On the surface of Ida, Aze leads Rozenn through a trench under its glass ceiling and into a massive hangar of the spaceport, a place of loud clashing and grinding of metal. Aze lowers its auditory input volume, and reduces the brightness of its vision under the flickering industrial lights.
“Are we supposed to be here?” Rozenn says.
“It doesn’t say anywhere that we’re not.” It takes her hand and leads her through the facility, gliding across its smooth ceramic floor in sure Idæan steps, pulling the high-G girl along for the ride. They duck under a labyrinth of conveyor belts loaded with ore and dust.
On the other side of the huge room, they reach a loading dock, where huge robotic arms are packing containers tight with material. Next to them another large machine stands on two short legs of metal shafts and hydraulic joints, supporting a frame of reinforced metal, dirty grey with dust-veiled stripes of reflective yellow, outfitted with arms ending in grip-claws that could crush a human body to pulp effortlessly. On its back is a pack of maneuvering thrusters, articulated and roughly angled in line with its center of mass, and at its front a small spherical pressure vessel, with its hatch hanging open.
“Hey, Sten!” Aze shouts over the industrial cacophony. A worker turns their head. In a long, gliding step, they land just in front of Aze, standing taller than Rozenn and imposing with their wide frame and grey jumpsuit of heavy insulated fabric, with reflective strips matching the machine. The bright LEDs in their hat make Aze cover its eyes, even under sunglasses and sensory reduction. It reaches up to shut them off and wipes dusty sweat from its forehead.
“What’s up Hazel? I didn’t call you or nothing,” Sten says.
“No but you didn’t answer my messages either,” Aze says. “Anyway, you remember that last time when you shorted me .2 IDA, and I said ‘it’s cool, you can pay me back later,’ and then you just kinda forgot about that and expected to get a discount for nothing as if I don’t have a technopath’s infallible memory and as if my noble profession has ever worked that way in the history of Earth and space? Remember that?”
“Yeah...yeah I remember. So you come to collect, huh?” they say.
“Yeah, but we can call it even and have you back in my good graces and this whole incident technopathically erased from my memory even, if you just give me one little favor,” it says.
“It’s never a little favor with you, Hazel. Name your price.”
It points up at the cargo loading mech towering over them. “Just a little joyride is all. A few hours tops.”
“What could you possibly want to do with a machine like that?” Sten says, crossing their arms and looking down on it with serious brown eyes.
“Truth be told it’s my client here.” Aze pulls Rozenn’s arm forward, pulling her out of her partial cover behind it. “She’s always wanted to be railed in micro-G, preferably in the cockpit of something, surrounded by lots of little buttons and switches and wires, really loves machines, and spaceflight. Right?”
Rozenn looks away and covers her eyes with her free hand.
“So just a little hop into orbit should do it,” Aze says.
“Well, I been asked weirder favors,” Sten says. “You got three hours. Just let the autopilot fly her. Don’t try to deviate from the preset orbits.”
“Okay,” Aze says.
“I mean it, you have no idea how easy it is to escape this well.”
“Twenty meters per second, you hear? That’s all you get before you’re now a new little asteroid in the belt.”
“Nineteen it is,” Aze says.
“And you better leave my cockpit cleaner than you found it. Understood?”
“Agreed.” Aze takes a high jump up to the open cockpit. Rozenn comes after, misjudging and going too far out, but Aze catches her hand and pulls her inside.
The cockpit would be cramped even for one person, yet it manages to fit two narrow seats somehow. They awkwardly settle in, siting side by side. In front is a display screen that flashes to life as Aze presses a large button.
“You know how to fly something like this?” Rozenn says.
Words appear on the screen:
> user Rozenn connected
“I did have basic maneuvers training at the academy,” she says. The hatch slowly shuts with a hydraulic hiss. Cold air blows from the vents as the cabin is sealed and pressurized. “Ah good. It’s mostly simple commands that execute automated routines. A child could fly this. A technopath child anyway...”
“You should do okay, then,” Aze says.
She lightly slaps the back of its head. “You’re the worst.”
The machine takes a lurching step forward as Rozenn acclimates her mind to its body. Its autobalancing feature keeps them upright. Below them, Sten shouts something and points to the large hatch behind them. Rozenn gets them turns around to see the door opening up.
She walks them into the chamber--a massive airlock. She flaps her hands excitedly. “Actually I’ve always wanted to fly a mech. But that other shit you said about me...”
“Maybe you should guard your thoughts and desires a little better when you see a big, enticing machine, professional,” Aze says.
Red lights flash around them as the chamber depressurizes, until the roar of rushing air softens to a whisper, then to a mere vibration felt in the frame of their mech, and then silence. The wide hatch above them slides open, revealing the stars.
“Here we go,” Rozenn says. With a light pulse of the mech’s thrusters, they lift off. They drift through the hatch to see the Idæan horizon stretched out through the main viewport ahead of them, just as the distant little Sun rises over it, casting long shadows across the grey-brown surface. It may be small, but with the dust and debris cloud enveloping the asteroid, it’s too bright for Aze to behold.
The monitor shows a model of their trajectory as Rozenn initiates a sequence. With a short burst of lateral thrust, the display shows them in a low orbit around the asteroid. Now what little gravity they felt down below is gone as they drift in a constant freefall.
“Ah, orbit, my old friend,” Aze says. “So goddamn bright though.”
“So you have left this little rock?” Rozenn says.
“I’ve floated over it. Even going to the moon will be the furthest I’ve been from home.”
“Lucky for us, there’s a pre-programmed flight plan to reach Dactyl.” As she sends commands to the computer, the mech performs a roll, spinning them around to face the sky.
A much smaller world floats into view. Much more even and round than its companion Ida, the tiny 1,600 meter wide asteroid moon shines bright in its halo of dust and gas.
“Coming for you, Mai. Just as soon as we reach the far side of Ida,” Rozenn says.
“That’ll take a while. Ain’t no way we’re comin’ back in three hours.” Aze turns to look at its companion. “Nothin’ to do but wait for our certain death at the conclusion of this ill-fated adventure.”
“If you should be so lucky...” Rozenn says.
Their slow roll brings the hills and craters of Ida back into view. Rozenn raises the aperture of her eyes to better see the details as the sunlight reveals more of the dim landscape.
“So many craters,” Rozenn says.
“One of the highest known concentrations of impacts in the solar system,” Aze says. “The universe really has it out for little Ida.”
“It’s been through a lot, I can admire that, even if there’s a lot about it that annoys me,” Rozenn says.
“I know you probably just see it as another dumb piece of rock waiting to be turned into something useful,” Aze says.
“No...from out here, in its own way, I think it’s beautiful,” she says. “Even if it’s a little weirdly shaped, your little planet.”
“Yeah well, they say it’s like that because it used to be two asteroids, on their own orbits. One day they drifted together, by chance, and just got stuck together, like it or not,” it says.
Rozenn looks down on the asteroid, tuning her eyes to see its details better in this lighting. “What are those mountains?”
“Townsend Dorsum. I went there on my first spacewalk when I was little, I remember my mom got mad at me for jumping up to the top of the ridge and back. It was fun though.”
“What a childhood, I didn’t go on EVA until I was in the academy,” she says.
“Most people couldn’t afford to even rent a space suit. She always got us access to interesting stuff like that through her clients. Kinda like I do I guess,” Aze says, looking around the cockpit. “Here, I’ll get you a better look.” It reaches its hand out for the flight controls. “Uh, which one of these sticks is rotation?”
She grabs its hand and pulls it away. “Do not touch the stick! We’re staying on autopilot.”
“Wow your hands are icy cold!” Aze says, wrapping its exposed fingertips around her hand.
“You’re just always warm.”
“Cold world dwellers have naturally higher body temperature, don’t you know?” Aze says. “Supposedly my ancestors came from a real cold place on Old Earth too, so I have a lot of evolution going toward being hot.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Rozenn says.
“But you were thinking it.”
She looks away, covering her face with her free hand. “I don’t like it when you read my thoughts...”
“I ain’t done that once. You’re just that easy to read,” it says.
“While your intent is completely inscrutable.”
“What? I thought I was being incredibly obvious.”
She turns her head to look at Aze, staring back at her with her pale blue eyes.
“Then why don’t you stop teasing me and get to the point, Aze?” she says.
“Why don’t you reach out and take what’s right in front of you?” it says.
With her free hand she releases all the buckles strapping her tight to her seat. She pulls on Aze’s hand to draw herself toward it. There’s hardly even room to float in this cockpit. With all of a high-G girl’s awkwardness, she climbs onto Aze’s lap, straddling it and holding onto the hood of its coat to keep herself from drifting away. Aze looks up at her. The pink LEDs in her eyes and skin and hair all glow bright in resonance with her heart rate.
“I just don’t know what’s real with you!” she says.
“I’m all real,” it says.
“The most real person I’ve ever seen, but...”
“I don’t have answers for you Rozenn,” it says. “Is it just that the lines are too blurred for me to tell the difference anymore in my life? Do I just have a weakness for cute little lost animals? Or is this little adventure of yours just the most fun I’ve had in years of empty, repetitive life in the nowhere of nowheres? I dunno. Are you willing to live with the answer whatever it is?”
“Are you?” Rozenn says.
“There’s no mistake I ain’t willing to make.”
“Well...for once in my life I’d like to make one.” She pulls herself down and kisses Aze. It slips its arms around her back and pulling her in closer, kissing her and holding her there for a while.
“How long until maneuver time?” Aze says.
She sends a timestamp that Aze’s interface renders in Idæan time:
2259-3-1190 131:21 Rozenn > 111:59
“Timer set.” It lets her go in order to reach down and unbuckle itself, and the two of them drift up out of its seat as it squirms its way out of the belts.
“Whoa,” she says, keeping her grip on its coat.
“Hold on tight,” it says, reaching up to grasp a handle on the ceiling to root them in place.
“I won’t let you go,” she says, wrapping her legs around its hips and getting them tangled up in its seatbelts in the process.
Aze takes both sides of the collar of her silver jacket and pulls open its velcro.
“Hold on, let me see if I can turn the heat up,” she says.
“Come on, it’ll be more fun without it!” it says.
“You better keep me warm then!”
It slips its hands up under her shirt and slides them up around the curve of her hips to just under her bra. “Like this?”
It goes further up across her soft skin and to her nipples, and her biometric LEDs glow bright.
“Let me feel how it feels,” Aze says.
She sends it a sensory link, and it reciprocates the connection, joining their nervous systems into one circuit. Every light touch of Aze’s fingers on her skin, it feels on its own body too.
Rozenn pulls her arms out of her sleeves and pulls her shirt up over her head, her bra with it. LED piercings in her nipples flash pink with her quickening heart rate.
She takes her coat sleeves and ties them together behind Aze’s head, keeping it wrapped around her for warmth. She pulls open Aze’s heavy coat and buries her cold hands inside where its warm. It’s getting hard to tell anymore if she’s warm or cold, with thermal data input from both bodies blending together in her head.
Aze feels the texture of its skin through Rozenn’s metallic fingertips. Their ability to feel softness is as good as its natural tactile sense, and their thermal sense picks up far more detail. It realizes they generate some kind of electromagnetic induction field, even feeling the structure and texture beneath its skin.
“I gotta get me some of those,” it says.
Aze pulls its hands back and caresses the sides of her head, pulling it up for their foreheads to meet. It closes its eyes and lets its proprioception build a map of her body network in its mind’s eye. “Let’s see what other implants are in here...”
“You’ll find there’s a lot...” she says.
It takes her hand and turns it around to touch her augmented fingertips to her own skin, feeling the sensation from both ends. At each node of her internal neural interface, the magnetic feedback of her fingers gets a response back. It slides her hand down her body, tracing the pathway of an internal wire. Aze pauses just below her stomach.
2259-3-1190 135:06 Aze > ok?
2259-3-1190 135:09 Rozenn > YES
It unfastens her belt and follows the circuit down into her pants to her neovagina, where the wire ends just behind her clit.
“A vibration motor! Intriguing,” it says.
“What are you...gonna do with it?” she says.
It finds the device ID in her network and links its input to the biometric data output of its interface collar.
“Whoa.” She twitches as the device pulses in rhythm with Aze’s heartbeat.
“That’s up to you now,” it says.
The lights across her body pulse in a pattern radiating outward, faster and faster, brighter and brighter.
“I’m gonna burn those LEDs out!” Aze says.
“You better!” Rozenn takes her hand Aze isn’t using down to the hard node between its legs.
2259-3-1190 136:01 Rozenn > ok??
Aze grabs her hand by the wrist and thrusts it down inside its panties, feeling the metallic touch of her fingers wrapping around its shaft. With its other hand, its fingers on top of hers, it guides her to her clit and feels the sensory feedback from both ends. Which even is which, it blends together into one sense. The pulsed vibration intensifies.
“Now what’s my name?” Aze says.