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Zapatista Ex Machina

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Blue is finishing up on the john when there’s a scream and a crash from the direction of the lab.

“God fucking —“ Blue struggles to zip her envirosuit closed. She hates how much the cold makes her have to pee. If she dies in a bathroom stall because her fingers are too stiff to work, she will just be so mad.

“Blue?” Comes Lime’s scared voice, just barely audible over the continued screaming.

Blue shoulders the door open. “I’m done, I’m done,” she gasps, just a second before an emergency alert from White flashes up on her faceplate.

Shit, Blue mouths, and tells Lime, “Stay together.”

“Okay,” Lime says, sounding sick.

Belatedly, Blue realizes it might be kind of dumb to go towards the screaming, but impostors reportedly don’t attack groups, so fuck it. She snatches up an IV stand as she enters with Lime behind her shoulder because if all else fails, she can poke something in the eye.

White is flattened against the far wall, screaming his head off. It takes Blue a moment to process the other shit happening, because as it turns out, Pink is really fast, and apparently knows karate or something, because every time Yellow — fucking hell, it’s Yellow? — lunges at her, she grabs their shoulders and — spins them or something, something that sends them careening off until they wheel around for another attempt.

“Pipe down, motherfucker,” Pink is shouting, “I don’t want to hurt you,” and Yellow’s fucking torso splits open and something spears out —

— But Pink dodges and throws a beaker right in that toothy maw. Yellow makes a hideous gargling noise and spits it out, but in the second it takes to do that, Pink sprints up and grabs their arm and twists them facefirst to the ground.

“Help me hold them!” Pink snaps, and White isn’t moving, so Blue steels every nerve she has and hurries over to sit on the backs of their legs.

“What the fuck,” Blue says.

Pink snorts, still putting her full weight on the back of their shoulders. “I know, right?”

Lime is still in the doorway, by all appearances rooted to the ground, staring at Yellow. “It’s all good,” Blue tries to reassure her, “Looks like the mouthy bit opens to the front —“

Yellow snarls and tries to buck both of them off, but Pink’s suit is apparently hiding arms of solid steel, because she doesn’t move an inch and it only jounces Blue a little.

Pounding footsteps echo from the hallway, and Green wheels around the corner, nearly colliding with Lime. “Status,” he barks.

Blue looks down. “Well, Yellow’s got torso dentata.”

“Fuck you,” they grit out.

White is still hyperventilating. “They just —“ He gasps, pointing at the corner of the room, “Popped out from under the bed while I was scanning —“

What seems like everyone on base careens in behind Green, almost knocking Lime down. “Shit,” Red breathes, craning her neck to see around Black and Orange. “Aliens among us.”

“Orange, Black,” Green instructs, “Help Pink and Blue with its limbs. Red, get something to wrap it in,” and Yellow starts struggling even harder, the snarls starting to twang oddly. Blue’s mind is blank as she keeps her weight pressed down: she’s about to see someone get burned alive in lava. She’s about to throw someone alive into lava. Someone? Something?

“Hey, hey now, hold on,” Pink says loudly, speaking over Green, “Hold on just a second.”

Everyone pauses, even Yellow. “... What,” says Green.

“I’m not just letting you throw them in fucking lava,” Pink says, sounding indignant, and there’s a moment of incredulous silence before everyone starts talking at once.

“The fuck do you mean —“

“Have you gone —“

“Pink, that is a predatory alien —“

“A predatory alien,” Pink says with impressive clarity, “That can mimic one of us well enough to actively pass. Which means…?”

“What the fuck are you on about,” Black says.

Pink somehow rolls her eyes hard enough that everyone can tell even with a helmet on. “It means they’re as sapient as us, which means they’re a person, which means that there is a reason they’re here, and I’m pretty sure none of you know what that reason is. Right? Because I sure don’t.”

Yellow has gone still underneath Blue.

“Pink, I don’t see how that matters —“ Orange starts placatingly.

“How does it not matter?” Pink scoffs. “Orange, Cyan’s in the exact same program that we are. You’re comfortable not knowing when or why someone might try to kill her?”

“Hey,” Orange says, sounding disquieted.

“Can we move them?” Blue cuts in. “My legs are going numb.”

 


 

They end up just zipping Yellow most of the way into a body bag and tying it to a chair, leaving their helmet — head? — free. Yellow makes a few cursory lunges, but Blue thinks they mostly seem confused and wary.

Lime has been glued to Blue’s shoulder. Occasionally, Blue brushes against her and feels her trembling.

“I’m, like, ninety percent sure this won’t backfire on Pink,” Blue mutters to her, “She seems to know what she’s doing.” Lime presses her helmet to Blue’s shoulder and doesn’t make a sound.

“What I wanna know,” Black says, continuing her steady stream of cranky protests, “What I wanna know is why, when we were explicitly told that we should chuck impostors right away if they showed up, why you wanna talk to one —“

“You know why?” Pink says, bracing her hands on her thighs as she rises from her crouch. “Because I’m not here to cover up MIRA’s dirty business.” She pauses, visibly debating something, then straightens and says, “I’m an investigative journalist for The Gryphon. I faked my application to do an exposé on MIRA’s mysteriously sky-high staff attrition.”

Another pause. “You’re a what?” Brown says, which is the first words they’ve spoken since they bustled in the room and started keeping White from descending further into shock.

“A reporter,” Pink says, louder, “And if you —“

“Does that mean you’re technically an impostor?” Purple pipes up.

“Maybe!” Pink says, throwing her hands up. “You guys know that MIRA’s been covering up the fact that all the deaths are literal fucking alien attacks, right?”

“Of course,” Green interjects, “They don’t want to cause a panic —“

“Oh, a panic,” Pink says sarcastically, “Sure, right, as if a fifty percent death rate isn’t enough to 'panic' people anyway. Think! Isn’t it suspicious that MIRA mandates destroying or jettisoning suspected impostors, even at the risk of killing crewmates? Why would MIRA want to hide the fact that there are sapient aliens on Polus who are resisting their development badly enough for company policy to be murder?

“Because that’s scary?” Orange deadpans.

“For crying out loud, people, can’t you see what this all looks like?”

“No, I don’t,” Green cuts in, “Because you’re being unnecessarily obtuse. A predator can just be a predator.”

“‘Just a predator’,” Pink says, pulling over a lab chair to sit in front of Yellow, “Doesn’t deliberately target MIRA installations and sabotage reactor cores into blowing, which kills them too, if you didn’t notice. MIRA’s been blaming it on operator failure and faulty equipment, which doesn’t hold up to first glance. These? These are suicide missions.”

“I’m not telling you anything,” Yellow growls for the first time, making everyone but Pink jump.

“You don’t need to,” Pink says, leaning on her elbows. “Let’s start with what we know. Did anyone suspect that Yellow wasn’t one of us?”

A pause. “No,” Purple says quietly.

Pink holds up a finger. “So they pass the alien Turing test with flying colors, since it’s not just textual conversation they can mimic, but interpersonal interactions. I got past mission reports from HQ —“

“And how’d you do that,” Green mutters, which earns a “how do you think?” expression from Pink.

“— Which suggest that in multiple cases, the impostors managed to manipulate the crew into suspecting and killing their own. But,” Pink holds up another finger, “Not every intrusion has the same amount of success, even when controlling for the actual crew, which means this isn’t some sort of cookie-cutter automaton bullshit. Again: they’re individuals. People.”

“Okay,” Purple says, a frown in his voice as he sits on the edge of a medbay bed.

Another finger. “As I said, they’re on suicide missions, so they’re not hunting to eat, because you wouldn’t try to blow yourself up for food.”

Another. “The incursions are too targeted to be random, but they never attack in force, there are never more than three impostors to a work team. They also rarely attack people unless they’re alone or in equal numbers, which means that in general, two of us can match one, it’s not just that Yellow’s a wimp.” Yellow growls.

Or one, Blue thinks, remembering Pink hurling Yellow across the room. Pink continues, “You don’t do stealth suicide missions as your first choice of attack. They’re underpowered, and they’re outnumbered. Badly.”

“Just fucking kill me already!” Yellow explodes, indistinct coiled shapes shoving against the inside of the body bag. Everyone recoils — again, except for Pink.

“No,” Pink says, leaning in with her eyes glittering behind the faceplate, “You don’t know our world’s history, so you don’t understand. This shit that MIRA is doing? Started centuries ago. This is your planet. Isn’t it?”

At Yellow’s silence, she continues. “People roll in one day from somewhere you’ve never even heard of, saying you’re not using your own goddamn home right, that you’re letting resources go to waste, right? So they move in, and they build their ugly fucking buildings and pop out kid after kid with parents too busy working to survive to love them, so those kids grow up with a hole in ‘em that won’t be filled by anything they can touch, but they’ll fucking try, and so those people up top who marked your home for the factory have whole armies of hungry-heart people ready to strip your birthplace to the bone.”

Everyone is silent, staring at Pink. “And the way they work it,” Pink continues, “Is that there’s always gotta be more, right? No self-sustaining lifestyles allowed, no sir, constant growth or bust, because then all those heartsick people at the bottom can swallow the bullshit that they’ll be the winners this round, or if not them, their children, because look at all that fuckin’ land! They’re gonna strike it rich!”

Pink leans in farther, only a handswidth away from Yellow, who’s looking at her stunned. “But that only lasts so long, because planets aren’t infinite. Once there’s nowhere else to grow, nowhere else to chew up, people start to get wise, start thinking, hey, maybe this is all a scam, maybe there’s more important shit than slapping a price tag on everything, maybe those people up top don’t deserve to be there, and the people up top can’t have that, can they? So they hustle real hard to find somewhere new, and every time, they’ve gotten lucky, they’ve found a new ‘world’, a new market, even if they’ve had to make it themselves out of thin fucking air.”

Pink leans back, holds her hands open. “And then finally, our homeworld really does get as full as it’s gonna get, part because almost everywhere’s been pillaged, part because people’d started standing up and saying, no more, we don’t gotta live like this, we don’t gotta spend every waking hour working or recovering from work. But the people up top thought ahead, see? They started looking up.

“The final fucking frontier,” She spreads her hands out, indicating all the crew, “And desperate people hop on, because what else can you do? Real change is chancy and means a bunch of people working together. Sometimes people don’t see a way to live another day without buying into it, sometimes people don’t see the people that could help them.”

“Hey —“ White starts, sounding faintly indignant, but Pink holds her hand up.

“And see,” she says, voice softer than ever as she looks at Yellow, “This time, this time they thought, no one lives on these rocks, no one’s gonna pop up five hundred, a thousand years later remembering how they starved their ancestors.” She points at Yellow, who stiffens. “But there is someone here. You’re here. You’re fighting. And that’s goddamned inconvenient for MIRA.”

Blue’s mouth is dry.

“So what?” Yellow’s voice is ragged and flanging.

Pink rubs her hands together, suddenly gleeful. “So,” she says, “This is so, so much better than a corruption exposé. We already have reams of evidence for that, but hardly anyone pays attention to that anymore; it’s commonplace. But MIRA covering up the fact that this planet has sapient life that’s been fighting a losing battle against cannon-fodder stellanauts?” Pink slaps her thigh. “That’s viral, baby. That’s gonna make memes.”

So?

“There are people who’ve been fighting this fight longer than you have,” Pink says, her voice going serious again. “It’s not excusable anymore for corporations to do this shit in plain sight, so they hide it. So, I have a deal for you.”

Pink rises from her chair. “Call a truce. We don’t hurt you, you don’t hurt us, we don’t tell HQ. You don’t need to phone home yet or anything; all I need you to do is help me write your story.” She gestures towards them, hands tense. “You’re fighting a delaying action, Yellow! There can’t be enough of you to do this forever.”

“And you’re just doing this for fun?” They say sarcastically.

Pink’s voice is the most sincere thing Blue’s ever heard. “This is what I do, Yellow. If that’s what you want me to call you.”

Everyone else looks at each other. Blue turns to see Lime staring back at her.

“What do you think?” She murmurs. Lime trembles, then stills.

“Is it true?” Lime whispers.

“What?”

A shuddering breath from Lime, with — with a warped sound underneath. “Is it true, what Pink is saying? Did you not know what was happening here?”

Blue stares.

“Lime,” Yellow says, sounding horrified, but Lime rounds on them.

“If she’s telling the truth, we’re all going to die!” Lime shouts. “Not just a few nurseries flash-frozen, a few caverns demolished, but everyone!

“Hold on, nurseries?” Orange is asking, but Yellow is shouting back in some language that regular mouths definitely don’t use, and Black and Purple start talking, then Green on top of that —

I don’t want to die here!” Lime bellows, voice flanging, and everyone goes quiet. She takes a breath and goes on, quietly. “And I wasn’t going to do a good job before I went, anyway.”

Yellow smacks their head into the back of the chair, groaning. “Lime, you could have waited, we don’t even know if she’s lying!”

Lime’s shoulders are rigid. Blue wonders how she learned that. “Well, it’s too late now,” she says pragmatically. She faces Pink, hands clenched. “Do you — do you really think you can stop this?”

Pink is silent for a moment. “I can’t promise anything,” she says, and her voice is somber enough that everyone shuts up even more. “I can’t promise that people will pay attention, or that people will care, or that corporations like MIRA won’t make promises and then break them. That’s all happened before, too. But,” she says, standing and moving to grip Lime’s shoulder, “I swear to you, I will do everything I can to make sure this doesn’t keep happening. I swear.”

Lime nods once, jerky.

“I’m sorry, but — nurseries?” Orange cuts in.

Yellow and Lime both turn to look at him oddly. “The steam caverns,” Yellow says, “The ones that —“

Blue feels herself blanch.

“Oh,” Brown quavers. “Oh my god.”

“I thought those were worms,” Red says shrilly, and “They were babies!” Yellow roars back, yanking at their restraints. “And you people fucking froze them solid and took them away!”

Polus lifeform type X223, Blue thinks distantly, seeing those little thawed bodies under her dissection microscope again. She didn’t know. She didn’t know.

“I need to sit,” Red mumbles, and Blue heartily agrees.

There’s a good minute of silence broken only by Yellow’s heavy breathing — and the sound of quiet scribbling?

“Pink,” Green asks tiredly, “What are you doing?

“I hate to say it this way,” Pink says, pen going a mile a minute, “But dead babies make excellent news.”

Another moment of silence. Lime is still standing in the middle of the lab, hands opening and closing restlessly. Green sighs.

“We’d need to disable HQ’s monitoring somehow,” he says quietly.

Lime and Yellow’s heads both jerk up to stare at him. Green makes a tired gesture. “We wouldn’t want to make anyone come check on us, but we also wouldn’t want anyone catching wise to…” He waves vaguely. “Whatever’s in there.”

Blue doesn’t even know whether those two have head-based mouths, but she feels like their jaws are on the floor anyway.

Orange comes up behind Green and squeezes his shoulder. “Sounds like a plan,” he says quietly.

“Guys,” Pink says, flipping her steno notepad closed and looking at everyone else, “Think about it. If MIRA backs off, that means no more impostor attacks. Right?” She directs that at Yellow and Lime.

“... Right,” Yellow confirms grudgingly. 

“I’d like to not get stabbed, personally. Because,” Pink gives them a look, “Not to put too fine a point on it, but none of the people you all have been killing asked for any of this. None of it was their idea.”

Lime seems to shrink in on herself. Yellow just grumbles.

“And hey,” Pink says, humor in her voice, “With public scrutiny, maybe we’ll actually get paid more.”

Black barks a laugh. “Sure. Alright. Why not.”

Green directs a look around the room. “Any objections?”

Blue mutely shakes her head. Others shrug or do the same.

Green moves in front of Yellow, fists propped on his hips. “Are you going to try to eat me?”

“Not unless you try and kill me first,” Yellow says, a challenging tone in their voice. “Provided you’re actually going to help.”

“I’m a scientist,” Green says, bending down to start undoing the bungee cords. “We try not to make the same mistake more than a few times.”

 


 

Blue and Lime end up outside shoveling snow while Green, Orange, Pink, and Yellow go sabotage the monitoring array.

“I’m sorry,” Lime finally says, after about ten minutes of silent snow-hauling.

Blue stops short. “What? Why?”

Lime stops too. “I lied,” she says plainly. “You trusted me right off the dropship to accompany you, and I was there to kill you.”

“Yeah,” Blue says, “But you didn’t. And you had a lot of great opportunities to merk me. Which,” she says, examining Lime’s hunched posture, “I think you know.”

“I couldn’t do it,” Lime whispers, hands shaking around the haft of the shovel. “You weren’t the heartless aliens I was ready for. You laughed with each other. You had pictures of your families. You helped me when you thought I’d lost my keys.”

“Yeah,” Blue says softly, but Lime is still going.

“I didn’t understand. How could you care so much for people you’d just met, and then go kill us like it meant nothing?” Lime’s voice collapses into a warped sob. “But you didn’t know.”

Blue drops her shovel and steps forward, wrapping her arms around Lime’s stiff shoulders. “Lime, I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. It took Pink the muckraking judo champ for any of us to think about how none of this made sense. That’s embarrassing!”

“She said it was ‘aikido’,” Lime mumbles into Blue’s shoulder.

“Whatever!” Blue hopes that hugs actually, like, do something for Lime, and aren’t just weird, like grabbing someone’s big toe. “I mean it. I’m sorry. I’ll do what I can to help.”

Lime’s voice is so soft, and alien, and somehow it doesn’t sound wrong at all. “Thank you.”