by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Welcome to Wespirtech, October 2023
The girl was science; chemistry personified, manifested in a physical form. This is not to say that the other scientists of Wespirtech were lining up in a snaky queue through the Daedalus Complex halls to see her, study her, consult with her like she was some sort of oracle. At least, Keida didn’t think so. Her new roommate, Rhiannon, was too quiet, and serious, to draw that kind of attention.
No, it meant Keida could see chemistry thoughts as they formed in Rhiannon’s brain. The evidence was perfectly clear on her face; a look that bespoke particles and molecules moving, joining, breaking apart and reforming in an abstract space she saw, approximately five inches above her own head. Keida was afraid to interrupt. A single word from her might break the spell. All those invisible molecules would dissipate and undo hours of silent work.
So, Rhiannon’s chemistry thoughts functioned like a shield, and she brandished them as such. As long as she focused on her research, she lived in a chemistry-land only she could see. Rhiannon had been hiding there since Keida first arrived. It was a withdrawal, a postponement of the inevitable.
There is only so long two girls can room together in silence. Eventually, one of them has to speak.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have taken them as long if they’d had to introduce themselves. However, the Hoilyn worker who helped Keida bring her luggage from the shuttle facilitated that. It was a long walk from the shuttle port to the dormitories, even though it was entirely indoors. Every building in Wespirtech, except the very newest, was connected through the network of underground hallways known as the Daedalus Complex. That’s the sign of architecture on a world without atmosphere.
When they had arrived at her new room, Keida saw there were two beds and asked, “I have a roommate?”
“Yes. Two girls, one room,” the Hoilyn answered. He bobbed his knobbly head in imitation of a human nod. The gesture had been strangely disfigured by the sinuous length of his furry neck.
Keida began pulling her luggage into the fastidiously neat, obviously unoccupied half of the room. Keida’s half. She set her daypack on the perfectly-made bed; Keida suspected her bed would never be made so neatly again. She had a tendency towards sloppiness. The Hoilyn stacked her larger suitcases next to the closet.
As he was leaving, Keida stopped her helper to ask, “Do you know my roommate? Is she… nice?”
He answered in his broken, ghetto Solanese: “Yes, Rhia-nnon. Good girl. Good quiet. Dark hair.” He fluttered his clunky hands, covered by keratinous calluses, by the side of his head. Keida wouldn’t have understood his pantomime of Rhiannon’s thick, wavy, brown hair if Rhiannon herself hadn’t timidly appeared at the door. Her own door. And, yet, since it was no longer completely her own, she felt reluctant to enter the room. Rhiannon was shy.
“This her!” the Hoilyn exclaimed, putting his arm behind Rhiannon to urge her in. “Rhia-nnon,” he said, “meet roommate. Keida. Also good girl. Two good girls.”
He left them together to get acquainted, but after a few shy smiles, Keida lost herself in unpacking, and Rhiannon made her escape to chemistry-land.
Rhiannon might have stayed lost in her research, among the simple interactions of algae DNA, gamma radiation, and artificial proteins indefinitely. People are much more complicated. However, the gawkily tall, straight-haired girl, who now came in and out of her room at will, strangely fascinated her.
After several days, the days of Keida’s orientation to the Wespirtech research facilities, Rhiannon felt a pressure building to speak. Of course, by then, Keida had given up on speaking to Rhiannon. Keida had run the gauntlet of the official Wespirtech orientation. With the other initiates, she’d been led on tours of all the labs, shown previews of the most cutting edge research, and trained in the computer and security systems. The message had been clear: research at Wespirtech is groundbreaking and exciting. The more Keida had learned about Wespirtech, the more her mysterious, serious roommate intimidated her. Rhiannon would find no reprieve there. If the two girls were to talk, Rhiannon would have to open the discussion.
She leaned her head forward and her thick brown hair fell like a wall between her and the world. Keida couldn’t see that the chemistry thoughts were gone, but she sensed a change in Rhiannon’s posture.
“My first-year roommate barely talked to me,” Rhiannon said, her voice oddly monotonal, like she was struggling to make herself say the words, to say any words at all. “I was hoping she’d be my friend. You need a friend when you come to a new place, but she was too busy. I want to do better.”
Even though Rhiannon had utterly ignored Keida for days on end, the new girl ardently admired her and instantly forgave the transgression. She saw, in Rhiannon, everything she’d imagined a Wespirtech researcher to be. Everything she wanted to be. “Then let’s be friends,” Keida said, as if declaring the intention were enough to make it so.
Face obscured by her wavy wall of dark, frizzy hair, Rhiannon smiled. “I’d like that.”
And so a friendship began, because both girls were young and simple enough when it came to human interaction to believe that friendship can be as simple as that. And maybe it is, sometimes, for some people, in some situations. But sometimes, the world or your backgrounds or your different lives get in the way, and a shared intention — brief and flickering — is not enough.
Keida and Rhiannon soon found their areas of study overlapped. A natural synergy emerged between Rhiannon’s abstract chemistry and Keida’s hands-on biology. Together, they worked more than twice as fast, ideas bouncing between them as rapidly as molecules in one of their experiments subjected to gamma radiation. DNA mutated and evolved in the petri dishes they filled with algae samples as quickly as their conversation could flow from one topic to the next, morphing from serious scientific inquiry to giggling in-jokes and Wespirtech gossip and back again, looping endlessly and barely stopping long enough for the two girls to sleep.
Soon they had designed an entirely new species of algae, perfectly suited to grow and live and respirate eternally inside enclosed packages. Self-contained ecosystems that could be abandoned and ignored in storage chambers for decades without degrading, but when fed carbon-dioxide and an absolutely minimal amount of light-energy, they returned almost entirely purified oxygen. Not quite pure, but almost. The impurities, though– they smelled almost sweet, almost like perfume. Subtle, nearly unnoticeable.
Keida and Rhiannon’s algae packs would revolutionize space travel. The Wespirtech administrators — who live for experiments that have practical applications that can actually make money — were ecstatic and assured Rhiannon and her new partner in science that the algae packs would replace the old, standard models in every spaceship, atmo-dome, and space station within the Human Expansion in a matter of years, expanding outward, beginning with Wespirtech. A factory on another moon orbiting planet Da Vinci put the algae packs into immediate production, and both Keida and Rhiannon were given expanded budgets for their future studies, nearly free-reign in choosing their next projects.
The day the new algae packs replaced the old standards on Wespirtech was deemed a holiday, and the administrators paid all the Hoilyn workers to put on a grand celebration for the scientists — decorations, feasts, and entertainment, all hosted inside one of the biology department’s more park-like atmo-domes, surrounded by the overgrown ferns and fruit trees that were all experiments in their own right.
Keida walked along the pathways in the atmo-dome between the burgeoning trees, heavy with their gengineered fruits, in a daze, amazed by the sights, sounds, and smells. In one cul-de-sac among the trees, a Hoilyn band played music on instruments that seemed to have been carved from giant shells, combining low, sustained booms with sparkly higher notes in a hypnotic synthesis. Another Hoilyn juggled little fuzzy animals who squeaked delightedly — at least, they seemed delighted — at the apex of every throw, as if they considered the whole ordeal to be some kind of tiny carnival ride. Even more Hoilyn danced in synchrony, wearing flowing robes and scarves tied around their long necks with weighted balls at their ends; the weighted scarves, filmy and gauzy, swung hypnotically as the Hoilyn swayed their necks back and forth in rhythm with the haunting music.
The food was even more exciting — strange dishes unlike anything Keida had ever tried before. Keida asked the Hoilyn servers about each one and learned they were all native dishes. “Native to where?” Keida asked.
“Why here,” the Hoilyn server who had just filled Keida’s plate with a second serving of a rich, red stew-like dish answered. She gestured with her keratinous hoof-like hand.
“This moon?” Keida asked, surprised. The moon around Wespirtech was a desolate rock. Nothing could live here. Not the Hoilyn, not the fuzzy creatures being juggled, and not whatever had lived in those beautiful, pearlescent shells before they’d been hollowed out to become instruments. Certainly not any of the spongy, rubbery, delicious textures in the stew Keida was holding. Whether plant or beast, they all had to have come from elsewhere.
“No, no, silly!” The Hoilyn laughed, a hearty, throaty sound, and gestured again. This time, Keida followed the gesture more carefully and realized the Hoilyn was pointing — as much as she could with a hand holding a ladle full of stew — at the planet Wespirtech’s moon was orbiting. The planet Da Vinci.
“I didn’t know there was intelligent life on Da Vinci before humans came here,” Keida said.
“Long time,” the Hoilyn answered. “Long civilization.”
“Did you get to the moon on your own?” Keida pressed, suddenly curious.
The Hoilyn woman shook her head, causing her long neck to sway like a sine wave. It was an unnatural gesture on a being with a neck so long, clearly something the Hoilyn had picked up from the humans employing them. Keida wondered what kind of gestures the Hoilyn used among themselves. She wondered for the first time what their native language sounded like. What their society had been like before humans came.
The Hoilyn were such an indispensable part of Wespirtech, doing so much of the grunt work that allowed all the scientists to keep daydreaming and studying and experimenting without worrying about practical matters like feeding themselves or cleaning, that it was hard to imagine Wespirtech without them. Or for that matter, them without Wespirtech. But today, seeing how much of the celebration for the new algae packs came from their culture, it was clear to Keida for the first time that the Hoilyn very much existed separately from Wespirtech. She swore to herself that going forward, she would learn more about them.
“You’re here!” Rhiannon’s voice chimed from behind Keida.
When Keida whirled around, careful not to spill her stew, she found the smaller woman standing close, her bushy hair pulled back in a ponytail for once, leaving only a few dark strands of curls loose around her ears and forehead. “Of course,” Keida said. “I’ve been wandering around. Seeing the sights.”
“Oh, the celebration?” Rhiannon asked. She waved a hand dismissively. “They’re all like this. Every time we celebrate something. It’s fun, but you get used to it.”
Keida couldn’t imagine dismissing the Hoilyn celebration so easily, but then, she hadn’t been at Wespirtech for long. There were still wonders to discover. Everything at Wespirtech was a wonder.
“Come on!” Rhiannon entreated, grabbing Keida by her free hand and pulling her away from the row of food carts. Her hand was cool and small, and Keida followed along docilely, feeling overly tall and awkward as Rhiannon, with her smaller stature, pulled her between various groups of other scientists, standing around, chatting, snacking, and generally enjoying the festivities. Rhiannon could duck through places easily where Keida struggled to fit.
When she got a chance, Keida ditched her bowl of stew on the corner of one of the tables that had been set up for the party as they passed it. Either she’d make her way back to it after whatever Rhiannon was pulling her toward, or the Hoilyn would get it when they cleaned up. She hoped leftovers from the party would be part of the dining hall offerings tomorrow. She really liked that red stew.
Keida and Rhiannon arrived at the edge of the atmo-dome, beside the open hatch in the floor that led to stair descending into the underground Daedelus Complex and the airlock in the dome’s outer wall that led to the inhospitable, atmosphere-less world outside. The airlock itself was built from gleaming metal, but the dome around it was all clear, letting Keida see through to the desolate gray rocky landscape outside.
The rocky gray horizon with the night sky above, unpolluted by anything as gauche as an atmosphere blurring the sunlight into cloudy colors, was beautiful in a stark, minimalist kind of way. Not like the dancing Hoilyn with their colorful scarves surrounded by trees whose branches were weighed down by gemlike fruit that grew too large for the poor branches to support it. Inside the dome was life, so much life, almost too much. Outside, nothing but dust and stone.
Several administrators, marked by their uniforms, stood beside the airlock. None of the scientists could be controlled well enough to make them wear uniforms; they wore what they liked, whatever made them comfortable, and as long as they kept producing science — ideally science that could be packaged up and converted into money — the administrators didn’t care.
Rhiannon rocked forward on her toes, making her briefly taller, and said, “I brought her!” to the group of administrators.
Keida recognized most of them — Wespirtech is a small place, and even scientists with their heads in the clouds (metaphorical clouds, of course, given the moon’s lack of atmosphere) eventually became aware of the non-scientists around them who also lived in the halls of the Daedelus Complex and also ate in the dining halls. Though, Keida was more tuned into the other people of all species around her than most of the other scientists were. It had taken Rhiannon years to remember the names of any of the administrators who allocated her funding and laboratory space, regardless of how much of her life depended on them and their choices.
“One of the administrators stepped forward and said, “Wonderful. We thought the two of you should have the honor of installing the first algae packs at the institute. The rest of them, of course, will be installed by technicians. But this is the first!”
Keida and Rhiannon exchanged a look that mixed excitement with awkwardness and uncertainty. The administrator held out one of their algae packs — it didn’t look quite the same as the prototypes they’d whipped up with the help of some of the local Wespirtech engineers. Those had been droopy and duct-taped together. This pack was sleek and taut; the translucent exterior showed the bright green algae almost glowing in the quasi-crystalline matrix of the colloidal rendering on the inside, rich with all the nutrients the algae needed to stay healthy for decades and decades.
Keida and Rhiannon both reached toward the proffered pack at the same time, and their fingers bumped together, causing them both to laugh. “You take it,” Rhiannon said. “I’m just the theoretician. You actually built it. You should install it.”
“Okay,” Keida said, unsure of herself. She felt weird about Rhiannon downplaying her role in their creation like that — they’d been equal partners, equal creators, and everything Keida had done guiding the algae to grow differently would have been meaningless without the principles behind Rhiannon’s ideas guiding her. But she couldn’t think fast enough — certainly not with all those administrators staring at her, expecting things from her — to figure out exactly what was wrong with Rhiannon’s words or how to object to them gracefully. So, she simply took the algae pack.
The bright green packet felt squishy in her hands — firm on the outside, but uneven, movable, and slidey underneath. Like it would slip out of her hands if she let it. She held on tight and watched carefully as the administrator explained where the pack would slot into the air filtration system on the wall beside the airlock. Under the administrator’s guidance, Rhiannon reached in with her smaller, doll-like hands and took out the old algae pack. The algae inside it was a dull, evergreen shade compared to the almost neon, peridot green of the new pack.
Once the slot was empty, Keida placed the new pack inside, and it locked easily into place, as if it had been made exactly for that spot. Keida supposed it had been. Though, she hadn’t been involved in that part of the engineering. Once she and Rhiannon had proved the prototype worked beyond their wild imaginings, the whole project had been taken off their hands. Which they hadn’t minded. They’d finished with the fun part already.
The administrators, standing in an overbearing semi-circle around the two scientists, applauded politely as the new algae pack came online and began filtering the atmo-dome’s air with a quiet hiss. Not knowing quite how to react, Keida dipped her head in a quasi-bow, and Rhiannon smiled shyly, letting her wall of hair fall forward to hide the sides of her face. She must have pulled out the band that held it back in a ponytail when Keida wasn’t paying attention.
“Congratulations to the both of you!” one of the administrators said. Another added, “We’re excited to learn about your next projects!” Accolades continued, vague but warm, until both scientists were quietly uncomfortable and very glad to be set free, back to the celebration.
“What do you think you’ll work on next?” Keida asked Rhiannon as the two of them wandered along the tree-lined paths of the atmo-dome, vaguely heading back to where Keida had ditched her bowl of stew. It had already been cleared away when they got back to the tables, but the food carts were still out, the Hoilyn working them were still serving food, so Keida got herself another bowl.
All the while, Rhiannon followed along, seemingly oblivious to the excitement around them, telling Keida about her ideas for upcoming projects. They were all far too abstract and exacting to interest Keida. She liked to work with things she could get her hands on — plants, animals. Things that grow and change.
Algae had been somewhat outside Keida’s comfort zone — too small, too few cells, no organ systems at all — but she admired Rhiannon so much and had been so excited to work with her. Keida was disappointed, listening to Rhiannon’s excitement over upcoming projects that had no room for her, to realize their collaboration was truly over. They were still friends and roommates, of course, but Rhiannon’s chemistry and Keida’s biology research would take them in different directions going forward. It had been a one-time collaboration, a liminal space, already over. Keida hoped it wouldn’t hurt their friendship, no longer focusing together on a shared professional passion.
Keida felt a little lost, like she had when she’d first arrived at Wespirtech. She spent the rest of the celebration day trying to make new friends. She didn’t want to feel so wholly dependent on her friendship with Rhiannon to feel like she belonged, like she had a place here. She needed to carve out a space for herself as an individual. She meant no disrespect to her friendship with Rhiannon and in no way meant to put extra distance between the two of them. In fact, Keida hoped that by building more friendships, it would take the pressure off her friendship with her roommate, making it possible for them to stay close, making it less likely that any sense of professional aimlessness she felt would interfere with how she and Rhiannon felt about each other…
However, Rhiannon didn’t know what was going on inside Keida’s head. Arguably, Keida didn’t either — she just felt a pressure inside her, pushing her toward other people, pressing her into making new connections with other Wespirtech scientists. So, ironically, Keida’s instinctive, subconscious desire to protect her friendship with Rhiannon led to her creating the exact distance she feared.
All Rhiannon saw was Keida drifting away from her, spending more time on other people, being more social than she knew, herself, how to be. Rhiannon wasn’t just quiet or introverted; she was painfully shy. She’d been at Wespirtech for several years before Keida arrived, without making any significant friendships, only passing acquaintances with the people around her. If she’d known how some of the other scientists saw her — focused, driven, intimidating — she might have been less afraid to reach out to them and form friendships of her own. As it was, Rhiannon had trouble seeing anything coherent in the chaotic complexity of human interaction. Humans don’t move as simply and predictably as atoms and molecules. And Rhiannon found it easier to withdraw, once again, into the chemistry-land inside her own mind, surrounded by equations simple enough to solve, riddles with correct answers.
Over the years that followed, Keida’s career soared. She rarely collaborated with other scientists anymore, preferring to keep her work and her friendships separate, at least as much as was possible while living in a science institute on a desolate moon. During the days, she perfected the DNA of designer creatures that thrilled the administrators with their usefulness and practical applications. At night, she moved easily from one social group to the next, participating in the joys of living in a place where her compatriots sizzled with so much brilliance that the whole place practically effervesced. The games, the parties, the dramatic on-again-off-again love affairs — Keida participated in them all. But also, she let them flow over her. She took part in them, but they didn’t really become a part of her. Her heart lay elsewhere.
Every few days, Keida slipped away from the hallways of the Daedelus Complex to the older, more rundown section of Wespirtech that the Hoilyn workers lived in.
The very first Wespirtech building had been a big, rectangular affair, not very exciting to look at, simply jutting up in the middle of the dusty gray horizon on the desolate moon. Since then, a couple other buildings had sprouted up, and the underground tunnels of the Daedelus Complex had burrowed beneath, connecting the different buildings. Then eventually, as Wespirtech had become more and more successful, atmo-domes had been added, allowing arboretums to be filled with gengineered plants worked on by the biologists.
Most of Wespirtech was dingy and gray, not very aesthetically pleasing, but Keida spent enough time working in the arboretums that the dreariness of the scenery didn’t get her down. And whatever the first building — the Millicent G. Lum building, named for Wespirtech’s founder — lacked in visual appeal on the outside or in architectural design, the Hoilyn who lived there had made up for with colorful, beautiful hangings and intricate sculptures everywhere inside. The parts of Wespirtech inhabited by the actual scientists might be decorated approximately like college dorm rooms, plastered with cheap posters and whiteboards covered in scribblings, but inside the Millicent G. Lum building, it was an entirely different world.
The air always smelled liked festival days there, filled with spices and the rich, complex aromas of stews and roasts that slow-cooked for days before they were ready. Laughter and singing and haunting, sparkly music floated through the halls. The Hoilyn were welcoming to Keida, and by spending time among them, volunteering to help with whatever they were willing to let her help with, she learned how to cook the red stew she’d loved so much, learned how to play a few of the instruments carved from pearlescent shells, and developed a halting, sometimes laughable, but almost fluent grasp of their language.
When Keida didn’t feel like she quite belonged at Wespirtech, she at least felt welcomed by the Hoilyn.
Then the worst thing happened. Well, the worst thing for Keida. For the Hoilyn, it was that complicated, mixed blessing: a diagnosis.
When you’re already suffering from a mysterious illness, sometimes, just getting a label that explains what it is, why it’s happening, and outlines what — if anything — you can do about it feels like a miracle.
After years of confusion and sickness, a recurring illness among the Hoilyn workers was linked to the impurities — almost imperceptible, sweet-smelling like perfume — released by Keida and Rhiannon’s state-of-the-art algae packs.
The same algae packs that had infiltrated outward, being installed in every spaceship, atmo-dome, and space station in the Human Expansion. Ever since the first day when Keida and Rhiannon had together installed the shiny new algae pack they’d designed in one of Wespirtech’s atmo-domes, the overall health of the Hoilyn workers had been falling. Respiratory difficulties. Headaches. Unexplained nausea. That very first day, once the algae packs had been installed in the Millicent G. Lum building, a Hoilyn child had gone into anaphylactic shock and nearly died. Incidences like that had only increased over the following years.
And Keida had had no idea about any of it. Sure, she’d spent time among the Hoilyn, and sure, sometimes people she knew had struggled or fallen sick, but she didn’t have the historical context to realize how much worse their health struggles had become overnight. Or had she? Should she have connected the dots?
Keida didn’t know, and it tore her up inside. There’s no way to apologize for making a mistake like that. She was a research biologist, but she wasn’t a doctor. She hadn’t been privy to the exact, intimate details of the plague she’d brought upon the Hoilyn. She wasn’t the one to discover the connection.
As soon as Keida learned about the effects of her and Rhiannon’s invention though, she went to the administrators, meeting with one after another, arguing and pleading, trying to convince them to replace the new algae packs with the old ones.
None of the administrators would listen. It was like arguing with a cash register. They’d say, “We don’t have the budget for that. Replacing all the algae packs would be a huge expense and interfere with our mission to advance applied science.” All Keida heard was, “But that would cost us money.”
Some of the administrators even tried to argue that the money saved by using Keida and Rhiannon’s algae packs had saved lives, enough lives to make up for any cost to the Hoilyn workers’ health. That was a kind of math Keida felt extremely uncomfortable doing, and yet, she couldn’t entirely refute the possibility. Fresh air is the difference between life and death on a space station.
Besides, the administrators argued, the Hoilyn were a minor species who only lived on the planet below — planet Da Vinci which they had called Hoilour before humans had come and renamed it — and nowhere else in the galaxy. So far. And now, unless something changed, they never would. And it was Keida’s fault.
In the end, no matter how much Keida argued, the administrators left Wespirtech’s Hoilyn workers with a simple choice: they could continue working through their growing infirmities or they were welcome to return to the planet below and breathe its bountiful fresh air if they no longer liked the air at Wespirtech. If they could prove their health had declined since the new algae packs were installed — which of course the administrators made very difficult, dependent on comparative health records from both before and after the installation — they were afforded a modest relocation fee. Very few Hoilyn were ultimately able to claim it, and even among those, it was unclear as to whether they actually ever received the money.
The Hoilyn population at Wespirtech dwindled. Keida hoped for a brief, shining moment that the science institute would find itself in a state of neglect — trash cans overflowing, food spoiling, dust collecting everywhere — and that everything would grind to a halt until the old algae filters were reinstated and the Hoily could return. Of course, that didn’t happen. The engineers of Wespirtech had designed far too many extremely useful robots for that to happen.
One by one, the Hoilyn moved away, and job by job, they were quietly replaced by robots who did mechanically perfect jobs of cleaning, uninspired but functional jobs of cooking, and left a giant gaping hole that filled Keida’s heart and vision. Everywhere at Wespirtech, all she could see was what was now missing. She thought, for sure, the first time a festival day happened, the other scientists would miss the Hoilyn too. Their cooking. Their music. Their dancing. Their juggling. Their culture. And maybe some did. But others complimented the new style of celebration with stereos blasting recordings of the same music they already liked, extravagant foods shipped up from Da Vinci and reheated rather than slow-cooked in their own halls, and mechanically perfect but strangely soulless choreographed dancing from sub-sentient robots designed especially to dance.
Heartbroken, Keida left the festival in the parklike atmo-dome. It had been a celebration of one of her colleagues, another biologist who had invented some kind of device that let you hook your brain up to that of an animal and experience the animal’s feelings. It sounded cool. Everything at Wespirtech was almost impossibly cool.
Keida didn’t want cool anymore. She wanted the warmth of the Hoilyn back. Instinctively, she wandered the halls of the Daedelus Complex until she found herself staring at Rhiannon’s door.
Rhiannon still lived in the same room they’d shared, way back when, years ago. They hadn’t been roommates in ages. Both of them had reached the levels of success that administrators liked to reward and encourage, and one of the most standard rewards was a private room.
Keida thought back on the times when she and Rhiannon had stayed up all night in that room — the room right in front of her — talking and scheming and brainstorming and planning. Part of her missed those days, and most of her remembered how young and scared and uncertain she’d felt. She’d felt like she needed to prove herself.
But look where proving herself had gotten her.
Keida shook her head, and she almost walked away without knocking at the door. But somehow, Rhiannon must have heard her in the hall, because her old roommate opened the door, saw Keida standing there, cocked her head and gestured for her to come in.
The two women sat side by side on Rhiannon’s perfectly made bed. The room didn’t have two beds anymore. The second bed had been replaced with a desk. It was covered with notes and chemical models, an open laptop, and a couple of beakers of brightly colored liquids. Keida wasn’t sure whether those were decorative, beverages, or experiments. She didn’t ask.
Once again, the two women — who had been mere girls when they’d met — sat in silence. Once again, it fell to Rhiannon to break the silence.
“I thought you’d be at the party,” she said.
“I was,” Keida answered. She felt like she owed Rhiannon more words than that, after appearing so randomly at her door, but those were the only words that came to mind.
“I know you like the festival days.” Rhiannon smiled, weakly. She felt that she’d lost Keida to the chaos of Wespirtech’s social scene years ago. Even among scientists — all odd and socially awkward — Rhiannon still didn’t feel like she fit in, and she’d watched Keida with awe, envy, and more than a little sadness over the years. They’d always stayed friends… ostensibly. But they’d never been close again, not like they’d been during those early days.
“It’s not the same without the Hoilyn,” Keida said. She lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. Rhiannon had decorated it with glowing stars since she’d moved out, moved to her own room. She liked the stars. They weren’t glowing right now, but she could imagine how pretty they’d look when the lights were turned off.
“The robots don’t put on as good of a festival?” Rhiannon wasn’t sure what they were talking about. She wasn’t sure what had brought Keida here. She was excited to be receiving Keida’s attention, but she knew that such attention could be fleeting. She didn’t know what had brought it on, and she didn’t know what would end it.
“It’s not about the robots,” Keida said, placing her hands over her face. “It’s about the Hoilyn.” She drew a deep breath, pulled her hands down her face, and then sat up again. She looked at Rhiannon, frowning, brow crinkling. “Don’t you feel guilty? About what happened with them? About our part in it?”
Rhiannon’s brow crinkled and mouth turned down in a frown, unconsciously mirroring Keida’s expression. She felt like shrugging. She knew that Keida had spent a lot of time with the Hoilyn; she knew about Keida’s arguments with the administrators, trying to undo the work they’d done together. But she didn’t understand. Even so, she knew better than to shrug. She said, “We didn’t know. And our algae packs have done a lot of good.”
Keida sighed, frustrated that Rhiannon was defending their work, just the same as the administrators had. Rhiannon was frustrated that Keida would devalue it — because for all the damage done to the Hoilyn, the administrators weren’t wrong about the good their algae packs had done. They weren’t factually wrong. But did that make them right?
“You don’t understand,” Keida insisted, stumbling right onto the exact words Rhiannon had been thinking. Because she agreed — she did not understand. “They can’t breathe here. Not reliably. The air just stops working for them, and sits in their lungs like a dead weight while they gasp uselessly at it. I’ve seen it happen, for years! I just didn’t know it was because of something I was responsible for… something we did. Not at first.”
“Of course not,” Rhiannon reassured Keida. “How could you have? None of us knew.”
“We could have done more tests, been more sure.”
Now Rhiannon did shrug. “There are always more tests that can be done. There will always be things that get missed. That can’t stop us from continuing to try to make things better. We were trying to make things better.” Rhiannon’s voice got very small, very quiet, as she added, “And we did. We made some things better.”
Keida’s face contorted into a complicated, scornful expression. “Not for the Hoilyn.” She chewed on her lip, thinking, replaying her options that she’d already played over and over again in her mind, always coming to the same conclusion. Even so, she tried saying them out loud this time, out loud to someone who might be able to help her see a way out of the dead ended maze she’d found herself in. “I could move down to Da Vinci with the Hoilyn and keep studying how to fix this, but…”
“Your grants wouldn’t carry over,” Rhiannon provided. She knew how this game played out. “There would be no resources. No resources for studying a fairly small population of non-human aliens.”
“Right.” Keida frowned, frustrated. “I have all this money, and all this freedom… but only to a certain level.”
“And then the leash of funding snaps tight,” Rhiannon said. She didn’t sound nearly bitter enough about such a bitter truth. Because she wasn’t bitter. She was content to work on new projects and leave the Hoilyn trapped on a single world, trapped by them, unable to set foot — well, hoof — on a single spaceship, atmo-dome, or space station within the Human Expansion. They weren’t human, they hadn’t proliferated throughout the western spiral arm of the galaxy… they weren’t a priority.
Keida’s patience snapped. Something broke inside her, looking at Rhiannon and realizing the limits of her caring. It was the kind of break that once it happens, it never changes back. The wound might heal over, but the process of healing changes it irrevocably, scar tissue replacing what was there originally. Something inside Keida would never be the same.
“Doesn’t it bother you that we live in a galaxy filled with all kinds of different aliens, but almost everyone here is human?” There was one insectile alien among the latest batch of new physicists. Though, from what Keida had heard, even she had been raised among humans on a human space station. Among all the other non-human scientists she could think of, none of them had stayed more than a year or two before leaving. And why was that? And why wasn’t anyone here worried about it?
Rhiannon shrugged again. Her hair had fallen so far forward, Keida couldn’t see the expression on her face. At all. But it didn’t really matter what expression was there — guilt, frustration, sadness, irritation, or even simple indifference. They all added up to the same thing.
Rhiannon wasn’t bothered enough by the effect their algae packs had on the Hoilyn to want to do anything about it. She didn’t plan to study the harm they’d done together and try to reverse it. Maybe Keida could beg Rhiannon to work with her on the project, and maybe they would work together, fitfully, between other projects, squeezing it in, for a little while. But if Rhiannon didn’t care, she wouldn’t make it a priority. The work would dwindle. Nothing would get done.
And when it came down to it, Keida didn’t know enough of the chemistry to work on improving their old project — redoing it, undoing it, fixing the problems with it — without Rhiannon’s help. Maybe she could pressure some other chemist at Wespirtech to work with her, but if Rhiannon found the idea of the project uninspiring — and it had, at least, originally been her project, originally interested her — then why would any other chemist here be likely to find it interesting?
And they were all — all of them — only interested in working on what struck their fancy. They followed one idea to the next, not caring where those ideas led, or what meadows the paths they followed tore up along the way, as long as they kept leading somewhere interesting. They let science become them, all of them, leaving not enough behind to simply be a person.
Keida loved science, but she was more than science. More than a scientist. And she thought, maybe she’d outgrown her time at Wespirtech. It was a painful thought. She’d loved so much of her time there, but she wasn’t interested in pursuing ideas in a vacuum, ignoring the effect they had on the world. The galaxy. She wanted to help people. To make a difference. And that wasn’t what Wespirtech was about. Pursuing science can be admirable, but for Keida, it was no longer enough.
Keida and Rhiannon talked about other subjects for a while, but it was the half-hearted conversation of friends who have drifted apart, who assure each other that they’ll be closer going forward, and who don’t follow through on those assurances.
Keida’s mind was already elsewhere, thinking about an article she’d read about research biologists being needed in the asteroid belt of another star-system, thinking forward, and imagining the good that she might be able to do… somewhere else.
Wespirtech would be fine without her.