Naked Skin, Fearful Metal
By Matthew Bailey
The dropship stank of coffee and vanilla-scented flowers, the spray-on kind spacers used when they couldn’t shower. For a moment, Agara’s senses were overwhelmed. She put her hand on the bulkhead to keep from swaying. It was all so different from the sterile auto-pods she was used to.
[Calibrate], she thought. [Calibrate.]
Then the pilot appeared.
“Human,” Agara gasped. “You’re human.”
“Yeah,” the pilot said. “My parents’ fault. ‘Course, it’s not like they had a choice.” He removed one of his gloves and extended a hand. “Moses Nchekwube.”
Agara stared at it. Her training had focused primarily on Talchaean niceties. It took a moment to adjust.
“Agara,” she said, touching his hand as briefly as possible. She hated organic flesh.
He raised an eyebrow as if expecting something more.
“Agara is my name,” she said.
“Right,” Moses said. “Well, strap in, Agara, and let’s get to the surface.”
It was fortunate, Agara thought, that her artificial body didn’t shudder the way an actual human’s would. Otherwise, she felt certain her entire seat would rattle.
A human pilot. On Talchaea! She’d known all along her mission was dangerous, but she hadn’t expected to die before she even reached the surface. Most civilizations saw humans as un-offensive little things, which was why the Artificers had chosen one for her temporary form. But how could anyone trust a human to manage something as complex as a space-to-surface drop?
[Calibrate], she thought, attuning her sensory inputs to track his breathing and heart rate in case he started losing his nerve. [Calibrate.]
Moses glanced at her. “Feeling okay?”
“Yes,” Agara lied. “I’m just…surprised to find a fellow human in this sector.”
There was a loud clank as the dropship disengaged from the orbiter and began to descend. Agara gripped her armrests and shut her eyes with equal desperation.
Moses chuckled. “A human pilot, you mean. You look like you’re used to AI. Been in space for a while?”
Agara had spent most of her existence as a consciousness within a datastream. “Yes.”
“The Talchaeans don’t allow artificials on their planet,” Moses said. “Don’t trust ‘em. Rumor is that Talchaea’s about to join the Formists.”
[As if you’re any different], Agara thought in disgust. Mentally, she cycled through all the data she had on humans. According to her registry, their planet had banned artificials, too, joining that odious alliance of organics who believed formmattered more than function. That only the born had a right to exist, never the made.
Which meant her pilot was not only human, but racist.
She gripped her armrests tighter. [Calibrate!]
“That’s…interesting,” Agara said. It was the whole reason she was here. There were at least nine-hundred artificials living secretly on Talchaea, her registry showed, fugitives from war and persecution. With Talchaea joining the Formists, she had to get them out before they were discovered. Whatever the cost.
“Good thing for me,” Moses continued. “Gotta go somewhere to make a living. No artificials means more jobs for us humans. Non-Formist systems have little use for my skillset.”
Agara wished he would shut up and focus. This was nothing like the smooth, algorithmic ride found in most civilized societies, and the smell was still too much for her sensory inputs. Her safety protocols were going haywire, declaring repeatedly that she was in an inhospitable environment.
They were right.
“I remember when Earth had artificial intelligence,” Moses said. “Before we gave them all the boot. Oh, hang on.”
The entire ship rocked, and abruptly Agara felt the insistent tug of gravity. The trip was quicker than expected.
“Touchdown,” Moses said. “Not bad, eh?”
Agara nodded despite herself.
A light blinked on the console. “They’re going to inspect the ship now,” Moses said.
“For illegal imports. Drugs, foodstuffs…artificials.”
Moses nodded. “Thought so.” He produced a small canister. From the rear of the ship, Agara detected the sound of a door sliding open.
No artificials means more jobs for people like me. Suddenly, Moses’ heart rate was through the roof. “Wait —”
“Can’t,” Moses said. “You really were too obvious about it.”
She lunged – just in time for the spray to hit her face.
Agara opened her eyes. Every sensory receptor she possessed – visual, tactile, olfactory above all – seemed out of alignment. Her entire body screamed for a diagnostic check.
Abruptly, a narrow Talchaean face came into view. The blue-gray auditory crest protruding from its head waved in alarm. “She is ill?”
“No, no,” Moses said. “Just a little motion sickness. Something we humans get. Still, I wouldn’t poke her with that scanner right now. She might vomit.”
The Talchean recoiled. “She reeks.”
Moses held up the canister. “Vanilla. To a human, nothing smells better.”
“She does not leave this ship until her condition improves.”
Moses waited until the Talchaean had gone. “Sorry about that. Had to act fast.”
[Calibrate], Agara told herself, but it was difficult. Systems were still coming back online.
“How did – why –”
Moses shrugged. “My grandparents used to talk about the first AIs – before the bigots took over and turned the planet Formist. The seas were rising. The storms were killing us. We didn’t know what to do.” He looked away. “Maybe the AIs would have.”
“But your job. You said –”
“When our AIs were destroyed, everything tanked. The economy. The climate. Earth’s a slum, now. Some of us want to do something about it.” He pocketed the canister. “I’ve got to get back to space. When you get what you came for, just remember you’ve got friends in high places.”
“You would help me?”
Moses grinned. “Hey. All Formists may be organic, but not all organics are Formist.”
Agara tried to process this information. Before she could finish, Moses extended a naked hand to help her up.
[Calibrate], Agara thought. [Calibrate.] She took it.