Contact Binary

05 - Garden

Aze feels the texture of a leaf. By touching this object with its avatar, its full-body neural interface sends impulses through its natural nervous system, indistinguishable from feeling a real plant. It takes in the smoothness of one leaf and the coarseness of another, the spectrum of shades of green, the scent of each unique flower, the sound of the illusory wind rustling the branches of trees, bending down under the weight of huge harvests of fruit.

The garden seems to have no horizon. They cross a stream on a little wooden bridge, made of interwoven live roots of giant trees standing guard on either end. The water gently flows over the rocks beneath the bridge--sparkling with pale color like gemstones. A breeze of cool and misty air washes over Aze’s face as it leans over the railing.

Rozenn rests her arms on the roots next to it and speaks directly to Aze, “Think we can get away with speaking privately?”

It looks back at their escorts--Maikoa, captain of the dragonriders of Dactyl, and two of her comrades. “They might notice us talking where they can’t hear us, better go a little higher up and use text.”

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > So what do you make of all this?

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > incredible. best technopathy I’ve ever seen in my life, really. realer than real.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > About the people.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > oh, they’re fucking crazy. lost themselves in the ætherglow. I don’t think they even remember the surface exists. if they’ve been able to live down here long enough for that to happen and haven’t starved to death, the processor must be one of the fastest I’ve ever heard of, so we might expect it to be a very long time before four surface-hours pass.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Comforting. So the current theory is the station inhabitants lost themselves in the æther and this strange world is the result.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > that’s what I would think, except you said contact was lost with the station over 800 days ago

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > More like 180, but yes.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > sure Earther. but they’d be dead for sure if they were lost in here that long

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > They could be on life support. Some remote stations require it for ætherwalks as a precaution

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > plausible

Aze reaches out over the water to pick a piece of fruit from a branch hanging in front of it. It feels as solid and squishy as it ever imagined a fruit would. But what Aze is looking for is much deeper than the skin, the flesh, or the seeds.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > there’s a function embedded in this fruit. consuming it sends commands to the computer. a recipe?

Rozenn picks it up out of Aze’s hands.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > That’s a script for a life support system. Eating this in the simulation directly translates to their bodies being fed on the surface, so they don’t starve, or dehydrate. But we’re not on life support, so it’s meaningless to us.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > bet it still tastes good

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > And the people here. Technopath students?

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > I think so, yeah, if their avatars are at all indicative of their bodies

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Do they recruit from Ida?

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > where else?

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Then, I don’t get it. You’re a good technopath, you handle the æther as well as any pro. You’re sure as hell autistic enough. How did someone like you fail qualification?

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > I didn’t exactly...

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > my sync rate was fine, my aptitude tests were fine, autism off the charts, and obviously space-adapted

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > but the Institute only accepts girls...

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Oh. Really? In this day and age they rejected you for that?!

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > they might’ve took some gender trash like me. unfortunately at that time I didn’t even realize, so I didn’t even get that far

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > I’m sorry...

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > is what it is

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > The all female population here makes sense at least, then.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > But that doesn’t explain much else about this place.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > based on the high priestess’s story, I can make a good guess

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > there’s been a student uprising. the admins are probably dead, and maybe any other technopath capable of becoming an admin, so the server’s abandoned. lost between an unregulated server ætherside, and the cold isolation of a remote space station surfaceside, they’ve lost touch with reality. formed some kind of æthercult, I’ve heard of it happening

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Makes a lot more sense than a bunch of scientists all losing their minds and taking the form of young girls.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > I once had a client drunkenly speculate that all men wish they could be little girls, but...this is much more likely, yeah. the younger ones are about recruitment age. doesn’t explain the adults.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Maybe some scientists took their side? But then why not appoint a new admin?

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > seems they did, whoever this goddess of theirs is

They walk into a grove of trees and encounter a few girls there harvesting their fruit. But seeing Aze and Rozzen’s avatars, they run away.

“That keeps happening,” Rozenn says out loud.

“You frighten people,” Maikoa says. “All know the terror of metal skin. We dragonriders do not fear, for we have conquered your kind in battle before, and can do it again. But not these gardeners. We fought so they would not have to know such terror.”

“Then...” Aze looks down over its avatar, half metal and half flesh, eyes glowing and practically radiating machine. “I’m afraid we will just keep meeting hostility with our avatars like this.”

“Changing them would be technopathy, ‘sorcery,’” Rozenn says.

“Hey!” Aze shouts back to Maikoa.


“Permission to use just a little tiny bit of sorcery? Just to change our appearance so we don’t frighten everyone here?” Aze says.

“I wonder... Everyone should get to know what you are, what danger you pose. But there is also little sense in causing a panic,” Captain Maikoa says. “Well, everyone will know you are outsiders right away no matter what you look like, so I suppose this is okay.” She reaches her hand out and a long crystal spear materializes in it. “But do not try anything more than simply altering your outward appearance.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Aze focuses on its form. Imagining a change in its avatar causes it to change, a passive process. The black fluid running through its veins fades away, and the metallic joints between its limbs melt into pale flesh. Its eyes go from glowing LEDs to organic blue, like its surface-eyes. Rozenn overhauls herself as well, removing the LEDs from her body and her hair, leaving only organic parts, and making her artificial eyes appear human, though keeping their light pink coloration.

Aze then lets its studded leather jacket and pants dissolve and reshape into an outfit like those of the people here on Dactyl--a skirt of thick, wide green leaves sewn together with green vines, with leaf-bracers around its forearms and shins. It manifests a little necklace of purple flowers to complete the outfit. It pulls its perception away to observe itself.

“How’s my Dactylean disguise?” Aze says.

“Any excuse for you to take your clothes off,” Rozenn says.

“Aw, come on, it’s just an avatar, it’s meaningless sensory data, all for a tactical purpose,” Aze says.

“Sure...” Rozenn shifts her own form to match Aze’s outfit, except replacing its purple flower necklace with twin roses placed behind her ears.

“It suits you!” Aze says.

“I don’t even like green...” Rozenn says.

“Let’s go see what Dactylians do for fun.” Aze takes the fruit back from Rozenn and takes a bite out of it, experiencing a hallucination of its flavor and texture, but no real nourishment.

“I almost suspect you’re actually enjoying this,” she says.

“Well yeah, I mean, look at this server!” it says. “Maybe you don’t get it, you grew up in a cylinder, it was probably basically just like this.”

“Not exactly...”

“But I’ve lived in a damn cave all my life, I ain’t been under a sky before. I ain’t felt leaves on my skin. Come on, this is great,” Aze says.

Rozenn shakes her head. “It’s a look into the depths of madness, it’s like a deep cascade of dissociative hallucination shared between us all.”

“Ain’t that interesting though? And look at this place, I ain’t hardly seen three plants in a room before this.”

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > We should be focused on our mission... We need to find the missing technopaths, not lose ourselves in some illusory paradise.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > we ain’t gonna find them by stumbling around blind and desperate, we might even find ourselves lost deeper in this place. sometimes Roze the best thing you can do is stop and appreciate what’s in front of you, and approach the problem with clarity

It picks a small red flower from a vine spiraling around the root rail and offers it to her. She takes it and looks down into the intricacy of its structure, every little petal and fiber immaculately formed.

“I admit, it’s a beautiful server,” Rozenn says. “Just don’t forget it’s not real. It’s just æther. You don’t want to end up like them do you?”

“Don’t worry, I know what’s real and what’s fiction,” Aze says.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > How about you? Gonna tell me the real reason we came here?

“What do you--”

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > corpos don’t send rescue missions.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > they won’t get paid unless they complete their contract, and sending a new crew would cost as much as the first, so at best they break even if they succeed, with a chance they’ll fail and they lose even more assets.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > even if they do send a rescue operation, they don’t send one technopath to find the fate of a full combat team. And then...Maiwenn. That outburst of yours let a lot slip through you. I’m disappointed academy technopaths aren’t better liars, really.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > You would have been a great CommSpec...

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Okay. I’m not here on company business. I’m not supposed to be here at all, I’m risking everything really, spending everything I have saved just to fly here and back and hire you.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > who is she, then? your lover?

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > My sister. She lead that missing strike team, and when we lost contact, I thought the worst had happened. It’s scary, you know, when someone’s off on a long range mission to a deep world like this, an æther island with no relay. We had a twenty minute comms delay over radio to the nearest relay at Ceres, so by the time we realized we weren’t receiving them at all, they could’ve all been dead a while...and there’s nothing we can do to help, not even through the æther, without a relay, you know.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > She’s, she’s always been there for me. I just can’t take the thought of her dying in a place like this, not without at least trying to help her...

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > that explains a lot, why this mission never made any damn sense.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Then why did you agree to it?

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > because it seemed suicidal

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > at least, in an interesting way. do you know how many times I get a job like this? once a year if I’m lucky, and it’s been longer. I don’t mind my other job, really. but I’m a technopath, Rozenn. you can’t imagine being stuck on an æther island. and if we somehow survived this it would mean a chance to leave. even if it was a suicidal job, it beats sticking around Ida, wasting away forever

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > no matter what some institute said, I belong here in the æther, even if it kills me...

“I’m sorry,” Rozenn says.


“I just landed on your world and acted like it’s just some belt backwater of ignorant--well, I’m sorry. You all have it really tough out here, and I wouldn’t last a day here.”

“I don’t need your pity.”

“Then how about my gratitude?” She reaches out her hand. “You’re a good technopath, academy training or not. You’re doing way better than me keeping your calm under pressure, with the dragonriders, with the high priestess...”

Aze takes her hand. “You ain’t so bad. I can suppress my emotions fine, I wouldn’t get through a day without it. But in critical moments I just go along the flow, you were way quicker to make decisions. You might be a natural leader.”

“I’m nothing compared to Mai. She’s on the company’s special forces, commander of an assault team. I’m just a support tech who helps maintain a server, not even an admin. I tried to follow in her footsteps as an AdminSpec, but she’s a true prodigy. She could probably even...” Her eyes dart to the central crystal spire.

“What is it?” Aze says.

“Right when the strike team landed, a new admin took over this server, started repairing it. Such a complex and powerful server, only one tech on that team was skilled enough, only one AdminSpec leading the EvoSpecs...” Rozenn says.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Aze, I have to get into that inner sanctum, I know who their new ‘goddess’ must be.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > hmm, I admit it’s a good theory. but we are sitting on a guaranteed escape plan as long as we don’t go poking around sectors we ain’t welcome in. ain’t no need to be hasty

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Who knows how long that could be in æthertime? If Mai realized I was here, she’d be able to release the ætherlock. That, and I’d know she’s okay...

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > well okay operation leader. I know I’m bein paid to weave æther, not have opinions

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Come on, I value your input too. I won’t ask you to take this risk if you don’t want to

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > well obviously I want to. what do you propose?

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > I don’t know... IF I was going to do it, I would want an ObSpec.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > ObTech’s half my job

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > then if we can just get out of sight of our entourage for a moment, you can manifest echo copies of us. Give them some boring program of us wandering about the garden all day to keep them distracted. Then, we sneak away, take a litlte look inside the inner sanctum. If we don’t find what I’m looking for, we slip right back here, like nothing happened. If something goes wrong, we teleport outside the village, to one of the other islands, and hide until wake-up time.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > this is a foolish, impulsive, self-destructive idea

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > maybe there’s hope for you yet. let’s do it!

It processes the idea for a moment, lining up a script to execute.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Okay. Let’s do it, before I come to my senses. We just need to think of some pretense to get away from the dragonriders...

“Hey Maikoa!” Aze says. “The beauty and grandeur of your village and its way of life has made us overcome with passion for each other. We’re gonna go over there and make out!”

“We’re what--”

Aze runs off, pulling Rozzen’s avatar along by the hand, before Maikoa can even answer.

“Come back! No leaving our sight!” she yells after them.

Aze ducks behind a huge tree, into a hollow in its trunk, pulling Rozzen in after it. Then it executes its program. Another Aze and Rozzen manifest from the æther in front of them, identical to all senses.

“Hey! There you are! Stop right there!” Maikoa says, just as echo-Aze and echo-Rozzen fall into each others’ embrace and kiss each other passionately.

Echo-Aze stops to look over its shoulder at Maikoa. “What’s wrong?”

“You are not to leave my sight!” Maikoa says.

“As I remember it, her majestic priestliness ordered you to keep your eyes on us, not us to stay in sight. So I guess it’s your sacred duty to watch me ætherfuck this girl beyond the limits of causality,” Echo-Aze says. “Unless you’d like to join?”

“No! My heart and flesh are taken. Do what you want...” Maikoa says. “Just don’t leave this spot. We’ll check on you later...” She hurries away back to her post, far out of sight.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > never fails

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > What the hell was that Aze??

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > ObTech?

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Not exactly what I had in mind...

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > inspiration struck?

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Whatever. Let’s go.

Rozzen reaches out for empty æther space in the wall of the tree behind them, opening up a doorway.

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > off to raid the sacred temple of Gaia!

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > ...just get in the hole