Contact Binary

11 - Dactyl

Little Dactyl is the much larger world in the sky now. Entering an orbit around this tiny body in a binary system is basically impossible, easier to enter a nearly parallel orbit around Ida and station-keep with the moon for a while. Their target lingers below them. Visible even from Ida, the research station’s complex of glass tubes and metal structures dominates the moon’s one kilometer wide surface.

Inside their little protective shell, Aze and Rozenn struggle to outfit themselves for the operation. The storage cabinets behind the seat contained two compact EVA suits, but squeezing into them in such a tight space where neither can fully stretch out their arms is a challenge. Rozenn helps provide leverage for Aze to fit into its suit, and helps seal up all the valves and joints. Aze’s task is even harder, having to maneuver around in the restriction of a pressure suit to help Rozenn. Once sealed in, she finally feels warm again, in a suit that traps almost all body heat loss.

Once suited up, they test their comms.

2259-1191 232:11 Rozenn > We’ll use only CommTech to speak as long as our interfaces can remain connected

2259-1191 232:18 Aze > k. I’m sending you the backup radio frequencies I’ll use just in case

Aze finishes its equipping by strapping on its holstered weapon--a coilgun about the length of its forearm. It wraps the loops around its thigh and connects the weapon by hard wire to the suit’s main battery pack.

Rozenn straps on her weapon, a more modern compact variant.

2259-1191 233:05 Rozenn > I’m surprised you even have coilguns out here.

2259-1191 233:12 Aze > it’s a technopath’s sidearm, ain’t it? so I made me one. just like most of the shit I own

2259-1191 233:19 Rozenn > you’ve tested it?

2259-1191 233:24 Aze > I’ve had to use it. don’t you think a girl like me ever runs into trouble?

2259-1191 233:29 Rozenn > well just remember the tolerances

2259-1191 233:36 Aze > of course the Idæot has never considered ballistic limits for the station walls, thank you mighty Earthling. did they teach you to actually shoot that at your academy?

2259-1191 233:43 Rozenn > all contract students had basic military training

Aze gives all its straps a last tightening pull and rechecks all of its valves and seals.

2259-1191 234:14 Aze > okay, all suited up. ready?

2259-1191 234:17 Rozenn > let’s go

At Rozenn’s commands, the mech approaches the moon, firing short bursts of compressed gas from its thrusters that catch the sunlight as bright little clouds before that seem to expand outward forever. Meanwhile the cabin depressurizes with a slow hiss that fades out to dead silence. Aze calls to mind the model it constructed of the station’s layout and watches as they approach their entry point, a place in a remote corner of the complex, which should hopefully allow them to slip in as unnoticed as possible.

The mech’s thrusters fire retrograde as they approach the surface. With a body this small, it’s more like docking than landing. Once they touch the surface, there’s a jolt as the prograde thrusters push them into the ground, and the mech’s claws grasp at boulders to help root it in place.

The hatch silently slides open. Rozenn signals Aze to go ahead.

It pushes itself out and glides ahead, watching the regolith and rocks float by below it. The white light from two LEDs on its helmet hitting the dust cloud from their landing hurts its eyes--it changes it to red. Aze is careful not to bounce off of the asteroid’s surface. Here where gravity is barely distinguishable from orbit, one mistake could send it flying clear over the compound to the other side of the moon. After a glide of ten meters to reach the station hatch, it grasps the handles around it as it collides. It stabilizes itself, letting its boots hit the ground and sink into the thick, loose powder.

Rozenn hits the door next to them and stabilizes. She climbs up the hatch to look into the viewport.

2259-1191 241:59 Rozenn > No lights on inside.

She waves her hand over the top edge of the hatch, feeling for an electromagnetic field with the magnets in her fingertips.

2259-1191 242:09 Rozenn > There’s power.

2259-1191 242:14 Aze > I’ll open it, I know hatches like these well

With a hand on its gun, Aze feels around the near-æther for the door mechanism. Research station’s aren’t known for security measures, and usually have wireless control, for convenience--a technopath’s greatest exploit. It opens, and the two climb into the airlock. As soon as the hatch shuts behind them, Aze sends the command for rapid repressurization, while holding a command in its buffer to open the next door.

But the station computer returns a strange error.


2259-1191 245:34 Aze > Roze, ain’t no air in this module

Aze opens up the door, and as expected, no air rushes in. No light greets them either.

2259-1191 245:58 Aze > circuits still powered. must be a breach somewhere

2259-1191 246:01 Rozenn > Hazel!

2259-1191 246:04 Aze > what is it??

2259-1191 246:09 Rozenn > it’s her...Mai’s key, I’ve traced it on the station’s sensor logs. I’ve located her...

2259-1191 246:14 Aze > then that’s where we’re going, right? put a marker down on the map for me

Aze pushes itself off the outer door to glide down the hallway, activating the lights on its helmet. According to the blueprint file it found, this block should be for storage, and its hallways converge at a single point that links it to the main body of the station. Without the constant hum of fans circulating air, or air itself to carry the sound, the hallways are as silent as the space outside. Even Rozzen’s messages don’t make an audible sound in its head. At times like this the sound of Aze’s own breathing and heartbeat are almost overstimming.

They reach the door. Taking positions on either side, they keep hands on their weapons as Aze opens the hatch. This hallway between sections of the station has a glass ceiling, but it’s night on this side of Dactyl, and only the pale light reflected from Ida fills it. As Aze peers its head around the corner, shining its red helmet lights down the long hallway, a light above the far hatch goes green, and the door slides open. There’s no light from inside, but Aze catches the silhouette of a space suit on the far end. Aze tries to find a communication channel to make contact, but before it can, the station inhabitant raises their arm, holding a gun.

2259-1191 252:37 Rozenn > cover!

Aze ducks back behind the metal frame of the hatch just as it feels the vibration of impacts on the other side of the wall through its gloves. It draws its gun and pokes it around the corner, overriding its eyes’ visual feed with that of the weapon camera. Its aiming program projects a simulated trajectory, and it lines up its target. Rozenn gets her shots off first. Aze fires after her, and the coilgun’s electromagnets propel its bullets down the hallway with sufficient ballistic force to penetrate an unarmored space suit, but not the walls of the station. In vacuum, penetrating flesh is not even necessary to kill.

Some of Aze’s shots look like they connect, but the enemy fires back, hitting the door frame or passing between Aze and Rozenn. One of them, angled too high, strikes the glass ceiling behind them, and its impact sends a spiderweb of cracks through the glass.

2259-1191 252:02 Aze > they ain’t considering the damn tolerances Roze!

2259-1191 252:05 Rozenn > A shot like that would go right through us!

Aze shoots back, hitting their enemy in the head and shattering the glass of their helmet. But their enemy keeps returning fire anyway.

2259-1191 253:07 Rozenn > They don’t fear death!

2259-1191 253:12 Aze > any normie would be panicking out of instinct right now, they have to be suppressing emotions, so they’re a technopath!

Aze reaches out into the near-æther and finds what it expected--a neural interface implant in their skull.

2259-1191 253:18 Aze > then I’ll hit them where it hurts!

It tries to connect to the enemy’s interface, but they project a strong shield. Rozenn keeps firing, but the enemy starts moving toward them. Rozenn’s bullets push it back, but it keeps pulling itself along on the rails down the hallway, firing back all the way.

2259-1191 253:27 Rozenn > are you trained in CQB?!

The enemy gets their glove on the door frame. Aze tries to shut the hatch, but its command is overridden. The enemy is connected too. That’s the opening Aze needs. While making a frontal assault as a decoy, it sends a signal through the door control mechanism and up the enemy’s own communication channel. Their shield is weak here, and it pierces. The interface receives the hostile code and begins overloading as it tries to process an infinite loop of continually escalating commands, until the person finally goes limp and still.

2259-1191 253:43 Rozenn > fuck, that was close

Aze grabs Rozenn’s helmet with both its hands and pulls their heads together, creating a point for sound vibrations to cross. It uses its voice. “Roze, what the fuck?” It shines its light on the enemy’s face. The helmet glass is shattered like it thought, and the face behind it is damaged too--Aze’s bullet went straight through its eye, where blood pools around the wound in a cohesive bubble just barely starting to drip downward.

“Low vital signs,” Rozenn says.

“That’s to be expected at this point.”

“No,” she says. “I was trying to read it the whole time, and the vitals were very weak. Unnaturally so.”

The corpse’s intact eye is glazed over. Its flesh is pale white as Aze’s.

“Look at it in the infrared,” she says.

“We can’t all just ‘look at it in the infrared’, Roze.”

“Here.” She sends a link to her own sensory input. Aze looks, and the body would be hard to see if not for the warmer spots where bullets had pierced it.

“Cold. Cold as the ambient temperature,” she says. “This one died long before we got to it.”

“Then we just had a gunfight with a corpse?” it says.

“A technopath corpse. Brain function may not have been intact, but the machine half...someone was using the interface to stimulate the nervous system and controlling the body as a puppet. A perfectly preserved corpse in a vacuum, they were able to bring the nerves and muscles back to life in some capacity.”

“This is...”

True necromancy. I’ve never seen anything like it...” Rozenn says.

“But how? Even with a substitute brain, the muscles and nerves need respiration to function,” Aze says.

“The EVA suit’s still powered. They had the heart and lungs online again, in some capacity.”

“Right, and it could still function a short time after loss of oxygen, lactic acid and all,” it says. “Well, can you tell a cause of death? First death?”

“I’m no doctor or anything, but the interface should have a vital record accessible after shutdown. Here it is. It looks like asphyxiation,” she says. “Plummeting blood oxygen, and the last neurotransmitter logs are overwhelming, this person died terrified, panicking.”

“When the station was depressurized...”

Rozenn picks up the corpse’s arm and pries the weapon from its fingers.

2259-1191 256:36 Aze > I wouldn’t think they’d have too many guns on a research station

She holds the weapon up under her helmet light, alongside her own. An identical model compact coilgun.

2259-1191 256:45 Rozenn > It’s one of ours...

2259-1191 256:52 Aze > or the same model, at least

2259-1191 257:07 Rozenn > The company just issued us these. They’re a top of the line model. I think I got here sooner than the first shipment of them to the belt would have, and it’s doubtful this station would have ordered something like this unless they were real gun autistics.

2259-1191 257:16 Aze > does that mean, this body was one of yours?

2259-1191 257:23 Rozenn > No, it’s not. The interface model is much older. But it’s one of our guns.

2259-1191 257:28 Aze > how many scientists were stationed here

2259-1191 257:31 Rozenn > 38.

2259-1191 257:38 Aze > 38 vs 2. only a few more of them might be armed, but we don’t know what for sure, so we have to assume anyone else we see is hostile and a threat

2259-1191 257:47 Rozenn > Normally I’d say we should go ætherside and try to take down the technopath controlling them.

2259-1191 257:52 Aze > we’d just get ætherlocked and arrested again, though. and if it’s that admin...we don’t stand a chance

2259-1191 257:59 Rozenn > All we have to do is find Mai. Nothing else matters. We find her and we all get out of here together.

2259-1191 258:08 Aze > stealth is the way, then. with this one’s key, I’m starting to get a clearer picture from the station monitors. I can see a lot more interfaces. we can evade them, just two of us, slip right by, with a little echo

2259-1191 258:13 Rozenn > okay, your ObTech is pretty impressive, so let’s try it.

2259-1191 258:18 Aze > just gotta make a copy of us in the station’s sensor simulation. frequencies, vitals, everything... then we go invisible ourselves. gimme a few minutes, keep watch.

2259-1191 258:23 Rozenn > Okay.

While still visible on the surface, Aze vanishes from the station map in its mind’s eye, and Rozenn with it, leaving in their place two convincing copies.

2259-1191 261:42 Aze > they go one way, we go another

It puts both hands back on its weapon.

2259-1191 261:51 Rozenn > Lead the way.

At the far end of the long hallway, Aze sends their echo decoys to the right, while it and Rozenn go left. They silently make their way through the empty, dark corridors. This module is depressurized too. On the map overlay behind Aze’s vision, it sees its plan is working. The enemy signals are chasing after the decoy, leaving them a clear path.

2259-1191 269:34 Aze > this way!

Aze forgets it isn’t in an orbital station as they glide through the hallways and modules, the gravity is so insignificant. It peers around the corner as they meet a perpendicular hallway. Then it ducks back, grabs onto a handle on the wall, and pulls itself up against it, grabbing Rozenn’s arm to pull her to the wall with it.


“Quiet!” Aze shouts through the solid connection between their suits.

Two pressure suits drift by them down the hallway, not even turning to look their way.

Rozenn brings their helmets back together. “Quiet for what? Vacuum, remember?”

“Force of habit. Luckily they didn’t see us somehow,” Aze says.

“I doubt they can. These ones are cold walkers too. Getting natural eyes to come back online after death would be a lot harder than just the muscular system, the nerve pathways in the brain are too complicated to restore. I bet they’re relying on station monitor data to see, the techs will be navigating a simulated environment ætherside while they do this.”

“Explains their aim.”

“Let’s keep moving. We’re almost there. Right down this corridor.” She pushes herself forward, pulling Aze along with her by the hand.

“Okay, but...You better take a look at the target module. Mai’s in there, but she ain’t alone,” it says.

“How many?”

“A hundred twenty-two interface signals,” it says.

“Are you sure? That’s significantly more than the station’s total population on record, way more than the number of technopaths. That’s much more than it could even sustain!”

“There also shouldn’t be anywhere near that many guns on the station, so I think we can have some slight chance of survival with the element of surprise,” Aze says.

“What’s your plan?” she says as the two of them reach the far end of the hallway.

“Soon as I open this door, get someone’s head in your sights, and another one’s interface in your link. I’ll do the same. Preferably, someone who seems like the leader.”

“Okay. This is suicide. But she’s in there. I came 300 million kilometers already, there’s no way I can stop here,” she says.

“If we don’t make it out of that room, well, it’s been an unforgettable experience, Roze,” Aze says.

“Same. Sorry I dragged you into this, Hazel. But I’m glad I met you,” Rozenn says.

“Same,” it says. “Ready to die?”