On the other side of the port was a riot, and Somn was pushed into it by other people copying her mistake. What had been an open space abruptly funneled down to a hallway crowded with people and their luggage. However wide the hallway was, it wasn't wide enough, and the walls were made of rock; Somn felt like she was stumbling through a lava tube towards an active volcano.
Voices unaccustomed to giving orders were learning how. Rumors were shouted with the force of fact. Every channel of the other-room was clogged, and leaving it only filled Somn's ears with the sound of shuffling and grunting from far too much biomass trying to share space, the one thing in the Constellation that could not be shared.
A naked kej male ran along the ceiling, a flash of bright orange standing out among the mass of muted colors as seen through spacesuits. There was air here, but he was the only one who'd bothered to de-suit.
"If you are freaking out, please go to the freak-out room!" he shouted. "You are a new guy, and it's normal to freak out!"
"Hey!" Somn called out, the only other real voice in the noisy hallway. "Hey! How do I know if I'm freaking out?"
The male looked down at her. "You are freaking out," he said. "Come with me!"
The kej freak-out room was behind a primitive airlock, and it was full of screaming and hyperventilating people; not the best place to add one more freaking-out person. The walls were wet clay that could be sculpted by hand, if any hands were in a therapeutic mood, and someone had thought to bring large tubs of junk food and cold drinks out of the matter shifter. Somn picked up a bulb of cold liquid labeled in a kej language she didn't recognize. It played an ominous tune as she unlocked it with shaking fingers. She drank, and bubbles of argon and neon dampened her nerves.
"Why is it so loud everywhere?" Somn shouted.
"Ah," said the male. "Because the people here are freaking out!" Some of those people started throwing junk food at each other, and he was hit by a big wet cake.
"Why is everyone freaking out?"
The male licked steaming, slush-frozen cake off a forearm. "We found life! Intelligent life! They're called humans! This is officially the thirty-second contact mission!"
Somn burped out a long moan. "Oh, no," she said, and somehow the male heard her.
"You should not let them hear you say that!" he shouted, as if that could possibly be a problem here. "Humans are very sensitive about their place in the universe!"
"Can we go somewhere quieter?" Somn screamed.
"We can go somewhere," said the male, "and it will probably be quieter than this!"
Space is very quiet, if you don't listen in the radio and X-ray frequencies. Somn and the male walked on the outside of the kej habitat, still under construction. The blue glow of fusion forges were visible everywhere beneath their hands. Above them was the dead rock of a satellite, which the builders--mainly absbuank kinner--were harvesting for raw materials so as not to strain the forges. Above that was the planet, a blue blur through a dust cloud. The inhabited planet. With the people. Living people who Somn had assumed would be dead and fossilized. She was irrationally glad they couldn't see her.
"What's your name?" she said, trying to retrieve a crumb of her old life.
"Tetsuo," said the male, denying her.
"What kind of name is that?" Somn didn't know about every kej culture on every planet, but 'Tetsuo' was far too long and unwieldy to be anything but an antique throwback.
"It's a human name," said Tetsuo. "It means 'tough guy' in human." Beneath his suit he flexed what he imagined to be muscles and Somn giggled.
"Come on, what's your real name?"
"Tetsuo is my real name." His suit was already filthy from outside work, and covered with overlay stickers. He was really, really into this contact mission thing.
"Why aren't you freaking out?"
Tetsuo gave this serious consideration and Somn feared he would logically conclude that freaking out was the rational move. "I freaked out when I was born! I love this. We found a new kind of person! This is the best day of my life. Really, the only interesting day so far."
"I didn't actually believe we would find anyone."
"Yeah, it's pretty rare," Tetsuo blithely agreed. "But you have to jump through, right, when your moment comes? Just in case?"
No, you idiot, this is a confession. "I was a paleontologist."
"That sounds like fun."
He obviously didn't recognize the word, so Somn repeated it in flat-form Purchtrin. "A fossil-siever-extractor."
"I was with History of Life, my entire adulthood, cleaning up the fossil records of all the planets we've contacted. Dozens of phylogenetic graphs that all ended with mass death. And the one I get to join, the biosphere's still going. There's people up there! I don't belong here."
"Your feeling goes both ways." Tetsuo waved at the glowing blue blur as if trying to get the planet's attention. "They're freaking out. They're having a shit on the floor, just like we did when we were contacted."
"The metrase didn't freak out."
"These people are not metrase. They're freaking out and broadcasting their freakout to each other." He sent Somn a photo of two of them, or maybe four, screaming at each other while superimposed text flew by. "They're basically kej. They even look like us."
"They're going to kill us," said Somn. There was something in the creatures' beady little eyes. "This can only end one way."
"Nah, they're wimps," said Tetsuo. "They can barely get robots up this high." They sat silently for a while. "We'll work something out," he added, trying to keep the conversation going.
"Thank you for taking me here," said Somn. "I don't spend much time in space. It's nice to be in a place where there are no fossils demanding my attention."
"Rrr-rr-rrr." Tetsuo was making a grinding noise like Mom-Etra's mechanical food mill. He was thinking of all the obvious counterexamples to Somn's no-fossils-in-space statement, but not saying any of them.
"Would you like to go up to the satellite?" he asked, with a note of hope Somn wouldn't understand til later. "There are no fossils there, either. We checked."
"What is there?"
"You're not really making it sound attractive." Somn stood up. "Anyway, I need to go find a place to stay."
"Don't rush to pick a place," said Tetsuo. His dirty suit glowed in the blue light of the matter shifters. "The really nice habitats haven't been built yet."
Once again an eye opened up in space, and light fell through, illuminating a place that had been out of sight. You'll Only See Kis Echo! leaped through the eye before it was safe, to make it safe for others. Other people must evaluate hypotheticals before they act, a slow process called consciousness. In the end, they act on hope, fear, or some cobbled-together approximation of rationality. Absbuank just act. Life has evolved to follow the light, and the absbuank have evolved to follow life.
"I'm having fun with this," Tetsuo Milk said. "Are you having fun?"
"Yes," said You'll Only See Kis Echo!. Ki looked away from kis computation sink, at the matterscape taking shape around the huge trunk of a cma, just to check kis feeling against reality. "Yes, this is fun." Up and down the trunk, others were working on their projects, personalizing Kej Ring and making it a place where real people lived.
"Good," Tetsuo said, "because this whole thing needs to be done over again." To quantify his displeasure he overlaid the matter template against the real live structure You'll Only See Kis Echo! was building. "There should be a big space in the center, tunneling through the trunk, with pathways leading in."
You'll Only See Kis Echo! mentally overlaid Tetsuo against the place he'd wanted to create, and found the contrast similarly objectionable. "Kej bodies are not built for such a wide-open space," ki said.
"The Ip Shkoy did it this way, so that is the way we will do it here." Tetsuo climbed up onto the bridge and struck a forehand against the wooden railings that curved down its length. "Gah! What are these ugly things, in all their hideosity?"
"Safety railings!" You'll Only See Kis Echo! created a loudspeaker near Tetsuo rather than raising kis voice. "So your visitors don't fall down and die."
"There were no safety railings in the matter template!"
And now there were no Ip Shkoy. Bad ergonomics and lack of safety railings had done them in. Life was much improved for the kej now that they were part of the Constellation. But still individuals like Tetsuo built exoskeletons out of nostalgia and tradition; attempts to recapture the past and approximate the perfection of caste memory.
"We could contact the Permanent Swap Meet Overlay and trade this space for a space closer to the hull," You'll Only See Kis Echo! suggested. "Then people wouldn't be hurt if they fell." Ki evaluated some hypotheticals: a regrettably necessary circumvention of caste memory, which only predicted the present. "Perhaps they would be hurt, but not fatally."
"Never!" Tetsuo declared. "My Ip Shkoy Replica Village will offer the real thrills and real health hazards of the original!"
"Are you always like this?" asked You'll Only See Kis Echo!. Ki preferred people who were always like what they were, regardless of what that was.
"I don't know what I'm like!" Tetsuo flailed his hindarms and nearly fell off the shaking bridge he'd set up. "My parents are outside my light cone! Everyone who had opinions about me is outside my light cone! For the first time in my life, I can be myself! In addition, I think I'm in love!"
"Oh, that's nice," said You'll Only See Kis Echo! politely.
Tetsuo hung over the bridge and looked at his absbuank friend upside-down. "What do you think I should I do?"
Tetsuo grimaced. "About the love situation!"
You'll Only See Kis Echo! made a low rumbling noise in kis trunk. "I don't think my advice will be useful, or that you will take it."
"That's never stopped anyone in my family from offering advice," Tetsuo told the absbuank, "and after our 216 of working together I consider you equivalent to family."
"The two of you should find a kemmer, have ke take samples of your cartilaginous joint fluid, and prepare a test triad concoction. If your caste memories are incompatible, it's best to find out immediately."
"I see!" said Tetsuo. "Your heartfelt advice has brought the perfect solution to mind!"
"I'll ask someone else!" Tetsuo flung himself upwards and scampered up the carefully positioned branches of the genetically-engineered cma, towards the connection between Kej Ring and the central cylinder.
"Goodbye," said You'll Only See Kis Echo!.
"Build the replica structures exactly as they appear in the matter template!" Tetsuo called out as he disappeared upwards along the vector of lower gravity.
You'll Only See Kis Echo! did not like disagreements with kis collaborators on a project, so ki was pleased to hear this parting instruction. Turning back to kis computation sink, ki opened up Tetsuo's matter template for the Ip Shkoy Replica Village, and started editing it to add hidden safety netting 26 beneath every fallable surface.
"I am working on it, okay?" said Curic from the bubbling interior pond that protected them from physical interaction like a tiny moat. "I am finding humans for you to talk to. You and one hundred twenty-two other people. You don't need to come here personally and check on me every 218."
"I like it here," Tetsuo said. "Your decorating style inspires me. It's remindatory of the Gagash people, a precursor to the Ip Shkoy, and anticipatory of their culture in many ways. Like you, they found beauty in stark, naturalistic lighting--"
"I am hinting that I want you gone," said Curic. "My house is too small even without a huge kej visitor."
Tetsuo looked around at the nearly empty space Curic had claimed from Metrase Ring. "It looks very spacious," he said. "In fact, I think you overdid it. I was just thinking you could use an accent chair."
"No accents and no chairs."
"Instead, you could annex the space outside," Tetsuo said with sudden and great excitement. "Just think about it! You could build a raised structure and gain altitude over your rivals!"
"The space outside is scrub plains," Curic said for the first time but with the unearned attitude of someone explaining for the hundredth. "Metrase live in beach caves, and that is final."
"Oh," said Tetsuo, "well, who lives in scrub plains?"
"Nobody lives there!"
"Could I live in a scrub plain?" For reasons Curic didn't pretend to understand, Tetsuo seemed to be warming to this idea.
"The scrub plain shouldn't even be there! But the Historically Accurate Habitat Overlay won over the Bigger Houses For Everyone Overlay, because all of us sensible people were busy with the Contacting Humans Overlay, helping people like you."
"That sounds like a win-win."
"It's a fuck-you, is what it is. They distract all the competent people with a real job that needs doing, and then jump in to get what they want with their precious historical accuracy."
"I feel a strong need to change the conversational topic," Tetsuo said. "Can you help me talk to a girl?"
"I said I'm working on it."
"I mean a kej girl."
Tiny furry fists clenched. "I do not see what obstacle is stopping you from talking to a kej girl."
"You are a girl," said Tetsuo.
"Not at the moment," said Curic.
"Sometimes you are, so I want advice."
"You are one of a sample of people I'm asking. I want to become Ashley Somn's boyfriend."
Curic paused to recall his crossself's memories. "Didn't you two have sex? In a park?"
"That was social sex; it had no emotional weight."
Curic blinked and flexed his antennacles. "Right, well, I'm glad you can tell the difference. Did you ever have a girlfriend on the other side of the port? This will be way easier if the answer is yes, by the way."
"The answer is only yes!" Tetsuo spoke with grave and wounded dignity.
"How did you get involved with her?"
"I..." Tetsuo couldn't really remember, and it hurt to think about his old life. "It just sort of happened."
"Neither helpful nor, I suspect, accurate."
"I guess I would always make friends with one of the other boyfriends, and go from there."
"Uh-huh." Curic nodded. "You've always been the fun boyfriend. That comes easily to you. Now you need to be the practical boyfriend, the seed crystal around which a marriage grows. That's the challenge of adulthood."
"Amazing!" said Tetsuo. "That's approximately it exactly! How do you know so much about this?"
"I grew up on a contact mission with a lot of kej," said Curic, "and I have no emotional attachment to the concept of romance. Incidentally, this also makes me very good at giving relationship advice to humans. Now, if my male half were you--"
"Further advice is unnecessary!" Tetsuo declared. "I know exactly the step I need to take to win my love: a gesture so romantic it's like something out of an Ip Shkoy dating simulation!"
"With humans I would have to step in after hearing something like that," Curic said, mainly to himself. "But knowing the kej, your idiotic plan will probably work."
Tetsuo leaped up for joy and then turned in midair to face Curic and landed heavily on his hands. "Oh, one thing, for my plan," he said. "Because you're not using it, I'd like to use a matter shifter on the scrub plain outside your house."
"Be my fucking guest," said Curic.
Somn had fully adapted to her new life, and her name was Ashley now, but Tetsuo was still trying to 'help' her. She'd followed him to the ass-middle of Metrase Ring, a high-gravity habitat of barren rock with no vegetation or restaurants. "Why did you oblige me to come out here?" she asked.
"I've set up a game here for you to play," said Tetsuo.
"I don't have time for games," Somn said.
"I only set up one game."
"No games at all. I'm busy! I have to study Earth's evolutionary tree." Having causally disconnected her reputation by jumping through a contact port like an idiot, this was Somn's only path to a life that was interesting. That said, she hadn't done any actual work yet, except watch some field videos of the local tetrapods. The humans had produced an endless literature documenting improbable interspecies friendships. It was all overwhelming; too much data to handle.
"This is an educational game I made to help you." Reaching behind a medium-sized rock, Tetsuo produced a matter shifter fitted with an extraction case, not completely different (but different) from the one Somn had been using on Rivertrap not 223 ago. "The object is to sieve-extract fossils from beneath this seemingly pointless scrub plain."
Somn glared at the zany male who insisted on courting her in the most bizarre ways. "This is a space station, Tetsuo. It's fresh out of the shifter! There are no fossils here!"
"If you tested that hypothesis, you would find you are wrong. This area is 210 deep and it is salted with replica fossils from Earth. The object of the game is to dig them up and build a tree of Earth life. Then we'll compare it to reality, and share a laugh at the discrepancies. It's a game!"
Somn had to admit that it was, technically, a game. "Do the rules of the 'game' allow me to consult the human scientific literature?"
"The rules explicitly forbid it," said Tetsuo. "You must deduce the history of life using only the fossils you find from here to..." In the other-room he highlighted an arbitrary point in the distance. "There."
"What's the point? Human paleontologists already have a phylogenetic tree based on molecular clocks. I won't get it right based on crude morphology comparisons."
She turned, and the other kej was gone. Her heart raced. Had a feral metrase eaten him? "Tetsuo?" she called out.
"I have mysteriously vanished!" came a voice from behind the medium-sized rock.
"Ugh." Somn looked over the matter shifter. It was a different design than the one she was used to, intended for radiation cleanup rather than paleontology. But it couldn't hurt to get a basic overview of Earth biology before she started diving into the literature, and Tetsuo had successfully gotten her 'outside' her nest. The hostile environment and barren landscape of Metrase Ring reminded her of good times on planets blasted and scorched by their erstwhile inhabitants. It had been hard work, of course; geology never gave up the secrets of biology without a fight...
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Somn-in-herself said.
Right at her forehand, poking out of the ground, was an external tooth, the tusk of some giant prehistoric beast. It was just sitting there, at the tippy-top of the geological column, as if the animal had just dropped dead in front of her.
"This is ridiculous." Somn tugged at the faux-fossilized tusk but it was firmly rooted in the rock. She groaned and started programming the matter shifter to build the parts for a second matter shifter designed for fine detail work. What kind of Earth animal had tusks this large, and why had Tetsuo made this stupid game so easy?
After that, one thing led to another, and...
One of Tetsuo's human pen pals had knitted cozies for Somn's eggs, vastly misunderstanding the purpose of nesting in kej. She and Tetsuo had slid the little belts over the leathery egg cases anyway, and took photos. It was never too early to put the kids in silly outfits.
"Which one of us is the practical boyfriend?" Tetsuo asked her, out of nowhere. "Is it me, or Esteban?"
Somn tested her weight on the decorated eggs. The yarn scratched her in uncomfortable places. "Huh? 'Practical boyfriend?' What brought this on?"
Tetsuo pouted, the very portrait of male insecurity. "Daisy says I'm the practical boyfriend."
Somn scoffed. "Daisy likes lying. I will never lie to you, Tetsuo. You are the least practical boyfriend since boyfriends were invented. You have dressed up our eggs in colorful matrices of yarn. You are purely ornamental, pal."
"What would I have to do to convince you that I'm the practical boyfriend?"
"Uh, the point is moot because I do not want a practical boyfriend, which is why I have you and Esteban instead."
"What if I moved to Earth for a while?" Tetsuo asked. "The school-for-adults in Austin wants me to teach students there."
Here it was, the real point of the conversation. "That's a really good idea," Somn said. "You're suffering some serious nest fever. I need to shoo you out of here until the eggs hatch."
"Is it a practical idea?"
"Give it up, Tetsuo."
"It's a steady job with good benefits!" Somn's boyfriend babbled. "The school will negotiate a visa and arrange for health insurance."
"The nonsense words you're saying don't exactly resound with practicality!"
Tetsuo left the room in a sulk and Somn was afraid she'd actually hurt him, but she couldn't leave the eggs. She called out in sudden anxiety and he instantly reappeared, although from a different doorway from the one he'd used to leave.
"Tetsuo, is the problem that I'm too practical for you?" she asked him. "Do you want a girlfriend who's more fun?"
Tetsuo tenderly tickled Somn on either side of her eyespots. "You've got it wrong, Ashley," he said with great tenderness.
"I don't think you're practical at all."