A Way With Words by Aimee Ogden

The Exo was just tall enough to wedge her front pedipalps into the paper shredder beside Gretchen’s desk. Her black-and-gray mottled carapace reflected the fluorescent office light as two clacking exoskeleton limbs ransacked the shredded remnants inside. Gretchen bent over to rescue some of the white-and-black confetti raining down on her office floor just as one black, lidless alien eye swiveled to look at her. She sat back hard in her desk chair.

Not for the first time, she wished that Louis had never gotten into the habit of strolling around the building with his Exo whenever he wanted a coffee break. She was a bench chemist, not a biologist—or a pet-sitter.

The Exo’s enormous black eye focused back and forth on Gretchen for a moment. Then it swiveled back downward, and she got back to perusing the shredder contents with both sets of chelipeds. Gretchen tuned back into what Louis was rambling about, in the hopes that he might be wrapping it up in the near future.

“So the understanding is there, at least enough to follow a few basic commands. Sit, stay, whatever. That kind of thing.” Louis had his security badge stretched all the way to the end of its retractable reel. Every time he stopped by Gretchen’s lab, he seemed to have some excuse for flashing the damn thing in front of her, as if she was impressed that a middle manager had access to an extra level of clearance over her. Between that and walking around with a live Exo like it was his pet cocker spaniel, a visit from Louis was always a guarantee to bring work to a screeching halt.

Gretchen bit her tongue and tried not to think about the nuclear magnetic resonance data she was currently not analyzing. Her boss and Louis had gone to college together, and hurting Louis’s ever-delicate feelings was generally not worth having extra grant writing work dumped on her desk the next day. So she pressed her lips into a tight, obviously fake smile, and bobbed her head in an imitation of interest.

“Which is freaky!” Louis went on. “My guys on Level 3 still haven’t figured out the mechanism for its hearing, but apparently, there is one. It doesn’t know a lot of words yet, we don’t think, but this is just one of the drones.”

“If we ever get our hands on a queen,” Louis mused, rapping lightly on the top of the creature’s carapace, sending it careening into Gretchen’s desk. Her pencil cup rattled and the desk shed some of the magnetic poetry stuck to its side.

“Now that would be something to write home about,” Louis said.

“I don’t really like it when you call them it,” Gretchen cut in, as Louis took a moment to catch his breath. If the Forces ever captured a queen, she was fairly certain Louis and his team of linguists were not going to get their hands on her first. Of course, Chemistry wasn’t going to have a front-row seat at that show, either, especially without any results to show for themselves.

Gretchen kept herself from glancing at the spectra on her tablet. “They’re female, in every way that matters.”

Louis grunted, but at least he didn’t roll his eyes this time “Anyway, without a mouth, let alone vocal cords, expecting the Queen’s English out of it—her—isn’t likely.”

He pulled at the security badge again and let its zip cord snap back home. “They don’t seem to really get the concept of a touchscreen or even a keyboard; our experiments on that front have been a pathetic flop.” Zip-snap, zip-snap, zip-snap. She had annoyed him. Great.

“If we get the go-ahead from Captain Leoi, we’re going to try some rudimentary sign language. Very rudimentary, without them having any fingers or much range of motion. It’s going to be a big challenge,” Louis half-bragged, half-complained.

“I’m sure you’ll come up with something,” said Gretchen. She ignored the continued movement of Louis’s security card and leaned back in her office chair. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed her tablet screen flicker to sleep. “They look kind of like bugs… Bumblebees dance to communicate, right?”

“Yeah, we’ll have the first Exo Ballet.” The keycard snapped back to a final resting spot on Louis’s belt. “I’m sure that’ll go down big with the ‘my tax dollars at work’ crowd.”

“It was just an idea. Is Leoi putting some pressure on you guys?” Gretchen looked down; the Exo was on the floor beside her now, tapping on her thigh with two front limbs. She jiggled her leg in an attempt to get the Exo to back off, which only increased the intensity of the creature’s prodding.

“Sorry,” said Louis. “They don’t get heel, either. Just give it a shove and it’ll get out of your hair.”

Gretchen gave the Exo a tentative push with one hand. The shell was cooler to the touch than she would have expected, and moister too. She yanked her hand back and wiped it on her pants. The Exo swarmed back across the floor toward Louis, who pushed her out the door with one foot.

“Later, Gretchen. Hey, dinner this weekend?”

“Already got plans,” she replied, and didn’t bother adding “with my girlfriend” this time because Louis became spontaneously deaf whenever she said those words. Louis clucked his disappointment as he followed the Exo out the door.

Gretchen waited till they were definitely gone before she got out of her chair to pick up everything that the Exo had knocked over; the last thing she wanted was Louis popping back into her office and catching a glance down her blouse while she crawled around on the floor.

She picked up the half-dozen magnetic words that had fallen onto the floor but stopped before she pasted them back to the desk. Someone had messed up the ode to the office coffee pot that Sandy from Bioinformatics had created last week and a new poem was left in its place.

I go home soon

the sky so small

my mother please

“Save it for your diary, Sandy,” she muttered, and smeared the words back into the jumble with a flick of her hand.

 

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BIO: Aimee is a science geek, comics nerd, Ultimate Frisbee player, and writer — not necessarily in that order. If she’d gone to Hogwarts, Aimee would have been a Ravenclaw, and her patronus would be She-Hulk.

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