Drongo had side-effects on genetech, it seemed. The Cleaners followed him like rats after the pied piper, provided he wasn’t up to one of his stunts, in which case, they became a fair warning sign. Slithering away as fast as their giant, slug-like bodies could carry them.
Dave made a note to write about this happening in his next report. What concerned him now was the Drongo in charge of some thousands of Labor Units worth of scientific research and genetech.
“Under supervision,” Dave allowed. If it saved the still from the Drongo… What could go wrong?
Damnit, I knew I shouldn’t have asked… The mash barrel, a giant, chest-high metal drum, was empty, save for the inert form of Rael. It used to contain forty cubic units of high-octaine mash for 'Space Lightning’, a particularly evil alcoholic brew cooked up wherever mankind could get something to ferment in an otherwise unused container.
“You let it eat some mash,” Dave repeated. He swore he was only called away for a minute or two…
“So it could know the difference between good and sour, yeh,” said the Drongo.
“You taught it,” said Dave in the patient tones used to speak to the near-terminally moronic, “that mash is food. Mash is not food, Drongo. Not food for Rael. There’s whole chapters on what not to feed it. There’s scary chemical diagrams, Drongo. Organic-chemistry scary diagrams. Even the Doc can’t decipher all of those chapters.”
The Drongo was already huddled up, rocking back and forth near the half-serviced - and inactive, Dave had checked three times - company still. What could be deciphered of his side of the conversation was a string of curses.
“The good news, Drongo, is that it isn’t exactly completely broken. All of the stuff I’ve been able to get out of the manual says that it goes silver or loses its shape when it’s in big trouble.”
“Oh, thank flakk…”
“Bad news is, I haven’t the faintest idea what’s wrong with the thing.”
“Y’ got the manual, doncha?” pleaded the Drongo. “You can look stuff up…”
“I can search,” said Dave, flipping the manual on and dialling up the search function. “Doesn’t mean I’ll find anything useful.”
The Drongo went back to swearing.
Dave ignored the repeating, if creatively-strung curses and focussed on the correct search terms. He tried alcohol, and got a helpful caloric chart for converting “real” food to its equivalent mass of kibble. Dave bookmarked that chart for later and tried oatmeal mash. Same chart. A few other combos resulted in the same currently useless information. Frustrated, and sick of the Drongo’s whining by now, he tried overeating.
Success. Sort of. “In the event of Faiize over-feeding,” he read, “a Faiize will cease to be motivated in working and may enter a torpor.” He skipped the incomprehensible blither about metabolic rates and relative digestion periods with a, “Blah, blah, blablabla… He’ll come out of it sooner or later. Grats. You get to drag it to Docs and be my monkey until it gets better.”
The Drongo moaned.
On the upside, he was now obliged to keep his “good ideas” to himself for another two weeks. Pity it wasn’t Standard Calendar weeks, or they’d have twenty days of sincere peace.
Dave tried to find more information as the Drongo laboured under his burden. Sadly, the manual proved to be about as useful and a meringue mattock. The half of his search terms that came up with things he could understand provided little in the way of relevant information. If they provided any information at all. Of the half he couldn’t understand… Doc and the Brain were getting tired of him asking for layman translations.
One more complaint about the manual won’t hurt, he mused, or, probably, have any effect on the upgrades. His numerous complaints had had no effect so far.
Doc took one look at the picture they posed and rolled his eyes. “Drongo encounter. How much damage?”
“He temporarily disabled my monkey,” said Dave. “What I could decipher from the manual says it just kinda shuts down when it over-eats, but…” he did a half-gesture with the manual to indicate that the Doc was free to decipher the rest at his own leisure.
Doc moaned as he took the manual. “Flakking storm rage…” he muttered.
“Yeh. Written by bioengineers and reviewed by bioengineers.” Dave shook his head and waved the Drongo over to dump the unconscious critter on the nearest biometric bunk.
The diagnostic machines automatically activated at Rael’s weight and, trying to scan a human or human hybrid, immediately threw an electronic wobbler involving lots of red lights and beeping. At least until Doc flipped them off.
Dave was only slightly grateful that he was capable of assisting with the logo-emblazoned Faiize Emergency Service Kit. At least he could open the catch and readily identify three of the baffling objects inside. He hadn’t seen as many frightening objects next to each other since he’d accidentally wandered into a gynaecologists’ supplies store, many years ago.
Dave shook away the memories and anxiety and passed Doc the diagnostic dipstick. Then resolutely looked away for the next part. Thing or not, the dipstick looked… uncomfortable. No being deserved lookie-loos when uncomfortable processes - medical or otherwise - were happening to them.
No noise, apart from the familiar, annoyingly friendly chirps of the manual and the occasional mutter from Doc as he translated on the fly.
The Drongo joined Dave in intense concentration, ostensibly examining the bulkhead. Dave fixated on the old weld, part of the repairs after the Drongo’s last truly big incident. It involved a new game he called “asteroid pool” and had ended with the eight-ball metaphorically bouncing off the left pocket and landing in Mama Ore’s beer. Said asteroid was one with Mining Station Hippo, now. Most, but not all of its valuable content lining the company coffers. The rest was a warren of least-cost tunnels to previously valuable content and the occasional conversion to useful space. Dave had his bunk in a cul-de-sac carved into bedrooms.
He couldn’t recall who did that weld. All he remembered of the incident was a godawful bang that woke him up and a mad scramble for the survival suits before a long, monotonous blur of desperate patch up work. This weld wasn’t his, he knew that much. His had been run straight once, and then double-patched with whatever metal flotsam was in his way at the time. Sealed and resealed. Just to be safe.
“You’re gonna hate being my monkey,” said Dave.
The Drongo looked nervous. “I gotta help you in the head?”
“Worse. Sponge baths.”
The highly hetero Drongo made a face. “Gyah… You didn’t make the critter…?”
“Naw. It’s not medically rated. Saw the Doc every other day.”
“Okay then. Woulda been weird. Havin’ that thing wash you down.”
“Yeh. It’s creepy enough helping me on duty.”
“Nah, I mean. It sorta looks like a kid. Dunnit?”
Dave boggled at the Drongo. “You’ve been away from kids too long, Drongo. Mermaids and manatees…”
“What and what?”
And then there were the moments one was reminded that not every Terran descendant knew the interesting bits of Terran history. This one, Dave had picked up from Brain. “Ancient sailing story from Earth. Sailors away from women at sea saw these things that looked like a seal crossed with a walrus and thought they saw mermaids. If they were away at sea too long.”
“True story. Ask Brain.”
Drongo shook his head. “Ain’t been away from brats that long.”
“Good news, gentlemen,” said Doc. “You were correct, Mr Banner. Your creature is, shall we say, only sleeping. I’ll page you when it wakes up. Drongo, the bad news is that you’ll be assisting Dave in the meantime. And should you have another 'great idea’? Control yourself.”
Drongo whined and moaned the entire time. It wasn’t as fun for Dave, either, since the Drongo had a wince-worthy method of doing anything, but at least he knew that the guilty as well as the innocent were suffering.
Not so innocent, he reminded himself, I let the Drongo borrow the damned critter.
Alright, so both of the guilty were suffering while the Faiize apparently slumbered on. Or enjoyed its torpor. Or whatever the flakk it was doing.
Five hours of relative suffering on both sides, the critter turned up in the mess hall. “Rael work,” it said, just as it did at the start of every shift.
“The monkey lives!” The Drongo crowed. “Yes! I’m outta the flotsam!”
Dave rolled his eyes and ignored the Drongo. “Self-diagnose, init,” he told the critter.
“Fully fuctioning,” gargled Rael. “Rael work.”
Thanks to the Drongo, the critter’s work-rest cycle was askew. They’d have to tough it out for a while, but they’d get it synced back up in time. Maybe he should make the Drongo… No. The Drongo was no longer allowed near expensive equipment without a whole work detail to slow him down. Dave hurriedly jotted some cheat notes on a spare readpad and handed it to Rael. “Go kitchen, see Cooky. Give this Cooky. Rael work for Cooky.” Dave waited a second to see if recognition of the commands would spur the critter into motion. No such luck. “Init.”
With luck, one of the many chefs in the mess kitchen would have something for Rael to do in the order of lift-carry-put. And since any chef on any installation used “Cooky” as a title, the critter would have no trouble finding someone to give it work. Him work. Whatever.
Now that the critter was firmly out of the uncanny valley, it was simpler to think of it as a him, if only because everyone on Mining Station Hippo was a him. Flakk, even some of the mindless service bots were hims. Dave sighed, chalked it up to Humans Are Weird and concentrated on his meal. Eating with two broken arms always required concentration.
He dialed up another page on interface upgrade commands, both for something to read as he chewed, and to try and find a method to get the critter to at least blink.
A chorus of wolf-whistles and well-natured hooting heralded the arrival of Mama Ore’s itinerant Cleaner Breeder. Technically, she got paid both by Wave of the Future as a licensed sensory feedback operative, and by Mama Ore when she made sure that the scattered mining stations had a constant re-supply of the bio-engineered Cleaners.
On the few occasions when he’d had the nerve to talk to the dazzling woman – Station rumour held that she was part Mythan Elf – he’d found her business minded and almost eternally happy with her work. She alarmingly referred to Labrador-sized blue slugs as “chickies”, because the Cleaners reminded her of domesticated avians.
Dave quietly looked up various wikis on chickens and concluded that the woman was more than a little bonkers. They looked nothing alike.
Mara greeted all the testosterone-laden noise with grins and waves and the occasional, “Sorry, boys. My wives would kill me,” or, “Taken twice, so hands off.”
She lit at his bench. “Hello, handsome,” she chirped. Mara always chirped.
Dave looked up from his reading and tried not to choke on the broccoli substitute. Eye-poppingly feminine and practically poured into that pink jumpsuit. “…glah?” he managed.
Mara grinned. “I hear there’s another fine Wave of the Future product on Hippo Station.”
Dave swallowed. “Oh. You want to see me about the critter.” As if someone with two wives would look his way for a husband, all of a sudden. He bookmarked his place and passed the manual. “From the looks of this lot, it’s still Beta.”
Mara flicked through a few pages. “I haven’t seen this much technobabble since peer-reviewing theses at Biotech Careers… They made you use this on your own?”
The implied, you blue-collar scut-scout, failed to appear. “Mostly,” he allowed. “Doc and the Brain have helped. Wave of the Future haven’t been good at rewrites. Unless you count adding more as rewriting.”
“They’ll get there. Eventually. I remember the first manuals on my chickies. The physical version may well have broken a barge.”
“Two barges, maybe,” Dave nodded in the general direction of the manual. “With a biotech professor as a chaser.”
Mara laughed. “You’d have better luck with the professor. They’re used to explaining things to new minds. Are you going to be helping with the pit, or…?”
Dave shook his head. “My biotech helper monkey tends to avoid Cleaners,” he said. “It’s an undocumented feature that’s a pain in my–” Mara’s intense femininity made him autocorrect to, “–anatomy.”
“Weird,” said Mara. “They make most of their biotech compatible. Or they should. Nobody wants two different ELF species having a sudden war.”
“This isn’t war, exactly. It’s like–” Dave fumbled for a metaphor. “He’s allergic to them and he doesn’t want to come out in hives.”
“Weird,” Mara reiterated, shaking her head. “Fine. You keep your critter up the other end while I get some eager volunteers to help set up the breeding pit. Let’s not have a case of undocumented compatibility issues on our hands.”
“I’ll drink to that,” said Dave, saluting her with his grav-cup of coffee substitute.
“Oh, keep it in your pants,” Mara joked before she sashayed onwards towards her duties.
Cleaner breeding days were an excuse for most, if not all of the station to have a party, and it wasn’t just because of the quasi-festive silver stars hanging by the pit. First, it was one of the rare occasions when there was a woman on board, second, it was a break from the drudgery and monotony of mining, and third, because copious amounts of “Space Lightning” had to be imbibed for a reason, don'cher know. There was also the gambling and rowdy jokes, some of which Mara actively encouraged.
Dave was happy to avoid it. He still hadn’t figured out how he got that traffic cone, the last time. Besides, it was one of those events where you couldn’t exactly stop the Drongo from happening, despite everyone’s best efforts. And, for a welcome change, there were no Cleaners underfoot to slow Rael down.
He’d been looking forward to a shift where things actually went well for once.
He had two hours of such solitary enjoyment before Murphy’s Laws insisted that everything go immediately pants.
A small horde of drunken miners, not one of them amongst Dave’s friends, swarmed the both of them and literally carried off Rael while one of the heavier ones sat on Dave.
By the time he could get up, they were long gone.
Dave ran anyway. He took every shortcut he knew to the pit. Even though he despised the genetech, he felt responsible for Rael. If those drunken goons did anything…
What could he do?
What could he do? He had broken arms. Plus, Wave of the Future would likely hold him responsible for damage. If they managed to damage the critter.
The manual insisted that the Faiize were more resilient than most engineered life forms.
The manual insisted on a lot of things. Some in direct contradiction to the facts Dave knew. Mostly stuff about the Faiize and their alleged non-relationship with the Cleaners.
That thought caused Dave to run faster. If those yobs were going to do what he thought they were going to do…
Cheering heralded his arrival into the pit room, and he caught the faintest glimpse of Rael’s silver jumpsuit as he fell into the pit.
Then the most ungodly high-pitched howl threatened to break every eardrum in the place. Dave couldn’t block his ears, but he could, with a little wrangling, fit some ear protection that he “creatively borrowed” from the hook on the crane, nearby. And since there was a crane…
Operating heavy machinery with two broken arms is never a wise idea. Dave had to twist his body to move everything the way he needed. This way to change the hook to the grappler. That way to swing it over the pit. Grit teeth and stifle a grunt as the grappler lowered to the distinctly silver figure on the floor of the breeding pit.
He was good at this when he was fifteen. Alas, he’d never had much opportunity to use the skill since then.
He missed the first catch. Used it to shoo away a Cleaner that was too close. Steady. Concentrate. Aim…
Dave hauled Rael out of the pit and to an unoccupied area some several distance units separate from the malarky at the pit. Only once the crane was safely off did allow himself to categorise his aches and pains. Doc was going to give him The Speech, at least. His super was going to have him on Report. Probably.
At least he could say with a straight face that he was endeavouring to save Mama Ore from an expensive industrial incident.
Rael was still howling, and no wonder. Whoever had thought it was a bright idea to drop the Faiize into the Cleaner’s breeding pit also thought it was funny to douse Rael in Cleaner pheromones. He stank.
Dave, already aching, dragged Rael into the decon showers just as the station cops turned up. He could hear the usually chipper and suave Mara shrieking, “Sue them! Sue them!” so hard her voice cracked with the effort.
He’d find out about it later. At the inquest.
At least the hated manual had a procedure for calming a Faiize out of panic mode. First, remove the Faiize from the instigating situation. Check. Remove any lingering trace. Dave turned the showers on to full and, remembering that Faiize liked things warm, upped the temperature controls to steaming hot. Check. Repeat the phrase, “Self-diagnose init!” until there was a response. That is, a verbal one and not the distress howl.
After a subjective eon, Rael said, “Fully functioning.”
Dave turned off the water and produced a damp baggie from his pocket. Step four. “Good job,” he said, opening the packet of vile stuff. “Rael eat, Rael go rest. Init.”
He could do with a rest, too. Unfortunately, it would be in a station side security cell, pending questioning. The security goons had been hovering since halfway through the decon shower.
On the upside, in the bad old days, you weren’t allowed to get medical casts wet, thought his inner optimist. And part-time medical historian.
Which was true, but would not stop the Doc from yelling at him, anyway. It was shaping up to be a very yell-worthy day.
At least Rael was all right. Months, if not years worth of biomedical tinkering, still alive and well and currently about three point five volume units of blue goo in a heated fish tank. And as long as he was alive, Mama Ore didn’t have to pay full price for his replacement.
Being actively worried about the critter didn’t have to enter any reports whatsoever.
Doc’s response to his freedom was, “Great. They finished with you. Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass it is to keep that thing occupied?”
“Rael,” gargled Rael.
“Yes, I know!” Doc wailed as if he’d had too long with that kind of exchange going on. “Take it. Far. Far away. Keep it away from the Drongo and don’t come back with it for as long as physically possible.”
“I was only gone two days,” murmured Dave.
“Two days too long,” said Doc. “Go. Be free. Now.”
“Rael follow,” Dave chirped. Then he had to grin at Doc. The man had read as much manual as Dave. Possibly twice. He should have had an easier time of it.
Should, as his mother was wont to say, is not is.
Rael seemed content enough to do the scut-work, avoiding any wandering Cleaners as he went, of course.
Dave’s limited forays onto the info-nets, in-between conversations with the station police and company insurance adjustors, hadn’t revealed much about Rael’s quirk. A few other Faiize users were complaining of the same undocumented feature, and they were all handlers of the alpha release Faiize. Beta users and onwards had no trouble.
Wave of the Future was oddly quiet about the entire thing.
Rael was getting good at the scut rounds. All Dave had to do was push the service trolley and hand over the occasional stinky baggie. Nice and relaxing. Dull. At long last.
Dave could get very, very used to dull, he decided, and like it. In fact, he enjoyed the dullness for two more Standard weeks before Rael found the dead Cleaner.
They were on feeding rounds and, even though he repeatedly tried to teach Rael to dig out handfuls of Cleaner kibble and scatter them like chicken feed, the Faiize repeatedly insisted on scattering the Cleaner food by holding onto the container with as little contact as physically possible and shaking the contents out from there.
Wave of the Future was eerily quiet about that quirk, too.
One Cleaner remained in a high nook. Inert. Unaware of Dave’s calling. He clambered up with difficulty - there was no way in wide, dark space that Rael was going to fetch it - and gave it a nudge.
He coaxed Rael into passing him a Cleaner Diagnostic Dipstick from the cart and managed to wedge it into an orifice as the instructions on the packet demanded.
No Signal Error.
“It’s dead,” he announced, tossing the used dipstick to the other Cleaners and rolling the corpse down to a more accessible floor level.
“Dead?” said Rael. One of his more annoying quirks of late had been a maddening case of echolalia.
“Dead,” he grunted as he awkwardly clambered back down. “No function. End of line. It’s ceased to be. Its warranty has expired. It’s no longer with us. It’s popped its footwear. It is no more. Its metabolic processes are history. It’s an ex-Cleaner.”
Rael offered the toolbox. “Fix?” Sometimes, it gave commands as questions. Sometimes, those questions even made sense.
“I can’t fix dead,” he said. “You’d need a fully-stocked medbay to even try.”
“Leave it,” Dave ordered, “The others’ll find it and eat it soon enough.”
Rael flashed briefly silver, then darted forward and snatched up the deep blue slug almost the same size as he was. Then he dashed off at top speed towards the central area.
Dave had no idea what his error was, and he was forced to run behind in order to find out. Glimpses of a silver jumpsuit against bland beige rock walls or blander grey station facility bulkheads were all he caught to guide him. It wasn’t until they were nearly there that he realised the critter was heading towards medical.
He caught up after Rael dumped the Cleaner on a biometric bunk.
“Dave? What the flying flakk?” said Doc.
“Broken,” said Rael. “Doc fix.”
It wasn’t one of his broken queries. This was almost… a broken order. “I think it’s BSOD’d,” he managed.
“Broken,” Rael pointed at the Cleaner. “Doc. Fix. Init!”
“Is it… giving me an order?” wondered Doc.
Rael manhandled him over to the Cleaner. “Doc fix Cleaner. Init!”
“It is an order,” blurted Dave.
“Init! Hup hup! Moovit! Pronto! Stat!” Rael was steadily turning silver as he forced Doc’s hands onto the gelatinous corpse. “DOC FIX!”
“I can’t fix dead,” said Doc.
Too-human, ice-blue eyes turned in hurt and betrayal to Dave. “Dave say medbay fix. Need fix broken Cleaner.”
By the Powers ran the Universe. Those were almost complete sentences. He was reasoning. Using logic. Admittedly, it was bad logic, but it was also recognisably logic.
“Why need fix?” asked Dave. “I thought you hated those things.”
The plastic lavender face bent in frustration. “Too small words,” he complained. “Rael… Third making. Fourth making, Cleaner. Fifth making, cleaner. Sixth making, Faiize. Seventh making, Cleaner.”
“Got it,” said Doc. “You could have come out as a Cleaner, too.”
“Rael… clever-boy. Cleaner… No clever-boy.” Rael tentatively untouched the dead Cleaner. “Faiize making, making Cleaners small instance. Cleaner making, no making Faiize. Rael no need Rael making, making Cleaner.” He looked up at them. “Rael rest, Rael view… Rael making. View Cleaner, no Rael.”
Dave breathed out. Rael had seen Cleaners come out of the gestation tubes, rather than fellow Faiize. And when he rested, he had nightmares about being born a Cleaner.
Doc put a more advanced reader into the Cleaner’s orifice, turning the display so Rael could see. “This is an old version,” he said. “Way before the Faiize were planned. It’s not a crèche-sib. It’s… more like a great-great-grand-uncle. I think.”
“No Cleaner eat Rael?”
It worried, too.
“We’ll make sure they don’t,” promised Dave. “Rael take Cleaner to tunnel. Init.”
“No fix dead?”
“No fix dead,” echoed Doc.
They watched the Faiize go at an oddly more respectful pace.
“Well, crap,” said Dave.
“The cetacean said ’take it away’…” murmured Doc.
“Huh?” said Dave. Eloquent, aren’t we?
“Early in the cetacean-human communication efforts,” Doc explained, “A team of scientists trained an orca to respond to synthesised signals by moving a toy. One whistle for ’bring it here’ another for ’take it away’. Well, one day the orca had had a bad day and got sick of the whole thing and threw the toy the flakk out of the pool. And it repeated the signal for ’take it away’ in its own voice.”
“How early was that?”
“Late twentieth century.”
“And it still took two hundred years to recognise their cogniscent’s rights?” he boggled.
“Humans used to be a bit thick,” Doc nodded. “And a touch selfish.”
Dave tried to imagine a whole planet full of ancient Drongoes, and almost broke his brain. “How big’s a touch?” he wondered.
“In this case? Somewhere around a hundred and fifty-five AU.”
Approximately the size of Terra’s solar system. Yikes. “So what happens now?”
“We have to report this. Failing to register a cogniscent species is a crime. You, quietly find out what happens to other Faiize who get too chatty. I’ll get together a crew here to teach him how to read, how to speak properly, and decode this flakking manual into something we can all understand.”
“Including that conversion table for food and kibble. Right?”
Doc had been hobby-working on it in his bored moments. “Yeah, that flakker’s on my priority list, now.”
“A cogniscent being has the right to flavour as well as nutrition,” Dave recited. It was an oft-quoted right in the mess when they were down to low-budget Nutri-food emergency packs at the end of the budget cycle.
“Great. Make sure he knows as many cogniscent rights as you can all possibly look up. Spread the word, verbal only. Rael is no longer expensive equipment. He’s an abandoned child.” Doc rubbed his lower lip. “And try to be sneaky with the customer help forums. Find out how many other Faiize are this clever.”
And since corporate response to any crisis was the four D’s - Deny, Distract, Delay and Decamp - Dave had the sense to realise he had to be very careful indeed. Rare indeed were the companies that employed the one F - Fix it. Statistically, it was safer to bet on the D’s and act accordingly.
When Rael returned, Dave gave him three baggies and a heartfelt, “Good work.”
Rael wouldn’t understand why, yet. But if he picked up language anything like he’d already been doing covertly, he was going to understand soon.
The other guys caught on fast. News like unintentional child labor gets around. Dave thought it a small miracle that 'Don’t know don’t care’ Donovan was busy chalking the Galactic Standard alphabet across three walls. Others were busting out various intelligence-test type twiddle puzzles from secret stashes of things to do when bored. Brain brought out his collected works of Theodor Seuss Geisel. Too-tough Tim unearthed an old children’s book entitled, The Tubby Little Puppy from his personal reading stash. Quiet Sam drew up another series of intelligence tests - along the lower panels of the Mess’ massive Bain-Marie - some designed to detect lateral thinkers. Even the Drongo helped by getting someone sane and responsible to test the true caloric content of the station’s Space Lightning mash.
Some several hundred grown men were suddenly making themselves honorary uncles to someone who was, when they weren’t working, a tub of blue goo. At least they weren’t babbling baby talk or trying to coo.
Rael appeared to be too old for that sort of thing, anyway.
The Hippo Hummers, the station’s acapella glee club, got together to sing the Standard Alphabet, which got complicated around the stunt consonants which stood for sounds used in everyday parlance, but couldn’t be spelled in the traditional English alphabet. Like the raspberry.
Little seemed to make much impact on Rael, who had reverted to his usual doll-like expressionless 'interface’.
After half an hour of nothing, Dave resorted to interface-speak, the language of commands to actively make him learn. He couldn’t tell, at this stage, whether the commands forced behaviour or whether they were a language he could understand.
At least, in retrospect, he had shown signs of being able to understand more than just interface-speak.
They fed him more than he was due, according to the manual, which also made little impact. Dave began to suspect that Wave of the Future encouraged Faiize users to keep the engineered life forms on the barely-stable edge of starvation.
They got him reciting the alphabet, at least. A task worth one small baggie and a sausage from the kitchen. Being able to identify each letter was another job for another time. Normal kids learned by the mnemonic song first, and what each letter was and meant later.
How much later?
Few of the miners had families. It was in most of their contracts. Not one man amongst them recalled learning to read. One vaguely recalled hearing a teacher saying each child learned at their own pace, which was no help whatsoever.
A little more help was reading between the lines in the customer support forums at Wave of the Future. There were plenty of Faiize edging towards their own orca moments. Many customers noted how much the Faiize seemed to understand while being able to speak little.
One had tried to complain about their Faiize’s apparent cogniscence, only to have the created creature removed and replaced by a later version. The creature in question was shipped to a different system. Which spoke a completely different language.
Looks like these folks were going for a twofer. Denial and distraction in the same move. Which meant they were scanning the networks for the one D they dreaded. Discovery.
He took his news to Doc, once Rael was in his heated resting tank. He told the old medic about the four D's business model, about what happened to a Faiize once someone told Wave of the Future that they thought theirs was cogniscent.
This went over Doc’s head and they both knew it.
He’d have to talk to Admin.
Admin were wont to do inadvisable things, despite being told flat-out that they we inadvisable. Like the time they insisted that the Drongo had to learn how to fly a shuttle in an emergency. It didn’t matter how many times the Drongo caused one. Or a few at once. They just kept ploughing on because to do otherwise would be discrimination - another despised business D - and grounds for a lawsuit.
“Doc… You and Brain are better at all the words than I am…” the last time he’d been up to Admin, he’d mumbled and fumbled and said 'um’ way too many times and, overall, wound up sounding like an idiot. “The four of us are gonna have to convince Admin to do the right thing and not tell Wave of the Future about Rael.”
“While, at the same time, telling Cogniscent Rights about Rael and not setting off any alarms.”
And getting Admin to do anything that made perfect sense to normal people was like convincing oatmeal to run uphill. Such a deep, deep pity that Convincing John was completely and utterly fictional. Dave could do with having someone like that on their side.
At least Admin was notoriously slow at scheduling interviews. They’d have plenty of time to gather their wits, rehearse, and organise evidence.
Admin had them all up in their offices the next day.
Crap flakk powers-damned bureaucrats… He tapped his casts together out of nerves and tried his best not to look at his feet. Admin was a different world to the rest of the station. The people who worked there didn’t have bunk rooms, they had apartments. And sponsored schooling for their kids. And better quality clothing that didn’t stain.
“Mister Banner,” said the Super. “I understand this is an unusual group for such a request, so I fast-tracked you.”
Powers curse you to whatever hell you fear worst…
“What seems to be the problem with your genetech?”
Translation: I didn’t read the executive summary you spent hours slaving over. Dave cleared his throat. “Um.” Damnit. “I wasn’t, um, planning on being, um, spokesperson? I’m… Not that, um, articulate.”
“Quite,” said the Super. “Take your time.”
I’m probably going to have to… “Um. Once upon a time? On Earth? There was this Orca? Um. And they were, um, training it? Um. And one day it… Um. It threw the ball away? Andum, told the people to piss off? Um.” O Powers, he was looking at his feet and mumbling and he couldn’t stop himself. “And Rael’s kinda doing that. Sort of.”
“The genetech… sort of threw a toy?” said the Super.
“Ididn'thaveanytimetoprepare,” Dave told the carpet.
Doc stepped forward to translate, “What Mr Banner is trying to say, is that Rael has shown signs of cogniscence by attempting to order us, in the lexicon he’s been given.”
“We have, um, footage,” said Dave, who fumbled the datacubes and dropped them on the floor. “Aw man…”
Rael, without being ordered, picked them up, sorted them, and lined them up on the Super’s desk.
“And that’s just one example of autonomous behaviour,” said Brain.
“If it’s performing actions without orders,” said the Super, “What proof is there that it won’t malfunction and become hazardous.”
“What proof you not malfunction?” said Rael.
Dave closed his eyes. Ever since they’d been working on Rael’s vocabulary, he’d been arguing. About everything. Doc and Brain insisted that this was a good thing, but Dave’s instincts screamed, You do not argue with Admin!
“Um. Sir? Before you decide? Uhm… Wave of the Future’s been, um, trying to hide. That the Faiize are, um, cogniscent. They’ve taken, um, suspected cogniscent Faiize? Andum, moved them? To, um, places where they, um, don’t speak the language.”
“It’s typical issue avoidance,” said Brain. “In order to illegally conceal the fact that the Faiize are cogniscent, Wave of the Future shuffle their product around so that they always seem… well. Stupid.”
“Just how intelligent is it, really?”
Ugh. Admin always had problems with anything smarter than it was, and there were slime moulds that were smarter than Admin.
Dave stared at the carpet and tapped his casts together and mumbled, “Um. We can’t tell properly.”
“We don’t have access to standard intelligence or cogniscence testing,” said Doc. “Strictly using available materiel, we’ve been able to ascertain that Rael is high-functioning and smarter than first impressions reveal.”
Dave winced. “Smarter” was a bad word in Admin.
“Requesting a full evaluation by Cogniscent Rights would set off alarms in Wave of the Future, and encourage them to begin their illegal concealment procedure,” said the Super. “Starting fresh with a new Faiize would be time consuming and expensive. Even using available materiel.”
Typical Admin, think of the budget first and the people last. Dave sprained something, keeping his eyes from rolling in their sockets.
“Obviously, the need to properly assess, and quietly report, is paramount. We need someone capable of evaluating the creature–”
“My name is Rael,” grated Rael.
“–and staying to educate it and prepare for the inevitable trial. All whilst remaining on unofficial channels.” The Super leaned back and temples his hands. “Hippo Station needs a JOAT.”
“JOAT?” echoed Rael.
“Jack of all trades,” said Dave automatically.
“Or Jill,” said Doc. “Or Jharn.”
“They’re multiply fascinated with various disciplines,” said Brain.
“What?” said Rael.
“They do a little bit of everything,” translated Doc.
Rael considered this. “Rael is JOAT?”
“Not yet,” allowed Doc. “First, you have to become a citizen. Then go to some schools.”
The Super cleared his throat. “I’ll get started on the hiring process. In the meantime, you may begin working on its undocumented rights.”
Translated: You may take this conversation elsewhere, I have paperwork to file.
Dave was glad to flee the gleaming white corridors of Admin, and could not move fast enough. His heart lowered to his chest once he was in the familiar grey bulkheads of the working part of the station, and began slowing down to a normal beat.
“If Wave of the Future turns up instead of a JOAT?” he said, “We use the four D’s on them.”
Brain sighed at him. “Have you considered psychological assistance in combatting your phobia of Supers?”
“I’m not afraid of Supers. I just… can’t… talk to them.”
Brain snorted through a smirk at his lame denial. “Sure…”
If there was one certainty in the universe, it was that Admin would take forever in getting what was very obviously needed now. Dave quickly learned that another certainty was that Admin did the exact opposite of what everyone expected them to do; so, of course, the JOAT turned up on the next shuttle service, apparently walking a closet on a leash.
JOATs, Dave knew, made their own first coat as part of their graduation exercises. Thus, each coat was as individual as each JOAT. The only common theme was rainbow patchwork. From there, things got complicated.
This JOAT had chosen a tumbling cube pattern that both dazzled and confused the eye, in a long, swishy style that belied the fact that she must have been carrying another small ton of gear in the thousands of pockets that were the coat’s main purpose. She saw him with Rael and gave an exuberant wave and a cheerful, “Waheeeyyyy!”
That was the last Dave saw of her for an hour because Doc had to clear her and all of her gear for station work. And JOATs kept every last thing that could possibly be useful. Sometimes, they traded it. Rarely, it even became useful.
Dave tried desperately to focus on work and not ponder what was in the portable closet.
It was a pity he failed.
The box reappeared in the Mess, the object of some curiosity by the assembled crew. It had been originally painted duck egg blue, and a majority of it was covered with tourist stickers. One side remained blank, the side normally facing a wall, except for artistic paint work that made it look like a panelled siding with windows near the top.
“P,” read Rael. “O. L. I. C. E…”
“Very good,” said Dave, who was still trying to figure out the ancient spelling.
“Police public call box,” said Brain, who was grinning at a joke he knew better than to try and explain. “The dimensions aren’t quite right and the windows are too small.”
“Okay…” said Dave, edging away.
The JOAT approached, wearing a brown vest under her dazzling rainbow coat. “Hello. You can call me Dode.” She bent to hold out a hand for Rael. “You must be my secret main client. Rail, right?”
“Rael,” said Rael. And without prompting or any variety of education, copied the human greeting of shaking hands.
He must’ve picked it up in the rare times that new people came in. It wasn’t as if the mining crews spent every minute greeting each other. Just as advertised, he was observant, adaptive, and capable of learning how to handle any situation.
Exactly like every other cogniscent being.
“I heard you’ve been working with available materiel,” said Dode. She took in the alphabet across the room and the improvised chalk boards around Rael’s height. “That’s why I bought the Big Box.”
Dave boggled at it. “It’s bigger than a standard bunk room…”
Dode got speculative. “Now there’s an idea… Pity I’d have to shift out some of the more interesting stuff to make room,” she grinned. “You’d be surprised how much I can fit in there.”
Dave would bet an Hour he wouldn’t, given the cubic volume of the big blue box and the packing ability of JOATs; but he decided not to wager on it, because JOATs not only packed things into spaces that were impossible, but they packed things between things that had been packed into spaces that were impossible.
“We’re on a schedule set by people three or four jumps away,” Dave said, diverting his mind and the conversation from JOATs and their collections. “Wave of the Future know the Faiize are cogniscent. They’re in the middle of the four D’s and other people who know about the Faiize are communicating, but edgy. If we let on we know, they take him away to somewhere he has to start all over again. If we tell Cogniscent Rights, they notify Wave of the Future, and they do the hot potato shuffle.”
“Potato?” said Rael.
“If you do anything on the public 'nets, they find out and they do the hot potato shuffle,” said Dode. “Advertise on the public 'nets that you have a private 'net, they send in a covert operative to monitor, discovery is made, et cetera.”
“Potato?” said Rael, pointing to some on Dave’s tray.
“Try spelling 'potato’,” said Dave, sneaking education into an infuriating habit.
“Nice trick,” said Dode. Her head nodded in approval with each letter. “You reward, of course.”
“Naturally,” said Dave. He dolloped a large portion of the Nutri-Food pseudo potato onto Rael’s waiting tray. “Doc figures Rael’s metabolism is massive, and what he’s been able to analyse of the kibble says that it’s mostly full of all sorts of additives.”
“Growth hormone and metabolic inhibitors?” Dode guessed.
“Amongst other things,” said Dave, “how did you…?”
“I read up on anti-ethical genetech corps on the way here,” Dode sighed. “Okay, Rael… Combo vocal and sign words. Let’s get the flash-cards…”
Dave half-assumed that there would be fumbling and semi-comic tossing of bizarre objects from the mobile closet. Narrative imperative demanded at least one off-screen cat yowl. Dode indulged in one of that. She went straight to what was needed and drew it out of the surprisingly organised cram in less than a minute.
During the beginning of Rael’s more official education, Dave found out about the JOAT network. You had to be an official JOAT to be on it, and no JOAT worth their Time was going to let a company who hired them know that they knew they were evil. They’d just do their job, 'creatively borrow’ any damning evidence they could, quietly leave and never come back. Then all the JOATs in any nearby area would never go there either. Various law enforcement agencies would find all the damning evidence on their metaphorical doorstep. News agencies would also discover copies in case the law enforcement could legally do little. And, slowly but very surely, life would become incredibly expensive for the company and certain key representatives.
Wave of the Future was already doomed. And if it was really wicked, the JOATs present would sabotage it on the way out.
That news made Rael try to smile.