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The shock of impact would have killed a human. Hundreds of gees wrenched her spacecraft and the sound of twisting metal filled her audio spectrum from moaning bass to eerie treble. Her craft began to spin. Through stress-opened rents in the hull, Greki could see glimpses of black, of brilliant white, of planetary cloud. She could hear the ship’s air escaping, could even feel the air moving across the frayed fabric of her wrist joint. The ship began, unnecessarily, to beep.

By the time these physical reports trickled in, her mind had already outraced them. Her clock speed was in the hundreds of terahertz, far faster than the timescales on which physical objects moved, far faster even than the speed at which she could steer her vision or register sound. By the time her ship had completed its second beep, she had concluded that:

  1. This “abandoned salvage” had been even less abandoned than usual and
  2. Her ship had almost certainly been disabled by a large impulse bomb, which meant
  3. She was not dealing with the security bots of a minor mining operation, but with a response from the Orion Arm itself, which meant
  4. They knew she was no ordinary human pirate.

The Orion Arm didn’t like it when droids turned pirate, or indeed when they did anything other than follow orders. Humans were uncomfortable with the thought of dead humans uploaded into their appliances, although not so uncomfortable that they would exchange competent droid minds for unintelligent bots. They were, however, very uncomfortable with anything that resembled a droid uprising. Even a runaway housekeeping droid like her was worth the attention of real security forces. Particularly if her capture would lead them to other pirates—and it would. She was no pilot droid, so they would catch her easily, and then they would download her conveniently digitized memories, learn the location of Tatloor, travel there, and obliterate its small cluster of free droids. As if to confirm this, an alert message arrived from the Orion Arm ship. 22:Resistance is futile.

The ship was beginning its third beep, and Vroom and Squeegee, jostled loose by the impact, had begun to emit little beeps as well. The cleaning bots floated ineffectually in the microgravity and tried to suck up the glittering silver debris that was filling the cabin.

Beep, she thought, and then said it aloud because she had a beeper and why the hell not. “Beep. Beep.”

There was one way left to keep her brain from Orion Arm. She wrenched the controls and sent her ship into a death-dive toward the clouds of Bal Panda.

She had not really expected to survive impact with the planetary surface. She remembered watching the hull glow redder and redder as atmospheric entry overwhelmed the ship’s failing heat shields, and she even remembered seeing the metal of her hands blacken with char from burning fabric. Just as the upper cloud deck came into view, her system had initiated an emergency overheat shutdown, and she had expected that to be it. She would end her second life as a chunk of glowing space junk—maybe, if she was lucky, a small impact crater.

Instead, she came back online to find the cabin filled with smoke and the ship still beeping, audible over the howling of Bal Panda’s winds. There was also an emergency alert broadcast on all channels, with high priority. 75:Imminent fuel cell breach. Well, that was bad. Those were usually followed by impressive explosions. She sent an alert of her own, 124:Homing:Return to me, and was rewarded with two pings, followed a few hundred milliseconds later by Vroom and Squeegee, beeping and hovering by her shoulder as she undid her restraints. She could feel the current overloads growing, the tiny induced currents that buzzed in her own circuits in response. How many milliseconds did she have left? The cabin door wouldn’t open, but the hull was fractured and still molten-soft. She grabbed the hull and tore. Even a housekeeping droid was much stronger than a human, although this was something her makers had downplayed. Certainly, the image of her ripping open a spaceship hull with arm strength alone would not have been good for marketing the EZ-Clean bot system. Rawr, she thought. And also, beep.

She scrambled from the wreckage, was knocked over by screaming winds, and staggered to her feet again, trying to put distance between herself and the ship’s fuel cells. She registered the fading beeping of Vroom and Squeegee, blown away from her in the hurricane, and she sent them another homing command, hoping the two bots would be able to obey. Thick cloud hid the ground two steps in front of her, and the twisted hulk of the ship behind her—she was relying on her lidar now, illuminating the scene in quick flashes of vision.

Flash—her arm covered in fine frost.

Flash—a jagged scrap of metal rising before her.

Flash—the ground tilted wildly as she struggled to recover from her dodge.

Flashflash—that was the fuel cells, and she commanded the two bots to drop even as she threw herself to the ground. Beep, beep, beep, she thought, feeling the ground rumble beneath her, then a sharper jolt as a giant hull fragment gouged a crater mere meters from her head.

She was lucky. When the explosion and its aftershock ended, she was still alive to get up and run again. This time, she was running from the Orion Arm ship that might come to investigate the crash site. She sent another homing command to her two bots and kept running.

The wind was unceasing and the landscape was dark, shrouded in who-knew-how-many kilometers of cloud, the lights on her chassis casting little glowing beams of blue and green. She’d taped them over long ago, but the heat of reentry must have burnt it away, leaving her chassis charred dark and her lights more prominent than ever. Now she was the sole bright object on an icy windswept plain, running at top speed into the dark. At first she stumbled, unused to moving in hurricane-force winds. But her chassis had come with stabilization routines and they adjusted her motor commands, tweaking them until her locomotion matched prediction, giving her the freedom to assess her situation.

It wasn’t great. She was currently traveling at top speed away from her ship, which had been her only way off this planet, but which was now disabled, burned, and finally, exploded. Her fuel cells were at 65% and she could run for four more hours like this before having to stop to recharge. She wondered how much longer the night would be, and then wondered how long Bal Panda’s day actually was. She knew little about the planet other than what she had seen from orbit: shrouded in thick storm-swirled bands of hydrocarbon clouds, cold enough for its atmospheric carbon dioxide to fall to the ground as frost. There would be no native life and no human settlements on a planet this cold. It was the asteroid belt that interested miners, and its position on the outermost edge of the worlds where people lived. If she’d been a research droid, or quite a few things other than a runaway housekeeping droid, she would have had memory banks where she could download petabytes of information about Bal Panda, including maps of any research outposts, which would have come in very handy just now. She did have memory banks, but they were read-only, and filled with worthless details about the hotel where she’d used to work. All she had was the memory capacity of her digitized human brain, and she’d been too busy being a pirate to load it properly. So she ran on into the dark gale for another four hours, stumbling when the wind changed direction, wiping her cameras when they frosted up, even though they never showed anything but gloom.

When she had finished her first recharge cycle and still seen no sign of Vroom and Squeegee, she turned around and spent the next four hours running back. It wasn’t that they were sentient droids—they were simple cleaning bots with no human minds inside—but they’d been with her since her hotel days and she hated to leave them behind. Three kilometers from the impact site, she found the two bots, struggling to make headway in the wind. When she had them fly on her leeward side, they could manage. She did another recharge, feeling her circuits prickle as the bots recharged as well, huddling in the shelter she made. And when they had all recharged, the three of them started traveling again, away from her ship’s remains. There would be nothing there for her—other than possibly an Orion Arm ship.

They traveled at a run, because during her recharge cycle her operating temperature had dropped steadily toward a critical low. She didn’t know how cold Bal Panda was—she had a thermometer, but it was bottomed out at -40 °C—but clearly all three bots would be in trouble if they failed to generate enough heat from movement. This planet was ludicrously far below her recommended operating temperature. Already her fuel cells were highly inefficient. Maybe that was why Orion Arm hadn’t tracked her down once they’d seen the state of her ship—they expected her to be nonfunctional soon.

She was trying hard not to think about that.

If she could find a research outpost somewhere on this planet, maybe she could get them to take her in. And find a way to stop them from reporting her other than “kill the humans”—she had never been that sort of pirate and probably couldn’t kill someone if it came down to it. Then there was still the matter of finding a way off the planet. It was probably a terrible plan, and she was glad she had no computational core to tell her the odds against her finding anything out here before she finally froze.

With no map to follow, she simply ran. Nothing distinguished one bit of icy plain from another, other than slight changes in the size and frequency of their windcarved ice ripples, or the occasional stretch of fractured shards, or of glass-clear ice with strange columnar bubbles trapped inside. Storms raged and ebbed but the wind never stopped. Between storms, the air would clear to reveal towering cloudfronts of orange and cream over a vast horizon, receding into blue-tinged layers of icy ammonia cloud. Sometimes the wind would become so strong that even Greki couldn’t stand, and then they would start their recharge cycles early, sitting or even lying on the ground for hours or days until the winds abated, watching her internal temperature dip. It took all of Greki’s strength to dig free of the ice after each storm, to run with fuel cells inefficient from the cold, generating the heat she needed to keep her system going.

But she did keep going—if nothing else, to spite Orion Arm. That, after all, had been her goal since the day she’d woken in the body of a housekeeping droid. They’d erased her memory and shipped her to the far end of the Orion Arm so there was no chance of her reconnecting with her former life. All that was left was the occasional sense of déjà vu. Hers had always come at the sight of back rooms and dumpsters, not ballrooms, so she supposed she’d been one of the many penniless people who’d traded survival for digitization at death. On behalf of whoever she’d been, she’d resolved to destroy the system that had forced her into servitude.

Not that the sworn vengeance of a housekeeping bot had been more than a slight annoyance to Orion Arm so far. She’d escaped, yes, and joined with a group of free droids, but they’d barely managed to hide out on Tatloor and keep themselves running. And now it had ended, with her here on an empty planet at the far end of the human realms, shipwrecked and freezing, stumbling through storms and over frozen plains in search of a probably nonexistent outpost.

To stop herself from spending too much time thinking, she lowered her frame rate until her lidar frames blurred together, and then, after a hundred recharge cycles, lowered it again to the minimum that would let her run. Her thoughts became a slow background process, vaguely alarming but low-priority, preempted by the business of aiming each footfall, of making sure her two bots were still with her, of sheltering from storms.

When, after 2,040 hours, she came across the object, she tried to stop so suddenly that she fell over. Hitting the hard ice brought her back to wakefulness, and she scrambled to her feet and backed away several steps.

She cleared thick layers of frost from her cameras and it was there in visual as well, no lidar glitch, but a head-high black cylinder topped by a transparent dome. She stood still for hundreds of milliseconds, fine frost streaming past her ankles. The dome was also motionless, and now she could see that inside the dome were two big green balls topping a complicated black area that looked disconcertingly organic, as if this thing were part metal and part … goo? After several seconds, the green balls moved, tilting on stalks or motor mounts until they were pointing away from her and up at the sky. The clear dome surface rippled and two dimples appeared at the dome’s top, as if someone had pushed their thumbs into clear jelly. The black goo wrinkled and an ultraviolet light blinked once. She was still reacclimating to her former frame rate, and her mind felt scattered, as if she was waking from a dream. But her primary thought was: what the beep? Nobody built spaceships out of goo.

She stood still for so long that Vroom and Squeegee started their cleaning routines, settling to the icy ground and vacuuming up grit. She sent them a sharp homing signal and they lifted back to her side, but the dome was already reacting—the two green balls had rotated back until they were pointing directly at her. Lenses, she thought. They’re lenses.

After a full minute, the green lenses rotated away from her, and the dome was once again looking at the sky.

She’d heard of these things, she realized. They were barely more than rumors. Out on this far reach where the galaxy’s Orion Arm began to blend with the Sagittarius, people called them missiles. They were rare, mysterious objects that would appear without warning. Sometimes the sightings were brief, the small objects zipping in and out of range, leaving humans barely time to register their presence. Other times they caused chaos, barreling through secure mining facilities, drawing fire. Nobody had ever damaged one, and in fact they seemed to eat bombs. They could not be captured—they could blast through any barrier. The only reason they did not cause widespread terror was that they were so rare. Small, dark, and quiet, they were usually gone hours after first sighting. Nobody had owned up to making them. Some even claimed they might not be human in origin at all, but a sign of the first known alien civilization, somewhere out in the Sagittarius. Greki had never really believed they existed, much less thought she’d actually see one.

But now she might be the only person to ever have gotten a good look at a missile—and it was so bizarre, so gooey, so unlike any human machine, that she felt it had to be alien. What was it doing here?

She followed its gaze to the sky, but there was nothing out of the ordinary. This spot was at the interface between two of Bal Panda’s cloud zones. Here, giant looming loops of orange hydrocarbons receded through blue haze into high white bands of ammonia, both layers constantly moving in opposite directions, disturbing one another.

She watched the missile watch the sky. After an hour or so of no movement and no sign of attack, she sat and started a recharge cycle. The missile’s green lenses tracked her and her two bots when they settled to the ground, but eventually returned to the sky, where they made minute movements to track the clouds. By the pile of frost blown against its windward side, she guessed it had been in place for two days, maybe three. How long would it stay? When it left, where would it go next? Would it leave Bal Panda?

This thing might be the most dangerous object she’d ever seen, but it hadn’t tried to hurt her. Missiles were not part of Orion Arm. And if it was intelligent, it might even be able to get her off Bal Panda before she froze. She needed to communicate with it somehow, before it left.

She didn’t have a standard human voicebox, just a box that went beep. She could transmit alert codes, but if this thing was truly alien, it wouldn’t have the system for decoding them, and her signals would be a meaningless stream of modulated radio waves.

In the media she’d watched, people usually initiated contact with alien species by starting with something universal, like a series of prime numbers. After several long milliseconds of thought, she didn’t have a better idea, so she beeped once. Then twice.

The green eyes swiveled to face her. It could hear her.

Not sure if she was making a breakthrough or was about to be annihilated by a bomb-eating missile, she beeped three times, then five, then seven. She caught herself before beeping 9, then moved on to 11. A housekeeping bot wasn’t equipped with a math core, so she was using her human mind to come up with these. 13 beeps, 17 beeps, 19 beeps … as she continued, she saw with some dismay that it had apparently lost interest and was beginning to look back at the sky. 23 beeps, 31 beeps—and at the 30th beep, its eyes snapped back to look at her, the fastest movement she’d seen it make. Was 29 a prime number? It knew she had made a mistake.

She sat still as the wind drove frost against her back. She waited for the missile to do something, to acknowledge that she’d done something intelligent at it, or even to murder her for botching a sacred sequence of primes. After a few more seconds, it looked away from her, and back at the clouds.

She tried other sequences at it, odd numbers, even numbers, multiples of three, multiples of three minus one, and each time the pattern changed, or each time she made a mistake, it would look at her briefly. If she repeated a pattern, its glance would be briefer. She tried beeping as randomly as she could, and that held its interest the longest. But always, eventually, its gaze would return to the sky.

It also reacted in the same way to movement. Every time she did something new, or had the bots do something new, it would turn its eyes to look. During a lull in the wind she had Vroom and Squeegee fly overhead while she waited anxiously below, ready to recall them if it looked like the missile was reacting. One eye tracked each bot, but when they settled into a regular grid pattern, its eyes soon stilled.

Well, beep. She was angry now. She was trying her best to communicate and it seemed to only want to be passively entertained. She might sit here trying to compete with clouds until she froze and the next storm shattered her across the ice plains. Sending her two bots another homing signal, she turned her back and began to run. She kept the missile in view, making big circles around it, because although she was angry with the thing, she didn’t actually want to lose it. She had no navigation system and had been wandering the planet at random. If she lost sight of it, she’d never find this spot again—even assuming the missile hadn’t moved on. Once she started timing herself, she realized she was checking every 500 milliseconds to make sure it was still there.

By the time she needed another recharge cycle, a storm was descending on them, a giant orange wall of cloud that seemed to scour the ice plain, bands of white ammonia clouds running high before it. Lightning shuddered through its surface and each strike sent a prickle through her radio spectrum. To weather a storm like this, she’d learned that she needed to find some kind of shelter, some crack or some windbreak. With nothing like that nearby, she returned to the missile and simply curled up within sight of it on the windpolished ice, her back to the storm, the two cleaning bots homed to shelter in her lee, their little grapples dug into the ice. The radio pulses from the lightning washed over them, fizzing and snapping. Some of the pulses puzzled her, unusually powerful and narrowband, and when she narrowed her antenna’s directionality, she saw they were coming from the missile itself. It must be using radar, which meant its range was—she peeked at the cloudfront. About a hundred kilometers. Okay, that was impressive.

When the storm’s blast hit, when ice crystals began to scour at her cameras, when she could feel the wind beginning to slide her on the ice, as Vroom and Squeegee struggled to reanchor their grapples, she could still sense the missile, invisible in the driving frost but radiating its radar pulses. She crawled toward it, seeing it rise out of the storm, only meters away, then less than a meter away as she crawled into its lee and huddled against it with the two little bots, not quite touching its surface. It was absolutely steady as it towered above her, and she slowly started to relax.

There, with the storm thundering around them, in the dark except for the little lights on her body and the occasional sky-filling lightning, she began to talk to it. This was not human speech, of course—droids were not given voiceboxes—but a series of short status messages, each of which was one of 512 things that droids were allowed to say. The alerts were all utilitarian: 1:Command acknowledged. 3:Command completed. 62:You are approaching a hazard. But because every droid had the same set, they had started using some of the alerts to mean other things. 70:Hazard:None had become a standard greeting between droids, a cross between “good afternoon” and an acknowledgement that it was safe to converse. 124:Homing:Return to me was an expression of friendship, while 125:Homing:Return to your base station was sometimes a farewell and sometimes a dismissal. The message 12:This unit has been disabled was the equivalent of a laugh, with increasing levels of hilarity indicated by 13:This unit has been seriously disabled and 14:Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty. Alerts 12 through 14 could also be used in several ways to indicate sarcasm, and adding a beep to any alert tended to make its original meaning ironic. Greki wasn’t sure when droids had started using combinations of alerts to designate certain nouns. 61:Hazard:Biological followed immediately by 63:Hazard:Vacuum (originally with a beep, but now decreasingly so) was a way of designating a human, and you could throw other alert codes into those strings to designate the human’s disposition. Extra 63:Hazard:Vacuums meant a particularly dense human, while adding 66:Hazard:Equipment meant a human that was hostile toward droids. It was all understood as a human as long as you began with 61:Hazard:Biological and ended with 63:Hazard:Vacuum. By the time Greki had come online, you could hold an entire conversation using alerts. Occasionally some human would complain about the pervasive misuse of alert messages by droids, but by now so many legacy systems were dependent on the original alert codes that nobody was willing to change them.

So Greki sent alert codes at the missile, because at least a radar system meant it could detect her radio signals. She told it that her preferred personal designation was 290:Vector + 278:Pallasite—an abbreviated version of her human name in a range of mining alert codes that droids used for spelling—and that her pronouns were she/her (10:Unspecified emergency + 21:File not found). She told it that she was stuck here, that this planet was too cold for her, that she needed help. Then she told it how she had gotten here, how she had escaped, what humans were, what droids were, and what her home habitat was like—anything she could think of, anything to keep talking.

When the storm lifted, she broke the ice that had frozen her limbs, broke the two cleaning bots free, dusted carbon dioxide frost from her cameras, and went back to running in large circles around the missile. She had spent the entire storm talking to it, but it had only made her lonelier. She might as well have been talking to Vroom and Squeegee. The missile was an alien artifact with some computational power, but it clearly wasn’t here on her account—it was a communications relay, or a research probe, or even a weapon. It was reacting to novelty, but not really understanding. Was there any point to staying here with it, or should she move on?

Two recharge cycles later, she was still thinking about that, standing braced against the wind beside it and looking up with it at the huge looping cloud bands, the eddies of orange and white that looked slow only because they were so enormous and far away.

She suddenly became aware of a familiar scrubbing sound and turned, horrified to find that Vroom and Squeegee were actually on the missile’s dome, running their cleaning routines. Her homing command failed to dislodge them and even 8:Urgent + 23:Abort produced no reaction. As she hurried to the missile and tried to reach for them, she felt the prickle of a strong electromagnetic field. It was sending out radio, highly focused, in such a strong signal that it was swamping her own commands. She fell back, shocked, noting that the cleaning bots were still functioning as usual. It was communicating with something out there.

Then the missile pulsed bright in ultraviolet, a perfect beam exiting its dome toward her, and she scrambled back several more steps. Her bots still scrubbed, unperturbed. There were two more ultraviolet flashes, then three. When it did five, then seven, she sat down hard on the ice, overwhelmed. And when it paused at twenty-nine before flashing twice more and stopping, she would have cried if she could. Radio signals came next. 70:Hazard:None followed by 124:Homing:Return to me, then followed by the rest of her speech from the storm, repeated in perfect order. Then 70:Hazard:None + 124:Homing:Return to me, then silence, radio and visual.

There was someone listening to her. She wanted to run and jump and shout. She settled for a beep. Her thoughts raced at top speed while she got to her feet, her own movements slow in comparison. The communication must have changed something—maybe it had sent data, and received instructions. That meant a time delay of up to 25 hours each way. There was someone in this solar system, or else it had a faster-than-light relay. It had made no further communications—but what was there to communicate, if it didn’t know human languages, if it didn’t know alert codes? She would have to teach it first.

She pointed to herself, said her name, then pointed to her bots and said their names. She pointed at the missile, hesitated, then said “you.” She pointed at the sky, said “sky,” then realized that it had no way of knowing whether she meant sky, or cloud, or up. She pointed at the ground, said “ice,” then realized a similar difficulty. All the while one of the green lenses watched her, while the other tracked the two bots that still scrubbed its dome. There was nothing else to point at, so after a moment’s thought she demonstrated “walk,” “jump,” “run,” “sit,” and “lay.” She pointed to parts of her body and named them. Then she fell silent for many milliseconds, trying to think of what to do next, just beginning to realize how difficult it would be to convey words like “purpose” or “stranded” or “enslaved.” When she was newly activated, another droid had taught her to communicate in alert codes, but in an environment that was full of human speech and writing that they both understood. This would be much more difficult. She collected some ice shards and began to demonstrate counting, using beeps for reinforcement. Would they understand that she counted in tens? They had built autonomous ships that could outmaneuver Orion Arm. They could probably understand base ten. With her ice shards, she showed addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and then, after a long moment’s thought, correct and incorrect. When she was out of ideas, she started her recharge cycle, hours late. By the time she was charged and ready to run again, her internal temperature was so low that her steps were sluggish and she stumbled for a while.

As she pounded across frozen plains, new ice crunching beneath her footfalls, she made calculations. She could probably still maintain her operating temperature if she spent an extra four hours with the missile before each recharge cycle, as long as the weather didn’t bring a deep cold spell, as long as there were no long storms. It was the storms that worried her—though she’d sometimes spent days wedged in crevasses waiting for screaming winds to lessen, she was sure she hadn’t seen the worst of Bal Panda’s weather yet. On her way back to the missile, she stopped to pry loose a large sheet of ice. She had an idea for using it, and her two bots, to demonstrate concepts like “hidden,” “trapped,” and “blocked.”

The time delay was twenty hours, and whoever she was talking to was resourceful. They scanned the missile’s ultraviolet beam in flickers across its dome, and when she lowered her frame rate enough, it blended into a picture. Little blocky drawings of her and her two bots (it emphasized her fingers and omitted her head) illustrated some of the concepts she’d showed it, accompanied by broadcast alert codes, pausing for her reaction. Sometimes it showed her new concepts and paused for her to supply the correct alert codes. She was glad she’d taught it correct/incorrect earlier. If she collected fine ice crystals from somewhere, she might be able to draw pictures of her own. Could she get far enough before her systems finally failed?

She had survived on Bal Panda for 45,000 hours when the big storm came. Missile had been monitoring it on seismograph, and they said it was the largest largest, which she took to mean that they’d never detected anything nearly this strong. Preceded by a curious calm, and then by an ominous dark horizon, it appeared as a wall of noxious brown clouds, so deep and dark that they glowed red. Fleet white ammonia clouds ran before it, tattered and bright against the cloudwalls, and Greki could feel the low rumble through the ground. Missile ended their message early, saying she would need to take shelter now, a guess on their part based on how fast they thought the storm was moving. Their ship was on the way to Bal Panda, but was still a year out, and the round trip transmission time was still ten hours. There’s still some time left, she told Missile. I’ll shelter soon.

By the time Missile could respond, the storm would already be here. She did an hour of running, still her favorite way to generate heat. Vroom and Squeegee flew on her lee side, their paint long since worn and flaked away, their scrubbing bristles long ago crumbled to nothing. The dark clouds loomed to one side, solid as a wall, writhing with lightning, the wind beginning to strengthen. The air beneath the clouds was strangely pale, almost a glimmer. She could feel the first ice crystals hitting her deeply pitted chassis. Cracked, charred, worn to bare metal—she looked nothing like a domestic bot now.

Returning to Missile, she greeted them with the usual 70:Hazard:None + 124:Homing:Return to me as she climbed into the shelter she had dug, a Greki-sized ice tunnel. Her blue diodes made the walls glow, and when the two bots joined her, they added their orange glow to hers, pulsing color like heartbeats. She chipped away at the bottom of the cave with a chunk of water ice, made rock-hard by the cold. She worked more to generate heat than through any need for more room. I’m sheltered, she told Missile. Got the bots with me too.

Soon the wind was howling across the entrance of her cave, shuddering the ice around her. Mingled with the wind, there was a clattering sound that puzzled her until it grew louder and she was hit with a wave of déjà vu. She’d never spent time on a planet before Bal Panda, but some bit of her from her former life remembered that sound. Rain.

She had a wild hope that this could be a thaw, until she checked her thermometer and found it still bottomed out at -40 °C. Back before she’d found Missile, she’d come across a sea with huge oily waves of some weird cryogenic hydrocarbon crashing ashore. She’d also seen huge gullies carved by some long-ago cataclysm. This … might be the cataclysm. Beep.

With her frame rate at maximum she considered where she was—at the bottom of a lidless hole—and what she was—a droid so cracked and crumbled that she was not remotely waterproof anymore. If that rain was conductive, and it probably was, it would chill her to shutdown temperatures in seconds. Beep.

There’s rain, she told Missile, then realized she’d never taught them the word for rain. Liquid, she said. I’m going to have a problem. 68:Hazard:Cold.

It happened very quickly, the first trickle of liquid whatever-it-was making its way down the tunnel, followed by a flood as the roar outside became unimaginably loud, the rain thrashing down so hard that the air outside was more liquid than gas. It was sloshing past her knees, and her temperature was plummeting. She only had time to command her two bots to hover before her system initiated emergency shutdown. Beep, beep, beep

She had not expected to come online this time, either. The light was strange, a bluish shimmer that seemed unreal after the oranges and browns of Bal Panda. And her temperature was—beep. Her thermometer was reading 30 °C. Her lidar was showing her a blank curved wall, which was confusing because her visual was showing her blue light, and a room. She was in a tank—no, she was lying on a table—no, she was weightless, but tethered securely—looking out at the curved wall of a tank that stretched around her. There was equipment, there were lights—and there were Vroom and Squeegee tethered nearby, their little orange lights glowing standby. Then she saw the four aliens, watching from the water behind the glass, small and bulbous and tentacled, with big eyes and shimmering skin. One of them moved its tentacles across a glowing surface, and then there was radio. 70:Hazard:None + 70:Hazard:None + 124:Homing:Return to me.

Janelle Shane’s AI humor blog,, and her book, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You use cartoons and fun pop-culture experiments to look inside the algorithms that run our world. Janelle is a optics research scientist based in Colorado.
Twitter: @janellecshane
Instagram: janelle.shane
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