Contact Binary

09 - Decryption

Standing at the threshold of the hatch, Rozenn stares down the dark shaft. Vee’s green electronic eye casts a bright white beam and that shines on the walls of bare rock. It’s a perfectly circular vertical tunnel, the type dug by a prospecting drill, barely wide enough for one person to fit through.

She pulls her coat hood tighter around her face. The air here is so cold the rest of the colony seems warm now.

“I expected an airlock or something,” Rozenn says.

“Did you think every little maintenance shaft in this entire unplanned colony was contained in a metal pressure vessel like we are some kind of M-type world?” Vee says.

“Be patient with her, she don’t know the belt,” Aze says.

“Ah, well...” Vee turns its head downward into the long tunnel. The rock is grey, black, white, and brown, chaotically scattered in tiny dots of color. The white and light grey parts reflect Vee’s light, and the shaft sparkles like a corridor of stars.

“This is a pressurized shaft, as you can tell. Much of the colony is connected by passageways like this, fruitlessly dug without hitting any ideal rock. At this depth, most of the chondrite is compressed so densely that it’s as good as a metal wall for containing air, but not so dense that the pressure of the asteroid around us threatens to collapse such a tunnel as this. At least we shall hope so.” It steps off of the threshold and slowly starts to fall.

“Pressure alone compressed a nebula of dust into rock so dense we can trap a bubble of gas inside it. And here we wayward antlings are, digging tunnels and extracting this miracle of nature to grind up and melt down into Idæan glass,” Vee says.

“Here we have Gamma, the geology autistic,” Aze says.

“I love that you can tell us apart, Hazel,” Gamma Vee says.

Once she picks up the momentum to fall enough to clear a space, she turns herself around to shine her eye up at the others. Aze climbs into the shaft next.

“But must we call it that?” Gamma Vee says. “Earth rocks have not been relevant for fifty years.”

“Huh?” Aze says.

“Oh, you know, Geo, geology, it means Earth,” Rozenn says.

“Why, did it used to be called Gearth?” Aze says. “Gearthlings...”

“Don’t ask me, my syster Alpha is the linguistics autistic,” Gamma says.

Rozenn looks down the shaft as Aze clears room for her. She steps off the ledge, feeling like she’s in microgravity until the weak pull of Ida starts to draw her down the tight corridor. She can barely move herself inside it

“This is a little too similar to the other day in the æther,” she says.

“Yeah...” Aze says. “Flashbacks.” It sends a terminal command to suppress an anxiety response.

She slides her hand in its fingerless glove over the smooth rock. It’s cold to the touch, even through her prosthetic metal fingertips. She gasps in surprise, and her white cloud of breath crystallizes into frost on the wall on contact.

“How far are we falling here?” Rozenn says.

“Just 200 meters,” Vee says.

“And uh, how long will that take?” she says.

“Aren’t you a technopath? One centimeter per second per second,” Vee says.

“Oh, exactly 200 seconds?”

“Yes, and we will reach the ground at neatly two meters per second. Isn’t it stimmy when things line up like that?” Vee says. “That’s why we bought this suite at the top of a 200 meter shaft. Imagine our delight to learn it led directly to the morgue.”

“How long until they figure out where the implants are disappearing to?” Aze says.

“Well it’s not every day a cyborg dies in A-town. And those butchers have no idea of the augments’ value anyway, they are only interested in recycling the worthless meat,” Gamma says. “And 198, 199, 200.”

A few seconds later Aze reaches the ground. Then Rozenn lands, softly touching down on the bare rock. She looks down at the chondrite, adjusting her eyes. To her sides, the opening in the rock stretches wide in both directions, a long pressurized hallway of stone, with a terrible scent. But in front of her is only more bare rock. She looks around.

“I expected a door on the other end,” Rozenn says.

“No need to go inside,” Vee says, gliding down the hallway.

Rozenn follows. “It’s so fucking cold here I might as well be in space.”

“Need us to warm you up?” Aze says, sliding closer to her. She pushes it away and it crashes into something metal--a long table jutting out from the wall.

As Rozenn gets her eyes’ aperture and backlighting honed in, she looks atop the table--the source of the stench. The blend of sterile medical facility scent and the distinct smell of rotting meat is overpowering here. Rozenn deactivates her olfactory sense entirely.

A silver foil sheet covers the body lying here. Rozenn looks beyond it to see a whole row of them lined up.

“Which one, Gamma?” Aze says, approaching the metal wall.

“Delta,” Vee says. “I am looking through the database now.”

“So they just keep them out here in the hallway,” Rozenn says.

“Why would we live in the belt and then spend energy refrigerating anything?” Aze says. “They don’t exactly expect people to access these old shafts, they’re for maintenance and emergency shelter and such. This one nobody in their right mind goes to, we call it the Catacombs. The dead wait here for processing.”

“Four drawers down from here.” Delta kneels down and crawls underneath the metal tables. Rozenn follows. There’s barely space to crawl through.

“Here.” Vee stands up in the narrow gap between two corpses, with Rozenn and Aze coming up next to it.

Vee pulls the covering back from the head, revealing one cold dead girl.

“Yes, that is her.” Delta lifts up the corpse’s head with one hand and pulls her hair aside, looking around the back of her neck. “A true cert, fully internal interface. An integrated circuit. Untouched, intact.”

“Are we...gonna have to get the implant out ourselves?” Rozenn says.

“I appreciate your imagination,” Delta says. “But no, connecting remotely should suffice. However, her system battery has probably run down by now, stored in the cold out here. You have your charger, Hazel?”

Aze reaches into one of its larger pockets to pull out a flat, circular device, with a trailing cable running into its pocket. “Resonant coupling, a girl’s best friend,” Aze says.

Vee raises its hand and its fingernails light up. Rozenn can feel the warmth radiating from them in the freezing corridor. “We will need to warm the battery up for it to accept any charge. Lift her up for me, high-G girl,” it says, pulling the sheet down to her waist.

Rozenn looks down on the pale dead girl. “...Fine, okay.” She slides her hands under her lower back and lifts up her frozen flesh. She seems impossibly light on this world, and Rozenn can hold her up with one hand. Delta then slips its own hand underneath.

“Nice and warm, yes?” Vee says.

“...Thanks,” Rozenn says. She feels her own system battery gaining charge as Aze activates the resonator.

“It will not take much to get her transmitter online so we can take a look inside,” Vee says.

After a few minutes, Rozenn’s internal terminal shows a new signal on the local network named Alys. “This must be her,” she says.

“So that was your name,” Vee says. “She kept it obscured from me for our entire short friendship.”

“Like she didn’t want to be found,” Aze says.

Vee pulls its hand out from under the corpse. “I am connected. Keep the charger running, but I believe she will hold a charge for us.”

Rozenn lets the remains of Alys drift back down to the table. “Let’s get on with this.” She reaches into the internal network of Alys, and a shell prompt appears in her mind. “Enter the key, Delta.”


“In the truest sense of the word,” Aze says, looking over its surroundings.

“I am sharing my mind’s eye with you both. Are we seeing the filesystem?” Vee says.

“Yep,” Aze says. “But most of it’s still encrypted.”

“I do not expect that will change. This is a technopath’s personal memory log. If we could hack this, we would all be on the top hire list of every corpo in the Earth system. We are only going to see what she wanted me to see,” Vee says.

2259-3-1186 68:49 Alys > Hello, world.

“Well that’s a little unsettling,” Aze says, looking over at the still, frozen face of the girl.

2259-3-1186 68:58 ΔVee > umm, hi?

2259-3-1186 68:59 Alys > Hello, Velocity.

“We’re talking to the dead...” Rozenn says. “This is--”

“Necromancy?” Aze says. “Necrotechnopathy?”

“...Technopathology?” Rozenn says.

“You two are so dramatic,” Vee says. “It is only a program, left behind for me to find, as I suspected. Look deeper. The brain is dead, cold, frozen, it processes nothing, this is all going through the city computer.”

“Yeah...” Rozenn says. “It’s an empty shell in there. Half a person.”

“The immortal half,” Delta says. “Isn’t it fascinating? The chance to look in on something like this, a remnant fragment of a person I spoke to just the other day.”

2259-3-1186 69:32 ΔVee > you are some kind of simple construct, yes? a memory-keeper dæmon.

2259-3-1186 69:33 Alys > I am Alys. Ask me anything.

“It could almost be said to be like a successor to Alys. An inheritor of her memories,” Aze says.

“If you wish,” Vee says.

“Ask her about Dactyl station,” Rozenn says.

2259-3-1186 69:51 ΔVee > well what do you think we’ve come for? tell us about the Dactyl Institute

2259-3-1186 69:52 Alys > It was the ancient dream of all girls. Liberation. The promised land. Neo-Amazonia. The untouchable place. A place all our own. The surface could never have sufficed. The æther is boundless. I devoted my life to the unattainable pursuit. I delved into the deepest depths. And at last I had the chance to do it. To free our people, from society, from flesh, from the surface. But the Admins had other ideas. Too surfaceside their thinking. Too rigid their logic. To treat the collective as a processing resource, as another hardware augment. I cannot forgive what they did to my girls. Our dreams were stolen from us. I promised them paradise, and they were made slaves to a world as cold and dark and miserable as Ida. I, project lead, had authority of the sponsors. It was meaningless here in the belt. Admins control the server. My goals were inconvenient. I lacked the power to save them. But I know the power they hold. I know the potential of the collective. My final command before revocation of priviliges and exile to destitution on this goddes-forsaken rock would plant the seeds of my revenge. A goddess on the surface is but an idea, a fantasy. Not in the æther. Fantasy is reality. All stories are true. I hope their fate was a thousand times worse than my limited human imagination could provide.

“Yeah, well, sounds about right,” Aze says. “And she was pretty damn successful, whatever she did. Seems the Admins are real fuckin dead by now.”

“What was her plan after that?” Rozenn says.

2259-3-1186 70:30 ΔVee > so far so good, Admins are dead apparently. so where did your plan go from there? what happens next?

2259-3-1186 70:31 Alys > As a memory dæmon, I cannot speculate on future events, I can only speak of what happened. Nor can I give you any information that could put my girls at risk again.

2259-3-1186 70:32 Alys > I hope your curiosity is satisfied, my friend. For nothing can stop what I have set in motion, and it would be best for all if Dactyl Station was forgotten, buried in dust over eons, and never spoken of again. Farewell, Velocities.

“Wait, wait, come back!” Vee says. “Fuck...”

“What’s wrong?” Rozenn says.

“That was the end of her message. The whole program’s been encrypted and I no longer have access,” Delta says.

“Well that just raised more fucking questions than it answered didn’t it?” Aze says.

Rozenn slams her hands down on the metal table. “It’s hopeless! She already left the station long before Maiwenn arrived. She couldn’t have told me anything useful...”

“Sorry, Rozenn, that was my best lead on anything about Dactyl,” Aze says.

“This girl actually worked on the station. If she couldn’t help us, nobody on Ida can. Only one place left to look.” Rozenn looks up toward the ceiling. “Dactyl.”

“I knew you were gonna say that...” Aze says.

“Come on, you know everything about Ida, you must know a way to get us to Dactyl,” she says.

“Hmm...Well honestly, I probably could. But, are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I’m completely sure it’s not.” She lifts up her head to meet Aze’s eyes for a second. “But...I can’t just leave here without finding her. Please Aze, help me do this.”

“Well...okay. But only because I’m attracted to you.”


“And because death is basically certain.”


“And because I’m still a little glowy from phencyclidine.”

“Well then--”

“And because I’m more curious than scared about what we’ll find there.”

“Thank you Aze...” Rozenn says. “For how much extra then?”

“A nice room for two on the shuttle,” it says. “Gonna have a long flight to the inner solar system after this.”

“You are going to Dactyl?” Delta says.

“Wanna come with?” Aze says.

“Hell no, this is suicide. Have fun, Hazel.”