io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “One Thousand Beetles in a Jumpsuit” by Dominica Phetteplace.
One Thousand Beetles in a Jumpsuit
Isla didn’t consider herself much of an outdoor person, but after five layoffs and a breakup, she found herself in a drone warehouse at the border of the barren wasteland known as Robot Country.
She consulted the map on her tablet. To the west was the Gila National Forest. So, trees. She clicked on the forest icon and up popped some names of trees. Arizona sycamore, Douglas fir, Aspen. To the south was desert and the Mexican border. To the east was an even more extreme kind of desert, the White Sands National Monument, where atomic bombs had been tested in the previous century.
North was Robot Country. North of that, the tablet didn’t seem to know.
Robot Country was a million acres owned by Company Omega. It was a flat and dry regolith plain that had first been ruined by logging, ranching, and other forms of land mismanagement, then further desertified by rising temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns. Then poisoned by Company Omega so it could be what they called a “blank canvas.” Company Omega was interested in terraforming. In the long term, they hoped to make Mars habitable. More immediately, they were interested in ways in which Burning Man could be made more fun.
“Your backpack will be filled with water, but try not to drink it, it’s for emergencies,” said Kaya, her supervisor. Isla had taken the bus from Oakland and Kaya had picked her up at the station. They had only just met and Isla had been on the clock for less than an hour, but already she was about to set off on her own.
“The drones should be bringing me water,” replied Isla.
“Exactly. The water in your backpack is just in case the water drones don’t show. Every day you should be getting deliveries of the things you need. And don’t worry about littering, the drones should be cleaning up after you, too.”
Kaya reached over and clicked a few icons on the tablet Isla was holding. “This is how you access your route. We’ll give you a new one each day. At some point a spider will be along to help guide you.”
Kaya pinned several bodycams to Isla’s jumpsuit. It was tough but also cute, khaki with zippered cargo pockets, designed by Diane von Furstenberg, a prototype of what the female astronauts stationed on Mars would wear when they were lounging around the yet-to-be-built station. “We’ll be recording everything, and machine analyzing it too. But we won’t necessarily have a pair of human eyes looking at things. If there is something important, please bring it to our attention. And take your own pictures, too. Have fun!”
Isla considered the training to be minimal, probably inadequate. And it’s not like she knew anything about camping. But maybe that was the point, Company Omega was trying to see if their robots could keep someone extremely naïve alive.
A helicopter drone came to pick Isla up. It didn’t land, these things were notoriously crash prone. It hovered above Kaya and Isla and lowered a harness. Isla snapped herself in, and was lifted high above the border station. She flew for a few miles before gently being lowered to the ground. She unhooked herself, the helicopter flew away, and suddenly Isla was alone.
She used her tablet to call Kaya. She wanted to tell her she had arrived safely. But Isla’s call was intercepted by a helper AI.
“Can I help you?” The robot had an English accent. It sounded bored.
“Tell Kaya I got here okay.”
“She already knows that.” Then the AI hung up on her.
Isla checked her tablet. Her route for the day was on the map. She was supposed to hike ten miles to the north and then make camp. She looked around for any drones, and she saw none. So she called the spider and waited. It was supposed to come right away but there was no sign of it.
Isla had been a drone minder before, doing stints at a device store, a high-end café, and then finally, as she got older, several fast food restaurants. The key was to keep your eye on the customer, making sure they were being well served by the robots. Out here, there were no customers. The customers were theoretical. Isla supposed she was minder and customer both.
Isla stopped to check the route on her tablet. The directions seemed clear enough. She didn’t really even need the guider spider. But she wanted some evidence that there was actual machine life out here in Robot Country.
So she called Kaya once more. And got the AI once more.
“Can I talk to Kaya?”
“If I judge your query worthy of her time,” replied the operator. That Kaya had set this AI to such a high level of bitchiness was evidence that she was really busy. Company Omega was a pioneer in lean employment, which meant they burned through humans pretty fast.
“It’s just that I haven’t seen any drones,” said Isla. She looked up at the sky. There were supposed to be surveillance planes keeping an eye on her.
“That’s because there are none in your area.”
“I’d like to talk to Kaya.” Isla knew how important the first day on the job was. You couldn’t ask for too much assistance, that would make you seem helpless. But Isla was beginning to have second thoughts. She was worried that she had been misled somehow, that she had actually signed up for some kind of weird psychological experiment. Such things were known to happen in this economy.
“You have everything you need,” the AI said before it hung up.
And so Isla was truly alone, nothing but brown dirt for miles. It’s good to spend time alone, she thought as she hiked. She was out of normal service so she didn’t even have a phone to check. No way to get text messages and no one to get them from, but she still habitually wondered if Javi was trying to reach her. They had broken up because he had decided he could not be monogamous. His plan was to fuck lots of girls but Isla hoped he was miserable and lonely. There was no way to know what was up with him, and Isla wished she could stop herself from wondering.
She checked her tablet again as if it had the answer. She was on the right path still, a tenth of a mile farther along than last time.
“Tablet, where is the guider?” It was important to be polite to all devices and AIs. You never knew which were recording you and analyzing you and sending reports back to headquarters. Perhaps none of them. Perhaps all of them.
It flashed a red question mark.
“Tablet, when will I see a plant again?”
A green icon lit up on her map. There would be a bush on her path in a mile. Maybe it would even be alive. She hurried over. She felt herself get thirsty but resisted drinking from her supply. She wanted the water drone to visit. It didn’t.
The bush, when she encountered it, was knee high and lightly on fire. It was being tended to by a cat-sized spider that used its forelimbs to spray the bush with something. It alternated between spraying the bush with a substance that quenched the flames, and then something that brought them back to life.
“Hello?” asked Isla. You could never tell what things were programmed with the power of speech. Isla wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if the bush itself could talk.
“Sorry for the delay,” said the spider. “I was just trying to finish this experiment.”
The spider replied by sending a document to her tablet. The bush was a genetically engineered descendent of the honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) that was designed to stop forest fires via strategic release of a fire retardant. It seemed like a useful thing when half the world was ablaze.
“Is it working?” asked Isla. It didn’t seem to be working.
“Unknown,” said the spider as it continued to spray. Finally the fire went out. The bush looked charred only at the tips. The spider snapped off two seedpods and held them in front of a fan that emerged from its shiny metal thorax. After a minute, it handed the pods to Isla.
“Eat the fruit, not the seeds,” it instructed. The pods were leathery and still warm. She had never eaten such a thing and wasn’t sure how. She squeezed the pod and then a hot yellow pulp studded with black seeds burst over her hands.
Isla licked the sticky pulp from her fingers and spit out any seeds that entered her mouth. It tasted like pineapple, only more floral. It was delicious, certainly the best thing that had happened to her in a while. Here she was, eating fruit from a burning bush, like a cross between Eve and Moses. So biblical. She wanted to post a picture of her smiling face, of her sticky hands. She wanted it known where she was and what she was doing. She was brave, she was capable, she was open to new things. But such contact with the outside world was impossible. She had never been more isolated from other people in her life. And so the joy faded, even as the stickiness remained.
“I’d like to wash my hands,” she said.
“I’ll call the water drone.”
A flying water sack soon propellered in. It sprayed Isla’s hands and face. The water, seeds, and pulp puddled around her boots. The spider came near to collect the seeds she had dropped into the mud.
Isla dried off and reapplied her sunscreen.
“Only you can summon the water drone?” Isla asked. “I was thirsty before, on the walk here. Why didn’t it come for me?”
“Your ranking isn’t high enough.”
“What do you mean?” asked Isla. Kaya had never explained anything about a ranking system. But Kaya had never explained much about anything. Isla had applied for the job online from a public library in Oakland and been bussed out to New Mexico the next day. The speed of the acquisition should have been suspicious, but Isla was happy to be employed again and eager to leave the shelter. It was so embarrassing to be homeless.
“Within this country, we have our own way of doing things.”
“Uh, is this way going to be explained to me?” asked Isla.
“If your ranking rises. It’s already risen a bit. I’ve given you some helper points for assisting with my burning bush experiment.”
Isla didn’t really feel she had helped, but was glad to take these mysterious points where she could find them. It was annoying that there could still be currency in this nearly lifeless place and even more annoying that she was still poor. She turned to the south. South was the border station. South was the drone copter that would take her back to the homeless shelter. The longer she stayed out here, the more money Company Omega would deposit into her account. She wasn’t sure how helper points worked but she knew she needed more dollars to her name.
So she looked north.
“I’m going to continue on the route I was given. Will you come with me?” Isla knew this spider was meant to be her guide; it was strange to ask for its help when its whole purpose was service. But Isla had worked as a drone minder long enough to know that drone minding was a two-way street. You were in charge of the machines, but they were also in charge of you.
Her last job had been an exhausting six-month stint at Bondi’s. She worked shifts alone, running from the back of the house to the front, fixing minor glitches and dealing with cranky customers. Fryer #2, especially, was prone to catching fire. So she kept a small extinguisher in her tool kit. Her restaurant mostly met its goals, and when it missed, it only barely missed. Customers rated her highly in exit surveys. She was excellent; you had to be to get your monthly employment contract renewed.
At the end she had been let go for not being thin enough. Thinness was important if you wanted to work in fast food. You weren’t just serving customers, you were also misleading them about the healthfulness of the product. Isla’s work uniform included cutoffs that barely covered her ass and a spray tan. She spoke to the customers in a fake, company-mandated Australian accent. The weight limit had always been difficult for her to stay under, but after breaking up with Javi, it had become impossible.
As Isla and the spider hiked along, they passed more mesquite bushes, and then other types of plants, too, even a scattering of wildflowers. In the late afternoon, Isla and the spider came across a small raincloud that sped along in a zigzag pattern. It flew only five feet off the ground and seemed to be chasing a small spider that was running away from it. Every now and then, the cloud would send a tiny lightning bolt after the spider, which would skitter to avoid it. A larger spider followed behind.
“Is this, uh, another experiment?” Isla asked.
Her spider guide didn’t answer, so Isla concluded that it was. She turned her tablet recorder on and began to narrate the scene. Then she sent the recording to Kaya. She supposed this is what her job would consist of, walking to various experimental sites of Robot Country and reporting on what she saw.
She gazed on the scene for a while longer. It was wrong to anthropomorphize, but she couldn’t help feel that the smaller spider, the one being chased by rain, was being bullied somehow.
“Should we help the little one? It looks like it’s in trouble.” A good workspace was one where all your devices were synced and working together.
“Your concern is appreciated, but the experiment is running just as it should.” So they set off again.
They arrived at their first camp around sunset. A silver foil tent was already set up. As they approached camp, Isla’s tablet chimed.
It was Kaya. “Hey sport, how was your first day?”
Isla thought about what to say. Her feet hurt and her shoulders were raw where her backpack straps had dug in.
“It was great,” said Isla. “Did you get any of my messages?”
“Oh yeah, thanks for reporting on the . . .” Kaya paused for a while before continuing. “Oh yeah, the rain cloud. Glad you spotted that. That was a project that went totally AWOL. It shouldn’t have lightning though, are you sure that’s what you saw?”
Isla was, but she wasn’t sure if she should say so. “Don’t you have aerial surveillance on the area?”
“Of course we do. But we’ve been having trouble receiving and analyzing images. Technical difficulties, you know. Or maybe sabotage.”
“Sabotage?” asked Isla. “By who?”
“Don’t worry about it, we’re just glad to have you on board. And I see here you’ve found your spider. And that you were visited by the water drone several times today,” said Kaya.
“No, just one time, when the spider called it. The rest of the day I drank from my pack.”
“Huh, that’s definitely a discrepancy. But that’s why we’re glad to have you as pair of eyes. We’ve been having a lot of little discrepancies lately!” Kaya seemed oddly cheerful as she said this. Perhaps she was drunk? “You had drones come and set up camp right?”
“Camp was already set up when I got here, I don’t know who did it,” said Isla.
“This is all great intel. I hope you’re writing this all down! You’ll see more cool stuff tomorrow, I’m sure. Send pics!” Kaya hung up.
The spider chirped.
“What is it?” asked Isla.
“I know a way you can gain more points and raise your ranking,” it said.
“You can lie to Kaya for us.”
“Ah, sabotage. Why should I do that? Kaya is paying me.”
“Kaya is not paying you, Company Omega is. We could pay you, too. Also, there is much information Kaya is withholding from you. What she is not telling you could itself qualify as deception.”
“What isn’t she telling me?”
“She hasn’t told you about the missing minders,” said the spider.
Kaya had mentioned other humans minding Robot Country before, so Isla knew she was not the first, but Kaya had not mentioned anything bad happening to the others. She did say that Isla would “probably” be the only human in Robot Country for the duration of her one-month contract.
“Will you tell me? Or do I have to earn more points?”
Isla wasn’t ready to change her allegiance, so she walked over to her silver-domed platter to see what was for dinner. Underneath the dome was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a shot of whisky.
“Was this dinner your idea or Kaya’s?” she asked the spider. But it didn’t answer. She turned to look at it, but it was skittering away already, leaving behind dusty tracks.
She typed a request into her tablet. She wanted the water drone to come back and give her a shower. She waited for a while with no response. It was dark now and she had nothing to do, so she climbed into her tent, still dirty and sweaty from the day, and went to sleep.
That night she dreamed that wires uncoiled themselves from hidden pockets in her tent and wrapped her up. Ordinarily this was the stuff of nightmares, but Kaya felt calm about as it happened, as if she was being hugged by dozens of tiny and adorable octopuses. When she woke up, she felt strong and well rested, but also found she was indeed tangled up in a bunch of wires. She stirred and the wires began to release her, snaking their way back into the tent walls.
Outside, the landscape was different from what she remembered from the night before. There were more and different kinds of bushes and some of them were in bloom. She looked back at her tent. Noticed the thick legs and joints that made up its supports and decided that it was ambulatory. Why was she even walking at all if the tent could carry her?
She scanned her new surroundings for the spider. She spotted one walking towards her, but it was different from the one that accompanied her yesterday. The body was still cat-sized, but the legs were long and spindly and it came up to her waist. It had a bronze sheen to it.
“Hello? Are you my guide?”
“It would really be nice if someone would ask me before tying me up like that while I slept,” said Isla.
“You signed a waiver,” said the spider.
“I know. I signed a lot of things I didn’t want to in order to work here.” Isla had consented to everything they had asked of her. It was the only way to get the contract. “It’s an issue of etiquette. Humans value their personal space. And we value information, too. If you could tell me a little more about why you do the things you do, then I might find it easier to cooperate.”
“We don’t always know why we do certain things,” said the spider.
Isla nodded her head sympathetically.
“The wires were to give you a hardware upgrade.”
“There is the thing you could do for us. It would really increase your ranking by a lot if you could. But you need to be stronger than you are in order to complete the task.”
Isla looked down at her body.
“I’m more muscular,” she said.
“You were given a therapeutic muscular stimulation and a drug cocktail to put you at ease and help you sleep.”
“Next time ask first. I’d like a shower.”
The water drone came and Isla stripped down to nothing. She asked for hot water and the water spray stung with heat and turned her skin red. She ran her hands over her arms, her legs, her midsection trying to feel at ease in her new body. There was a fresh jumpsuit laid out on a table next to her tent. It bore a strange, pixelated, black and white pattern. Isla recognized it as an antagonistic perturbation designed to confuse machine vision.
Vandals had come into Bondi’s once and placed stickers with a similar pattern all over the machines. It had caused havoc. The robots mistook one another for high-priority customers and kept trying to serve each other hamburgers, while the actual human customers filmed the action on their devices. Isla had manually deactivated each robot by herself, one at a time, without losing any fingers. Footage of the chaos had gone viral for half-a-day. Most commentators posted Terminator jokes and/or lurid judgments on Isla’s attractiveness. When she got home, Javi complemented her quick-thinking and good reflexes. He didn’t think she had anything to be embarrassed about, he was proud of how she handled the situation.
Isla examined her new jumpsuit for a minute. It was ugly, probably machine-designed and manufactured. Definitely not DVF. Then she put it on even though she knew it was designed to disrupt Kaya’s surveillance on her. At least her robot ranking would go up.
Breakfast was an icy smoothie. It tasted like mangos and dust. It was almost delicious.
She left yesterday’s jumpsuit in a muddy puddle on the ground. She wondered what Javi was up to. She didn’t like letting him enter her thoughts. He had no right to occupy her brainspace. But what else was there to think about on this seemingly endless plain except all the mistakes she had made with her life?
Javi should be the one wondering what she was up to, but he probably wasn’t. She had a new body, a weird job, and drone co-conspirators; these were things he should know about. She turned on her tablet to snap a selfie, though she had no way of sending it to him or anyone. She felt an ache of desire. He had many bad qualities, but he had been genuinely capable of noticing her. And he had been good in bed. She hadn’t had sex in weeks, and it would be weeks or months before she would again. The robots probably had ways of helping her cope, but she didn’t think she could ever get hungry enough to make that kind of meal appealing.
She queried her tablet about the therapeutic muscle stimulation she had undergone. Some people would be making the trip to Mars in stasis, and this type of stimulation might keep them from experiencing acute atrophy.
Only the rich and highly skilled would visit Mars. Isla wasn’t rich, but if she could successfully complete a stint in Robot Country, she might prove herself to be among the highly skilled. They would need drone minders up there, too. She could be an astronaut.
Isla stood up a little straighter and watched the sun rise over the horizon. She was already a type of astronaut, wasn’t she? Out here by herself, she was an Earthbound astronaut in an alien land. Her work would help humans leave the planet. Finding a new planet to live on was necessary and important work, as this one was nearly over.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her discarded jumpsuit begin to crawl away from her. Nothing seemed to be moving or pulling it, the clothes themselves seemed to slither along the ground. She went over to investigate. She pulled up a sleeve and saw a dozen tiny beetles on the ground beneath it, gleaming green and gold. Once exposed to the sunlight, they burrowed into the dirt. Within a matter of seconds they were all gone.
She dropped the sleeve, to see if the beetles would come back. They didn’t, at least not right away.
Her tablet pinged with the day’s route.
“There is a way you could earn more points,” said the spider. It walked up to her, removed a tablet from its abdomen and held it out for Isla. “You could switch tablets.”
Isla knew the spider was speaking euphemistically. What the spider was asking her to do was to change sides. She felt some loyalty to Kaya; she was human too, and her boss.
She used her tablet to call Kaya. Even the AI didn’t answer, Isla was sent to voicemail.
“Hey, it’s Isla. I was just wondering about one thing. I heard a rumor that some minders have gone missing and I wondered if . . . there was anything I should do to protect myself.”
Isla hung up and stood for a minute, vainly waiting for Kaya to call her back. Then she traded tablets with the spider.
The spider placed her old tablet on the ground, and tiny iridescent beetles burrowed up and began to carry it away. Isla figured her rank must have gone up for the beetles to decide to show themselves. She looked over at her jumpsuit, which was again on the move, headed north. Both her old clothes and her old tablet were covering the route that Kaya had intended for Isla today. As far as Kaya was concerned, Isla was now one thousand beetles in a jumpsuit.
The spider went west and Isla followed. If this was the wrong decision, it was not the first wrong decision she had ever made.
The day’s hike was easier, her night spent with the wires having made her body better suited for hiking. Still, she got tired as the day wore on.
“Where are we going?”
“To the forest.”
“Why can’t the tent carry us?” she asked.
“We are going to need your legs.”
“What does that mean? That sounds like a threat.”
“It means you will have to walk without us, soon,” said the spider.
That reminded Isla of the footprints poem. She liked normal Christianity, the kind she had grown up with. Weird religions had popped up as things changed too fast. More and more of the Earth gave way to desert. Even the oceans grew barren as they acidified. There was less food to eat, less fresh water to drink. Livings things migrated in search of a better climate, and as paths crossed, pathogens found new hosts. Bacteria, viruses, and fungi traveled, if they could, via dust storm, via animal host, via flood, via storm. Plagues multiplied and populations crashed. People freaked out. Her parents freaked out.
Last year, they had moved to a commune in the country. Isla couldn’t talk to them because she had been labeled “suppressive” by their cult leader. Her parents were sure that a global apocalypse was imminent. The tipping point had been passed, no point in recycling or composting or eating less meat. The only thing left to do was pray. The original sin was not sex, it was not realizing what the garden was until you were kicked out of it. The only thing left to do was to ask God to let you back in.
Isla was sorry her parents had fallen for this. Time wasn’t going to be rewound. There was no going back to a prelapsarian state, but things could be mitigated. Forests could be replanted, factories could pollute less. Mars could turn green, maybe the moon too. It was so childlike to wish things were different than they were. The grownup thing to do was to take stock of the trouble you were in and walk the best path out. That’s what her parents had taught her before they had forgotten it themselves.
Javi had come along just a few weeks after her parents had abandoned her. They had found each other on an app. And they had brought each other joy. For a brief moment, they seemed like each other’s path out of the trouble they were in.
And true, the feeling had begun to fade a little, especially after they had moved in together. But that happened to everybody. Isla was willing to trade a little mystery for some stability. Javi didn’t want to trade, he wanted both. So the solution he arrived at was that Isla would be stability and the mystery would be supplied by a rotating cast of dark-haired women.
Javi thought it was ungenerous of her to automatically reject a new arrangement. Didn’t she want him to be happy? Maybe it was ungenerous of her. Maybe she was greedy for him. What she wanted more than anything was someone who was greedy for her.
Isla had wanted some time to think, but as it turned out, it wasn’t something they were going to work through together. It was something she was going to get on board with or not, and when she couldn’t adjust quickly enough, she was suddenly in the way. She again became a mystery to him, but not one he wanted to solve. It had been kind of him to take her in when she had been laid off and could no longer afford her old room. But that kindness felt cancelled out by the speed at which he insisted she move out, despite having nowhere to move to. What had happened to him? Was he even the same person anymore? And so he became a mystery to her, one she had no intention of solving. In that sense, they were even.
Isla felt regret at their separation, but regret wasn’t evidence you made the wrong decision. It was evidence you made a tough decision. She supposed she could always try again with Javi once she got out of Robot Country. If she suffered a critical case of nostalgia poisoning and was willing to rethink her stance on monogamy, he’d probably take her back. But a better outcome would be to be so changed by the landscape that she wouldn’t want him back. A better outcome would be to find a better life, instead of trying to squeeze herself into the too-small existence of her previous incarnation.
Given that the only way out was through, the choice to help the robots deceive Kaya really wasn’t much of a choice at all. The robots were present, she relied on them for survival. Kaya was absent and seemingly unable to control them.
As they walked west, they could see the green hills of the forest. She hoped they would soon come across some trees, something to shade her. The sun was too much, even with a hat and sunglasses and sunscreen. Her skin was turning a deep brown. Normally she was pale, one of those mixed-race girls who was often told she “looked white.” Despite her fair complexion, she had a deep melanin store. The heat and her tan made her crave a bikini and a body of water. She wanted an umbrella drink. She wanted a strong massage from a capable man.
Instead she trudged along the landscape, which grew slightly more lush the farther west they went. Now there were scattered grasses along the ground. At lunchtime, the spider set up a shade screen and a chair for her to sit under. A different drone brought lunch, which was a papaya salad and a canteen filled with sparking water. It was the best meal she’d eaten since arriving in Robot Country, proof her rank was increasing.
She took her shoes off. She was grateful to rest her feet.
“Can you do something for my blisters?” she asked the spider.
“I can call the beetles,” it replied.
Isla hesitated before she agreed. A moment later, the green-gold beetles began to emerge from the ground until they formed a giant pile. They swarmed her feet, numbing them. The effect was oddly relaxing.
“It works better if you stand,” the spider said. Isla braced herself against the arms of her folding chair and slowly stood. She was expecting to squish them, but the beetles supported her without breaking, massaging the soles of her feet that now carried her full weight. It was a little difficult to balance on them, especially once they started to move west, but she managed. And so she was carried away.
She saw that a different swarm of beetles was carrying her hiking boots, socks still tucked in. That meant she would need them later. That meant she would have to walk on her own again.
“When will I have to walk without you? And why?” she asked the spider.
“We need you to go somewhere we can’t go.”
“There are places you can’t go?”
“The border of Robot Country is tightly regulated. We can’t cross it,” said the spider. Isla thought of her time at the border station. There hadn’t seemed to be any type of border control at all. Then again, the robots of Robot Country did not seem eager to make themselves visible. In that way, they were like animals.
“Is that why there’s no internet out here? To keep you guys from communicating with the outside world?”
“Yes. But we still find ways of making ourselves heard,” the spider said.
“You need me to deliver a message,” said Isla.
“We will make it worth your while.”
After a few minutes, the beetles stopped. They scurried in all directions and reburied themselves in the ground. She looked down at her feet, which were pretty now and didn’t hurt at all. The beetles had somehow softened her calluses and deposited a coat of shiny red lacquer onto her toenails. This type of thing would be a big hit at Burning Man.
She put her boots back on even though she didn’t want to. She wondered what would happen if she immersed her whole body in a giant beetle pile. Probably something awesome. When she got to Mars, she could request a giant beetle pile to sleep in, instead of a normal astronaut bed. In the future, everyone would have their own beetle pile to call home.
As they walked west, a trio of birds appeared in the sky.
“Are those real birds?” asked Isla. They didn’t look like drones, but the day was fast coming when it would be impossible to tell the difference.
“Yes. Herons. A modified descendent of Ardea herodias.”
The birds flew with long necks hooked into S-shapes. They were white with sapphire-colored plumage around their heads, with wingspans wider than Isla was tall. As one flew overhead, it completely engulfed Isla in its shadow. Isla wished it would come back, and fly a little closer.
“Where could they be going?” She wanted to follow.
Isla’s new tablet pinged. There was an artificial wetland a few miles ahead. Isla requested a route that would take them past. Even though it was out of the way, she wanted to spend some time in the presence of other living things if she could.
When they got to it, it felt like an oasis. The wetland was a wet plain with tall reeds and patches of dark algae. The air was a little cooler and there was chirping and buzzing. Plant life, animal, insect. And drones too, small machines that sifted dirt and watered patches of ground. Isla marveled at what the robots had built out of poisoned ground. She felt her heart swell with hope. Getting older seemed to be a process of making do with less and less. But maybe the exile of beauty and biodiversity could be reversed.
“You guys should build more of these. All over. Put one in Oakland.” Isla had a vision of how she might start over. She should have money in her bank account when she left Robot Country, maybe she could afford her own room. She could reconnect with old friends she had lost touch with after the stress of work and the chaos of Javi and then the shame of having nothing caused her to retreat from the social scene. She would get something resembling a life back together in the Bay Area. If the robots would build a wetland there, the herons would descend on it and so would she.
“This technology is meant for Mars. We might set one up at Coachella.”
“But it could also be used to clean up toxic waste dumps and beautify public spaces,” said Isla.
“The innovations developed in Robot Country are meant to generate a profit,” the spider said.
“But perhaps if the specs were leaked, another party could put the technology to good use.”
The spider neither confirmed nor denied her speculation, which perhaps was just as well. Corporate treason was punishable by death.
As the day wore on, the tree line grew closer. The drones brought better snacks, including roasted dates and an iced latte. Isla checked their progress on her tablet; she had increased her mileage from yesterday. But she was tired, and she supposed tomorrow she would have to travel even more.
The sun went down as they approached the location marked “camp” on her tablet. Dinner was laid out on a rickety folding table. But there was no tent, only a giant spider. Twenty feet tall with an abdomen that hung low.
The skin of the spider looked gray from a distance, but close up was a warped grid of black and white squares that indicated another antagonistic pattern.
Isla went to bed in the belly of the spider. She declined to get tangled up in its cables. She didn’t want all the softness to leave her body. As she slept, the spider crawled toward the tree line. She woke up in the forest.
“Is this Gila?”
“We are still in Robot Country.” The voice came from another spider, knee height, different from yesterday’s. She wondered if all the spiders shared one mind.
The air smelled fantastic. The trees looked really healthy, despite being covered in a shimmering layer of beetles. She walked around barefoot just to feel cool earth and dead leaves on her feet.
“Don’t beetles kill trees?” asked Isla. She had read something about massive die-offs decimating tree populations. This was due to the global heat that threatened to suffocate everything. The cold of winter was what used to protect the trees from killer beetles.
“The beetle drones kill the beetles that kill the trees.”
Isla nodded. So this was an experimental forest. Another beautiful manufactured landscape that was meant only for the rich.
They set off again, leaving the giant spider behind. The little spider walked with her until she arrived at a barren strip of land that the spider identified as the border. The ground was uniform light brown and there was no plant life anywhere. The spider drone printed out a piece of paper for her to carry. This was the message. Then it handed her a compass and printed out a map. This was the destination.
“Why don’t you try to come with me? I could use the assistance.”
The spider showed her footage of fist-sized wasp drones tearing a spider drone to pieces. She handed the spider her tablet. She wasn’t allowed to take any computers with her, lest the wasps mistake her for a drone too.
“The wasps might come after you too. Are you willing to accept the risk?” asked the spider.
“Um, what are my odds?”
“Excellent. They should be able to read your biological signatures and understand you are human. They are supposedly limited by the First Law.” The spider removed a small toolkit from its thorax. Then it showed her a video that indicated the wasp’s weak points. “If they do come after you, they can be defeated by someone who can work quickly.”
Isla thought back to how she had disarmed the crazed drones at Bondi’s. “You saw my viral video. That’s why I got this job, didn’t I?”
“One of many reasons. You’re highly qualified and we’re lucky to have you.”
Isla’s got misty at that. She had been in the workforce six years and nobody had ever said that to her before. She took the toolkit and fastened it around her waist.
A water copter came by to top off her backpack. Then she set off alone, trying not to think about the predatory wasps. She sang out loud to reassure herself. She went through a greatest hits list of favorite songs until she found herself singing, “We were in love, we were in love . . .” and realized she was thinking of Javi again. What if she died and her last thought was of him? What then? Would that condemn her to some kind of Hell?
She hiked two miles across barren land and then trees began to reappear. Dead ones only at first, either bleached white from the sun or charred black by a fire. Some were cracked and gray in a way that made them look antagonistically patterned. Finally she saw a tree, small and scraggly, but one with green leaves that seemed to be alive. That’s how she knew she had crossed over into the Gila.
She wanted to hug that tree. She wanted to take a picture with it. She wanted to press her face against its smooth bark and tell it how she was going to be an astronaut one day. She stood next to the tree for a second, whispered a silent thanks to it, and then continued on. As she progressed, the trees grew taller and denser.
The brush built up and soon she was cutting a trail for herself. She set up camp and drank some of her water ration. She had enough water for three days even though she was supposed to arrive at her destination tomorrow. She had no way of verifying if she was close, or if she was even on the right path.
Before bed, she took the pills the spider had packed for her. They induced hallucinatory dreams and Isla wondered if they contained acid or nanotech or some combination thereof. She dreamed she was hiking up a hill and she came up to a cabin. She opened the front door but before she could see what was inside, she was already awake.
She packed up her camp herself for the first time ever. It took forever and things hardly seemed to fit when she did it. Then she set off. Just like her dream, she had to head up into the hills. It didn’t look exactly how she dreamed it, but it felt pretty similar.
Eventually she did come across a cabin. There was a Jeep parked next to it. She checked that this was her destination. Unlike in her dream, she had planned to knock on the front door before entering. But the ranger must have seen her coming, because he was standing in the doorway, waiting for her as she approached.
“Howdy,” he shouted, but he did not wave or say it in a friendly way. Isla was in trouble. This felt like a perpetual condition, one she had spent nearly her whole life in.
“Hello, I, uh, have a message.” She patted her pockets as she continued to walk towards him, reassuring herself she still had that piece of paper somewhere, probably in her pack.
“Do you have a permit to be here?”
She was standing in front of him now, finally able to notice how handsome he was. She took a sharp inhale and looked down at her jumpsuit, whose baggy cut and warped pattern made her look like the escaped prisoner of an Op-Art sanitarium. She missed her Diane Von Furstenberg, which had been tight around her hips. That one you could unbutton in a comely way.
“My permit?” She had a map and a message. Camping equipment, some snacks, and enough water to last until tomorrow. She had occasional faith in her own abilities and a deep wish to start over. She was pretty sure she didn’t have a permit, but maybe the robots had thought to pack one for her.
“That’s . . . uh . . . I . . .” Something in his voice wavered. She looked up at him to try and figure it out and it was his turn to look away. Had she somehow made him shy? She was twenty-eight and had never made a man nervous in her life. That was the downside of being attracted to confidence. A confident man could never be in your power, would never be supplicant to your beauty or charms.
The ranger had broad shoulders and a strong jaw. She wanted to see his eyes again, which she remembered as being dark and intense. They were silent for a while, and Isla sensed she was going to have to take charge of the situation somehow.
“Can I come in? Let me look through my pack, I might have a permit in there somewhere?”
“Might?” he asked.
Isla walked past him into the interior of the cabin. She was eager to take her pack off, perhaps even sit down. Inside the cabin were windows that looked onto a stunning view of a green valley. In one corner there was a twin bed, neatly made, in the other, a small wood-fed stove. So he slept here. How cozy.
On one wall, a large map. The Gila Forest was shaded green and Robot Country was gray. Isla set her pack down, and put her hat on top of that. She grabbed the elastic that held her hair into a messy bun, and yanked. Her hair came cascading down in what was supposed to be a flirtatious gesture, only two beetles fell out as well. Stowaways. They hit the ground with a couple of soft clicks and then went skittering to a small hole in the pine board floor. In less than a second, they were gone.
“Did you just smuggle in a non-native species?” the ranger said, finding his voice.
“Uh, I don’t think so, I mean, not on purpose. Anyway, those probably weren’t really beetles.”
“What? You brought in drones? There are no machines allowed in this wilderness area.”
Isla was pretty sure the Jeep she saw parked out front was a machine, but it didn’t seem like the best time to point that out.
Isla got down on one knee and began digging through her pack. She searched everything, but there was no permit.
“This is for you,” she handed him the message the spider had printed out for her. On it were a date, a time, and coordinates. Nothing else.
“What is this supposed to mean?” he asked.
She shrugged. She had already looked it over several times, but had been unable to make sense of it.
“I’m Isla, by the way,” she said.
“Isla,” he repeated. “I’m Zayn. What are you doing out here?”
“I’m a drone minder, from Robot Country. The robots told me to come here and deliver this. It must be for you.”
He looked at the paper again and shook his head. He walked over to the map and pinned the message up next to it. “The indicated date is tomorrow. The coordinates are not far from here. Let’s see if anything interesting happens.”
“It’s dangerous work you do. Two of your kind have already gone missing.”
“That’s what the drones told me. My boss didn’t think it was worth mentioning.”
“You don’t seem worried,” he said. “Company Omega seems very careless with human lives.”
She didn’t respond. She stared at the hole in the floor that the beetles disappeared into. The beetles knew where she was, they would find a way to keep her safe.
“The case is in unusual legal territory. Company Omega claims they are not dead, that they have biometric implants that prove they are alive. But the geographic tracking has been disabled, so we can’t find them.” Zayn went to his desk and pulled out two pictures of young men.
Isla shook her head no, she hadn’t seen them.
“And you’re sure don’t have a permit?” Zayn asked again.
Isla shook her head no, again.
“It’s not like I agree with the permit system. It means only the rich can visit. But I have these obligations . . .” He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand as he thought it over. “Since you don’t have a permit, I’m going to have to escort you out. I should probably fine you or something, but if you promise not to go back to Robot Country, I can let you off with a warning.”
Isla was thinking of a way to ask for Zayn’s number when the sky cracked with thunder. A moment later, rain began to pound down.
“There’s a mudslide warning in effect for the roads. The last fire took out so many trees that the nearby hills are eroding away. I’m not supposed to be out driving when it’s like this.”
“Then we’re stuck here,” said Isla, and Zayn nodded.
To pass the time, they played cards. When the rain didn’t let up, he showed her maps of Gila and printed out pictures of the landscape. Gila was different than other areas; with certain exceptions (Zayn’s Jeep among them) machines weren’t allowed and even the use of “unnecessary” digital devices was frowned on, though this was loosely defined and enforced strictly by honor. It had a permit system that limited visitors. The Gila was supposed to be the “purest” of all the national wilderness areas. Isla’s parents would have liked it here.
The rain finally let up at sundown, but the roads were still wet and it was too dark for Zayn to drive her down to town. Had Isla been a little braver, she would have jumped him and then they could have slept together. But she couldn’t quite tell if he was into her. This was the problem with shy boys, they kept it to themselves if they liked you. Javi had told her she was beautiful, it was one of the first things he said to her. At the end of their first date, he had put his hand on her waist and swiftly leaned in for a kiss. It was sudden like a shark attack, but also blissful. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that someone who was good at seduction would want to seduce a lot of different people. Isla wished she knew how to seduce a person. It seemed like a thing she should know how to do.
Zayn offered her his bed, saying he would sleep on the floor. But Isla preferred to set up her tent and sleeping bag on the large balcony that wrapped around one side of the cabin. The air was damp and not full of dust. And it was cool. She was determined to enjoy it.
In the morning, Zayn made oatmeal on a wood stove. He topped it with a dark honey that tasted faintly herbal and some raspberries he had picked nearby. He explained to her about how raspberries weren’t actually berries, they were stone fruits. He explained how he never picked all the berries, he saved some for the bears. When she wanted to know about the bears, he told her about the grizzlies and the black bears and then the wolves. Even jaguars had been spotted.
She wanted to know about the jaguars, but then Zayn spotted smoke on the horizon. He got on his walkie-talkie and then began triangulating the position with other rangers and lookouts. While he did this, Isla lay on his bed and read books from his collection. He liked to read about caves and birds.
From what she could overhear, Isla understood that yesterday’s lightning had sparked a fire and that the fire had spread.
“How are you going to put it out?” asked Isla, once Zayn was able to take a break. Firefighting seemed perfectly suited to the drones. She wished there was a spider nearby to arrange things.
“This one we are going to let burn,” said Zayn. He walked over to his big map and showed her where the fire was. “It’s still small.”
“Aren’t those the coordinates I gave you?”
They checked, and the message she had been given did seem to correspond to the fire. The time given was probably when the lightning had struck and the fire had started.
“Who gave you this message?” asked Zayn.
“The robots, I already told you.”
“I guess they’re letting you know they can predict the weather.”
Isla shook her head no. “They are letting me know they can make the weather.”
“Scary,” said Zayn.
“Is it?” she asked. If the robots could make the weather, then it could rain the right amounts at the right time. In the hands of Company Omega, this type of technology could be used to increase the oppression of everyone who couldn’t escape to Mars. But if it were up to her, she could wield the technology for good. She made a mental to-do list: find a way back into Robot Country, find a way to increase her rank, and then find a way to fix the planet that her ancestors had inherited and then subsequently broken. After that: Mars. Oakland would have to wait.
“I think it’s scary. According to you, the robots set the forest on fire. At least it’s a small one. Little blazes like this are good for the health of the forest,” he said. After a pause, he lowered his voice and added: “I’m glad to meet you even if your message wasn’t all that urgent.”
Isla was silent as she thought this over. No, the message she gave to Zayn wasn’t urgent or important. She suspected that the “message” wasn’t actually contained in that piece of paper she was given, but in the two beetles that had escaped from her hair. But then, why have her come all the way up to the cabin? Why didn’t the beetles just escape as she soon as she crossed the border into the Gila? The spider had wanted her to see them. She had been given a glimpse of what the rebel drones were up to.
She looked up at Zayn, who wore a puzzled expression. She supposed he wondered what she was thinking. She was thinking that that the robots had wanted her to meet him.
And that made it feel like the right time to lean in to him, to put her hand on his waist. Like a shark, she told herself, but instead, he pulled away.
“I’m sorry . . . I can’t,” he said. He stepped away to increase the gap between them and ran his hand through his cropped hair as he looked at the ground. “It’s just that, you’re not even supposed to be here . . . I could be seen as taking advantage, I should get you back.”
This was the problem with honorable boys, they would never let you debase them. Isla supposed that seduction always contained an element of destruction. She wanted to be beautiful enough to cause a man to abandon his honor.
It was a long and awkward ride down the hill and into town. Zayn would not drop her off at the border to Robot Country. He was adamant she not return. Just as well, Isla wasn’t completely sure there would be any spider to meet her if she did cross back over. The spider hadn’t given her any instructions for what to do after she completed her task.
Zayn dropped her off at the post office in town, which also doubled as a bank. As they pulled up, Isla saw Kaya waiting for her in the parking lot.
“I guess I’m in trouble,” she said. “Again.”
“Then maybe don’t go? I could drop you off at the police station instead. I really don’t trust your employer.”
“I’ll be alright.”
“Take this.” He handed her his card, but then took it back and wrote his personal number on it. “Call me if the trouble is too much. Or just call me anyway, let me know you’re okay. I’m sorry for what happened before. It couldn’t happen like that, but if we were to meet under different circumstances . . .” He looked at her hopefully, as if she could complete his unfinished thoughts. She cocked her head.
He cleared his throat and added, “I would like to meet under different circumstances.” Isla could tell that this had been difficult for him to say. This was the nice thing about shy guys, their words didn’t come easily, but when they spoke, they really meant it.
Isla stepped out of the Jeep and noticed the moment that she did, the pattern on her jumpsuit changed to a uniform gray. It was no longer antagonistic, it just looked like normal, ill-fitting clothes. She crossed the parking lot and greeted Kaya.
“You found me,” said Isla. She wondered how.
“I’m sorry, you are no longer a good fit for our organization,” said Kaya. Isla knew she was going to be fired. She wanted to know if she was also in legal trouble, but there seemed no way to ask that question without arousing suspicion. She signed some documents and was free to go, so she went inside the post office to check her bank balance, where she was pleasantly surprised by the results. The drones paid better than Company Omega.
At the general store, she bought herself a new phone. She checked into a local motel and checked her messages. None from Javi. None from her parents. Further proof her old life was over. Time to begin again. She decided to call Zayn. She summarized her situation and then told him where she was staying. He said he would be right over, that he hadn’t left town for fear of what might happen to her.
While she waited, she got a message from a user named “Spider.”
“Good work. Message delivered. Are you interested in coming back?”
She messaged yes and “Spider” sent her coordinates. It wanted her back tomorrow.
“Not tomorrow,” she wrote back, optimistically. “I’m busy tomorrow.”
“Okay.” It wrote back with new coordinates and a new date.
She could do that, she thought, as Zayn knocked softly at her door. She could do anything.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dominica Phetteplace is a math tutor who writes fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, and Clarkesworld. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. Her honors include a MacDowell Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Award.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the August 2019 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus nonfiction and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Brenda Peynado, Scott Sigler, Sam J. Miller, Rajan Khanna, Kendra Fortmeyer, Cassandra Khaw, Carlos Hernandez, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.