Contact Binary

03 - Ætherwalk

The weak pull of gravity and the warmth of the RTG can no longer reach them, down in the æther. In the untouchable, uncountable distance, the glow shapes itself into a pattern, the pathways of the server microcircuitry, or at least some hallucinatory representation of it.

Aze’s avatar takes shape as it pulls back to observe itself from outside. Black veins run under the grey-white skin between its robotic joints. Its eyes glow like distant blue stars. Its clothes form around it--a tight-fitting black jacket lined with metallic studs, and a long black skirt covering its legs, flowing in imaginary air. Its metallic silver hair, short on the sides and long in the middle, ripples with a rhythmic pattern of false wind.

This should do. It pulls back its perspective into its avatar’s head and sees Rozenn’s avatar materialize. She looks enough like her, with bright pink eyes and light brown skin, but she’s a bit taller, with a scarlet glow in the tips of her hair. A small silver vest covers her upper torso. A thick belt, lined down the middle with a glowing purple stripe, holds tight black pants with strips of red light running down their legs.

“You’re even more glowy inside,” Aze says, in a voice not of sound but the pure impression of language, technopathic telepathy, the language of the æther.

“Your avi’s rather impressive!” she says.

“Just something I threw together when I got here.”

Rozenn looks around the illusory space they float in. “The æther’s so...small here. I can feel just a few clusters...the other Ida colonies, the Dactyl station... Everything else is so so distant I can’t grasp it.”

“Ain’t that why you came in person?” Aze says.

“I knew what to expect, I’ve just, I’ve never been on a real æther island before I got to Ida. No relay, no pathways,”


“It’s so lonely...” she says.

“How terrible for you to have to visit Ida,” Aze says. “Let’s focus on the mission.”

“Alright, the mission. Have you ever been to the target server before?”

“No, it’s locked down tight. More than you’d expect a research station to be. Nobody even tries it, I mean, there’s nothing to be gained from it, besides the fun of it,” Aze says.

Rozenn reaches out and opens a gate. As the image of a door swings open, a rift in the æther creates a passageway to her intended destination.

“You just have the encryption key?” Aze says.

“I told you this isn’t criminal work. My company is on contract with the station owners.”

“How convenient,” Aze says.

“Getting in wasn’t the job. Keep your guard up,” Rozenn says.

“Ready for anything.” Aze grasps the empty æther space in its avatar’s hand and a long polearm forms in it. It reaches out with the other and conjure a shield. It lets them all go and they fade back into the glow beyond them. “What’s the objective of this lovely ætherwalk, oh fearless operation leader?”

“Reconnaissance. We need to get a look at this server before we can make any detailed plans. Follow me, and be discreet.”

“Discretion is my passion,” Aze says.

They step into the gate together. The tunnel of light ends as quickly as it appears. Before Aze can give it a second thought, they arrive on solid ground--the impression of it at any rate, but for perceptual purposes it is real. It’s brown, dark brown like live soil, unbleached by the Sun, with little green plants growing all over it. Aze and Rozenn stand there, allowing the illusion of gravity to guide their perception. Above them is the sky, but not Ida’s black sky, not at all.

A dim orange glow covers the horizon around them, fading into an endless deep purple above. Constellations shine in the simple shape of the local æther, the one familiar thing about this space. But up in the sky a strange world shines down on them, a large rocky moon, in gibbous phase. Dark plains and bright craters on its face form the shape of a tree, branches spreading out across its northern hemisphere and roots across its southern. A thin floating cloud of vapor passes in front of it, refracting the pale white moonlight into a pale iridescent halo.

Tall Earth trees reach up into the sky all around them, with many different shapes of leaves, flat and wide, or narrow and pointy. There are even echoes of Earth animals here, birds flying high above, lizards scampering up and down the trees.

From atop a tall hill, the world sprawls out below. The streams and lakes in the wide valley shine with iridescent light from the planet’s moon. Taller mountains loom in the distance, rocky and jagged.

“The detail, the texture, the physics, light scattering, it’s really impressive,” Aze says. “I’ve never seen such an elaborate simulation. Without connection to the broader æther, the resources it requires would be enormous. This is a research station?”

“I’ve seen some crazy servers on remote stations. Bored autistics, you know?” Rozenn says.

“Yeah, know all about that.”

“But still, this really is impressive,” she says.

“Scanning a map of the filesystem,” Aze says. “It’s a little...nonsensical,” it says.

“I recognize this. It’s a generative file tree, the computer determines the most efficient structure. Not unusual these days. Might be hard for humans to navigate, but the machine knows efficiency way better than--” Rozenn’s avatar turns back toward the trees. “Proximity!”

A projectile flies at Aze, turning aside along a curve in space as it approaches its shield. A thin shaft of crystalline light strikes the soil.

Aze already has its radiant spear in hand as several more of the missiles fail to meet their mark. Rozenn has a rifle in her hands, an Old Earth style weapon of black steel and red wood. She focuses her shield ahead and its æthereal membrane glows as one of the crystal rods strikes it head on, shattering into a shower of white sparks.

“I see six!” She points her weapon up into the treetops and returns fire. The tree branches her projectiles hit start to melt as her disruptive program activates. They bend in random directions before dissolving into red mist. But it seems all she manages to hit is the trees, an illusion concealing their enemies’ true position.

Aze contributes to the suppressive barrage by throwing its spear toward the direction of contact. It grows and splits apart mid-flight into many copies like a cell dividing, and the wide leaves they touch shatter like brittle glass. But still it doesn’t seem to hit anything solid. Another spear reforms in its hand.

“They’re moving to flank us!” Locking onto the pattern signatures of their attackers, Aze sees them as red silhouettes through the illusory leaves and branches. “Retreat?”

“Yeah, bad entry point, fall back to Ida,” Rozenn says.

Aze lets go of its hold on the physics and space of this server, prepared to fall back through the æther to its entry node. But the pull of gravity holds it down. The server doesn’t let it go. “Shit.”

“Ætherlock!” Rozenn says as she blocks another wave of missiles. Her shield starts to falter under the mental strain. “Local retreat?” She looks behind her, down the steep hill.

“Don’t like that open terrain. The way ahead is clear at ground level if we hurry!”

“Then you have the better view, take point!” she says.

Aze runs into the thick of the forest, with Rozenn watching their backs as she follows close behind. Above them, the red outlines of their attackers turn and pursue, jumping between the treetops and still trying to encircle them. Rozenn turns to face them

“Come on!” Aze says.

“Wait! A little AdminTech...” She executes a script and the branches above bend to her will. They overlap each other and intertwine into a woven wall of wood. “Moving!”

They gain some distance as their pursuers look for a way around. But it isn’t long before they reach an abrupt end of the trees, and the ground. They stand atop a sheer cliff. Below is only orange sky filled with a soft sheet of deep red clouds. Looking down here has a disorienting feeling of looking up.

Rozenn points up above, where an uncertain distance away, an island of half jagged grey rock and half clear smooth quartz reflects the orange light. Tree roots from the forested patch growing up on its surface wind down its rocky cliff face all the way to the bottom.

“Fly up?” Aze says.

“We’d just be exposed,” Rozenn says.

“Then, local gates should still work if we don’t try to go above this directory. Got any more of that AdminTech?” Aze says.

“My specialty!” Rozenn reaches out and opens a gate. “Go on.”

Aze dives into the portal, falling out of the other side onto solid ground. Rozenn follows after, landing more gracefully, and lets the doorway slam shut behind her. They find themselves atop a cliff, now looking down on the floating island they came from.

“I think we lost them, for now,” Aze says, scanning the local æther.

“Constructs or projections, I couldn’t tell,” Rozenn says. “Clearly no mere echoes though.”

“No,” Aze says. “They were human.”

“Fuck...” Rozenn says.

“Their technopathy wasn’t very strong, but numbers matter in here too,” it says.

“Well this hasn’t been the best start to a mission,” she says. “From the layout of this place I can’t begin to guess where to find any useful data without the server’s help. But it doesn’t answer me. Not even ‘permission denied.’ Like talking to a wall.”

“I’ve seen this before,” it says.


“One time, the C-town city server became ‘overgrown’ like this, its emergent filesystem structure growing wild like out of control plants breaking out of an abandoned hydroponics warehouse. I tried to reach the server to troubleshoot it, but it was cold and distant. Turned out the city admin had died, nobody realized it,” Aze says. “Look at this place. Its structure is falling apart. Unorganized data is creeping over everything like the roots of these trees. That’s why it looks like this. It’s in decay. No admin keeping it in order.”

“But the server’s clearly not abandoned. Why hasn’t anyone here taken over as admin?” Rozenn says. “Even if they don’t have an AdminSpec, anyone would do better than nothing.”

“Good question. They’re awfully protective of the place,” Aze says. “What’s our move, captain?”

“Um, well we have to break this ætherlock before we can safely do anything. But we would have to locate the technopath who cast it. Until then we’re stuck here forever,” she says.

You’re stuck here,” Aze says, “unable to reach your own head and turn off your implant to wake up. But I’m on borrowed time, since I æthertripped my way down here. Once the drug wears off I’ll have no choice but to open my eyes. Then I can shut your implant off from the outside.”

“Yeah, okay. I’ll send you the fail-safe code. Then we should just lay low until you surface. Then get out, reassess, and come back better prepared,” she says.

“I somehow don’t think we’re gonna have that luxury.” Aze points down to the lower island, now circled by a swarm of enormous insects in flight. Clusters of four wide transparent wings flap faster than æther eyes can track. Below their slender dull green bodies, eight legs dangle, each tapering to a forked point. Four long branching antennae extend from behind massive clusters of red eyes on each side of their heads.

“We can’t just sit here,” Aze says.

“I can’t even see the way forward, the server is so overgrown,” Rozenn says. “Let’s get to the treetops and use our eyes.”

“Got it.” Aze jumps up from the ground, letting go of the illusion of gravity to glide up to a high branch. With one more jump, it emerges through the canopy of leaves. Rozenn arrives beside it, only to immediately realize their mistake. Ahead of them, two more of the massive insectoid constructs stand waiting atop the trees, just as the rest of the swarm arrives behind them, encircling them completely.

From the back of each beast, a human rider looks down on their captured prey. Long spears swing down to surround Aze and Rozenn on all sides. On each shaft a green banner hangs, emblazoned with a gold emblem in the shape of a tree. The lancers’ armor looks like the same translucent material as their beasts’ wings, and it reflects the orange horizon glow to create the illusion of the warriors being cloaked in flame. This chitinous armor covers their torsos, and their arms and legs are wrapped in protective layers of a thick leaf, the same as the one forming a mask over each of their faces.

The rider ahead of them in the center of the formation wears a more elaborate helmet with three broad leaves affixed to a spike at its top. She speaks to their minds in æthereal words, “Surrender, servants of the dead gods!”

Aze focuses hard on its shield as the tip of the rider’s crystalline lance taps against it. It’s no echo, definitely a solid offensive program that could shatter its shield and avatar. Rozenn speaks directly to Aze’s mind by text, where no others can easily overhear.

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > About how long until that drug wears off?

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > at minimum four hours. and without even knowing the clock rate of this server’s processor, how much surface time has passed is anyone’s guess

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > What should we do?!

????-?-???? ???:?? Aze > we should stay calm. go along and look for an opportunity to exploit. like technopaths?

????-?-???? ???:?? Rozenn > Okay...

She turns to address the lead rider, speaking how everyone can hear, “If our lives will be spared, we surrender!”

The girl silently looks around to her warriors, sending them orders. Two of them dismount and approach their captives. Only now does Aze see their size, shorter than either of them, their avatars looking years younger, not even adults. Under their masks of green leaves sewn together with living vines, only their eyes are visible, one’s pale green and the other’s pale lavender.

“No more sorcery from you,” the leader says, pressing her spear-tip on the edge of Aze’s mental barrier. Having no chance of repelling attacks from all of them at once, it lowers its shield and lets the girls tie its hands.