Tess had never been that fond of Kansas. There was something about all that flat land in one place that really rubbed her the wrong way, and it felt like it got a little flatter and smoother each time she came back that way. You couldn’t really hide when the land was flat, or find shelter if the weather got nasty, to say nothing of how the hunting just wasn’t there. She’d once read a book about all the different kinds of dinosaurs that lived in Kansas back in prehistoric times; it was hard to look at how things were now and imagine it stuffed full of giant sharks and Plesiosaurs and who knew how many flavors of mammoth. Then again, the Great Inland Sea probably didn’t hold a candle to the sheer weirdness of the Waste Belt, no matter how many thousands of years ago it had been. You had to keep things in perspective when dealing with anything that had happened Before.
Her hovercraft growled as she nudged it up another gear. Tess growled back in response and gripped the hand controls tighter, one eye forever on the craft’s consumption meter; it’d be getting dark in a few hours, and if she couldn’t get to Primordia by then it would mean having to spend the night out in the open when the really weird shit came out to play. She had done it before and would probably have to do it again so long as she kept up with her current profession, but that didn’t mean she necessarily liked the idea. Even when she was in the middle of a verified dead zone she never slept that well without some serious entrenching first. Better paranoid than dead.
The craft’s radio kept her from going out of her mind with boredom. There was only so much of flat emptiness she could take even with her favorite music and crime shows to keep her company; the background entertainment gave her brain enough to chew on so she wouldn’t get hypnotized by the miles upon miles of horizon she had to scan for nasties. When the tapes she’d brought with her started looping one too many times to bear, Tess switched over to some of her materials from her current coursework. Having her hovercraft read books to her was the only way she could get studying done half the time these days.
It took two units about biochemistry and half a unit on applied physics before the blurry verdant dot that was Primordia appeared in the distance. Around the same time a different blurry dot, this one gray and a tell-tale neon purple, appeared thirty-seven degrees east of her destination. Tess swore under her breath and forced her hovercraft ever faster. Gray and purple meant a problem that couldn’t be solved just by hunkering down in a hole somewhere. Kansas really was the worst.
In ten minutes the green dot was a green smear that spread out like one of those gelatin-capsule pellets that turned into a sponge animal when dropped in water. The gray and purple was still far off, still indistinct, still sufficiently distant that Tess couldn’t pick out what sort of anatomy it had, but that wasn’t a guarantee. How good was its vision? Could it smell the heat bleedoff her craft left in its wake? She didn’t know and she didn’t care, since so long as she kept her eyes on the prize it wouldn’t be a problem. She could avoid things that size once there was enough tree cover for it not to see her, and of course it wouldn’t see her if she kept going. It didn’t matter if it saw her so long as she had a clear shot. Big things never went into Primordia.
She could make out distinct tree trunks around the same time she could make out how many legs the thing had. She could see where leaves became flowering vines by the time she could smell the ozone stink coming off of it in waves. It didn’t see her. It had to not see her. Tess clung to that hope until she finally zipped through a patch of shrubs and fungus, and then she had other things to worry about.
Primordia might have once been intended for people to visit, an arboretum of sorts. There were hints of paths, inklings of sculpted gardens, bits of unfinished sculpture tucked in here and there among the infinite carpet of green; it might have been downright lovely once, or at least planned to be. The Primordia of today was a far cry from whatever plans had been laid for it. Tess ratcheted her craft’s speed down to barely more than what she could do on foot and it still felt like every passing second was another risk of clotheslining herself on a low-swung branch or careening headlong into something floral, fleshy, and carnivorous. It was so thick that she didn’t have to worry about things from the outside getting in, at least. Once or twice some of the nomads who wandered the Waste Belt had gotten inside to take shelter, sure, and she’d even befriended some of them last time, but it was no place for people with wanderlust. They’d come, they’d hide from the weirdness for a little while, then they’d go back on their ways again. Tess couldn’t blame them; it took effort navigating through the trees towards the center of the snarl, and that was because she knew where she was going and who she would see. It was effort she was barely capable of exerting herself, and not everyone had a vehicle that could just float over the worst of the roots and burrows.
Naturally, all that effort meant she didn’t see the obvious trap until she felt the impact on the side of her craft that cut her safety harness and sent her hurtling from the driver’s seat.
There had been plenty of books back home—other ones than the kind with dinosaurs, but no less interesting—talking about the different kinds of synthetic organisms that roamed the world Before. Some were big and blocky, like tanks with legs, and those were the sort that handled industrial things like construction, drilling, and security work. Some were small and compact, perfect for deliveries or surveillance or creeping into tight spaces for maintenance. Others were more specialized, their insectoid chassis concealing manufacturing tools or medical equipment as they tiptoed around humans on rubber-tipped feet. Others still were meant to serve as sources of companionship, integrating state-of-the-art polymers and even organic materials in their construction to seamlessly integrate into society as eerie, often beautiful cybernetic citizens. This final type wasn’t designed for combat inasmuch no person was inherently designed for a fight, but that didn’t stop the battered and half-shucked cyborg model that had emerged from the overgrowth from staring up at Tess with a makeshift energy rifle trained on her head.
“That trap’s for brigands,” said the cyborg, her eyes narrowed. The optic in her right socket glinted red. “If you’re in it, does it make you one?”
“Hi, Candida,” said Tess with a sheepish grin.
“Contessa. You’re late.”
“Not my fault! The weather’s so bad on the way out here, and I had to take all kinds of crazy detours, and you know how it is during strider mating season, a-a-and if memory serves someone requested some specialty goods that I had to do some serious shopping to put together all in one place. Which I did, because I’m so smart and great.” She pressed her hands against her cheeks and simpered. “Can I come down now? Pretty please?”
Candida glared at her a bit longer before deactivating the worst of the mechanisms. Tess spun in place as she untangled herself, rolled into a pile of creepers once she unhitched the last piece of snare, and unsteadily popped back up on her feet to check the hovercraft. She couldn’t be sure until later, but she didn’t feel too badly bruised and probably hadn’t broken anything. The craft itself hadn’t fared quite so well.
“You owe me a new repulsion field,” said Tess.
This did nothing to sweeten Candida’s expression. “And you owe me a new trigger switch,” she said. Her vox buzzed a bit on some of the vowels, and there was a faint static hiss underneath some of the softer consonants. That was concerning. Much more concerning than a busted field generator.
Tess leaned out of the hovercraft’s engine hatch. “Sore throat, hon?”
“Hmm,” said Candida. She scanned the plants, her hands still gripping the rifle. She’d always been the reliable one. “Talking more than usual. It’s wearing out. Nothing special.”
“I could probably look at that for you. You know. If you wanted me to.”
“It is what it is. We should move.”
Trust Candida to brush off anything that was going less than perfectly in her life. Tess sighed and shouldered her tool bag. “Let me load up the MULE with all the goodies I brought you. We can come back for Vettie later on,” she added, patting the side of her hovercraft, “least once it’s light out.”
Candida grunted. For her, it was practically a speech.
Smack in the middle of the Primordia Overgrowth Segmentation was the regrowth facility that had first spawned the whole mess. It had long since been abandoned—mostly abandoned, anyway—but still had enough structural integrity to keep the nasties out, and every time Tess had swung out that way it had been a little bit different. Bits of it crumbled away, other bits were built up. Over the years it had started getting downright pretty, especially with the extra bots servicing the place these days. Tess sighed with appreciation as the place came properly into view. There really was nothing like a properly-maintained bay of solar panels when the setting sun hit them just right.
They didn’t talk much until the entrance doors slid shut behind them, and even that was just the briefest possible conversation about what kind of disinfecting Tess needed. Candida’s vox continued rattling and growling its way through the voice commands she issued the facility. Tess winced; it was like listening to one of those talking toys you got in the fancier cities, the ones that had been played with too hard and couldn’t quite get their words right. She had three different plans for repairs by the time they arrived at the guest quarters.
Tess started unloading her MULE’s saddlebags without being prompted. She’d visited Primordia enough times to know the schedule Candida kept, and she’d visited Candida enough times to know that Candida was the kind of host who dearly hoped her guests could fend for themselves. She was brusque and no-nonsense in the way that people who had to do everything for themselves often got. Tess had once read a book about the Mennonite people of yore; she suspected Candida would have gotten along with them pretty well had there not been the whole “walking, talking technology” thing in the way. Even if Candida had been a cheerier sort, the way Tess packed things was nothing short of physics-defying, and it was probably for the best if she was left in charge of unpacking the seeds, soap, and spare parts she’d brought with her.
“So when do you want your first check-up, hon?” she asked as she hung up some of her cleaner clothes.
“After you bathe. You’re very dirty.”
“I can clean up the outside, but the inside’s a lost cause,” said Tess with her sauciest wink. Candida grunted. It sounded like one of her I-can’t-believe-you-act-this-way-but-I-l
A pleasant chime sounded from elsewhere in the facility and Candida promptly vanished into the warren of hallways. Tess sighed. One of these days she was going to get that mutual shower she’d always dreamed of, but today was apparently not one of said days.
Primordia had more than one guest suite in it. It even had more than one nice guest suite in it. It was full of rooms intended for people who hadn’t lived there in years. Tess still felt like visiting royalty whenever she bushwhacked her way back to her girlfriend’s doorstep, because there was a certain magical something about endless hot water and good, non-scouring soap and buttons you could push on the wall to make soothing music come out. Her bathroom was hers and hers alone; even if the place hadn’t been just shy of abandoned she still could have stayed in there in privacy for hours if she wanted. From a sheer resource standpoint it was the very lap of luxury. The lack of immediate threats was an extra bonus. It definitely beat tossing cleansing powder on herself and rubbing at her skin like some kind of wasteland-roaming chinchilla.
Tess tapped in the codes for one of her favorite collections of music, steam, and aromatherapy. She waited until the familiar hum inside the walls started up before peeling out of her various layers, and as the pile of dirty clothing at her feet started building she couldn’t blame Candida for banishing her to the hygiene zone before allowing Tess to start any diagnostics. There were entire strata of grime under there, stuck to both her gear and her skin. She was going to have to wash everything at least three times before it lost the ripe aroma it had built up over several days of travel. “Everything” technically included herself, too, so after testing the temperature of the multi-directional shower water Tess stepped into her own personal deluge.
Nobody stood out in the rain anymore if they knew what was good for them. You could find pure water in more places than you’d think, and a lot of the time the rainfall itself was perfectly clean, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the giant whatevers that roamed around like they owned the place also liked rain, and for some reason it was a lot harder to see something huge and partially bioluminescent when the rain was coming down. It was a matter of light refraction or something. No matter what caused it, you didn’t want to be out there when they could sense you but you couldn’t sense them right back. Some places made indoor rainy districts to let people try and connect with the weather without the risk of getting noticed by something big and scary, and they weren’t bad at all, but Tess had long been spoiled by Primordia’s glorious bathrooms, so it was hard to enjoy less elaborate attempts. She’d never been able to really trust weather that was subterranean.
Gray water ran off of her in greasy rivulets. Music that had been composed by someone she was pretty sure was long since dead washed over Tess like a sonic shadow of the spray that coursed from the walls, and she tried not to think too much about how her skin pilled as she scrubbed at it with a raspy thing she still didn’t know the name of. She’d worry about moisturizing when there was a nice, clean baseline to work from. Tess didn’t have to worry about whether or not there’d be anything to moisturize with because of course there would be. This was Primordia, a savage land of civilized dreams, and if she could count on anything about the place it would be the facility’s liberal stock of quality personal cosmetics. One of these days she’d figure out how to replicate the formulae; until that day came she’d be happy bumming off the goodies Candida didn’t need to use.
She tried hard to focus solely on scrubbing herself, but Tess could only hold out so long before her thoughts drifted back to Candida. What an angel, even with parts of her sorely in need of repair! The exposed optic had been a thing ever since before they’d first met, and no matter how many times Tess offered to fix it up Candida had insisted on keeping her face partially flayed. Over time Tess had decided she was properly Into It. There was something about the way Candida’s organics looked overlaid atop smooth white plastic and gleaming chrome that made Tess’s heart—and more than just her heart—sing. Her practiced scowl was enticingly indifferent, but it was those rare times when a hint of a smile bloomed on Candida’s half-ruined lips that Tess lived for. She had plans for those lips. Who cared if she could see parts of her girlfriend’s teeth and jaw that were usually tucked away underneath a layer of flesh so long as the kisses were good?
A doohickey that looked a bit like a handheld garden sprinkler was hooked into one of the walls of the surround shower, one end connected to a hookup deeper in the wall by a long metal hose, and its weight was comforting in Tess’s hand as she pulled it out of its sconce. Apparently shower heads like this one were all over the place Before. Tess knew enough about it to be sure of two things: one, that she could perform basic repairs on it, because she had, and two, that there were far more meaningful uses for it than getting clean. She twisted the ring along its outer edge until the spray was at just the right speed and intensity, tucked the nozzle apparatus between her legs with the stream of water aimed at her clit, and let her mind drift.
She never had to guess about what it would be like to drag Candida into a spare room and go down on her because they’d done that exact thing several times. Candida’s engineering was very good. Tess sometimes joked how cyborg sex had ruined her for all other women, but in a way it had. Before they’d even gotten all that serious she’d started losing interest in completely organic partners and their lack of integrated machinery. It wasn’t that a woman made entirely out of meat was bad or anything. Far from that. Tess still spent her share of time in new settlements going people-watching, and every new port of call brought with it a fresh crop of cute faces, hot bodies, and strangers with delightful personalities in desperate need of being bought a milk tea. It was the part where Tess was fine with just flirting a bit and maybe making out a little before getting back to work that was different. Why bother getting to know some rando’s erogenous zones and safewords when she could have everything at the peak of intimacy any time she bothered making the trek to the jungles of Kansas? She wasn’t about to label herself monogamous just yet, but Tess was less annoyed with her own fidelity than she thought she’d be.
Not that said fidelity was chaste. Tess knew the curve of Candida’s synthetic vulva better than many parts of her own anatomy, her mind able to conjure up a blueprint of where the humanoid flesh stopped and where the metal and plastic began. She knew when to stroke at an engorged lip, when to tweak a clitoral hood, when to dip her fingers inside and when to only tease at doing so. Tess treated fingerbanging her girlfriend with the same gravitas she did picking locks in the ruins she raided for parts. Making the lighting elements just beneath the skin of Candida’s mons glow for the first time had been a triumph. Candida had unfortunately refused the nickname of “glowbug,” but she couldn’t complain if Tess only thought it, so that counted, didn’t it?
Tess tweaked one of her nipples. Candida didn’t like being tweaked, but Tess’s inner crab needed to pinch at something, so over time she’d acquired a fondness for doing it to herself. Maybe this would be the time she could convince Candida to really knead on her tits. Now that would be something! All the passion, none of the risk of getting a boob ripped off by a rampaging SO. Synthetic people were good at precisely limiting their exerted force, right? Tess rolled her nip roughly between her fingers as she contemplated how that might go. Candida would be grumpy, of course, and that sweet, surly face with the ripped-up dermis would just make things better as she got a handful—no, a double handful—of tit and really went to town. Maybe there’d be a toy or two involved. As an engineer who frequently went on long, solitary road trips, Tess had a lot of toys in her field kit. It was a shame clean water was at such a premium outside of Primordia or she’d have made herself a friendly showerhead or three months ago.
She adjusted the angle of the nozzle between her legs and whined needily. Tess needed to come. She needed it like she needed air. She needed Candida on her, against her, inside her, around her; she needed prepositions that hadn’t been invented yet. She needed to die from exhaustion with her face buried in Candida’s lap, her jaw sore and her tongue swollen. She needed to touch every fold of skin between her legs—whose legs? it didn’t matter—and feel how warm they were, slick with vaginal juices and smelling oh so tantalizingly horny, and whoever was on the menu would no doubt taste amazing, and—
Tess was a bit of a shouter during sex because somebody had to be. She managed not to crack the back of her head against the shower wall (this time, at least) and sank to her knees, the nozzle now on the ground next to her and spraying water into the air. Tess dreamily went about the business of turning off the water, toweling her skin dry, and powering down the sensory ambiance, and as she worked a pick through her hair she found it much easier to plan what all maintenance she’d need to do once the supplies she’d brought with her were suitably accounted for. A really good jerkoff session always did help her concentrate on her work.
A mechanical arm offered her a pair of underpants at chest level. Tess patted the top of the MULE the armature belonged to; she’d long since gotten over being weirded out by their habit of following her into the bathroom like cats. “Good job, Number Twenty-Seven.” She didn’t name her Multi-Use Labor Elements because she didn’t name her tools or body parts, either, but much like anything else she called her own she took care of them. Being vocally encouraging was only right when dealing with any gizmo that operated under its own power, whether or not it could chat back. It was important to never underestimate something that knew when you needed a fresh set of panties.
She picked out her most comfortable set of work clothes and cleaned off her boots before setting off to wander the hallways. It was the third day of the week, which meant Candida was probably in the fuel recycling lab, which meant she’d want some biofuel starters and a little help with the tribology grunt work. Tess double-checked MULE#27’s list of loaded supplies and made her way through the facility hallways.
Whoever had designed Primordia had clearly really liked prog rock, assuming the books Tess had read about it were accurate, because everything was all smooth curves and organic lines and gave her the distinct sense of being inside a great big seed pod. There were relatively few straight lines in the main part of the complex. The local MULEs were designed to go up and down stairs, but that was rarely an issue thanks to the liberal use of ramps. She spotted a few of them going about their usual duties as she went; they were a little more worn than her own bots, but also much cleaner, and designed with the same sleekness as Primordia itself. Aside from a general checkup (because no matter what Candida said it was important to give things regular checkups) she didn’t anticipate needing to do much maintenance on any of the facility’s trusty support team. Tess made sure to pet all of them as she passed.
The smell of farty french fries heralded the presence of the fuel recycling lab. Whatever kept the rest of the compound smelling lovely and fresh just couldn’t compete with the many tanks of self-refreshing go-go juice that powered Primordia’s grid, but Tess had grown up dealing with the absolute worst kind of heavy machinery stink and the funk of repurposed ruins that hadn’t quite been rebuild; this was nothing. She pulled on a rebreather anyway. Candida was still a stickler for human safety even after all these years.
Candida’s familiar jumpsuit-clad figure stooped over a tank, one hand holding a sample dipper and the other waving a scanner over said dipper. She didn’t look too happy with the results. Tess waited for the door to whoosh closed behind her and for Candida to finish recording whatever it was she was doing before speaking up.
“How much sludge you need to stir before you let me do some diagnostics?”
Candida grunted. “Efficiency down this week. Not sure what’s wrong.”
“So that’s a ‘help me out with whatever’s causing this, Tess’ or a ‘why don’t we just get things over with because otherwise I’ll be in here all day, Tess’?”
A machine beeped behind them. Candida updated her scanner with the other machine’s findings and scowled at whatever it said direly. With a sigh, she set her tools down on a nearby tray. “The second, I think,” she grumbled. None of the lights on the surrounding machines were red, which Tess took as a good sign, so she took Candida by the lapels and gently pulled her into one of the break rooms attached to the main body of the lab.
The first order of business was not Candida’s sputtering vox, which was an obvious cause for concern, but simply getting her to sit still while Tess ran through a litany of basic procedures: reflex tests, respiration, listening to the sounds of Candida’s circulatory pumps, a brief snapshot of how well her eyes were holding up, all the usual bits you learned during your first years of helping robo-people keep their bodies working right. Her organic parts were all suitably colorful without any signs of necrosis. What caught Tess by surprise was the way Candida’s left arm had almost passed for being in perfect condition until a press in just the right spot made something grind in a rather nasty way.
“You’ve been working with this wacky arm for a while now, haven’t you, hon?”
“Endured, shmendured. We’re going to the med bay and I’m going to fix this or die trying. No complaints.”
Tess half-helped, half-dragged Candida through the hallways with MULE#27 bumping against the back of Candida’s legs like a herding dog whenever she tried to stall. They’d had long conversations about why Tess was fine working in spare closets and why she sometimes insisted on all the actual sterilizations of a bio lab, and it boiled down to whether she was just giving a once-over or if a process would involve, to use Tess’s words, “any actual yucky digging around.” Her stubbornness kept Primordia’s medical facilities in working order just in case she’d need to use them the next time she visited.
The snap of a blue surgical glove didn’t have a chance to even think about echoing before the crisp white sound dampening material on the walls smothered it. Tess checked and double-checked the readings; it didn’t matter if she was shower-fresh or that she’d been doused with various chemicals and antigens not an hour and change ago, she was not going to start heavy maintenance until the machines gave her the green light. Candida passed the time by stripping out of her jumpsuit and enduring a pre-surgery autobath courtesy of a prep bot. There technically wasn’t anything in Tess’s medical manuals about whether you needed to disinfect the patient, too, but if she couldn’t be checking up on Candida most of the year then she opted to err on the side of safety. What would happen if she skipped a step just once and it turned out things went bad when she was on the opposite side of the continent? Sometimes giving Candida a little doctor’s visit was a fun sort of foreplay, the kind where once the actual checkup was done with she could flirt and tell corny jokes until Candida demanded to shut her up. Days like today were not those times.
Once Candida was properly reclined on the platform, Tess unfurled a length of fibercloth from a dispenser installed at one end of the bay, cut it to size, and draped it over Candida’s body. The cloth still smelled a little like fresh sap. Tess frowned; she’d have to remember to make sure the facility’s background AI wasn’t cutting any corners when processing plants from outside into disposables. Primordia was an amazing place but some days it felt like it was held together with gum.
An X-ray machine beeped and pulled up some results on one of the lab’s many monitors. Tess’s frown deepened as she studied the results. “Looks like you picked a fight that picked back, didn’t you?”
“Brigand problems. I handled ’em.”
“You’re a durable woman, Deeds. This looks like they rammed a vehicle into you or something.”
Candida glanced askance. “No. They cleared out some trees. Let a big thing in. I handled that, too.”
To Tess’s credit she managed not to drop her autoscanner. When she came in there hadn’t been any sign of regrowth; had it been on the other side or did Primordia really replenish itself that fast? That was not, however, the important part. “You’re saying a strider did this?” Striders could flatten entire buildings if they had enough windup. To think Candida had not only tangled with one of those gray and purple nightmares but won… well, Tess could think more on that later, but she’d always had a weakness for dashing heroines who fought against impossible odds.
Blase as ever, Candida simply replied with a, “Yes.”
“Hon, you owe me a super exciting story once you’re done getting all your wingnuts tightened.”
After that things were still, save for the beeping of machinery and the clatter of Tess’s fingers against keyboards. She’d been overdue to give Candida a full bells-and-whistles diagnostic exam, but it always felt like there either wasn’t enough time or there were so many better things to do than make boring old visits to the medbay. Waiting until things were serious probably wasn’t the most efficient way to handle the whole “half-robot girlfriend” scenario. Past Tess was a bit of a dingbat that way, but Present Tess knew that Future Tess would probably make the exact same mistakes when the time came. It was her responsibility to Candida and to herself in any timeline to get things right during the here and now.
She slowly filled up the screens with typing. She went over each planned procedure a few steps at a time, recording Candida’s consent to them as she went. A grumpy affirmation greeted each one, at least up until she had finished planning the usual intensive processes—fluid sampling, muscle tending, ferrosensitivity readouts, a little touch-up work on the plastic bits, replacing that damn busted vox of hers even if she rarely spoke to anyone—and moved on to the optional things like a haircut. Tess had never managed to get Candida to agree to a haircut, but then again, maybe Candida’s hair wasn’t the kind that grew back. She still asked every time. Primordia changed little by little, so why not assume the same of its caretaker? Tess said as much herself.
“And I can even get this old business cleaned up!” she added, her scanner tool flicking blue light over Candida’s exposed facial structure.
Candida’s hand shot up and gripped Tess’s wrist. “No. That stays,” she rasped.
“It’d be really easy to—”
“Tess. You can repair me. But I won’t let you fix me.”
They paused, eye to optic, for a tense moment that seemed to turn the very air between them into sizzling plasma, but ultimately Tess stood down. There was so much to do. If Candida didn’t want her face touched up, she didn’t want her face touched up. There were other ways of doing vox repairs that would work just fine, and she’d handle that arm, and maybe there was something deep around Candida’s engines she could soup up, and—
It took her long into the night before she was done, but when Tess was in her element it didn’t matter how long she needed to finish. There was someone to be helped, someone she loved very much, and her patient needed to be helped in just the right way. Everything else was just so much radio static.
Like most synthetic people Candida was a quick recovery, and by midnight she had restored enough of her energy to sit up and eat a light dinner. For Tess this meant vat-grown fish with fresh, only minimally irradiated lemon and a whole mess of peas, and for Candida it meant the candy-pink goop that her body processed into enough nutrients to feed one of those whales Tess had read about. So long as the facility was running it could produce a nigh infinite supply of the stuff, but for all of Primordia’s strengths it still couldn’t make cyborg chow that didn’t look like the unholy colloid spawn of a bismuth-colored slime mold and some over-blended cat food. Tess had insisted on putting a sprig of parsley on top before serving it anyway.
They ate quietly in Candida’s quarters, itself one of the many rooms overlooking the Primordia wilds, since even though her vox had been repaired during the procedure Tess suspected Candida would still keep to herself out of habit. The first time they’d met Tess had been looking into reports of a new green place—Primordia itself, of course—when a strange biped had come out of the weeds with a scowl and an arc welder in one hand, and her voice had been so creaky from disuse Tess had marveled that it even worked at all; even after they’d gotten over the initial awkwardness it had taken a few visits to the region before Candida was willing to speak more than a handful of words at a time. Tess herself could only stand the silence for so long—she had always been the one to break the ice at parties, in no small part to loathing unproductive silence—so she waited until Candida put her plate back on its tray before speaking up.
“Why don’t you ever want to get repaired all the way again?”
Candida sipped at her glass of water and exhaled through her teeth. It was one of those little idiosyncrasies of hers; her model technically didn’t need to breathe to function. “It’s important to me,” she said after a while. She picked at a bit of the synthetic flesh peeling away from her endoskeleton before pushing it back in place again. “I need to remember how much I’ve lived.”
“Hell of a difference between counting your scars and walking around with half your face fallen off, hon.”
“I mean, I think that way, anyway,” said Tess. She rolled on her back, her legs now slung over the back of the chair. “I mean, I got plenty of nicks and dings myself, you seen my knees? And this sure isn’t my original hand, either. But I patched up and kept going when I had the chance. Means I’ve got that much more of me left next time something goes wrong, right?”
The red pinprick of light from Candida’s exposed optic swiveled Tess’s way. “That’s how you see things. That’s fine. It’s not my way, though.”
“So tell me what your way is, then. You don’t talk about yourself much at all.”
“There’s a reason for that.”
“Can-diii-da, aren’t we special to each other? I fix you up, I bring you supplies, I help around the place, I keep you company, I treat you oh so right, isn’t at least some of that worth knowing more about you? It’s been years and I still don’t know Jack Sprat about your past besides the obvious.”
Candida grunted again.
“Pretty, pretty please?”
“…Fine.” She took a deep breath and stared at the ceiling before slipping into a voice that was softer than her usual growl. “I was made to be a companion. Not for anyone in particular, just a useful little member of society with thoughts and feelings of my own. A companion to culture at large, you could say. Maybe I’d meet someone, maybe I wouldn’t, but either way I’d be pleasant and happy. I was for a while. That was Before.”
Tess interrupted with a triumphant crow. “So you are old enough to be my grandma! I knew it! Somebody back west owes me money now.”
“Are you done?” Candida snarled.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m done. Promise I’ll buy you something nice with my winnings, too.”
Candida snorted, then returned to her narration. “I was a nice person,” she said. “Very sweet and kind, always looking on the sunny side of life. I took a position here because it was going to be the next chance at a brand new future. That’s why all of us did, really. We wanted to make a garden of a world that was shiny, perfect, and new. Optimism was the name of the game right up until everything went bad. Then? Then optimism failed me, hard.”
“Yeah? How’d that turn out?”
Candida leaned in until her nose was almost touching Tess’s. She pointedly ran a hand along the parts of her face that were little more than gleaming metal skull with artificial muscle snaked through it. Some of it actually showed signs of wear from being exposed for so long. “How do you think?”
Tess tilted her head just enough to leave a kiss on the tip of Candida’s nose. “You’re still here, though.”
“Maybe. I still doubt I have anything to show for it.”
“Bull puckey! I’d say you have plenty,” said Tess. “Take how this place exists. Seems like things are nice and green, and getting nicer and greener all the time.” She waved her hand at the expanse on the other side of the insulated polyglass making up the nearest display window. “Primordia’s way nicer here than anywhere else in the Waste Belt! Take it from me as someone who’s seen the vast majority of said Waste Belt! You’re practically reinventing the ecosystem from the ground up out here. You should be an optimist, hon.”
“You don’t know how things were Before.”
Tess shrugged, still upside down. “Nope, sure don’t. I got books, though, and I got you, and those two together are an alright substitute.”
A small smile tugged at the corner of Candida’s mouth. It didn’t quite displace her usual mask of stern indifference, but it didn’t have to. “I suppose I should have expected that sort of answer from you.”
“Be glad for that decontamination process. I’ve been told my good cheer’s infectious.”
The sliver of a smile threatened to spread. “You might want to check, just in case. I can’t afford to get sick when I’m working solo again.” She flexed her newly-repaired arm thoughtfully. “Isn’t there supposed to be some sort of aftercare for a procedure like mine?”
If a synthetic who’d survived the transition from Before needed any sort of post-surgery attention beyond making sure she had enough pink goop to eat it was news to Tess, but she also knew a come-on line when she heard one. That sounded more like the girlfriend she knew! She rolled herself back upright and leaned forward, mirroring how Candida had surged in, scowling, only shortly before.
“I could give you a little outside checkup.”
Candida was mostly naked underneath her bedding save for the silvery halter and shorts she’d pulled on once she woke up from her repairs. Her smooth copper skin never got goosebumps by design, so when Tess tossed the sheet and blankets to the side Candida didn’t bump up like a plucked chicken like fully organic people did, but she still pretended to shiver. She felt warm and alive beneath Tess’s fingers. There wasn’t so much as a seam left where the surgical gel had stitched the incisions back up.
The way Candida’s expression kept frozen in its usual mild scowl, save for the occasional twitch of an eyebrow or flare of the nostrils when Tess’s “checkup” lingered too long on a breast or hip, was now part of Tess’s plan. She slipped her fingers beneath Candida’s top, ran her fingers along the sides of Candida’s breasts, and gave them a cheery squeeze. A little coo slipped out of Candida’s mouth even as she feigned indifference. Tess grinned; this was the sort of thing she bothered driving through hundreds of miles of bad times to get to. “No lumps here. Sounds like your vox is doing better, too.”
“Does it? Good.”
“We could stand to test it some more.”
Candida’s face remained a mask of stone. “And how should we do that, Contessa?”
“I was thinking, hmm….” Tess dug in her bag of spare tools. Her MULE has brought them with when it had originally helped her move Candida to the bed; the robot itself had wisely found somewhere else to be, perhaps trading data with some of the local MULEs. Tess produced a long, cylindrical tool with a rounded softi-plastic head and a simple set of switches along its handle. She swabbed the head with an alcohol wipe. “As your mechanic, I like ensuring that any work I’ve done will last a suitably long while. How about we see how the new parts work with a stress test? Say, something involving heightened volume? Maybe some direct nerve stimulation while we’re at it?”
Tess rubbed her thumb against the shiny bioelectric charge point at the base of the device until a digital chirp announced she’d built up enough power in its internal battery. Candida shifted gears from a monolith to a silent movie heroine: she made a great show of gulping nervously at the sound. The lashes on her intact lid fluttered coquettishly. She folded up her legs and kept her eyes on the little wand, and for a hermit who lived in a nearly abandoned ark lab in the middle of the jungle in the middle of Kansas, she still had impressive acting chops. If all companions made Before were as appealingly programmed as she was it was a wonder anyone got anything done at all. If the world had unspooled because someone was too busy banging their robot girlfriend to push the “don’t end” button, Tess couldn’t really blame them.
She flipped the largest switch on the side of the wand, which prompted the thing to buzz loudly, and its racket increased the more she fiddled with its settings. Kansas sucked, but Tess had to admit there were benefits to coming out all this way, sometimes. No neighbors meant nobody complaining about too-noisy jerkoff toys!
“You’re so tense, hon,” she said above the wand’s whine. “I’m thinking some massage therapy will be good for you, and we’ll work from there.”
“Yes. Of course.”
The wand’s bulb brushed gently along Candida’s shoulders with a jackhammer whine. Her muscles tensed up reflexively, then relaxed back into a smooth expanse of skin. The tightness in her muscles and cabling melted at its touch. This was technically why this particular model had been invented in the first place, at least on paper, and it did a mighty fine job of things.
Tess shuffled around to sit on the bed behind Candida. It gave her a better angle to tend to Candida’s back, which was technically the goal, but more importantly it meant she could easily stroke at the tit of her choosing without interrupting her work. A soft breast smoothly transitioned into toned torso, and if Tess knew just where to feel she could feel the occasional hint of endoskeletal strut or the bump where metallic muscle blossomed back into meat. Cyborgs were so much fun to touch.
Her hand brushed against Candida’s mons and dipped between her outer lips to tease at the soft and slick flesh hidden there. Things felt ready. Tess retrieved her hand, tucked the wand inside Candida’s short-shorts, and angled the polymer head so its vibrations focused right on Candida’s crotch. Bless whomever decided cyborgs deserved their choice of genitals! Candida gasped and shook; her hands gripped at her upper thighs as though it was the only thing keeping her together. Tess flipped a final switch just above the band of Candida’s shorts and pressed herself against Candida’s back. She nibbled at Candida’s neck. This elicited a gasp, which Tess responded to by biting at the gentle chrome-edged curve of her ear, and the gasp went from a groan, to a moan, to a desperate cry of ecstasy until the wand succeeded in its work.
Candida bucked, writhed, and ultimately collapsed against Tess like a damp washcloth. Steam—literal water vapor—rose from some of the seams between her flesh and inorganic parts, the surest sign she’d had one rip-roarer of an orgasm. Tess flicked off the wand’s power but left it in place. One could never be too prepared.
“So, feeling relaxed?” she asked, nuzzling at her very floppy companion.
“I think so,” said Candida. She let her head loll. “May I have some water, doctor?”
“Preparing for round two already?”
Candida smiled around the edge of the glass Tess offered her. “I prefer to think of it as part of my physical therapy regimen. We need to be sure my arm repairs take properly, after all.” She drained the glass and motioned for another.
It was set to be one hell of a checkup.
“So what do you get out of staying here in the woods?” asked Tess a day or so later, halfway through helping Candida load up yet another hopper with seed samples. Part of her arrangement was trading labor for room, board, and experience she could report back on to her mentors back among the ruins. Said room and board was full of luxuries Tess had never seen anywhere outside of a book, and said experience involved literally working with someone who’d been around Before, so she considered it a pretty fair deal. When you dedicated your entire life to learning as much as you could by whatever means necessary you had to keep an eye out for fair deals.
Candida finished recording the seeds in her log before answering. “It keeps me together.”
“Is that the only reason?”
Tess got no response at first, so she shadowed Candida as they made their way through the botany lab. Dealing with quiet spells was all part of being an understanding girlfriend. It wasn’t until that they were halfway through the next round of seeds that Candida actually answered her.
“I tend this place because I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to think about very much, either. I make sure I have plenty of food and plenty of work to do. That’s the way it’s been all this time.”
“But why Primordia?”
“Someone has to.” Candida’s fingers danced over a keypad and the soft hiss of hydroponics systems filled the air. That they could get so much clean water, and so regularly, was one of the facility’s many wonders. “When the world goes as sour as it has, the only reason any of us see the next day is making what little good we can from a terrible situation.”
“Maybe things were supposed to happen this way,” said Tess. “Maybe the reason bad things happen is to make way for something even better, right?”
Candida glowered. “That line of thinking is so naive it borders on being offensive.”
Tess studied Candida’s expression. It was entirely possible one might have a different opinion if they’d been around Before and had survived a good chunk of their face ripped off. “Okay, maybe. Maybe that’s a really bad way to put it. But what I’m saying is that I think what we’ve got is the best possible result of every bad thing that comes down the line, and it’s our job to deal with it the best we can so people have an easier go of it next time around. Take Primordia. The world’s going to be green again someday because of places like this, right? If we were living in anything less good, we wouldn’t have this chance.” She shrugged. “That’s how I see it, anyway.”
“Hmm.” Candida entered another set of data into her log. She didn’t look back at Tess. “I think we will need to debate this further. Philosophy is the sort of thing worth discussing in the future. For now, I need to tend to my garden.”
Tess shifted her weight awkwardly. “…Should I go?” Their conversations rarely ever went in this direction. Had she pushed too much, or in the wrong spot? If she went and lost the absolute best girlfriend ever because she’d been a jackass Tess would never forgive herself.
The barest hint of softness crept into Candida’s vox. “If you like. I don’t fancy myself a jailer. But I do have a lot to do here, and I would rather have your help than not.”
Candida placed her logbook on a nearby shelf and turned to Tess, taking a hand between hers. “For what it is worth, Contessa, the best possible world would have to have you in it.” She held Tess’s gaze a little while more before releasing her hand and taking up her logbook once again. “Now, if you are going to stay here, we need to go see how well the new crop of algae does when being converted to fuels, so I hope you brought your rebreather….”
Tess stayed behind and let the hydroponics mist her skin. There were probably other places like Primordia out there, little pockets of conservation that could help rehabilitate a wounded—but still vibrant, you didn’t get building-sized monsters in an ecosystem that wasn’t vibrant—world, but only one of them had Candida in it. She’d visited enough abandoned facilities during her studies to know that much. Tess slipped into her breathing mask with a smile. Let certain cyborgs disagree, but this was truly the best of all possible worlds.