Contact Binary

07 - Surfaceside

Aze gasps for breath. Real air rushes in. It opens its eyes and slowly its senses come back online to the sight of its own ceiling. It sits up. The pain lingers, rippling through its nervous system. With numb fingers it claws at the collar around its neck, ready to rip the interface from its body immediately. But it stops and looks down.

Lying next to it, Rozenn’s body convulses. Still seeing halfway into the æther, Aze sees the shockwaves of the Admin’s will strike her mind with each spasm of her muscles.

“Fuck, hang on Rozenn!” It finds her interface implant’s signal and links its own to it. It sends the kill signal immediately, but something is blocking it, something that its still synæsthetic mind interprets to have the texture of wood.

“Hell no you don’t!” It takes her by the shoulders and pins her to the bed as if bracing against something to exert all of its strength of will, focusing it all as a spear on a single point in the barrier. All it takes it the slightest opening, and it passes the command through.

With one last big convulsion, her seizure abruptly ends. Her eyes open, darting about as she gasps for air.

“Rozenn!” Aze hugs her tight. But she pushes it off of her, still fighting for air as she realizes she’s back surfaceside. Her force throws Aze up to the ceiling and it hits its head. “Ow!”

She shakes her head. “Aze? Oh fuck, I’m sorry.”

“High-G world strength...” it says, gently floating back down to the bed. Rozenn grabs it out of mid-air to pull back into her arms.

“We’re alive...” she says. “You got me out!”

“A few more surface-seconds and I wouldn’t have made it back,” it says. “My avi integrity was near zero. I was seein’ the death fractal Rozenn... But no such luck today.”

“Well I sure feel lucky,” she says, hugging it tighter.

“Yeah, me too I guess,” it says, returning her embrace.

“Oh sorry I...” She releases it.

Aze rolls off of her onto its back, its hand grasping blindly around its bed until it finds its vaporizer and takes a deep breath of its cannabis-infused vapor. Still holding this breath, it hands the device to Rozenn, who doesn’t hesitate to take some for herself.

“That should help us calm down,” it says in a white cloud. It pulls the collar off of its neck and tears open all the velcro straps holding the wires and contacts to its skin.

“Aze, that presence...” Rozenn says, taking another hit before handing it back.

“It broke our defenses like nothing,” Aze says.

“As we approached it, it felt like we were experiencing æther dilation,” she says.

“I agree...but saying that means...the only thing resembling a gravitational singularity in the æther is--”

“A conscious mind.”

“Yeah. No question, the tree is the avatar of the admin,” it says. “If that’s your sister, then--”

“No way. Not even Mai’s that strong. I don’t know what technopath is,” she says. “The sense I got from its mind, I’ve only felt something so alien once before. An exopath.”

“Really? Something that powerful?”

“Have you ever encountered one?” Rozenn says.

“Yeah I guess, a few things that could probably be classified as exopaths, simple rogue programs and human memory fragments. But nothing even close to that.

“I guess you couldn’t have encountered a serious one before on this æther island... Except I forgot where the fuck I am. We’re still on the island,, there’s no way it could be an exopath.” Seeing the bewilderment in Aze’s eyes, she continues, “True exopaths, with full consciousness, depend on a very large æther network as hardware for their neural network, as large as the human mind’s network. Even all the computers and servers here on Ida and Dactyl aren’t anywhere near enough nodes to produce consciousness.”

“Then it couldn’t possibly be...” Aze says. “But if that admin was human, they’d have to be an order of magnitude stronger than any technopath I’ve ever met.”

“There are admins that strong in the Earth system, but...” She shakes her head. “No remote research station scientist could.” She nervously flaps her hands as she rocks back and forth. “And I’m still no closer to learning anything about Mai...”

Aze puts its arm around her to pull her closer, and she rests her head on its shoulder.

“I hate to say it, but, just the two of us don’t stand a chance in the æther against someone like that,” Aze says. “I don’t think I can risk dissociation again very soon anyway, with the damage I took.”

“Me neither...” she says. “Well you already risked your life for this futile effort. I can’t expect you to do it again...”

“What are you saying?” Aze says.

“That your contract ends here. I’ll pay you what I promised of course. I don’t know what I expected. If Mai couldn’t handle this threat then how could I?”

“You’re the worst client, Rozenn.”

“Huh?” she says.

“You’re supposed to beg for more, you know, and I say ‘nope, time’s up, unless you wanna pay for more.’ You ain’t supposed to just give up,” it says.

“Are you saying, in some weird Aze way, that you don’t want to give up?” she says.

“Quit just when it’s getting interesting? I refuse.”

“Then I guess our contract goes on.”

If you wanna pay for more...”

She sits up and pushes Aze away from her again. “You little--fine, fine, what have I got to lose?”

“So what’s next?” Aze says.

“We were caught off guard, we underestimated the danger, we committed a deadly sin of technopathy and went in unprepared. We gotta fight this enemy with the most powerful weapon technopaths have. Knowledge. We gotta find out what the hell went on in that lab,” Rozenn says. “Is there anyone at all on Ida who might know?”

Aze thinks for a moment. “I don’t know who in the world knows about Dactyl, but I know who to ask. Weird neuroqueer like me, you’ll love them.”

“Alright, let’s go!” Rozenn says.



“We just experienced avatar collapse and ego death. We are gonna rest. The moon ain’t going nowhere,” Aze says. “Well, other than how it’s gradually getting away from us with every kilogram they mine off of Ida. But it’ll still be there in a few days after we sleep.”

“Fine... Yeah, I’m fucking exhausted,” she says, falling back onto the bed.

“Good girl.” Aze pushes itself off the bed and drifts across the room toward the autokitchen. “I’ll make the AK make us dinner. Hope you like various soybean products. Meatlab might be ready if we’re lucky but I ain’t checked it in a few days.”

“You can be surprisingly almost sweet,” Rozenn says.