“Why don’t we give it a try that way? Move the forest back half a mile and bring the pond up here, but keep the stream where it is?”

“Sure, just give me a moment…”

Of course you can author in a haptic, but it’s slow and fiddly compared with a keyboard and tablet. But we’d started the day with a runthrough of game logic and just kept going from there, so I danced and thought it out over a few minutes instead. Ended up short of breath, too. Almost 19:30. Glad I’m getting paid by the hour.

Seeing the result, they clapped their hands together. “Oh, that’s a lot better!”

“It, huff. It flows, yeah.” I sat down on the floor of my studio, and on the grassy hillside. “You have a good eye for this, you know?”

“Well, that’s why we sent me!” Same synth they all use, but a good synth: I could hear the smile in their voice.

“‘Me?’” I glanced at the drone, a few steps away. “I didn’t think you thought of yourselves that way. Uh, any of you. Is that—”

“Normal?” The drone turned to face me, if ‘face’ is the word. A smooth blank black glossy visor, set into something that looked like Giger’s take on a motorcycle helmet: the hillside, me, the floating mountains behind me, all as if seen in the skin of a soap bubble. Like old-style mirrorshades—uneasy, but you don’t quite know why.

“I would have said ‘usual’…” It’s a high-end haptic, the same kind pro dolls wear, but in my worksona I mostly keep the autonomics turned off, so the blush didn’t show through.

“You would have meant ‘normal,’” they rejoined cheerfully.

“But what I’m asking is, do you all—I don’t know. Think of yourselves as individuals, or…” I shrugged. “I really don’t know. It’s probably a rude question, anyway. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry.”

“Oh, don’t be! You’ve had a long day.” They sat down next to me—I’d only seen any of them standing, up till then. The skinsuit follows the helmet’s design; I hadn’t imagined it’d bend so well. “And you’re not being rude. You’ve worked with us long enough by now to ask, and we rarely mind that kind of question anyway.”

“Thank you.” I sighed. “But I still don’t even know what kind of question I’m trying to ask.”

“‘What’s it like?’”

“…yeah, I guess. You must get that a lot.”

“Less than you’d think! But it’s not easy to answer.” They leaned back on their elbows, considering. Oh I see, the joints are just elastomer… The drone turned to me again. “Let’s start with this: Why are you here?”

I blinked. “Why—what?”

“You’re not the best scape artist in the world—”

“Thank you!”

“—but you’re in the top five at worst. Top three, if we’re honest. Sure, we pay well, but so do all your clients. You have, what? A six-month backlog?”

“Something like that.” Just over two, really, but who complains about being overestimated?

“You can pick and choose your jobs. You don’t need us. So you bump your queue to take our contract the same day we send it over? We don’t pay that well. The work is good, of course. But something doesn’t add up.” They leaned a little closer. Uneasy indeed, looking into someone’s face - someones’ faces - and only seeing your own reflected back, distorted. “So now we’re wondering: Why are you here?”

I stared hard at the mask. And I thought I was being rude. “Because you’re a client,” I said, after a moment. “Because I took the job. I’m here to do it. And I don’t do less than my best. No matter the circumstances.”

“About that,” they said. “Check your account.”

Payment in full, freshly deposited. A generous bonus, too, in a separate transfer. Helpful, that. Easier to refund that way.

“Ah. We see. Well, in that case, let us at least express our thanks for your excellent efforts on our behalf.”

I looked out over the forest. The pines had been a nice touch. Only pseudo-random, sure, but with the tweaks I’d made to the algorithm, you’d never know the difference.

“And, along with our thanks, our well-wishes.”

Granted, the sunlight diffraction would be a little screwy, but you’d have to look hard to see it, and the whole point of the forest was to be full of more interesting things than that.

“We look forward to following your future work.”

I poked the scape’s time setting, pushing it ahead to sunset. Golden-hour light really favored the treetops, and set the central copse of redwoods glowing. This really was beautiful work. Maybe my best so far.

“So, if there’s nothing else…”

I blinked my eyes clear and thought my HUD up front. Disconnect right in the middle. Easy. But the gaze tracking kept skittering off to the side. Autonomics on Oh dammit Voice passthrough on Dammit!

On the other hand…I had just been paid. No need to worry about a contract, and every drone in the hive could no-star me without making a dent in my rep. Why not say what I liked? Starting with—”What the hell?” Angrier than I’d thought. Rougher, too. Long day. Forgot my pills earlier. Just that. I cleared my throat. “Sure, fine, it’s a job, good pay, thanks for that. But why the rest? Where do you get off? What do you want?

“Just this scape.” Overcontrolled. Inhuman—not a thought I’m proud of, but it was what went through my mind, hearing that synth voice just then. “Isn’t that enough?”


“Why not?”

“I don’t know!

“Why are you here?”

Disconnecting... I yanked the visor off and rubbed my eyes. There was no one else in the studio. There was never anyone else in the studio. That was how I wanted it. Wasn’t it?

(1002 words)

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