Back on the elevator, Aze finally adjusts its vision back to normal. Rozenn’s eyes glow a bright pink. “Finally, sweet darkness,” Aze says.
“You live like this?” Rozenn says.
Aze sends the elevator a command through its terminal, not bothering with the public interface. As the box they’re in descends, their feet lift up from the ground. Aze keeps itself rooted with the rail on the side, but Rozenn floats up to the ceiling.
“Wha--” She pushes herself back down and grabs hold of the rail. “I could never get used to this.”
“You miss the Sun? Or the heavy?”
“It’s impressive people are able to live in places like this. But fuck, it’s dismal,” she says.
“I could come up with a lot of words about your home too I’m sure.” Aze reaches into one of its deep pockets and pulls out its vaporizer, immediately activating it and taking a hit from it.
“I’m sorry, I’m really being that bitch aren’t I?” she says.
“Everyone’s that bitch when they come here,” it says as it exhales a cannabis-scented vapor. It offers the device to its guest.
She takes it and draws a deep breath from it until abruptly pulling it away and coughing furiously. “Fuck that’s strong.”
“That’ll help you adjust a little,” it says. “Here’s my level.”
They emerge onto a walkway high up in a large vertical shaft, with rows of doors on either side, and more levels above and below. Rozenn pulls her hood down around her face and wraps her arms around herself. “So cold...”
“Don’t worry, my house is warm.” Aze leads on.
Rozenn watches as its boots catch the wide gaps in the metal grate to push itself forward, and tries to do the same. Her eyes wander to the bottom of the shaft, a long way down from the edge of the narrow walkway, no rail to stabilize herself on. When she looks back, they’ve reached the end of the row. She tries to stop herself before she can crash into Aze, but only loses her balance. Halfway looking up, it sticks its hand out to catch her by the shoulder and stop her.
In front of the door at the end of the row, Aze pulls out its terminal. It enters a command, and the door opens.
“Why not just use your key?” Rozenn says, holding up her left hand.
“Oh sure, then the whole city can know I live here,” Aze says.
Warm air rushes out as the door slides open, and Rozenn hurries inside the small apartment--mostly one room, with an autokitchen dominating one wall and a bed on the other, with some drawers and shelves built into the walls in between. There are just a few pathways to walk between the clothes and random objects strewn all over.
She pulls open her silver jacket, wearing a thick black long-sleeved shirt underneath. “It is surprisingly warm in here. How is it heated?”
Aze lets its thick coat fall slowly to the floor, wearing an old shirt underneath, the sleeves long since torn off. “RTG.”
“What? Is that...”
“Oh relax, you ate more rads on the flight here, it’s plenty shielded. Shielded enough for spacelings anyway.”
“Hey, I’m a spaceling too!” she says.
“Sure.” it says, unstrapping its thermal boots. “Solar panels become kind of impractical when you have to lay kilometers of heavy wire to reach the bottom of the pit, so RTGs are big in mining. They also last for goddamn ever, and are one of the least likely components of a machine to fail, I mean it just has to sit there and be hot--dream job, really--but as machines do break down and get replaced with new units over time, company ends up with a surplus of these, and a pressing need to heat and power more residences, so, don’t take some genius Earther to figure it out.”
“The efficiency of this place is impressive,” she says.
“What, you thought we’d be huddled around fires fighting over half-eaten Ultima Wraps?” It goes across the room to turn on the autokitchen, a huge machine made up of several modules of different models patched together somehow into an operational unit. The flickering half-dead monitor lights up when it touches it.
Hello [UNREGISTERED USER], what can I get you tonight? its display says. No sound comes from its speaker, which has a large knife stuck through it. Hardware-level customization.
> make 3-Methoxyphencyclidine --mass=20mg --solvent=herbal-liquer
Aze submits the command through its terminal. The chem-lab and brewery modules light up as it gets to work. Meanwhile Aze crosses to the other side of the room and pulls its tattered shirt over its head, along with its bra, a much nicer and newer article.
“Um, aren’t you taking this joke about me hiring you a little too far?” Rozenn says.
Aze turns to look at her. “Look miss top-of-the-line-implants.” It picks up a bundle of wires and plastic straps from the floor by its bed. “Some of us have interfaces that are a little fragile, and static electricity--”
“Point taken,” she says.
“Also it ain’t comfy to wear clothes over top of it,” it says, continuing to undress down to black panties embroidered with a little star pattern.
It snaps the interface’s little plastic bracelets onto its wrists and runs the cables down its arms, tightening the straps around the contacts at each neural node, following the guidelines crudely tattooed on its pale skin. First its arms, then its legs, a routine. It fastens its improvised harness underneath its breasts and over its shoulders, laying all the contacts on their points above its heart and lungs, where they can monitor its vital functions. The main wire, connecting it all together, goes into a port on the back of its neural interface collar. Then it plugs its thicker æthernet cable into the larger port of the collar, and the other end into its terminal.
It runs the calibration program. The little shocks like tingly static go down its arms and legs, syncing them up to the full-body interface. It used to hurt, now it’s almost stimmy. Just as they finish, the autokitchen’s green light comes on and brown liquid slowly trickles down into Aze’s glass.
“I’m assuming you can dissociate yourself,” Aze says.
She taps the back of her head. “ND implant.”
“You want anything to drink anyway?” Aze says.
“Tea would be nice.”
“Hot as the Sun,” Rozenn says.
Aze swallows its dissociative drink, all at once, fiery with spices and alcohol. It double checks the locks on its door. It triple checks its city server connection strength. Then it brings its guest her drink and falls gently onto its bed, taking a deep breath. Nothing to do but wait.
Rozenn stands, awkwardly balanced in the low G, taking sips of her tea. “What kind of tea is this?”
“Of course.” She takes another sip. “Not bad, though...”
Aze sits up on the side of its bed and picks up a handheld hypospray device from the overturned plastic crate on the floor next to it, holding it up to the lamp to examine the liquid in the vial.
“Wait, I thought you just drank your dissociative agent,” Rozenn says.
“I did, this is just my estrogen, before I go all æthery and forget.” It sticks the device’s head against its thigh and injects itself. “Want some?”
She points to her lower abdomen, “Implants...”
As Rozenn awkwardly stands unsure where to even look let alone relax, Aze pats the spot beside it. “There ain’t really anywhere else to sit but surely you gotta be comfortable to dissociate properly, even if you can just flip a switch in that implant to go off.”
She lets herself fall down to sit on the bed. “Everything’s so slow here.”
“You get used to it,” Aze says.
“So if you had the choice, where would you be headed on that shuttle?” Rozenn says.
“I dunno. Mars?”
It shrugs. “Ain’t too bright, ain’t too hot, ain’t too close to Earth most of the time, most importantly it has a relay. It don’t really matter much where I lay my head down as long as there’s a relay to take me anywhere in the system. I can get plenty of æther work, surface work if I need. I can live with that.”
“A technopath on an æther island, I can’t imagine,” she says.
“No, you can’t.”
“Can you even adapt to 0.3G after living here all your life?” she says.
“Phobos would be fine. I can be scary,” it says.
“I believe it.”
“Okay, I think I’m starting to feel it,” it says.
“Should I go on ahead?” she says.
“I could still be a little while, it comes on slow with this one...I’m just gonna...” It lays their head down, curling up and pulling a blanket over itself, taking one last look at its terminal before closing its eyes. “Sleepy...”
More and more Aze feels the pulse and tide of the æther wash over it, that realm beyond the conscious space. It closes its eyes. It can almost see the ætherglow take shape. The barrier is dissolving. It’s slipping far away.