No matter how useless the final results might be, watching the loom at work never got old.
Chel loaded her latest design into the feed and emitted the chemical signature that was keyed to her allotted time to use the loom. This late in the year, she didn’t have very much time left.
With a faint hum, the loom began weaving her design. It was beautiful, the way the threads of mineral and protein came up and wove smooth bones, glistening connective tissue, jewel-like drops of blood that were just as soon enclosed in their delicate web of vessels. She would miss this when she defended her thesis and moved on to more complex life forms.
If she defended her thesis. If she had to unravel this organism, too, she’d have barely any time left on her allotment with the loom to start over. She’d have to start begging unused time from her classmates, or worse, tell an instructor she was having trouble. And that would lead to questions.
An iridescent haze coalesced in the corner of the room.
Chel let out a small puff of the chemicals that corresponded with happy and welcome, a polite greeting. “Hi, Twos. How long have you been spying on me?”
“Not long,” Twos said. She glimmered over to where Chel stood by the loom. “I was helping my mom plan her crew’s anniversary, but then I saw in the log that you were in here. This is always so much fun to watch.”
Twos was in the harmonics track and had no reason to spend time in the organism workshop, aside from being friends with Chel. She said she didn’t spend much time monitoring her immediate surroundings for chemical signatures, but Chel tried to rein in her pheromone cloud anyway. She was never more aware of being a biological being than when she was around someone who wasn’t.
“Stuck?” Twos asked. Her glimmer grew fainter for a few moments, probably as she sent some of her nanites into the system to check on Chel’s project logs (embarrassing, but that’s what you got for being friends with a powerful and deeply unethical AI), and then stronger, her usual haze contracting into a somewhat denser ball, the way she did when she wanted to get Chel’s attention.
Chel felt her whole form droop and tried to suppress a cloud of disappointment. “We’re supposed to make a model organism, something that could hypothetically live and reproduce and populate a planet, and mine just…won’t.”
Twos considered the structure on the loom, now forming pale lavender skin like algae growing on a pond. “So this is supposed to get up and walk out of here?”
“Or else you fail your thesis and what – have to repeat the course of study?”
Chel wished it would be that easy. “Worse. If I fail, the instructors ask me if this is what I really want to do with my life, like if there’s maybe other course of study I feel more ‘called’ to, and then I have to present a written argument that convinces them this is the right place for me after all. As if anyone would want to be anything other than a creator if they could.”
Twos made a noise that indicated sarcastic disbelief.
“Well, of course you should run engines if that’s what you’re really into, obviously you’re good at it.”
“Thank you,” Twos said graciously. She didn’t try to argue that harmonics was much more than running engines, it was working with the very fabric of space-time. Never mind that the way they did that was by running big engines. It was an argument they’d gone over many times before, both on and off of various mind-altering substances (or processor-altering viruses, in Twos’ case), and Chel appreciated that by now they could leave it implied.
Substances had figured into many crucial moments of their friendship, which Chel supposed only fit with their status as young, wild students. Like the time early in their acquaintanceship when Chel badgered Twos to tell her what her name was short for, and received an invitation to come over on their day off in return. Curious, Chel had shown up with a packet of intoxicant tabs (for her) and the code for the latest arc of their favorite serial (to share).
They hadn’t gotten to watch it that day, since Chel had been treated to a nine-hour recitation of what was evidently Twos’ mother’s favorite number. According to Twos, it made a kind of corny name, but it was really beautiful, especially when you get to the base 3 derivation, so could you really blame her mom? Chel, on her third or fourth number-induced trance of the day, readily agreed. And there were a lot of twos in it; the nickname made a certain amount of sense.
Twos had laughed, and explained that her name contained lots of every digit when it was expressed in base ten, and declined to explain where her nickname did come from. Chels hadn’t even noticed until the next day.
The form on the loom was growing a fine dusting of violet hair over approximately 60% of its surface area. The loom was slowing down, its work nearly done. Chel didn’t want to read the scan output. This was right around the time when if there was ever going to be brain activity, it would start. Chel had successfully woven a mammal once – once! – so she knew that it was technically possible.
She didn’t realize she had been forming her appendages into tight, anxious knots until Twos said, “There, there. If it doesn’t work out this time, I’ll interface with its systems and animate the organism for you.”
“You can’t do that,” Chel said reflexively.
“I bet I could. It’s a simple enough system. You want to pass this course, right?”
Chel did want to pass the course. She very badly wanted to work on making amorphous, multi-purpose organisms like herself, and get out of the finicky world of cells and bones. Still. “The instructors will see through it in an instant.”
“Just let me try,” Twos said. “I bet you twelve credits that after a couple hours’ practice I’ll be a natural.”
The loom chimed musically, signaling that its process was complete. Chel read the scan, resigned (no activity), then went through the standard diagnostic suite for a newly-woven organism (still lots of nothing), then reached out a tendril and physically poked one of the form’s appendages. It flopped to one side, like any object might when poked.
“Let me try,” Twos wheedled, drawing out the final sound.
“Ugh, fine. But when this fails, you’re helping me beg extra time from Nikal.”
Twos’ glittering cloud became spiky with displeasure. “Nikal is the worst; why would you ask her for anything?”
Chel huffed out a small fog of musty annoyance. “Because she’s the best at this, so she has the most extra time with the loom.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter, because you won’t need to.” With that, Twos’ habitual person-sized cloud diffused until Chel could barely see her, then shimmered around the form in the loom. As Chel watched, the glittering nanites sank into the skin.
Then….nothing. Nothing continued to happen for a long time (on a tense, anxious student’s standards) or a very, very long time (on a supercomputer’s standards).
Chel began to wonder if perhaps being inside a body was harmful for Twos, or possibly even lethal. Twos’ nanites never seemed to be harmed by any of the environments Chel saw her in, but there were billions of them, and as Twos had explained on one notable occasion, they did self-replicate.
(“So you could become as big as this building, if you wanted to? As big as a moon?” Twos had said, cryptically, that there was no benefit to making that many nanites. When Chel had pressed, she’d explained that she was already at optimal computational capacity, and if she wanted to experience the world as if she were the size of a building, she could simply spread out and inhabit the building they were currently in. That was the day Chel learned that Twos habitually used the built-in light, motion, and atmosphere sensors of whatever room they were in to pad out her perception, so expanding would be trivial. For reasons that she couldn’t put into words, Chel had found the idea of being inside a building that Twos was inhabiting incredibly intriguing, and incredibly embarrassing to even contemplate telling Twos about. “Cool,” she’d said.)
But as far as Chel knew, Twos had never inhabited a biological organism that way. Maybe the acidity inside an organism broke down her nanites faster then they could regenerate, and it would all be Chel’s fault –
Beside her, the form in the loom sniffed, loudly.
“Are you worrying? Quit it, it’s stinking up the room. I can even smell it from in here.”
The organism had a low, throaty voice. Quite pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint, Chel noted. Solely as a designer might.
“Took me a while to calibrate all the senses so I could understand them, sorry. You couldn’t have built this thing so it conformed to universal design standards?”
“Of shipbuilding? That’s not how any of this works.”
“I’m kidding,” Twos said in that absolutely perfect, honeyed voice. She flexed the form’s fingers a few times, opened its eyes, and stepped gracefully out of the loom’s suspension field. She didn’t even wobble a tiny bit to get her balance.
Chel suspected that that Twos had spent a relative eon in there without responding because she was getting everything perfect, just to show off.
In motion, the body looked completely different, just like the woven body had looked so much realer than Chel’s design. The skin was faintly iridescent, changing hue from bluish-lavender to lavender-ish gray as it moved. The bilateral symmetry, two-arms, two-legs, one-head format that Chel had found such a chore to design looked almost elegant in its simplicity. The eyes, which had given Chel such a problem – why have these massively complex, finicky structures in one place when you could have photosensitivity over your whole surface, like a normal person? – were surprisingly pretty, and Chel couldn’t stop looking at the mouth. It seemed so obscene, to have a dedicated path to the interior of one’s body, just sitting there, front and center.
Twos made a face. “You’re staring.”
“You’re weird,” Chel retorted.
“I feel weird,” Twos confirmed. “Is this what it’s like for you, all day, every day?”
Chel watched her do a few squats and then walk around the room, trying out a different gait every few steps until she settled into a long, efficient one that she seemed to prefer.
“It’s all…a tiny slice of the world, but also everything, all at once. I can’t stop smelling things. I can feel my digestive tract! But if I want to look at you, I have to turn my whole head, and then I can’t look over there.”
Chel ignored any of the other questions that might raise in favor of the easiest one. “Why did you activate the digestive tract? You shouldn’t need it unless you’re planning on eating something.”
“I activated all the processes. Gotta fool the instructors, right?”
“Well, eventually. My thesis isn’t due this very moment.”
“It had better not be, because I don’t think I could fool a creator for more than a couple seconds right now.”
Chel realized that she had been excited in the split second she thought Twos was planning on eating something. Chel should have shown Twos her favorite foods – or versions that were compatible with this body, at least – and it might have gone better than their last attempt to bridge the organic/non-organic life form divide. Not that they weren’t managing to get along fine; it just seemed like an opportunity wasted.
“Maybe you should check and make sure there aren’t any I missed,” Twos was saying.
“Right,” Chel agreed absently.
“Bodily processes? Since you were the one who designed this thing and you’d know?”
Chel tried to hold in a fine mist of flustered indignation, and mostly failed. “Right, yes, good call. Though I’m sure you got them all.” She led Twos to the diagnostic table and started up the scan.
Twos swung up onto the low platform and lay down, in one smooth motion.
“How do you do that? Babies in bipedal species usually take months to learn how to walk, much less…all that.”
Twos grinned. Great, now Chel knew what her smug, self-satisfied tone looked like. “It’s not that hard.”
“If I had to get around on two legs, with a center of gravity that high off the ground, I’d fall over constantly.”
“I was raised by the galaxy’s best ship, you know. I’ve been piloting different shuttles since before I could compute my own name. This isn’t so different.”
Chel made a small noncommittal noise. It seemed like it should be different, since Chel certainly couldn’t have built a shuttle, but who was she to say.
Just to say that she’d done it, Chel checked over the results from the scan. It pronounced the organism perfectly healthy, all systems in order.
“You didn’t miss any processes,” she said for Twos’ benefit.
“Sweet.” Twos sat up and was suddenly very close to Chel.
For all that she had put the bare minimum effort into this design, it was arresting up close. She hadn’t counted on the way the muscles would move under their padding of skin and fat, or the way certain places would flush dark with blood, or how the body would be in constant motion even when still, breathing and swallowing and adjusting balance.
Chel extended a tendril and stroked the skin of the arm, where the short hair started to shade into nothing. It felt a little rough, then soft and elastic. A quite exhale startled Chel, and she snatched her appendage away. She had forgotten that this wasn’t just an arm in the abstract, that Twos was in there. “Sorry.”
“Do it again? That felt – ” Twos extended her arm, turning it over to expose the soft, pale underneath.
This is part of the calibrations, Chel told herself, quickly assembling a rationale even as she reached out again. This time Chel formed a larger tendril, the width of Twos’ widest finger, and ran it purposely up Twos’ forearm, then back down again. The skin puckered up as the hairs raised on end – a reaction Chel vaguely remembered coding in because it was standard, but she didn’t know it would be this fascinating to see in person. When she repeated the motion with a firmer pressure, the skin turned pale in the small, trailing comet-tail after her touch.
“Oh, fuck,” Twos said.
Chel immediately lightened her touch, too conscious of what she’d been doing. “Are you okay?”
Twos shook her head and pulled her arm back, rubbing it. “The buffer on this thing is terrible. I can barely process language when you do that, there’s so much bleedthrough.”
“Do you want me to stop?”
“Fuck, no, I want you to touch me everywhere.”
“Uh,” Chel said. Purposely touching your friend’s arm wasn’t done, in a way that made doing it feel a little risqué. Touching your friend everywhere simply wasn’t done. Not unless they were doing something else entirely.
Twos leaned in, close enough that Chel could smell her breath. A normal person would apologize for overstepping. Twos just said, “I could really use more sensory data to go on, here.”
The problem was, Chel wanted to.
And it wasn’t like a chance like this would ever come up again. She very carefully stayed where she was, not getting any closer, and reached out to loop arms around Twos’ ankle, both wrists, a knee. She stroked softly, just circling, and Twos bit her lip, making a tiny sound. Chel focused on their points of contact, trying to commit it all to memory, and deliberately did not think about reaching out and wrapping Twos up in all the tendrils she could form.
“You have no idea how that feels,” Twos said. “I can’t have mapped this right.”
“How does it feel?” Chel asked, against her better judgement.
“Good but weird. I’m not used to having boundaries like this. I thought the skin senses were just so people don’t run into things, but this is completely excessive. Let me try something, hold on.”
Chel waited as directed, vividly aware of the numerous points where she was still physically holding on to Twos’ body. Twos made an expression of mild exertion as she adjusted whatever it was that let her parse out the body’s sensations.
After a moment Twos pursed her lips and said, “Well, that’s no good, now I can’t feel the table I’m sitting on.”
Chel petted her knee. So many different kinds of places, on this body. “Anything?”
Twos shook her head. Chel could tell the moment she dialed her sense back up, because Twos gave a little shiver and went more pliant. Chel realized she was still absently petting her knee and stopped, embarrassed. She was also gently squeezing Twos’ ankle. She made herself relax, but she couldn’t quite make herself let go.
“Do you have to go?” Twos asked. She hadn’t moved away either.
“No. I have the room for a while longer.” Not long enough to weave a whole new body from scratch, but enough time for … whatever this was.
“Good.” Twos slipped her thumb under the thin loop of Chel around her wrist and rubbed gently. Lazy sparks traveled along the arm, back up to her main mass, and without meaning to, Chel extended a few more tendrils, pausing just before they made contact.
“Do it,” Twos said, sounding a little breathy. “You keep reaching out and stopping, I want to see what you’re thinking about doing.”
“Ok,” Chel said, helpless. She reached out with as many arms as she could muster in her current frame of mind and touched Twos everywhere, just like she had asked. Long, winding strokes that startled a peal of laughter out of her at first, then left her breathing unevenly and sagging in Chel’s grasp when she didn’t let up.
This wasn’t a body that could communicate in scent, but up this close it had a scent nevertheless, and it was getting stronger.
Twos nuzzled her face against the arm that Chel had looped over her shoulder, and Chel felt something hard graze her – was that teeth?
It was confirmed a second later when Twos nipped at her, and then gasped, open-mouthed and damp. “Oh fuck, I think I’m horny. You know when beings that reproduce sexually get–“
“I know,” Chel cut her off. They’d had a whole module on sexual reproduction, all the fluids and hormones and specialized cells. It hadn’t seemed anything close to as interesting as this.
Partly out of curiosity, and partly because she couldn’t stop focusing on Twos’ warm, open mouth so close to her surface, she asked, “What’s it like?”
“I want to bite. And grab, and just – more.” She smoothed her hand over Chel’s main mass, then dug her fingers in, dimpling the surface. “Does this hurt?”
She squeezed harder, making a fist. Her fingernails were bright little pinpricks over the dull, satisfying throb of being enclosed. “This?”
“You could do that more,” Chel said, accompanying the words with a heady waft of yes please good.
Twos gleefully grabbed another handful, then nipped at Chel’s nearest arm and hooked a leg around her. “Come up here with me, you’re so far away.”
Chel flowed up onto the table, following as Twos laid back, and was rewarded by another bright nip of teeth and Twos wrapping her legs right around her, squeezing tight. They were roughly the same size; for an organism with a fixed body plan, Twos was managing to get an impressive amount of herself around Chel.
“You smell so good.” Twos pushed her face into Chel’s mass, inhaling deeply. Then she opened her mouth and licked. Chel was arching against it, pushing a lobe of herself into that wet heat before she had even fully processed what it was.
“More of that, please,” she managed to get out.
Twos sucked on the same spot, pulling Chel into a perfect tiny microcosm of slippery tightness and heat. When it got so good that she nearly made Chels go formless with it, she relaxed her mouth and let Chel run exploratory tendrils over her teeth, her tongue, the impossibly smooth insides of her cheeks.
Then she rolled them over and pressed Chel into the body-warm material of the table making her throb all over, and oh, Chel had never loved gravity more.
It was good that the table was wide. Twos hiked her knee up to the general vicinity of her waist and ground down, pinning Chel viciously with her elbows and as she did so. Chel was momentarily too distracted by those twin points of sweet, radiating pressure to notice anything else, but when Twos let out a low grunt and ground again, Chel caught up with the program.
“Genitals, right,” Chel said.
Twos gasped out a laugh. “I wondered when you’d think of that.”
“You could have said something.”
Twos ground down again, pointed, and Chel couldn’t help but puff out a burst of amused affection. Twos was slick where she was grinding herself against Chel, so much so that she couldn’t have been getting much friction at all. Chel flexed, making her elastic form as rigid as she could manage, and extended an array of tiny, short nubs right where Twos was rubbing herself. Twos squealed with delight, then buried her face in Chel’s nearest appendage, grinning.
“Yeah, like that, fuck.” She got into a new rhythm, pushing down onto Chel as Chel pushed up against her.
Twos had arched back to get better leverage, bringing that glorious mouth sadly out of reach. The effect the angle was having on her was obvious though, in the way she moved, in the way she smelled. Chel wrapped strong arms around her thighs and up her back and held on.
It seemed like Twos might be content to do this forever, but after a few minutes so slowed down. “I think there’s an opening, here, if you want to try.”
She put her hand out and Chel obligingly extended a tendril. There had been genitals in her design because she didn’t want her thesis to fail. It had never once occurred to her that it was a place you could go into.
Twos wound the narrow tip of her tendril around her fingers so it was as if they reached between her legs with one hand. Twos’ fingers found what they were looking for, pausing just inside the opening, and Chel fluttered her tendril against the delicate skin there, not knowing how much of her might fit.
“Oh, wow,” Twos crooned. She rolled onto her side to get a better angle, and slipped two of her fingers inside. Chel watched them disappear, fascinated, and then wound herself between and around them, following her in. That briny-sweet taste was the strongest here, and it was hot and slick and she was surrounded on all sides by satin flesh.
If she could have poured her whole form inside Twos, she would have. It was perfect, she needed all of it. Chel slipped another tendril in, curling around the first one. Twos clutched at her and made encouraging noises. Occasionally words would come through, like, “There, that’s amazing,” or “More, I can take it.” Chel did her best, held her up and moved within her and gave her a firm arm to rock against.
All the while, Two’s scent was growing stronger, and from the inside, Chel imagined she could feel the electricity singing along the nerves. She could absolutely feel the blood hammering in the veins, a quick counterpoint to Twos’ great heaving breaths as Chel worked her over.
She would have known when Twos came to a climax even if Twos hadn’t yelled out loud. Everything in her seemed to draw taught, coming to the crest of some hill, and then she was shaking in Chel’s embrace as she came down, clenching in waves where she held Chel inside, until finally the last shocks passed and she rolled onto her back.
“Are you, uh, done? Can I do that to you?”
“Yeah.” Chel felt her hold on her composure slip a little, just thinking about it.
“What do you want?”
“Bite me again. As hard as you can. And, pull on me?” She knotted a sturdy tendril around Twos’ hand and tugged, by way of demonstration.
Twos caught on immediately, raking her free hand over Chel’s surface and picking up a dozen opportunistic tendrils in her wake.
“Are you always this….sticky?”
“No, but I’m really close. Less talking.”
Twos laughed and obliged, tugging at her handful with firm but firm but inexorable tension. Chel felt like the way gas swirling into a black hole must feel: helpless, on fire, being transformed into something entirely new. Then Twos fastened her teeth onto some other part of Chel – she was losing track of what was where – and bit down, not letting up. She could feel her molecules sliding together, making way, she was in the heart of a star – and then Twos squeezed her knees together around her hard, and twisted up a new handful of strands, and applied another starburst of teeth somewhere, and Chel went entirely liquid.
Chel spread over her in a web of drops and rivulets as Twos caught her breath, just letting her mind be white static. She tasted the sweat where it had collected in the hollows of Twos’ body, feeling the pulse flutter in the places where her skin was thin.
Eventually, she collected herself enough to form a thin tendril and curl it around Twos’ lower lip. Twos nibbled at it, playfully, and said, “You can’t be ready for round two yet. I’m wiped out.”
With considerable effort, Chels gathered the rest of herself together. “No, not yet. My reservation’s almost up on the room, though.”
“Well, we’d better get out of here and let the next person have it.” Twos swung herself off the table and did a few languorous stretches.
Chel watched her, all those ridiculous specialized parts working together to form one whole. It was interesting, at the very least. Maybe there was some value to these organisms after all.
Twos paused by the door, and Chel followed reluctantly, gathering up her tablet and water container.
“Got any plans after this?”
“Not immediately,” Chel said. “I was going to go to the library at some point.”
Twos waved a hand. “Not important. Take me to the cafeteria, I want to try eating next.”
Chel emitted a small burst of affectionate happiness. “I can’t wait to see what you think about eating.”
Twos leaned into Chel and nipped lightly at her surface. “And after that….we still have a few days before you have to defend your thesis. I’m sure we can come up with plenty of things to do while I’m in this body.”