Contact Binary

01 - Ida

Nothing good happens in daylight, they say. The depths of A-town is the nicest shithole on asteroid Ida, an honest trashy place for dishonest trashy folk. The mid-levels are a ghost town--population never keeps pace with excavation. The highest levels are left only with the spaceport and whatever kind of bullshit some Earthling investor thought would do well with the few visitors that pass through the belt. Nothing good happens in daylight.

Aze rides the elevator through the labyrinth of depleted tunnels that is A-town, Mining Settlement A. It hasn’t seen the Sun in weeks, and it likes it that way. All the useful rock was extracted from this depth before Aze was born, and the colony took over the empty fragile shell. The good shit is always deeper deeper down, compressed chondrites untouched since the formation of the solar system, now destined to become windowpanes in some corporate retreat orbiting Mars or something. The promise was always that in space humans would be as gods, but instead they just became ants.

Aze glides out of the elevator into a blinding light. No real person comes up topside without a damn good reason. Like all the surface trenches in this ant colony branching outward from the landing pads, its top half is enclosed in glass, so investors three AU away can be amazed with pictures of the shining colony made of quality Idæan glass by skilled Idæot craftsmen, most valuable thing it has to export.

Covering its pale blue eyes with one hand, Aze feels around its too many pockets with the other and finds a little black tablet, its terminal. As old as it is, with a screen luckily only cracked in unimportant places, the terminal is its access point to its body. Neural connection is unstable. Aze taps on the collar around its neck, with half of its polymer shell broken off, exposing the densely layered circuity inside. It feels the familiar little sequence of shocks as its interface recalibrates. Good enough. It sends a command and turn down its visual input 50%. Now it can see, but its eyes still hurt. Nothing for that, organic parts will have their flaws.

Aze lets the auto-handle pull it down the long trench. It arrives at an even brighter place. Apparently inner folk who find some reason to come to the belt find it unbearably dark somehow, so shitholes like this have lights simulating the flesh-searing intensity and spectrum of the Sun at 1AU. No amount of biohacking can get around that, Aze reaches back into its deep pockets and finds its sunglasses, a crude print of a semicircle of tinted plastic, uncomfortable on its head but such a relief for its eyes.

The ceramic tiles of the entrance corridor to this place are too shiny, too polished to ever belong in a nice trashy colony like A-town. Aze can almost see its reflection in it, the LEDs lining the ceiling reflect so bright off of its pale white skin and hair. Every little thing here feels so fake, out of place. Ahead is the glaring, flashy sign: Arrokoth’s. The asteroid belt must be losing its exoticness to the inners, now they’re naming their shit after random rocks in the Kuiper belt.

Waiting here is someone who stands out enough in A-town that she could only be Aze’s client. She’s about the same height as Aze, but clearly better nourished, so she must come from a high G world. She’s obviously not used to asteroids, she looks like she can’t decide how to stand with the pull of gravity so light on her. Neon-pink electronic eyes cast a dim glow on the light brown skin around them. They match the little LEDs in her ears, and others clipped into her short black hair, reflecting off silver highlights at its tips. Her pink gear-shaped stim necklace stands out against her shiny silver jacket, which catches the Sun’s reflection just right to hit Aze’s eyes. Silver sunglasses hang out of a pocket on her chest, like she forgot where she was disembarking to.

Far beyond making any effort to impress these people, Aze just waits silently long enough to make her uncomfortable instead.

“...Aze?” the offworlder says.

“Can’t you tell by my key?” Aze says.

“Of course, just a formality...” she says. “Rozenn, she/her, Nevez Breizh colony, Earth-Moon L4.”

“Right, right. I’m Aze, it/its, lonely princess of planet Ida. As naive and impressionable as I am exotic and attractive. My poor spaceling eyes can’t handle the sun because I’ve been kept down in a hole all my life. I’ll stare with starry eyes as you tell me all about the wonders of your Earth colony and beg you to take me away from this awful place, I’ll do anything you want. Will that do?”

“Fuck, even if I was hiring you to fuck me I’d have some heavy constructive criticism for you of that pitch,” Rozenn says.

“You mean you’re not? And I got all dressed up nice.” It smooths out its thick, dark grey coat, re-affixing some of the tape holding its patches on. This at least makes her laugh. “I did think this was a strange place for a date.”

“Alright Aze,” she says, running augmented polymer fingertips through her hair as her other hand sits confidently on her hip. “Let’s talk, princess,” she says, making eye contact.

Aze walks past her through the door, shaking their head. “I ain’t really a princess, my mom was just a whore like me. Shocking I know. Also your shield’s wide open, your intent couldn’t be more clear. You’re hot and all but your attempts to seduce a lower price out of me are gonna have to be better than that.”

“Good. Last two ‘technopaths’ I went to on this boulder couldn’t even tell I had an interface,” Rozenn says, following through the ceramic corridor.

“Either you have a type-22S internal interface module or you just like sticking transmitters inside your skull for fun,” Aze says.

“You’re no fraud, but your’s a little crude,” Rozenn says.

“Don’t think I can’t feel you poking around the corners of my head,” Aze says.

The blinding light only highlights how cramped it is inside. The mirror-polished silicate walls can only provide so much illusion of space. Rozenn pulls her hood up at the freezing cold inside. They might could afford to run the heater more if they turned down the damn lights just a little. They might have considered this when moving into a mine shaft. Colonials from their little paradise tubes have no idea how to handle a world like Ida. Why the shop thought they could turn a profit in a town like this is beyond Aze’s best reasoning.

“Welcome to Arrokoth’s, home of the Ultima-Thule Wrap. Hello, Hazel, hello, Rozenn,” a generative voice greets them from the speakers--too loud--on either side of them.

“Hazel, that’s pretty,” Rozenn says.

“Aze is fine. Only people who fuck me call me Hazel.”

“Why have it registered on your chip then?”

“The city computer’s fucked me plenty. You know how technopathy is.” It takes another long gliding step in, drifting up to the autokitchen counter. “You’re buying, right?”

“Hello, Hazel,” another voice speaks to them from the counter monitor. “Would you like to try our--”

“Sure, Ultima-Thule, whatever it is.” Aze interrupts it.

“Okay, I can make you that,” the machine says. “We grow a variety of the finest--”

“Chicken. Brown rice. Onion. Are those options?”

“Okay, no problem,” it says. “Would you like to try our new Io Sauce?”

“Why the fuck would there be Io sauce on Arrokoth you--”

“Understood. According to your genetic profile, we will hold the cilantro--”

“No. Fuck you. Give it to me,” Aze says.

“Are you sure?”

Extra cilantro,” it says. “The fuck kinda plant even is cilantro.”

“Okay, no problem.”

“Make it two of that,” Rozenn says.

“As you wish, Rozenn. Would you like a bottle of our patented mineral water, good for spaceling bone--”

“Sure whatever,” Aze says. “If there’s one thing we Idæots lack here it’s clearly minerals.

“Yes, please,” Rozenn says.

“Understood. Your total will be equivalent to 0.0124 IDA.”

“Accept...” Rozenn says, scanning the key in her arm.

“Thank for you choosing Arrokoth’s, home of the Ultima-Thule Wrap.”

Aze grips the rail and slides itself over to the dispenser where its Ultima-Thule Wrap slides out on a tray. It’s a ridiculous gimmick, twisted into two parts to look cool but obviously containing less food. In the drink dispenser, its bottle slides out under the nozzle, and it waits for its water to slowly pour in at a centimeter per second per second.

With its tray in hand, it pushes off the wall with its feet and glides over to a table in the back. It lets go and let its food and drink slowly drift down to the table as it pulls itself down into the chair. Rozenn climbs into her seat across from it as Aze bites into its Ultima-Thule Wrap.

“How is it?” Rozenn asks.

“Soapy.” Aze mentally calls another neural command, a program for suppressing its olfactory sense.

“Alright princess, the job,” she says.

“Do tell,” it says.

“First I want to know you’re capable of it,” she says.

“No problem, I’m the best technopath in A-town.”

“And how many actual technopaths are there in A-town?”

“There’s the girl who runs the antique shop who’s very autistic about old lisp, and the chief mining engineer--special interests include, surprisingly, mining. And then there’s, let’s”

“Fuck, this place really is nowhere,” she says. “I don’t guess any of you are certified.”

It shakes its head. “Closest is engineer girl, some Cerean academy dropout. But good luck, she’s cute but she only likes boys.” Aze feels a ripple in its mental shield, a technopathic slap to the side of the head. “Ow...but fair. Besides, she don’t take no side work, a true lover of mining drones.”

“I don’t know what I expected,” Rozenn says.

“Look, kids who pass qualification leave this place, and never ever come back.”

“Well then...what about our experience?” she says.

“Let’s see...some fifteen years of experience opening terminals people forgot the password to, installing untraceable ad-blockers, and most often fixing monitors and autokitchens. Oh, and self-maintenance.” It puts a hand over its heart. “That’s a full-time job.”

“That’ll have to do, I guess. Just hope you’re not as difficult to work with as you are to interview,” she says.

“Huh? This is usually the part where you would get up like, ‘Well I see this is a waste of time,’ and then I’m supposed to beg for the job and tell you I’ll do it at a fraction of the pay, because you’re kind-hearted enough to hire a non-cert, right?”

“Luckily for you, I’m as short on time as I am on candidates,” Rozenn says.

“My lucky day. Let’s talk about the op.”

“Okay.” She looks into Aze’s natural blue eyes again. Weird thing for a technopath to do, she must be serious, especially with how she grips her stim necklace tight. “Ever been to Dactyl?”

“Most people don’t go to the moon,” it says.

“What do you know about the Institute?”

“I guess they train technopaths there. Don’t know what else they do.”

“We don’t need to go there. Probably. Just to the server.”

“I see, I see.” Aze stands up to leave.

“Hey! Wait, what’s wrong?”

“There’s only a few reasons for a corpo to so eagerly hire a non-cert. Either it’s the kind of job that earns a bounty bigger than the payout, not worth it, or else your company is not willing to shell out for two professionals and expects cheap labor, which is a no for me.”

“No, it’s not like that, I’ll pay a professional rate, and it’s not some kind of criminal work!”

“Then could it be...” Aze says, looking down on Rozenn, “that this job is just so risky that no legitimate technopath in the solar system will touch it?”

She sighs. “I couldn’t find anyone willing to come with me. Not so much that they wouldn’t, just a lot of technopaths are tied up with something local in the Earth-Moon right now. Local help is the best I’ve got.”

“Okay.” It sits down. “Now that we’ve established that I’m your last and only choice, let’s talk about coin.”

“You cunning little--” She sighs. “What’s your rate? Your technopath rate.”

“Well this is sounding like a lot more work than the usual damn autokitchen using too much salt,” it says. “But I’ll do it, because you’re clearly as desperate as I am. My price will be one shuttle ticket.”

“Oh?” Rozenn says. “Anywhere in particular?”

Anywhere. That’s my price. A shuttle ticket. Plus a little spending money for when I get there. Marscoin maybe.”

“Sure. Agreed.”

“Alright. Then I’m all yours for the night, love,” Aze says.

Rozenn rolls her eyes and pushes herself up to her feet. “Got anything else to do today or can we get ætherside now?”

“Everyone’s always in a hurry to get started. You got a safe place to dissociate?” it says.

“I hadn’t really secured lodging...”

“I see you’ve thought through every detail of this mission. Feeling very confident right now,” Aze says. “You can spend the night at my place, but I charge by the hour.”

“Oh shut up,” she says. “But okay, if you don’t mind dissociating with a total stranger,” she says.

“I’ve done a lot worse with one. Besides, what are you gonna do, rob me?”

“So where is it?”

“Down, deep down, somewhere those glowy eyes will come in handy,” Aze says.

“Let’s go.”