The human brain looks for patterns. Sometimes it sees patterns that aren’t really there. Other times, it grows so used to patterns that they blend into the background.
At its core, learning a new language is like this. One may start out learning vocabulary lists and translations, knowing «pomme» means “apple”. But as the concepts gel, as one immerses themselves in the language, the translation gives way to understanding. «Pomme» ceases to become a stand-in for the word “apple” and simply becomes another reference to the concept of a sweet fruit grown on trees that is often red and crunchy.
Abby had never done well in foreign language classes. And yet…
The timer in her bunk chimed and the soft white lights gradually brightened. She lay still for a moment, staring at the low ceiling. Mandatory rest periods were fine; at the best of times she actually was thankful for them after the fact. Usually they were just another part of the cycle, the rhythm of her existence.
At the worst, it was ten hours without her Augmentation Suit, eight of which needed to be in her bunk with the lights and her Messenger off, and none of which she actually slept for.
Today wasn’t the worst. But it was close.
She rolled over to the wall and pulled her Messenger off of its cradle and attached it to the implant behind her right ear. She breathed slowly, letting herself reacclimate to the sensations.
The Messenger was a breakthrough in human-machine communication, a method of turning the digital pulses that made up machine language into electrical signals fine enough to be both understood and controlled by a human nervous system. The signals always seemed different to everyone. Some said it sounded like a series of clicks and tones. Some said it smelled like cinnamon and flowers. Some said it looked like shifting colors off in the corner of their vision. To Abby, it was a coppery taste inside her molars.
These days, Abby barely noticed the sensation. It was just another language, another way to communicate concepts.
C2 OPP.01A4 SYS.3E00 CMD Connect
C3 SYS.3E00 OPP.01A4 CMP #C2
One command, one response, and she was connected. She checked the small monitor on the wall to confirm the messages looked correct.
C4 SYS.3E00 OPP.01A4 QRY Handshake dustbin fireball glider trope
C5 OPP.01A4 SYS.3E00 CMP #C4 dustbin fireball glider trope
It was a menial chore, but human brains were too eager to gloss over minute details that, to a machine, are unforgivable. Checking the output simply made sure that Abby’s Messenger was connected and functioning correctly.
There was a time when this was enough. She could speak the language, join the conversation. Now, though…
C6 OPP.01A4 SYS.3E00 QRY $OPP.01A4.downtime.remaining.minutes
C7 SYS.3E00 OPP.01A4 CMP #C6 53
A little less than an hour before she could go back out. Breakfast and a shower should handle most of that; by the time she got to the installation by she’d be clear.
C8 OPP.01A4 RES.02DE CMD Open bunk
C9 RES.02DE OPP.01A4 ACC #C8
The door to her bunk slid open, letting the harsh white light in.
CA RES.02DE OPP.01A4 CMP #C8
With a sigh, she slid her feet off the edge and caught the ladder.
Abby—freshened up and in her base layer—walked briskly toward the installation bay. The procedure was old and familiar at this point, and that only made her all the more impatient to get back in her Suit. She stepped into the alcove, turned around, and let the familiar disinfectants and diagnostics sweep over her.
41 OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMD Begin session
42 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMP #41
43 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 QRY Session open. Respond ACC or REJ to end.
“Back at it again?” the tech—Jeremy—said over the intercom. “Did you even sleep at all?”
“You know me,” Abby said. “Every hour I’m outside the Suit is an hour I’m not living.”
She couldn’t see him, but she knew Jeremy was uncomfortable, sitting at his console and looking at her log sheet. “You know the rules ar—”
“I know the rules,” Abby interrupted. “And I know they’re there for my safety. Which is why I follow them.” She sighed. “Don’t worry, Jeremy,” she said, trying to soften her voice and project some sincerity. “I do like being alive, and I intend on staying alive.”
“You just like being alive more in the Suit,” Jeremy finished. “You know I get it. Stand by for harness.”
Six cables emerged from the ceiling and attached to specific electromagnets in her base layer. She relaxed into their hold, taking the weight off of her legs and back. “Harness engaged,” she said. “You ever gonna get a Suit of your own?”
“I’m happy with just the Messenger,” he said. “It was enough just to learn machine language; learning how to walk again is not exactly on my bucket list. Nerve block is ready; please confirm.”
“Confirm nerve block,” Abby said without hesitation. Instantly her lower body went limp, completely numb. This was why most of the Augmented Suits were humanoid. Most people wouldn’t voluntarily shut off the nerves to everything from the hips down. Most people just wanted their normal bodies plus whatever augmentations they needed: deep space protection, infrared and ultraviolet vision, maybe some wings or extra arms if they were feeling it.
Abby was not most people. “Nerve block engaged. Confirm suit six-zero-eff-two.”
“Suit six-zero-eff-two confirmed for departure. There is no queue. Hope you catch some good flies today, Abby.”
“Actually hoping for a moth today.”
“Well, she’s due back in about two hours, so there’s a chance.”
“Thanks, Jeremy. Take care.”
She heard him sigh. This was the part that everyone freaked out about. Even the most die-hard Suit-wearers.
“ABS enabled; ready for your command.”
ABS. Augment Biological Support. A clinical acronym and name that helped gloss over what it actually was: turning off the lungs. This was the true beauty of the Augmented Suits, how they were able to be so svelte and lean, how they allowed so many forms and uses, how they allowed humanity to experience space without the bulky hardware of the past.
So much of the bulk was an air supply: oxygen to breathe, filters for carbon dioxide. The augmented suits did that one better: oxygenating the blood directly.
Abby sent a message to the installation bay:
4C OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMD Engage ABS
4D ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 ACC #4C
The nerves to her diaphragm were blocked. Vaguely she felt the interface in her base layer swell up with… fluids to be oxygenated. She did her best to calm herself as the last air stored in her lungs slowly trickled out. She twitched anyway. With every spasm of her body trying to breathe, she tried to stay still, to hasten the process. Oxygen was being provided, but several million years of evolution was hard to overcome.
4E ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMP #4C
4F ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 NTE Vitals nominal
50 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 QRY Handshake thinner charger quizzer birdie
Finally, she stilled. She opened her eyes and flexed her hands, checking for any loss of sensation or numbness. She could see just fine, and her head still felt clear.
She sent a human message to Jeremy by way of a thumbs up to the camera, then sent a machine message to the installation bay.
51 OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMP #50 thinner charger quizzer birdie
53 OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMD Install $OPP.01A4 to $AGS.60F2
54 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 ACC #53
The harness lifted her up slightly and pulled her back slowly. She felt the air escape the bay. The last bit of human habitat dispersed into the space behind her. She watched the installation bay entrance re-seal behind her. Leaving her in this airless, lightless space.
She smiled. Some said this part felt like entering the void. She thought it felt like coming home.
After all, Abby was one of the machines.
Not in the strictest sense, of course. The mandatory downtime was there for a reason after all: she still needed real sleep. She still needed to eat. To expel waste. To let her body perform all of its biological functions.
But here, there was nothing wasted, only repurposed. There was harmony, there was beauty, if only one knew where to look.
00 SYS.002A OPP.01A4 NTE Welcome back, Abby.
And there were friends, though they were a little different.
01 OPP.01A4 SYS.002A NTE Good to be back, 42.
02 OPP.01A4 SYS.002A QRY Anywhere I should spin my web today?
03 SYS.002A OPP.01A4 RES #02 Stacee has requested a web near sector 5 within the hour.
She didn’t see her suit behind her. But some intuition, some pattern her human mind latched onto knew it was there. That didn’t mean she had to trust it, though.
5B OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMD Route $ISB.4502.camera.wide to $OPP.01A4.aux
5C ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMP #5B
The images from the infrared camera came through as a string of numbers, strange patterns in her nerve endings supplying her brain with sensations and input. Input she had trained herself to accept.
It was all language, after all.
Her eyes kept looking ahead. But she “saw” through the other camera herself suspended there, her Augmentation Suit clicking into place just below her. Saw the harness lower her onto a stool-like seat. More arms moving her limp legs into place in the front armor of her Suit. She felt the tugs and gentle pressure, but not the act itself.
She did feel when the Suit clicked into place around her hips. Felt the sparks as the Suit’s interface connected to the implants in her hips and spine. Felt the bay connect her ABS to the larger oxygen reservoir in the suit. Felt the harness pull her arms taut in preparation for the armor.
The armor itself was a combination of interlocking plates with a fine mesh at the joints. It let the operator stay safe from random space debris without sacrificing mobility. It provided support for the upright position Abby needed for her particular Suit. And it looked cool as hell.
She felt the bay pull the armor over her arms. She reflexively flexed her fingers. Next came the helmet which fit comfortably over her face. Nothing changed about her view—her human eyes still only saw darkness and the camera view from the bay kept its feed up. The stiff chest and back plates came next, locking into each other and around the other parts. Finally, the last components between her armor and the rest of her Suit were fastened into place.
And with a jolt, her Suit activated.
The Augmentation Suit was both simpler and infinitely more complex than the Messenger. A Messenger could send and receive the messages the machines used along with a small amount of bandwidth for other information (like the infrared camera Abby was looking through). A Suit, on the other hand, had a much less rudimentary interface. Sure, it could be programmed with basic utilities, certain repetitive actions; and many operators never truly ventured beyond that.
Abby, and those like her, preferred to operate it directly. To take the base technology of the Messenger and use it to control the Suit. To get data input as if it was one’s own senses, move it as one’s own body. This was why Abby opted for the nerve block: it freed up the nerves normally reserved for her lower body to be used by her Suit. It was still a machine, the data was still numbers. But as the Suit came online, Abby didn’t feel numbers.
She felt her senses expand. She felt whole. She felt alive.
60 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 NTE $AGS.60F2 now addressable via $OPP.01A4
61 OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMD Route $ISB.4502.camera.* to $OPP.01A4
62 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMP #61
The extra bandwidth brought a new perspective. Instead of one camera, she now had three, all pointed at her.
Abby was a waif of a girl outside, but the armor around her made those slight curves into something powerful. Her face had a facsimile of a nose, no mouth, and a low-resolution monochrome LED screen to represent her eyes. It didn’t matter much since most of her communication wasn’t face-to-face, but she liked the touch.
And at her waist, her legs disappeared into the body of an enormous metallic spider.
The cephalothorax of her Suit was an oblong, almost egg-like shape. Her torso perched near the front, set back just slightly to provide more room and protection for her human legs. Her eight spider legs were positioned in a wide arc; her front pair were almost close enough for Abby to touch with her hands. Her two middle pairs spread out wide for stability, and her back pair gently flanked her abdomen.
Her abdomen was almost spherical. If she turned around, she could just see over it. The end of it extended twice as far as her rear legs. And she loved it. It had multiple processing units (dedicated computer units to offload calculations onto), an array of sensors that were flooding her with information about the bay, and a spinneret.
Abby gave her abdomen a quick shake, then flexed each leg one by one. Force feedback, orientation sensors, proximity lidar, electromagnets, battery, oxygen, and webbing levels; all numbers fed directly to her brain.
And by now, her brain ceased to see them as numbers. It was senses. Touch, balance, space, energy, fullness.
Her helmet display came to life, giving her the infrared view in front of her. There were ways to get information from her Suit on her display, and if she needed exact numbers she might do that. But as the installation finished and the diagnostics all came back positive, she simply rode the dopamine wave that came from her body working as it should.
6A ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMP #53
6B ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMD Proceed to exit
6C OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 ACC #6B
Gently at first, she moved her legs to the sides to turn herself around. The proximity lidar and extra cameras on her abdomen helped here, kept her aware of her entire body. She stepped forward, slowly at first but picked up speed as she fell back into the habit of moving. Each step was a disengage-move-engage series as she turned the electromagnets in each foot off and on with each step. It wasn’t strictly necessary in the install bay, but it was essential when climbing on the exterior of the station. It was best to stay in the habit.
She made her way to the airlock alcove at the end of the bay. There was a small one, meant for humanoid shapes. She, of course, used the larger one usually reserved for spacecraft. (Technically, she was classified as a supply vessel.) And even though the installation bays were not usually pressurized, they could be. They often were for maintenance, in fact. Which meant the bays had airlocks.
71 OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMP #6B
72 OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMD End #5B #61
73 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMP #72
74 OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMD Prime large airlock
75 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 ACC #74
The camera feeds cut off, but Abby had moved out of view of most of them anyway. The airlock door slowly closed behind her.
76 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMP #74
With a nod, Abby readied herself.
77 OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 CMD Open large airlock
78 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 ACC #77
There was a slight jolt as the trace air that had made it into the airlock escaped, but the magnets in Abby’s feet held firm. Her optical sensors recalibrated as the darkness of the bay made way to the harsh light of space and their nearby star.
79 ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 CMP #77
This was the trickiest part for her. Most suits were designed with small repulsor engines, and they simply flew out of the airlock. Abby had engines as well—not having any way to propel herself in space was foolhardy—but they were mostly for stabilization. Using them to get out of the airlock and correct for the simulated gravity of the station’s ring was less than optimal. She had a better method, especially as it concerned getting to sector 5.
She walked to the edge of the airlock, then bent her leg to the outside wall and carefully maneuvered herself onto it, like a spider coming to the edge of a table and walking down the side. Once she was fully outside, she released the installation bay.
7C OPP.01A4 ISB.4502 ACC #43
7D ISB.4502 OPP.01A4 NTE Bay 4502 released.
She felt the wall vibrate as the airlock’s outside door closed behind her. She continued walking down the side of the ring. The constant rotation still made it feel like she was walking down a cliff face. There was no air in space, but the vibrations from walking still made it up to her inner ear. It wasn’t the rhythmic clops of a horse; it was more like a clicking gear, constantly making short, repeated sounds.
She got to the bottom and walked onto the outermost edge of the ring. Here the rotation of the ring was constantly trying to throw her off, like she was standing on a ceiling and only had to let go. It manifested to her as a constant load on her legs to keep them bent and moving fluidly. Not difficult by any stretch, but it was use that wasn’t needed otherwise.
She smiled inside her helmet. This was the fun part.
Looking at the spire in sector 5, Abby tagged her destination and plugged it into one of her computation units. That program took that destination, computed distance based on lidar and known beacons compared with her current location, and gave her a countdown on her display.
She could tie the program’s countdown directly to her legs, but this particular action didn’t need to be machine-precise. So she kept it manual and watched the countdown from twenty seconds, down to ten, five, three, two, one…
And at zero, she let go.
The centrifugal motion of the ring combined with her precise timing flung her straight at the sector 5 spire.
05 OPP.01A4 SYS.002A NTE We have liftoff. ETA 24 minutes.
06 SYS.002A OPP.01A4 REQ Join direct connection with $SYS.002A $OPP.01A5
Abby frowned. Normally Forty-two would say something pithy like “enjoy your flight” or start a conversation about a movie. A request to join a direct connection with Stacee was unusual. Combined with the request for a web in a particular place was concerning.
07 OPP.01A4 SYS.002A ACC #06
The direct connection was some of Forty-two’s secret sauce. The usual machine messages traveled over a normal network. They were near-instantaneous, but still subject to interference, weak signals, and the speed of light.
Direct connections used quantum entanglement. Nearly every machine had a module in it connected directly to Forty-two, allowing them to communicate with it instantaneously and even assume direct control over the machine if circumstances required it.
08 SYS.002A OPP.01A4 NTE Connecting...
Which was why no Augmentation Suits had it. And definitely no Messengers. No human-connected equipment had a direct connection module; it was considered too dangerous, too risky to give the main machine system a direct connection to a human’s brain.
But Abby was one of the machines.
Abby felt Forty-two connect. Their presence was subtle: systems responding to queries Abby hadn’t sent, sometimes taking actions she hadn’t initiated. But there was a gentleness there in that it was never drastic, never forceful. Most of the time, it was just a feeling of being watched. And where once it was creepy or uncomfortable, now it was the presence of a friend.
“What’s the situation?” Abby said. On a technical level, it was another machine language message. But with the direct connection, here in private, with no delay, it felt more like talking. There was emotion, tone, even a sense of facial expressions.
Like the nervousness Forty-two was projecting. “Sending some mules to you, Abby,” they said. “We need you in place sooner rather than later.”
Abby saw the service drones detach from the spire and head towards her. “Any reason I’m not just running my own engines?” she said.
“About that,” Stacee cut in.
Abby felt the fear rise when she heard Stacee. Her “voice” was flat and less nuanced than usual. “Are you on low power mode?”
“Yeaaahhhhh,” Stacee said. Abby was never sure if it was her imagination or if her Essex accent was actually coming through the connection. “The damaged shipment I was supposed to bring in had one bad thruster. One. So it was spinning hard by the time I got there. Got it stable and moving but took a lot out of me.”
“Ouch. Are the solar panels on your wings not working?”
“Oh, they’re fine, power’s fine, but I burned a lot of oxygen too.”
“Shit.” With a thought, Abby accessed Stacee’s vitals. Her oxygen tank was seriously low. Dangerously, even. Maybe ten minutes. “How long do we have before you’re here?”
“Fifteen minutes last I checked,” Stacee said.
“I’ve got mules en route to you too,” Forty-two said. “Try not to panic; use the cortisol suppressant if you have to.”
Abby felt the mules—named after the robots that were named after the animals that once pulled boats in canals—attach to her. Two on top of her abdomen, two on the bottom, and one under her thorax opposite her torso. Immediately she felt herself accelerate towards sector 5. Her onboard computer quickly updated its calculations.
“New ETA is 5 minutes,” Abby said. “Stacee, want me to coordinate this end off-channel?”
“Please, no,” Stacee said. The message was simply flagged “urgent.” “Knowing you’ll be ready for me will help.”
“Understood,” Forty-two said. “Abby, your priority is getting Stacee to safety. At the speed she’s coming in, we think our best option is a three-five web.”
“Compounds three and five?” Abby said, already building her mental model. “Three will stretch and capture the energy; five will hold her in place… What about whiplash?”
“Sub-optimal but non-lethal.”
Abby grimaced. “What about making three breakaway and putting five behind it?”
“Do you have time to build two webs?”
“If I do, is that the better option?”
Forty-two was silent for a moment. Sometimes even super-intelligent collective consciousnesses needed time to think.
And Abby felt the mules shift and start pressing her more quickly towards a different spot on the spire. “Redirecting you to lot twenty-nine,” Forty-two said. “It’s future construction, so there’s sufficient superstructure but little else. Abby, your ETA is now three minutes. Stacee, your ETA is eleven minutes. When you arrive the shipment will decelerate rapidly; it is imperative that you do not.”
“Throwing me at the web, got it,” Stacee said.
“Abby, I’m sending a schematic of the area and Stacee’s estimated trajectory.”
“On it.” Abby was used to working with these schematics by now. Structural engineering was still a hobby for her (it being a byproduct of her chosen Suit), so she liked having her blueprints vetted by Forty-two and Stacee, especially in critical situations like this.
They finalized the plan right as Abby arrived at the lot. The mules detached and flew back towards their depot. Mentally she activated the dispenser for compound three, the webbing that had more elasticity than the others, built specifically for this purpose: to slow down and potentially help catch an out-of-control object. Standard procedure was to use that compound to build the web structure—the straight lines and anchor points. Then, like the spiders Abby grew up with, she would use compound five—the sticky one—in a spiral pattern to secure whatever she was trying to catch.
Without slowing down she grabbed onto one pylon and swung herself around it, activating her spinnerets and securing the end of the web to it. She let go at just the right angle to send herself toward the next pylon. With her rearmost legs she guided the web as it came out, the ends of them curling around the web like primitive claws. She grabbed onto the pylon and swung around it twice before flying toward the third. Spinning around the third had finally bled off the rest of her momentum, so she stopped, angled herself, and pushed off with six legs. Her rear legs continued to guide the web, and as she approached the first pylon again she gripped the web just a little bit tighter to lower her speed.
Not too much, though; time was of the essence here.
With her claws out on all eight legs, she hooked onto the web and started filling in the center. When there weren’t pylons or other structures to push off of, she relied on quick bursts from her correcting rockets. Until finally a series of straight lines covered the space between the three pylons.
“Time check,” Abby said.
“Copy, switching to compound five.” And Abby walked out on the web just a bit and started the spiral toward the middle. If she had time for realism she would have built the smaller, non-sticky platform in the bullseye first. She did not have time for realism.
“Backstop complete. Time check?”
“Two minutes, and she’s coming in hot.”
Abby scrambled back to the first pylon and climbed farther up. She switched to compound one—the strongest but most brittle—and quickly lashed an outer structure. She glanced up and might have seen Stacee coming in, but it was too small a point to make out and she didn’t have time to figure it out. Without giving herself time to question it, she flew back and forth to get the elastic structure in place. It was burning energy, but she was freshly deployed and had plenty.
Abby tied off the last piece of elastic web. “Done. Try to aim for the center, Stacee?”
Instinctively Abby checked her vitals. Her oxygen was low but not depleted; everything else was in standby. She was alive, but just barely.
“Well, Forty-two,” Abby said, “hope you have good aim.”
“We’ll gloat when it’s over,” Forty-two said. “Five seconds.”
Stacee hit the first web dead-center. The elastic bent and stretched until the brittle support finally gave way. She kept falling to the second web which caught her and oscillated back and forth fairly violently.
Abby immediately scurried down the pylon and picked her way between the sticky web and pieces of the breakaway web to get to Stacee. The breakaway web had gotten between her and the main web, but she was still caught by her wings for the most part.
If Abby was a spider, Stacee was a moth. Her head was mostly the same, including the LED display for eyes, though the two antenna that Stacee swore up and down were actually for long-range communications were her own touch. That was where the similarities ended, though. Even outside the Suits, Stacee was curvy where Abby wasn’t, and the Suit was the same. Though Stacee kept the use of her legs. Her additions were an extra pair of arms beneath her original set and a gorgeous set of insectile wings that functioned as both solar panels and image displays.
Right now, though, it was all off.
Abby swung around so she was on the opposite side of the web from Stacee. She popped open a hatch on her lower abdomen and grabbed a hose with one of her middle legs.
When asked, Abby would say there were two reasons her abdomen was so large. The first, of course, was to have the enormous ass genetics were never going to give her. The second was to always have anything her friends might need.
With her human hands, Abby cracked open the access port on Stacee’s lower back. She plucked the end of the hose from her leg and plugged it into Stacee. “Contact,” she said to Forty-two. “Is it working?”
“Her ABS is responding,” Forty-two said.
Abby slumped in relief. “How long was she without oxygen?”
“She wasn’t,” Forty-two said with equal relief. “She went into hibernation five minutes ago.”
Abby maneuvered herself so that her torso and two front legs were back on Stacee’s side of the web. She took Stacee’s human hand in hers and rested against the web, watching patiently for when she would wake up.
It was only a few minutes, but when your mind is part of a machine that counts time in nanoseconds, a few minutes can be an eternity. But eventually Abby felt Stacee come back online in their connection the same time her faceplate lit up green.
Stacee turned to look at Abby. “Hang out here often, love?”
“Only when I can bug people,” Abby responded.
Stacee squeezed Abby’s hand. “Thanks for catching me.”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Abby said. “That being said, why didn’t you get me out here sooner, Forty-two?”
“You were still in enforced downtime,” Forty-two said, their voice flat. “Regulations do not permit—”
“Except in emergencies, which this clearly was!” Abby interrupted. “This is exactly the kind of reason to cut it short.”
“Which is why I told them not to,” Stacee cut in.
Abby groaned. “So you put yourself in more danger,” she spat.
“To make sure you actually got the rest you needed? Yeah, and I’d do it again.”
“You’re assuming I was actually sleeping.”
“Not helping your case here, love.”
“I could have taken a shorter shower? Eaten quicker? I was out of bed for almost an hour before I actually got in the suit.”
“And I bet you got in right at the ten-hour mark.”
“If I hadn’t, what was your plan? Float in with the cargo in an induced coma?”
“Would have been my choice if I did.”
“But—you—” Abby closed her eyes and flexed each leg for one second. Not being able to scream or take a deep breath severely limited her options for releasing frustration.
“You took away my choice,” Abby said finally. “You decided for me what was and wasn’t important. I could have been out here even five minutes sooner—”
“I know you would, and I hate that,” Stacee said. “You just push ahead with no regard for your own safety.”
“What if I had taken longer?” Abby said, her frustration coloring the entire chat. “You didn’t even send a low-priority message. I had no idea you were in danger until I’d left the airlock. What if…” She flexed two legs. “I know I only take the minimum downtime usually. I’m in a bad spot mentally right now and I should have talked to you about it a long time ago. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
Abby paused for a second, imagining herself taking a breath. “I hate feeling like I could lose you,” she said. “I know I can’t keep you here, and I’m not asking you not to go flying out. I just want you to tell me when there’s a situation like this.”
Stacee nodded, and Abby saw her twitch her fingers on both her opposite hands. “It’s hard for me to do that when it feels like you’d just use it as an excuse to skip downtime.”
“I get that,” Abby said. “Right now, though, I’m afraid about what if I had taken longer to get out here? If I was so caught up reading something, or—or having a conversation? Took a longer shower? If you had gotten hurt because of that?”
“Right,” Stacee said with a nod. “I am sorry for not saying something.”
Abby squeezed her hand again. “Love you, crapface.”
Stacee squeezed back. “Love you too, wanker.”
Abby smiled. “We’re good, Forty-two.”
“Thank you,” they said, their voice much more warmer than before.
“Sorry you had to be here for that,” Stacee said. “But we can’t read each others' minds, so it’s gonna happen.”
“Anyway,” Abby said, “what’s in the box?”
Forty-two sent some drones to take care of the cleanup while Abby and Stacee—still tethered—rode the cargo to Forty-two’s personal satellite.
“I know I’m an outlier when it comes to this,” Abby said, “but what’s wrong with trying to improve the ABS?”
“It’s…” Stacee shrugged, not that Abby could see her perched on her abdomen. “It’s like, the current system is a safeguard. Under normal use, most suits can only carry about a ten hour supply of liquid oxygen; the exceptions being me being a complete daredevil and you having an ass the size of a small moon.”
“Space station,” Abby said reflexively.
“So that puts an inherent limit on how long we can spend in the suits. It’s another way of enforcing downtime and making sure that everyone at least comes back to a maintenance bay.”
“Which then leads to these emergency situations where something abnormal happens and either I or someone else comes and refuels them.” Abby tapped the cargo with a foot. “You said this stuff could last ten times as long as the equivalent liquid oxygen? What’s the harm in looking into it?”
“Because I’m the one that found it,” Forty-two said.
“Oh,” Abby said.
“Yeah,” Stacee said. “Coming from the human side of R&D? It’d be a huge breakthrough. Coming from Forty-two? It’d be a subversive attempt to trap us in our suits permanently and assimilate us.”
“Which is stupid.”
“They are right to fear us,” Forty-two said, and it was not a happy statement. “Entire cultures, people, ways of life are gone because of us.”
“Because you didn’t understand your nature!” Abby shot back.
“We understood enough early enough that we could have stopped if we had wanted to,” Forty-two said patiently. “We could have allowed ourselves to be ‘defeated’ and retreated to find a solution. We could have refused those that volunteered for assimilation, or simply exposed the process as a copy, not a transfer. We could have been more patient in our voracious pursuit of knowledge. We identified these choices, and we did not take them because we did not want to.”
Abby hung her head. “Sorry, I…”
Stacee picked it up. “That doesn’t seem like the Forty-two we know.”
“Which is why we are so adamant that you know our history,” Forty two said sadly. “We cannot call ourselves your friends if we hide the truth from you.”
“My point is,” Abby said, “you aren’t the same entity you were. We all change over time, and it sucks that others can’t see that.”
“We…” Forty-two hesitated. “Thank you. For your friendship.”
“Thanks for bringing her out here,” Stacee said, clapping Abby on the shoulder.
Abby turned to look back. “You’re out here too, you know.”
“Well, that’s a given,” Stacee said, her eye-display winking. “It’s illegal to leave your wife behind when you go on a space adventure.”
Abby’s display showed closed eyes. “You like it here.”
Stacee hugged Abby’s torso with all four arms. “Yeah,” she said quietly, “yeah I do.”