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Benedict Chang

"A. Lee?" Dammit. They shut off their comm again. Stuffed to the top of their skull with more tech than most elite class colony ships and they still act like a child when you tell them to do something they don't want to. It wasn't a fair comparison. The consciousness that was A. Lee was actually six year old. There was a child innocence and wonder fused into the body of an adult, forced into adult tasks from the moment of 'birth'.  Sometimes, I forgot A. Lee wasn't a human or a machine and couldn't be held to the expectations of either. 

I'll give them a few minutes before I reboot the tech manually. A. Lee will give me an earful for the invasion of privacy, but last thing I want is Weber to have an excuse to stick her big nose in A. Lee's business. Bad enough she forced that circus of judiciary hearings to grant A.Lee a citizen's passage on the Brahma. I won't let her do that to A. Lee again. My leg bounces with impatience. Two more minutes, then I'm remotely rebooting the system.

Sweat beads along my upper lip. This is Nidhogg's winter. The air feels thick and viscus in the lungs, like trying to breath through petroleum jelly. I assured the colonists that our bodies would eventually adjust to the atmosphere. A lie, but a lie can be like a placebo in these conditions. They'll keep telling themselves their body will adjust until they learn to ignore the sensation of gulping their breaths. Summer will be another matter. The air will felt like hot ash in their lungs if I can't find a solution by then. If I can't adapt the colonists to the planet, Weber will adapt the planet to us.

I tap the screen to rewind the live recording of A. Lee's feed. The sound is faint and slightly tinny through the filter of mechanical record, but I can hear it. The song of the trees makes my skin pebble despite the heat. This world is beautiful. We don't belong here.

Humans are parasites.

A. Lee's five minutes are up.

"Please don't hate me too much," I whisper as I initialize the sequence. The string of code flickers on my screen. Unease fizzes though my veins in a slow flood. This is taking too long. Something is wrong.

>Error: Subject out of range

The hell? No matter how fast they can high tail it down the mountain, there is no way A. Lee could move out of the system's range that fast unless....

"No, no, no, you're not doing this to me again." My fingers fly across the keys, a rapid rhythm that matches the rise of my pulse. "Please, don't do this to me again." I don't know who I am praying to. The universe? The unfeeling entities responsible for karmic balance? They never answered before. 

Panic threatens like a vise squeezing my rib cage, an added difficulty to keep my brain oxygenated. I need all the air I can manage. I need my mind capable and ready. I pull up the satellite feed. The level of magnification is impressive, a gift from the preliminary exploration team who set up surveillance on the planet. The satellite is miles above the planet in orbit, but it focuses on the mountain with shocking clarity, an empty mountain.

The vise tightens. The muscles of my jaw clench until my teeth ache from the pressure. Accessing the satellite records is more complicated. Technically I'm not supposed to have access to these codes and pulling up the older footage will leave a signature of my presence. I don't care. Whatever consequences Weber throws at me, there are worse things.

The footage blurs for a moment. I set the feed back ten minutes. That should be almost to the moment A. Lee shut off their comm. Their image appears as the feed clicks forward once more. So close and clear I can see the lines of frustration etched into their face. They stand on a ledge to look down on the valley below. Their expression changes, a subtle shift in the eyes to a sweet melancholy that makes the muscles in my chest tight. I am so focused on A. Lee's face, I see the exact moment when it all goes sideways.

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