The Final Frontier: A Jar of Goodwill

I think the entire Humble Bundle I just got might just be short story anthologies, which is certainly fine by me for purposes of blog fodder. Today’s story comes from the Final Frontier, which is a collection of stories that would be Star Trek episodes if Smart Publishing had the Star Trek IP.

Not that all stories necessarily follow the Star Trek format of being a ship exploring on behalf of some more-or-less utopian space communists. The first story opens with this line, for example:

You keep a low profile when you’re in oxygen debt. Too much walking about just exacerbates the situation anyway.

This is definitely a planet that the Enterprise would visit somewhere outside of Federation space. The whole theme of the first few pages is that space is super inhospitable, which has the obvious-in-hindsight consequence that being poor really sucks in space. Whereas on Earth, limited access to water is almost always a clear sign of corporate abuse and limited access to air is unthinkable, in space, that stuff has to be imported, which means someone is shipping it out here, and that guy needs a paycheck. This is the kind of place where you’d like to have some government intervention so that everyone gets to breathe courtesy of taxpayer dollars, but absent that, your debt grows with literally every breath you take.

Our protagonist is “Alex” and the story is written first person, so I have no idea whether they’re male or female. The setup is that Alex is running up a big air debt, and the harbormaster of the station they stay on is having difficulty justifying letting Alex continue to run up that debt. The alternative is usually to go into hibernation and only be thawed out for guaranteed work until they’d built up enough spare funds to buy their contract back. It’s left unclear what the effects of long-term hibernation would be. Do you still age? Can you go crazy from it? Either way, Alex isn’t looking forward to it. The harbormaster does have an alternative, though.

He waved a hand, and a holographic image of the ship I’d just seen coming in to dock hung in the air. “They’re asking for a professional Friend.”

I can totally see people asking for a professional “keep me from going mad from isolation” Friend if they’re alone, but this ship already has multiple crewmembers, so what’s up?

I looked at the long ship. “I’m not a fuckbot. They know that, right?”

“They know that. They reiterated that they do not want sexual services.”

“I’ll be outside the station. Outside your protection. It could still be what they want.”

“That is a risk. How much so, I cannot model for you.” The harbormaster snapped his fingers, and the ship faded away. “But the contractors have extremely high reputational scores on past business dealings. They are freelance scientists: biology, botany, and one linguist.”

So naturally the next couple of paragraphs go into the possibility of rape. Unlike in the last story, it doesn’t seem like it’s being invoked for pure shock value. It’s a sensible risk to consider, and it helps establish how powerless the protagonist is in the dystopia that is space capitalism.

Once we get on board the ship, we finally learn what kind of gibbly bits Alex has:

“Now, for my own edification, you are a hermaphrodite, correct?”

I flushed. “I am what we Friends prefer to call bi-gendered, yes.” Where the hell was Oslo from? I was having trouble placing his cultural conditionings and how I might adapt to interface with them.

Also, Alex is apparently not just an odd-jobber who picked up this professional Friend gig because it was available and they were otherwise out of options. They are apparently a professional Friend. But why? They used to live on a space station, people were crammed into corridors full of sleeping tubes stacked ten high. Granted, that’s because living space is hyper-expensive in space, but it still suggests a minimum of several hundred occupants. That’s not a complaint, though, it seems like exploring what on Earth a professional Friend does is going to be an actual part of the story.

The story was threatening to invalidate my “Star Trek but without the IP” guess I made up at the top with all its dystopian space capitalism, but it seems like we’ve got, if not actual aliens, then transhuman sub-cultures so radically divergent they may as well be:

“Your Friend training: did it encompass Compact cross-cultural training?”

I slowed down. “In theory,” I said slowly, worried about losing the contract if they insisted on having someone with Compact experience.

Oslo’s regret dripped from his voice and movements. Was it regret that I didn’t have the experience? Would I lose the contract, minutes into getting it? Or just regret that he couldn’t get someone better? “But you’ve never Friended an actual Compact drone?”

 

“I’m the botanist,” Oslo said. “Meals are in the common passenger’s galley. The crew of this ship is Gheda, of course, don’t talk to or interact with them if you can help it. You know why?”

“Yes.” The last thing you wanted to do was make a Gheda think you were wandering around, trying to figure out secrets about their ships, or technology. I would stay in the approved corridors and not interact with them.

Oslo is evasive as to the purpose of their mission, but does mention that he doesn’t want people finding out that they’re looking for someone who can “Friend” a Compact drone, because that would help them find out what their mission is. This would probably give me some idea of what they’re up to if I had any idea what a Compact drone was, or what professional Friendship entailed.

Pretty soon we figure out that Gheda are in fact space aliens:

Oslo had a rueful smile as he leaned back and folded his arms. “Cruzie says that our kind used to think our corporations were rapacious and evil before first contact. No one expected aliens to demand royalty payments for technology usage that had been independently discovered by us because the Gheda had previously patented that technology.”

I mean, our corporations only act with comparative restraint because governments threaten them with militaries. Corporations like the East India Trading Company, operating in an era when governments gave absolutely no fucks what you did in other nations, didn’t even bother to claim that they were upholding patents or trademarks or whatever. They just outright pillaged any nation they could overpower.

“I know. They hit non-compliant areas with asteroids from orbit.” Unable to pay royalties, entire nations had collapsed into debtorship.

When was first contact, 1955? We used a probe built in 2004 to land on a comet well past the orbit of Mars. Aliens try to huck a rock at us, we have proven capabilities to land a payload on them, landing a slightly larger payload, big enough to throw an asteroid off course, shouldn’t be much harder. So do the Gheda follow the asteroid to Earth and intercept any deflection missions? ‘Cause it seems like it would be easier to just do a kinetic bombardment at that point. You can basically carpet-nuke a nation, but without the radiation. You can make the kinetic projectiles exactly the size you want to only devastate non-compliant areas, too, instead of using uneven, misshapen asteroids that will either destroy more or less of the area than you want.

I’d feel bad about nitpicking an ultimately unimportant detail like this, but this is an “as you know, Bob” conversation to begin with.

So, here’s the mission: The Gheda rule the universe. They’re evil, and they love themselves some patents. Patents are insanely valuable, and this science team has found a new, life-sustaining planet that they believe has patentable organisms. Because naturally you can patent biological systems so long as you’re the first one to find them. Alex says this will make them “nation-rich.” I don’t know if that’s some in-universe term that means “rich enough to live in a nation instead of a corporatist dystopia” or if it means what it sounds like to us in 2019, i.e. “rich enough to buy Germany and turn it into an Oktober-fest themed amusement park.”

Either way, the problem is that they don’t know if the creatures on the planet are intelligent or not. If the creatures are intelligent, it’s first contact, and the science team is obligated under pain of death to tell the Gheda as soon as they know, at which point the Gheda show up and patent all the new lifeforms. Somehow this involves keeping a Compact drone mentally stable on the way to the planet.

Compact drones, it turns out, are a transhuman hive mind:

He tapped metal inserts on the back of his neck. His mind plugged in to the communications network, talking all the way back to the asteroid belt in the mother system, where the Compact’s Hive thrived. Back there, Beck would always be in contact with it without a delay. In instant symbiosis with a universe of information that the Compact offered.

So Alex’s job is to make sure this guy doesn’t go bugfuck on the way to the planet on account of being on an hour-long delay for contact with the Hive in the asteroid belt of Sol. That means his communication is much faster than speed of light (unless they’re somehow still in the Sol system, yet discovering new planets?), but not instantaneous. Likewise, the Compact drone was alone for several days on the way from the Hive to the ship, but that’s still not nearly enough to get to even Alpha Centauri without breaking the speed of light. So we definitely have FTL, but there’s some other speed limit.

The Compact drone has a name, Beck, which I find odd. If he’s used to being part of a hive mind, then there should be no gap between his thoughts and the rest of the hive’s. Just like the two hemispheres of our brain communicate instantaneously to the point where you don’t even realize that two separate entities are responsible for moving the left and right halves of your body, members of a hive should be unable to distinguish between one another until separated from the hive. Naming an individual drone is like naming an individual finger. The name of my left index finger is “left index finger,” not “Sally.”

In fairness, until we have the neuroelectronics to actually create a hive mind, we won’t know for sure, but the way the hemispheres of our brain currently interact when severed from one another (which we used to do in order to treat seizures) suggests that you can actually split a human consciousness into two distinct entities by cutting the hemispheres away from one another, and the two distinct entities can even fail to get along.

But there is no distinction before the severing, elsewise you could ask the non-speaking hemisphere of your brain to communicate to you by writing to you, and it would just do that, the same way we can get the two different hemispheres to communicate with an experimenter when they’re severed. But it doesn’t do that, because it is so seamlessly merged with your consciousness that there is no distinction. You are not your speaking hemisphere (usually the left, but it’s not consistent), with your non-speaking hemisphere along for the ride and unable to talk, because whichever hemisphere is in charge of language, both are in charge of a hand of your body. Both of them can write, but the guy who can’t talk never writes a message independent of the guy who can talk, even when given an opportunity and explicitly asked to do so, except when the two hemispheres are severed.

We are all a hivemind of two, and the only time we ever refer to the other hemisphere as a separate entity is when we are discussing a hypothetical severing of them. Both of me are cooperating to write this message right now. If the other guy really was right now an other guy and not just part of me, now’s his chance to object. He’s got control of one of the hands on the keyboard right now. It’s not like I’d go into denial. I’d delete the whole spiel on hive minds and also start looking up university science departments to call because holy shit. But it’s not happening.

In fairness, Beck knew he was getting severed in advance. The Hive might’ve named him before shipping him out because they knew he’d need it soon.

Anyway, Beck is clingy as Hell.

“I’m lonely over here. Can you sleep by me?”

I walked over and sat next to him. “I won’t have sex with you. That’s not
why I’m here.”

“I’m chemically neutered,” Beck said as we curled up on the bed. “I’m a drone.”

As we lay there, I imagined thousands of Becks sleeping in rows in Hive dorms, body heat keeping the rooms warm.

But also, Beck is pretty sure that 1) the aliens on the planet are, in fact, intelligent, and 2) the scientists are all extremists who are willing to do crazy things to secure the money. Like exterminate an entire species or whatever. Beck is trying to prevent that from happening, he informs Alex, trying to delay verification of intelligence until the Gheda show up.

But then the scientists figure out that the space ants on the newly discovered planet have a form of written language. A weird, scent-based kind of writing, but unfortunately the explanation is split across too much space to be copy/pasted. It’s cool, though. They’re non-verbal and communicate with scent because they’re space ants, so they store scents in gourds instead. Which means every book is infrastructure, but hey, it’s something.

When the scientists figure this out, they also figure out that Beck is lying to them (with Alex’s help, since they’re contractually obligated to honestly report emotions), but then proximity sensors indicate the Gheda are approaching, so the team needs to decide now whether to admit that they have confirmed the bugs are sapient or to…do whatever the shady other option is. They’re so slim on time that they need to take an immediate vote on whether to activate sinister plan B, which means sinister plan B must be something that can execute in, like, an hour.

“What we’re about to do is something that requires debate. They’re intelligent. We’re proposing ripping that away over the next day with Kepler’s tailored virus. They’ll end up with a viral lobotomy, just smart enough we can claim their artifacts come from natural hive mind behavior. But we’ll have stolen their culture. Their minds. Their history.” Cruzie shook her head. “I know we said they’re going to lose most of that when the Gheda arrive. But if we do this, we’re worse than Gheda.”

That’s a Hell of a fast-acting virus. How do you even get it to spread across an entire planet that quickly? Are these space ants super localized?

“It’s us or the fucking ants,” Kepler said, voice suddenly level. “It’s really that simple. Where are your allegiances?”

I bit my lip when I heard that.

“Cruzie . . .” I started to say.

She held a hand up and walked over to the console, her thumb held out. “It takes a unanimous vote to unleash the virus. This was why I insisted.”

Which means that she can thwart this just by being obstinate. Or by having designed the stupidest unanimous vote system ever:

Cruzie jerked around, arms flopping as she danced, then dropped to the ground. Oslo pressed the stick to her head and fired it again. Blood gushed from Cruzie’s eye sockets as something inside her skull went ‘pop.’

A wisp of smoke curled from her open mouth.

Oslo and Kepler put thumbs to the screens. “We have a unanimous vote now.”

So apparently this system doesn’t require all three thumbprints to activate. It just requires all surviving thumbprints, and can detect when Cruzie’s dead.

The Compact has hacked their communications to block them off, though, so the two remaining scientists decide to descend to the world and deploy the virus manually. Alex is coming along in order to watch Beck, because they’re afraid that killing Beck will cause the Compact to retaliate. But, like, are they not going to retaliate over the planned genocide? Do they not already know that the scientists are planning to lie to the Gheda, which means retaliation is as easy as telling the Gheda “hey, these guys are lying to you?” Game over, Compact wins, all the two remaining scientists can do now is either lobotomize the space ants or not, and the former option doesn’t really help them anymore.

Down on the planet, Alex declines to tell the scientists that Beck is about to make a run for it, and when he does, he’s able to warn the space ants, because plot twist, he was secretly sent to be an ambassador to them all along. Or else his body was modified to communicate with them while on the ship somehow. Either way, the space ants destroy the scientists virus emitter, join the Hive, and give Alex a squillion dollars. A considerably smaller squillion than if they’d gotten the contract, but enough that they get a legit room back on their old space station and all the air they can breathe. And also there’s some parting note about how nothing’s really human anymore.

I spent a lot of time nitpicking the story’s faults, but that’s probably mainly because I forgot to get groceries yesterday and haven’t eaten in sixteen hours. The story has a lot of good ideas in it, and while its climax is undercut by the fact that the evil scientists have lost long before the story notices, other than that, the ideas all work when they’re supposed to. Alex is a weird transhuman bi-gendered genemodded Friend, Beck is a weird transhuman hive mind drone, even the harbormaster from the beginning of the story is a weird transhuman machine interface thing. What you would expect to be the protagonists of a sci-fi story – the regular human scientists – are, with one exception, actually the villains, while the main hero of the story, Beck, is basically the Borg. I can nitpick a lot of the details (I can definitely nitpick the story’s futurism, in that technologies are invented drastically out of order that we’d expect them to be feasible given our current understanding), but everything the story needed to work, worked.

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