It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single human in possession of the best interplanetary business degree ze could get in this solar system must be in want of a startup venture.
Dynin Nkosi’s landing at Sun-Mars L5 station did not go unnoticed by the locals, especially since he was the only upside passenger today, on a ship full of mail, hydroponic clay, and grain from Mars. Many things are public on a space station of forty thousand people where each new occupant needs to be balanced by a departing occupant, so when the staffer at the station welcome desk greeted him by name, Dynin wasn’t surprised.
“Good afternoon! You must be Mr. Nkosi, here to see Acton Darling.” She smiled and floated by her stand to help him hook his carry-all to the restraining clasp on his side of the desk, then handed him a clipboard as he carefully hooked his feet into the floor anchors at the desk. “Are you all right with the weightlessness? We can expedite the process if we need to get you into a gravitic environment quickly, and do the safety briefing there.”
Dynin smiled. “Nope, turns out I’m all right, but thank you for asking. And yes, that’s who I am. Where do we start?”
The clerk, who introduced herself as Stephanie Ma, shared the full set of safety procedures with his tablet and sign a release stating he’d received them. She walked him through a full demonstration of his emergency respirator pack and shiny plastic emergency pod. “We’ve never had a rotation failure or decompression accident in the twenty years the ring habitat has been operational, and you’ll remember that space stations are one of the safest places to live,” she explained. “But a lot of people feel better having practiced for this in a weightless environment just in case they ever need it. In space, you wanna be prepared.”
“Sounds good to me,” Dynin said, hiding a yawn.
Satu whimpered, wriggling in pain and ecstasy as Ilari tugged on his nipples and bit down on his neck. “Nnnrg,” Satu said, trying to give as good as he got, but having a hard time moving in his current position. Kitsune were flexible by nature, but there just wasn’t much he could flex with his ankles by his ears.
Ilari was silent as he reached a hand underneath Satu and tugged on his tails, which was the end for Satu–as it always was. “You’re too easy,” Ilari said, although Satu barely heard him through the rush of orgasm, and the choir of singing nerves that accompanied it.
“Maybe your humans’ll be more of a challenge,” Satu said when he returned to his mind and processed what had been said.
“In their own way,” Ilari agreed, licking along the side of Satu’s face.
Satu pushed him away with a grimace. “I wish you didn’t have to go.”
“I know, kit, but I’m the only qualified kitsune for the job.”
“There are plenty of other six-tailed kitsune employed by the government, they could–”
Ilari laughed gently. “We only narrowly avoided diplomatic incidents with the last three ambassadors because they failed to understand human mating patterns. The humans have all but threatened war if the next ambassador has sex with the wrong person, which you know we can’t afford. It’s either me or we give up on having the humans as an ally.”
Sohran wandered around the house while talking business with Ali over the phone, opened the kitchen cupboards, and glanced in at the pitiful contents of the fridge. He leaned against the kitchen sink and stared into the strip of garden warmed by the last of the afternoon sun, while imagining Ali in a night-lit private hospital room. He pushed off from the sink and returned down the main hallway, but passed by his own room, and into Ali’s at the end of the hallway.
He’d kept the blinds in Ali’s room down, not wanting to bother with them every morning and night. In the dimmed afternoon light, the tidy room with its European minimalist design, hard edges and colourless decor reminded him of an empty hotel room. He’d been keeping it dusted in between the cleaners’ fortnightly visit as part of his regular chores, but he hadn’t washed the bedding. He could still find Ali’s scent when he dropped onto the duvet.
Leo takes the last few steps up to the flat of the hill, moving into the shadow of the bridge. The Fremont Troll sits squat and ugly beneath. The big iconic concrete statue holds tight to its Volkswagen and eyes Leo with its one visible shiny eye. Too early for tourists to be posing on its knuckles. Leo puts his hands in the pockets of his old leather jacket and curls his elbows forward, stretching out the tightness between his shoulder blades.
It’s the kind of day that could go in any direction, from sun to drizzle to squalls of full-out rain. Typical Seattle. At the moment sunlight reaches under the bridge, angling for the shoulders of the troll. Fine weather so far for a mindless eight AM walk, and from his little apartment on the Wallingford side of the bridge, the troll is a natural destination. Leo walks up to its right hand and stands between its fingers. The dusty, khaki-colored dirt that coats the troll clings to his shoes, but it doesn’t matter. He’s just wearing old sneakers and jeans. He’s lazy about clothes at this hour on a weekend, when he’s not quite awake enough to mind. He’s only going home to spend the afternoon reading, after this. But even on a lazy Sunday Leo needs to get out, breathe and move and keep himself from burrowing into the tiny world of his apartment and missing everything else.
An uncertain noise startles Leo out of his contemplation of the graffiti on the troll’s wrist. A voice, sort of–half breath and half pained-sounding low moan.
Or not pained. Leo’s shoulders tighten up again as he wonders whether to investigate and risk walking in on people fucking behind the troll’s head. But who the hell has sex on the dusty Fremont Troll at eight o’clock in the morning? It sounds totally unappealing to him–though more for the risk of dust in all his crevasses than the hour or the location.
Leo steps past the troll’s fingertips and climbs up around its right side, feet sliding in the dirt. There’s a convenient bridge support blocking his view of the back of the troll. He pauses there and peers around it. If someone is fucking up here, he’d rather not get caught snooping.
He squints, trying to make out what he’s looking at in the dim light. Not sex. There’s someone sitting against the back of the troll’s head, legs splayed out and head tipped back against the troll. It doesn’t look comfortable. The head is angled away from Leo, but as he watches it turns towards him.
“I know you’re there.” Tense and a little threatening.
Leo jerks his head back out of sight and blinks at the sandy darkness where the bridge meets the hillside. That voice has an underlying metallic quality to it, and he just glimpsed something like a tattoo under the jaw.
“You need to get one,” Gillian said to me. “You’re making me sad. You’re making everyone very sad.”
“A little sadness is good for people,” I said back. “It lets you appreciate the full spectrum of human emotion. The highs and lows.” I knew I wasn’t going to win this one, though. She was tenacious, like a little terrier, and dedicated to preserving my well-being, like a little terrier.
“No!” she said, and poked a finger right at my nose. “No spectrums. And no more of you being stubborn and afraid of change.”
I took a deep breath and hunched my shoulders up towards my ears. “I’m not afraid of change,” I said, and then let out the breath. The shoulders stayed right where they were, though. “Okay, I am, but I’m also just lazy. And I’m fine with how things are now!” I reached into my pocket. “Look! Look at this little guy. He’s still doing so great after all these years.”
Gillian took one look at my phone, my very ancient phone that had a cracked face so I couldn’t tell who was calling me and flipped open like an arthritic clam and had a dangly charm of one of those little Japanese waving kittens hanging off of it. She grabbed me by both biceps and said, “Too sad!”
He dreamed that she was running free through the green fields that led to the beach just to the west, her claws throwing grass torn from the earth and then sand. She turned and stopped to look back at him; she was holding a dead snake in her jaws.
“Avi, come back,” he called. But she play-lunged in the direction she was so keen to, the snake flopping ridiculously in her mouth, and so he followed.
She went to the edge of the dry sand where it became wet, and to his alarm she kept going. She ran to meet the next wave and leapt over it, and then she was swimming out into the low tide. He called for her over and over, his voice growing hoarse, and before he lost sight of her entirely he took a deep breath and ran into the water after her. He was not a great swimmer, but the sea was kind to him, holding him up to the surface instead of flinging him back to land.
They came to an island. Avi trotted up onto the wet rock and shook herself out, and then she carefully laid the snake down. She sat back on her haunches and stared at it intently. He stared too. It felt natural, expected, when the snake relaxed and uncurled its death-stiffened body and flicked its tongue at them. The three held their strange secret council, and he saw that Avi was looking at him now, her soft eyes wide and eager.
Set woke where he had fallen, exhausted from the grief that had drawn his entire body into his sobbing. He stared at the violent gash of the stars above him, and he understood. He groped for the loose soil underneath him with hands still dirty from laying it; he dug like a dog himself. Several feet down he found her, and he carefully, so carefully, pulled Avi free. He brushed the dirt from her fur and pulled off his coat to carry her in.
“I’ll find it,” he said. He was crying again. “Thank you.”
It was going to be Nostalgia Night, he decided, as he reached for another strut and inched higher up the tower. Mostly because he had some oldies stuck in his head and felt like humming as he climbed. Not like he ever picked a theme, or even ran a theme night on more than a whim.
“That tonight’s gonna be a good night,” he sang softly into the wind as he levered himself up, “that tonight’s gonna be a good, good night…” He rested for a moment, toeholds secure, and hooked one elbow around a column, then leaned back to get an eyeful of the lights of Rumeli, laid out below him and sparkling in the night. Oh, yeah. He had a good feeling about this show.
At the top, he took off his bag and set to work unpacking and assembling his kit. An antenna two centimeters long could broadcast to nearly every island on Venus, and more music than he’d be able to listen to in a lifetime fit into a little oblong case dwarfed by the clip that kept it on his collar, but the equipment that hid his location– spoofed the signal, ping-ponged it around, made it look like it was coming from anywhere but here– that stuff took a little more space, especially when you had as much of it as he did. Anything to keep up the mystique, and it didn’t hurt if it kept him out of jail too.
At 23:59 on the dot he popped a pill to counteract the helium in the air and keep his voice low and rough, turned on his mic, and got started. “Check, check… checking, five-six… This is Pirate Radio Venus. This is Pirate Radio Venus, and I’m your host, Baron Barium, saying goodnight to all you bad boys and girls out there. You’re all up past your bedtimes and tomorrow’s not getting any further away, so let’s get started, shall we?” He reached out onto thin air, fingers dancing over a projected light workstation of buttons, knobs, and sliders, and launched into the first song with a quick staccato of drums.
The way the moonlight reflected off the metal was beautiful. Asher took a step back and pushed his glasses up his nose, then blew out a sigh of relief.
The robot was complete. At least, he hoped it was. The blueprints had given way to a sculpted titanium “skeleton” which had been buried beneath polished silver “skin.” The wiring itself had taken three months. The engine, and all the handcrafted gears contained therein, six. Asher had built other things before, invented other things of his own creation, but this was definitely the biggest and most-involved invention he’d ever created.
And now all that stood between him and either an unnervingly lifelike automaton or a fiery death was an empty boiler and a pitcher of water.
“Here lies Asher Baumann,” he murmured as he picked up the pitcher. “Inventor, madman, flaming idiot.”
It took a few tries to get the ignition going to heat the boiler, and Asher had begun to worry he hadn’t set the thing up right, that somehow he’d made a fatal flaw in the blueprints and why hadn’t he tested this before now–
The boiler roared to life and Asher held his breath for far too long, waiting for the telltale sound of water boiling. The steam started to seep from a few gaps in that silver shell — he’d have to solder those later — and then the gears started to click.
And then those eyes, the beautiful turquoise lenses he’d so carefully selected from countless crystals, illuminated the workshop.
“Oh, God,” Asher murmured.
By luck, or chance, or maybe fate, I was the only wait-er in the waiting room when the neurosurgeons came in, one walking, one wheeling. The latter had the blank, semi-human almost-face of cutting-edge medical droid technology. Maybe its partner had brought it along so she could teach it how to tell friends and family that a loved one had passed away. Empathy lessons in real time, with me as today’s case study.
The human surgeon pulled a white mesh down from over the bottom half of her face. “The surgery was a success, and Senator Rask is in stable condition.”
For what felt like years, I just stared there, my gaze frozen on her wide, pretty mouth, trying to use my mind to will her to repeat that sentence, just in case I’d somehow managed to misinterpret the words ‘he’s’ and ‘dead’. I had seen the bright red fan his brains and blood had painted all over the white marble wall, after all; I still had some of both on my otherwise silver tie. The surgical droid whirred softly as it leaned a little closer to me. Its own appendages were clean. “May we speak to the family of Kayin Rask,” it said, its voice dropping pitch slightly on the last three syllables as its voice synthesizer composed proper nouns to insert into its otherwise-prepared script.
“I’m–” I scrubbed at my face. Sunlight was still streaming in from the windows outside, but this was high summer north of the Arctic Circle, so I had no idea what time or even what day it was. Mauri and Clio had been here earlier, but now they were both gone without so much as a coat left on a chair. “I have power of attorney,” I said, because it was true, and because sometimes for people like us, that’s even better than family.
A more thorough array of whining sirens, blaring horns, flashing lights, electronic beeps, and spasmodically flickering screens could hardly have been imagined, Doctor Blake thought, scowling at the chaos enveloping the main drive room. Not only was it the third time this week, it was the second time in the middle of his sleep shift, and if this kept up for much longer he’d hardly get an hour’s decent sleep a night.
But now? Not the time to be angry. Being up at all hours to keep the space station’s computers in order was his job. He needed to stay professional. Squashing down his resentment, Blake tapped his code into the access hatch and gingerly slid into the small tunnel. Despite his broad shoulders, the tube was hardly a tough squeeze; the little, semiantiquated station he called home was a mishmash of eras and building codes and if he couldn’t manage this, he’d barely be able to get around thenormal corridors.
The sudden bend from horizontal to vertical was always a bit of a challenge, though. Intellectually, he understood why they decided to seat the SysAdmin’s booth above the workstation – it gave a better view of the control panels, and made it harder for security cameras to point in in the event of a breach, but – but – oh well, he’d already gotten there. In one long, fluid motion, he crawled around the bend, stood, and pulled himself up into the crow’s nest.
Settling into the mass of cushions he’d left there in case of a night just like this, he powered up the interface. “Hey there, Cyrus. What’s with the light show?”
Lewis picked Cam up in the Personal Services annex of The Mercantile.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m Lewis.”
The young man stood and smiled. “Cam.” Their screens, Lewis knew, were running an interchange right now. He was about to thumb his on to check, but Cam put out his hand as though this were a social meeting, and Lewis shook it out of uncomfortable reflex.
He’d had some difficulty with the specs. The number and exoticism of the choices had been discomfiting, and so he’d settled on the comfortable middle range for most of them. Medium tan skin, dark hair, brown eyes; jaw and cheekbones moulded to give a plausible hint of all kinds of mixed ancestry. Reasonably good-looking, but not stunning. Haircut fashionable but not outre, a soft angle falling to a point over one eye. Clothing mutedly stylish. Smile welcoming but not forceful. A name that could have been short for something in a dozen languages. Confident, but non-intimidating.
“So,” Lewis said, “I thought we could pick up some dinner.” It wasn’t as if he didn’t know these things.
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
Lewis took him to a ramen place he enjoyed but didn’t go to often because they didn’t deliver and he hated going into restaurants to pick up. As they ate, Cam talked to him as though they were old friends reuniting, asking questions about Lewis’s job and his experiences in the city, salting in references to serial releases and odd events in the news. Lewis had been wondering if conversation with a hybrid might be a little uncanny, the illusion of an independent personality wavering under too close an observation. But the only strange thing he noticed was that Cam quoted two paragraphs more or less verbatim from a Glass Shelf review of the most recent Long Galaxy’s Journey (season sixteen, episode eight, and in Lewis’s opinion, that had been ridiculously out of character for Shoshanna, and the serial had been showing its age since Temperance Jasmine had been brought on as showrunner). That wasn’t really that weird. Lewis had probably done something similar himself.
Out on the sidewalk, with the crisp breeze smacking the backs of their necks and neon sputtering above their heads, Lewis said, “So, do you want to see my place?”
Cam smiled. “Yes, I would very much like to see your place.”