The Future of Work: ‘The Long Tail’ by Aliette de Bodard

Unreality. Nanites that locked you into hallucination—into the past, real or imagined. That showed you what you wanted to see at first, because it was their way into the implant.

Think think think. Too much unreality, and not enough readings on the sensors. That was where Ánh Ngọc had gotten contaminated, all right. But that many nanites couldn’t come out of nowhere. Which meant they were being produced.

She was going to need to move fast—which required Ánh Ngọc’s instincts, except she was at a disadvantage there because she didn’t have Ánh Ngọc’s body, and her muscles would struggle to adapt to an out of sync memory. Instead, she went for the next best thing: the distraction. She cut off the line on her suit, and then said into the radio, as casually as if she’d really been speaking to Khuyên, “I’m going to investigate the mechs at the far end.” She started, slowly and deliberately, her thrusters, and at the same time accessed lineage—unfamiliar instincts surged through her, and she turned, panting and gasping, muscles burning.

And saw, for a fraction of a second, a shadow that had moved. A maintenance mech with broken legs, haemorrhaging in a cloud of motor oils, cast into sharp relief by the light from the room.

It shouldn’t have been moving, but then her other thought was hers, not lineaged, and it was that she had seen that light before. Not quite the same, but close enough. It was the light when Azure Skies’ Central had come online, and it had cast Khuyên in exactly the same pattern of radiance.

Ghosts, and unexorcised spirits.

Central. Conch Citadel’s Central.

It was impossible.

Conch Citadel’s Central hadn’t survived. They couldn’t have survived. Someone would have known.

And how would they have known?

She opened up the comms again, and said, simply, “Central.” And waited, heart beating madly in her chest.

The light didn’t change, or the unreality. But the mech came back. It was slow and bleeding, and she needed to fix it, or to kill it and cannibalize it. It was lineaged, but no less powerful an urge. The mech moved itself, carefully, to face her, its crown of small, octagonal eyes blinking in that impossible light.

How long did she have left, before she went Ánh Ngọc’s way? Five minutes? 10? She didn’t know.

“War.” The voice hissed over her comms, breaking into static, the words bleeding the same way as the mech.

“I don’t understand.”

“War,” the voice whispered again. “Duty to fight.”

“The war is over!” It had done enough damage. It had taken Mother from her, and they all labored in its wreckage.

More skittering, and more mechs, coming toward her, loosely surrounding her in a sphere above and below, bleeding motor oils.

Not just motor oil. “Nanites,” Thu said. “You’re making nanites.” New ones. Improved ones. Or just decayed ones that the suits couldn’t read anymore.

“A duty to fight,” the voice that had been Central whispered on the comms. It was breaking apart, and the words echoed on top of one another—and the room’s walls had started to bleed, faintly but persistently. “Stay hidden. Prepare. Fight.”

Not just spontaneous nanite mutations, but deliberate design. A ship stuck in the past, preparing for fights that had ended for everyone else, making a long, slow, desperate string of weapons in the midst of its own wreck, unable to see that it was all over.

Nanites.

Shit shit. Thu was getting contaminated the same way Ánh Ngọc had been.

Think. She needed evidence. And she didn’t have that. She had a pretty story with suggestive videos, but nothing that would induce the company to shell out money.

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