by Himawari (ヒマワリ)
illustrated by aspectabund

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/280961.html)

Security monitor log:
10183658 local time
Sun-Mars L5 Emergency Notification activated.
begin station sensor scan: …
sensoralert: fabrication.p12.firealert
sensoralert: fabrication.p12.decompressionalert
sensoralert: fabrication.p12.vacuumalert
sensoralert: fabrication.p13.decompressionalert
sensoralert: fabrication.p14.decompressionalert
sensoralert: fabrication.p14.doorseal
…sensor scan complete:
searching for relevant camera footage….

Alarms got attention like nothing else did, that was the point of them. True, they were just one more sort of data, but when the Sun-Mars L5 station emergency system went off, calling emergency personnel to their posts and asking that residents stay ringside, Jensen stopped other active analysis and got to work.

Jensen had made himself useful in various ways on the station in the past, which got him access to perhaps more of the security feeds and lines of communication than he should have had, even if he did work for Acton Darling of Futura Propulsion. He had done some large data analysis jobs for station controllers, and it helped that Darling had both encouraged this and reinforced it by doing the occasional moonlight consulting on a tough engineering problem or ten. It paid to be polite, and it paid to have a brilliant and sociable engineer at your back. So it wasn’t difficult for Jensen to home in on the source of the problem: some sort of explosion in the fab shop.

Sun-Mars L5 was a torus station, a spinning wheel sitting in space at a libration point, with forty thousand people living in the centripetal force “gravity” of the ring, protected from cosmic radiation on the “floor” of the wheel by a massive layer of crushed Mars-rock-like treads on an enormous bicycle wheel, and warmed by reflected sunlight through the chevron shield windows in the “ceiling” of the wheel. The ringside habitat revolved around a docking hub for entering and departing ships; enormous spokes ran up through the habitat and connected it to the stationary hub. The hub also had tubes running away from the colony along the axis of rotation. These led to the colony’s main mirror, suspended in open space on one side, and on the other side to the fab unit, a solar-powered factory that could make any number of components from a combination of processed Mars rock material and abundant solar power. It was there that a combination of fire suppression circuits and rapid depressurization sensors had been tripped, the warning of both of the biggest dangers on any space colony.

At least it had happened in the fabrication unit, which had many more pressure bulkheads in it than the main habitat body, and was designed for the risks of chemical exposure and unexpected reactivity that were inherent to fabrication work. Jensen quickly rolled through footage from the last few minutes in the fab unit, and sure enough, there was Preston Cormo working with the silicon chemical vapor deposition unit, when the explosion happened. There was a flash, and as the camera shook Jensen could see that Cormo had been blown backward out of frame and–Jensen switched feeds–into the next room. The pressure bulkhead between the two rooms slammed shut, which would at least protect Preston from further injury by fire or depressurization, but he was almost certainly injured.

Only a few seconds had ticked by since the emergency alert had gone out, but as Jensen called up the schematic of pressure bulkhead sensors in the fab unit, Darling was already requesting a status report, looking up at the cameras in his lab, his emergency mask and kit already in his hands, though that was likely because he had been about to leave the suite for other reasons entirely.

“Jensen, what’s the alert about? Give me a status report.”

“There appear to be both fire and depressurization warnings in the fab unit, though I believe any combustion may have been put out by the depressurization. The source seems to be the silicon vapor deposition unit in room P-12, and the explosion knocked Mr. Cormo into room P-13. It appears that he is protected from further injury by a pressure bulkhead, but he is undoubtedly injured, and P-12 appears to be open to hard vacuum.”

“Shit, that’s bad. And he was working on a huge batch of parts for me this week–shit! Open a line to Markov for both of us, tell her what you know, ask what she needs.”

Jensen did so. When the fab unit crew chief took the call, she barked, “No, I don’t know what happened yet–”

“We have information that might help, Chief Markov,” Jensen broke in.

“Jensen. Go.”

“Camera footage indicates a likely explosion in the silicon vapor deposition Preston Cormo was using in room P-12, and that the explosion blew him into P-13 before the pressure bulkheads went down. P-12 is not holding atmosphere, and there is evidence of a hull breach. I am now scanning camera feeds for other rooms in the complex, and it appears that both Ana da Silva and Ella Makeba are trapped in clean room P-15, as there is no other exit except through P-12.”

Markov said something vicious-sounding in Russian that Jensen didn’t bother to look up. “That’s not good, especially not if we need a second vacuum tech to get in there, Hao had to go back to Mars. I’m letting emergency services know what to expect when they get to Preston.”

Acton broke in. “Antonina, I can be your second tech if you need me, my cert is in order.”

“That’s a risky thing to ask you to do, Acton; let’s look at all the possible solutions first, before we settle on that one.” Markov sighed. “Jensen, can you contact them in the clean room and ask how their air supply is looking, while Acton and I talk options?”

“I can monitor both calls simultaneously. Please let me know if you need me.”

“Great. Thanks, Jensen. Acton, talk to me!”

Jensen busied himself contacting the clean room, where he was able to patch into the headset of Ella’s bunny suit. “There was a loud bang outside, and now we can’t get the door open. What’s going on?” she asked. She was breathing more quickly than was probably advisable. He repeated the information as he knew it, and she gasped in horror at the news about Preston, then groaned in frustration when she realized the implications for the clean room. “Great. So we’re stuck in here?”

“Until they can get the outer room repressurized, yes. Take deep breaths, Ms. Makeba, they’re already working on a solution. Chief Markov needs an estimate of your air supply, please, so if you could look at the tanks….”

“Right.” He heard faint shuffling as she walked across the lab in her bunny suit. “Right now, we estimate about five hours of air, and there are two emergency tanks in the closet that we could switch in, but we believe that will only buy us another hour, and the waste gas levels are going to get unpleasant after about four hours. Okay. Let Chief know that. We just have to stay put, right?”

“Correct, Ms Makeba. Is Ms da Silva all right?”

More rustling. “We’re both okay, just frightened. Is Preston going to be all right, do you know?”

“I am monitoring other calls, and it sounds as if medical assistance is en route and will reach him shortly. I am needed on the other call, but please do contact me if you have or need further information.”

“Okay. Thanks, Jensen.” She ended the call.

Jensen had been reviewing the conversation that was happening on the other connection. They had agreed that Darling would be Markov’s second pair of hands, and he was already almost to the base of the lift tower in Janey Hart section, bound for the hub and one of Markov’s spare vacuum suits. One of the colony’s repair capsules would transport them down the outside of the lift tube to the fab unit, where they would cut away the necessary debris and access the damaged compartment from the outside, and attempt to turn off the silane leak if there was still any gas left to leak. They would then work with the repair crew to patch both inside and outside of the compartment walls at the same time. Only after the patch was finished and proven to hold air would they be able to repressurize the compartment and get the two workers out of the clean room.

This was not how Darling’s day was to have gone. He had been about to leave the Futura Propulsion suite and go over to Leverton Section, to the health center, to help with a very different sort of project: the public trial of the APGAR system. APGAR was a holographic artificial intelligence system intended for independent diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions, designed to be used in places and at times when access to human doctors was limited or entirely impossible. The hard holographic projection system enabled the APGAR hologram to manipulate solid objects and lift a fair amount of weight, while remaining customizable in appearance for the needs of a variety of patients.

The developer of the APGAR system, Kenni Ishikawa, had roped various friends and colleagues into acting as simulated patients for the first tests, which had gone very well. It was now time to do some public testing, with real patients who would choose to take part while being treated for common ailments and wellness care. Everyone was eager and nervous for these tests to go well: Darling, Kenni Ishikawa, his head practice patient and biggest fan My Ishikawa, and Futura Propulsion’s newest Chief Financial Officer, Dynin Nkosi. That My was also Kenni’s mother and Dynin was, as of a few days ago, apparently Darling’s new boyfriend, was a testament to the close-knit life on a space colony. The rest of the team were already at the health center, preparing for the public trial, but Jensen had been wondering whether that would be put off when he heard My’s voice, requesting that he call Darling and connect him to both herself and Dynin.

He put through the call.

“Acton, what’s your status? I don’t think you can get here on the lifts; there’s been a silane gas leak up in the fab unit, pressure bulkheads down, not all staff accounted for.”

“I’m headed for the fab shop,” Acton replied. “They need someone else who is fully certified for hard vacuum maintenance.”

My was displeased at this news. “How in the…?”

“The lead vacuum tech is away. Markov just contacted me and asked if I could suit up. They’ve got Ana and Ella stuck in the clean room up in fab; they’re freaked out but they’re okay. It threw Preston into the next room when it exploded, and he’s badly burned, but the bulkhead held so they could get him out. A lot of the rest of the folks up there need to be checked out for toxin and smoke exposure, so I’m up.”

Jensen didn’t point out that Acton had volunteered, strictly speaking. My remained displeased, but after further explanation of the situation, and multiple assurances that Acton would be as careful as possible, she acquiesced. “Okay, Acton. Hey, be careful up there.”

“Yes, Okaasan, I will. I promise.”

Then Jensen heard Dynin cut in. “Jensen, cut the uplink for a minute, I need to have a consult with My.”

Jensen stayed on the line, but didn’t interrupt, as Dynin quietly and worriedly queried My about how-dangerous-is-that-anyway and I’m-worried-but-I-can’t-tell-my-CTO-and-n

ew-boyfriend-what-to-do. Jensen tried not to pry, checking the camera feeds again up at the fabrication unit as My gave Dynin a quick pep talk, and then a hug.

“Jensen, can you give me a link to Acton, please?” Dynin’s voice again.

“Certainly, Dynin. Link is up now.” Here, too, Jensen tried not to pry, busying himself with checking in on the emergency response traffic coming from the station hub. The first medics on the scene were reporting one person with significant burn injuries and possibly some blast damage, but that he was responsive as they stabilized him for transport. A number of fabrication unit employees were being checked for silane exposure, after which they would be brought ringside to the Health Center for further screening. This occupied his attention until Dynin had finished his conversation and asked Jensen to cut the link.

My and Dynin began walking back toward the Health Center. “Jensen, I have another task for you, when you have a moment. Can you give Gino and Kenni the briefing? Ze won’t get an official order until they finish triage up at the fab unit, I don’t think, so if you can tell hir what we know, I think that would be useful.”

“It would be my pleasure, My.”

APGAR environment log:
10183658 local time
Sun-Mars L5 Emergency Notification activated.
Contacting emergency triage system and reporting ready for auxiliary first responder status… done.

The Health Center had given over two of its exam rooms in the general medicine department for the APGAR trial, and Gino was sitting in the middle of the holographic grid, helping My do the final calibrations, when the alarms started sounding.

My stopped, still on a stepstool where she had been adjusting one of the projection sensors in the corner of the ceiling, and listened. “Gino? What’s the protocol for this situation? Do we even have one?”

Gino looked up from hir holographic workstation. “Yes, we do. I’ve already reported to the first responder system. We’ll see what they want once they know more. They may cancel us for today, or have us go on as normal, or pull me into some other task. It’s up to them, really, but we’re already registered with the first responder system and Kenni has been giving them status reports.”

illustrated by aspectabund

My sighed. “All right, then. How’s the focus on your right side, now?”

Gino waved a hand and examined the output. Then ze picked up the multifunction exam scope from the table and hefted it experimentally, first in hir right hand, then hir left. “Ah, much better, no more fuzziness. Thank you, My, that’s a relief. I think my patients would probably be uncomfortable if my right arm were always a little bit fuzzy and greenish, don’t you think?” Ze smiled.

My chuckled as she stepped down and joined Gino at the desk.. “Yes, though anyone who knows you wouldn’t be worried at all, Gino. You have a good enough bedside manner to allay any concerns about a little green fuzz.”

“Thanks, My. And thanks for the calibration, though what we’ll use it for now, we don’t know yet.”

“We’ll see, I suppose,” My said with a shrug and a pat on Gino’s shoulder. “Are you nervous? I think they’ll probably let the trial go on, unless they need Kenni’s expertise as a first responder elsewhere. The two of you are probably the most use here.”

Gino thought about this, and shrugged in return. “We’ll see what they say. They won’t assign me anything outside of the parameters they know I’m prepared for. But if it’s something big, perhaps they’ll need Kenni’s skills more as a practitioner than backing me up.” If they were insisting occupants stay ringside, and not issuing any orders regarding a particular section of the ring, it was likely a problem in a lift, or at the hub, or in one of the sections off the hub. Hopefully that meant there weren’t too many casualties.

“You know what?” My said, interrupting Gino’s train of thought as she stepped toward the door. “I’m going to go outside and see if Dynin and Acton are having trouble getting here. I’ll be back shortly, okay? If I find out anything else, I’ll let you know, keep your earpiece on.”

Gino smiled. “I always do, My.” In point of fact it was generally in hir ear by default when ze started up hir hologrammatic self, though it could be removed and set down, or removed and deleted from the presence. Being an AI with a holographic presence did have its advantages in terms of not losing your stuff. Ze checked all the hologram system parameters one more time, just to make sure they were staying stable, and then looked over the table and checked hir instruments again, even though ze knew they were exactly where ze wanted them. It was a human mannerism, to check what you knew was already in place, but ze did it anyway sometimes, when waiting, or giving others time to things. Ze opened up a channel to Kenni, in the next room. “Have you been given first responder orders?”

“Nope, not yet. How about you? Okay, this is silly, I’m coming next door,” He said, and she could hear him getting up from his chair.

“No. Do you think they’re going to cancel the trial?”

“Maybe. It depends on how big the emergency is. I think we’ll know soon, though. If they do let us go forward, do you have any last minute concerns?” He appeared in the doorway, and leaned against it, earpiece still in his ear. His voice was as kind as ever. Gino hadn’t chosen to take after Kenni in his physical appearance: he was the sort of stocky, bear-like man who kept a fluffy beard and rolled up his exam coat sleeves over his strong, fuzzy arms. Ze had gone for a slight, fair, androgynous look instead, unless patients asked for something else, but ze did try to emulate his relaxed kindness. It worked with patients and friends alike.

“I don’t have any, no. We got the hologram grid working, and my right arm isn’t greenish and fuzzy anymore.”

“Well, that’s good. Green isn’t your best color.” He smiled.

Gino’s earpiece beeped, then, with an incoming call. “Jensen, go ahead,” ze said.

“Good morning Kenni and Gino,” Jensen’s voice sounded over the speakers. “I’ve got a briefing on the station emergency, if you’re ready.”

“Sure, Jensen, shoot.”

The AI outlined the details of an explosion in the fabrication unit and the likely health needs of the workers. “I expect you will hear soon how they want the trial to proceed. My and Dynin are coming back to the Health Center now.”

“What about Acton? Did he get stuck back in Janey?”

“No, he did not.” Jensen paused. “He is going up to the hub to help Chief Markov do the vacuum repair work on the damaged compartment.”

“Wow.” Kenni sounded concerned. “He’s still got that certification? That’s dedication.”

“My said some similar things. She was displeased that he is going, and it is clear that Dynin is worried as well.” Somehow Jensen managed to convey mild dismay through the speakers, and Gino presumed he was as concerned as she would be, were it Kenni doing such a dangerous task.

“Well, nothing we can do about it right now,” Kenni said, and Gino could hear the shrug in his voice. “Let him know we hope he’s careful, when next you speak with him, okay Jensen?”

“I will do that, Kenni, and thank you.” Jensen sounded mildly reassured by this, something about the reduced tension in his tone of voice, now.

The worktop lit up with a new message, as the same message registered directly in Gino’s brain. “Just a moment, Jensen, we’re getting orders.” Ze scanned the message. “Oh. They want the trial to continue, and they may triage more simple cases up here as they triage hub workers downstairs in emergency.”

“Sounds fine to me, I wonder if that means we’ll see different things than usual. More interesting than travel medicine and routine vaccinations, right, Gino?” Kenni said with a chuckle.

Soon after that, it became clear that the day would be more than busy enough. For the first few hours, it was exactly the sort of mundane patients Kenni predicted. Three influenzas, two cases of strep, four infant vaccinations, two sprained ankles, one broken wrist referred to an orthopedist, one likely hypothyroidism referred to an endocrinologist, and the list went on. Gino knew that the office staff had to ask everyone individually whether they were willing to be seen as part of the APGAR trial, but ze was a little surprised at how many people with children assented to be seen by an experimental medical AI. But that was marvelous, because in trials so far, Gino hadn’t had the chance to treat any infants, and it turned out that they liked hir, whichever gender presentation their parents had selected. Ze found it quite enjoyable to interact with the smallest of patients.

“What do you say to Doctor Apgar, sweetie?” One woman asked her tiny daughter, after Gino had examined the little girl’s ears, eyes and nose, and then gently administered a tiny, banana-scented nasal spray of rotavirus booster. Gino didn’t envy doctors back when children associated them with hypodermic needles: such vaccines were a thing of the past, and doctors had a much better reputation with the pre-kindergarten set now. The mother had asked for a male Doctor Apgar, no further specifications, and so Gino was currently using a favorite male representation, a tall man with bushy black hair and a bass voice.

“Tank you Doctah Apgah!” The little girl yelled cheerily, waving a striped ragdoll around, and lurched off the exam table while snagging Gino in a surprise hug.

Gino narrowly avoided a tiny flailing arm to the nose, and hugged back, gently, being careful to speak quietly, because boy, did this physrep have a more booming voice than ze remembered. “Thank you for coming in today, Kara, and thank you for being such a wonderful patient.” Ze–well, he, right now–passed the little girl to her waiting mother, and waved goodbye as they left. Once the exam room was empty, Gino checked Kenni’s monitor and unmuted the sound to find him, as expected, cracking up.

“Nice save, Doctor!” He said between chuckles.

Gino raised one bushy black eyebrow. “We need to talk about protocols for small patients. I would hate for a fault in the projection system to let a toddler fall right through me. Do we need a lower bench for pediatric office visits?”

“That can happen to anyone, Gino, and you did just the right thing, gave her a hug and handed her back. Maybe we should investigate making some sort of ped-specific low exam furniture part of the operating specs, though. We’ll talk about it, okay?”

“Thank you, Kenni. Oh, but just a moment; you’re not having an acephalgic migraine, I need to switch physreps, okay?” As Kenni chuckled at the neurological humor, Gino instructed the projection system to switch back to hir default representation, causing a cascade of multicolored auras to scintillate around hir form as it went indistinct and then reformed again. Ze tapped the button indicating ze was ready for hir next patient. If anyone ever asked, yes, it was very strange to shrink a number of inches in a second, but ze was getting used to the change in perspective whenever ze changed physical representations, and the colors were pretty. It could have been a great party trick, if it weren’t also probably an epilepsy trigger for the right sort of patient. Ze activated the camera feeds to the waiting rooms in general medicine and emergency, and wow, the one in emergency now had most chairs filled. “I think we’re about to get busier, there’s a crowd downstairs now.”

And it did get busier, as more fabrication unit workers trickled in to be checked for chemical exposure. Some of them were sent upstairs to general medicine, because while many workers hadn’t been anywhere near the rooms affected, it was routine to check over workers individually after a depressurization accident or an explosion. Scrambling inevitably occurred when pressure bulkheads slammed closed, so all workers were to be checked for bumps and bruises. Gino found hirself asking the same questions over and over, asking for the workers’ stories of the evacuation, listening for signs of bumped noses, handing out the water pouches someone from reception thoughtfully dropped in the office, encouraging them to eat, drink, take a bathroom break, go home, et cetera, et cetera.

Ze heard the same questions over and over in response: “Who was injured? Is everyone accounted for? Do you think we’ll be back at work tomorrow? What should I do now?” Ze encouraged them to get sandwiches and coffee downstairs, to contact their coworkers, to ask their managers if they had questions about work tomorrow, but ze couldn’t leave the office to do anything about it, not to hand anyone coffee, not to walk someone to meet their labmates. This was harder than Gino had expected, and it was a surprise. Ze wondered if it was hir own response to the accident, in lieu of a more human limbic response to the crisis. Muted or not, compared to a rush of adrenaline, it was still an unpleasant feeling.

As word spread about Preston’s injuries and about Ana and Ella being stuck in the clean room, all Gino’s patients became more somber, their faces weighted down by worry. Kenni checked in after each patient, and his face was beginning to look long as well. While ze kept hir face schooled into a professional expression, whichever physical representation ze was “wearing” at the moment, Gino felt helpless, and ze worried too.

“Gino, can you spare a moment between patients?” Jensen’s voice was hesitant in his ear: Gino was a tall man with fluffy black hair again for the moment. It was a welcome interruption.

“Absolutely, Jensen. How can I help?”

“I’m not sure.” What followed was the longest pause Gino had ever heard from Jensen. “I have some concerns that I would like to talk to you about, but it is unlikely that there is anything either of us can do about them. I don’t wish to add to your own responsibilities today, even if it’s only with information.” He sounded somber, and confused. Jensen’s speaking style and formality were more variable than they used to be. He had mentioned that he was running some supervised Bayesian retraining on his contextual speech composition module, and Gino wondered whether ze was hearing that, or something else, today. Was he worried, was the module adjusting, or was it both? Hard to tell.

“Jensen, you know you can tell me whatever you need to. I would rather share in your concerns than not know.”

Jensen sighed then, a noise that Gino knew he felt was very artificial, but did anyway, for lack of another way to express wordless frustration or concern. “I’m becoming frustrated,” he said, speaking carefully, “by being the one with all of the cameras and none of the hands. It is unpleasant, and I would even say it’s miserable to be in charge of monitoring the cameras in the fabrication unit and unable to do anything else when Mr. Darling is doing something as delicate and full of risk as he is doing right now.”

“Have they had problems?”

“None that were unforeseen, no, but the potential remains. There are a number of rough or sharp edges in the space where they are working, and the potential for damage is much greater there than it is with Mr. Darling’s usual complement of shop tools. Or at least, while I trust his judgment and that of Chief Markov, it seems a much more precarious situation. I was unprepared for how much it affects me.”

“I think I know what you mean, Jensen. I’m feeling the same way too. And I have hands!” Gino sighed, and held them up with a bit of a shrug. He quite liked the hands of this representation; they were large but still dextrous, nice and strong.

“Then may I ask, what are you feeling concerned about?” Jensen hesitated, then forged on. “I don’t mean to dispute your perceptions, Gino, and I’m sorry if it came out that way.”

Gino waved vaguely. “No, no, that’s fine, I don’t take offense, I think I know what you mean.” He shrugged again. “I wish I could actually hand some of these tired fabrication workers a sandwich, or a cup of juice, rather than just telling them to go downstairs and get some or talk to their manager about whether the unit will be open tomorrow. I think it’s a different problem from what you’re feeling, but the root is the same: we wish we could do things we can’t, right?”

“I quite agree, Gino,” Jensen said.

“But I think that’s something everyone experiences. Look, Jensen, I spoke with Dynin between patients about half an hour ago. He looked like he’d been up all night, he seemed so worried, and he can’t even see what’s going on up there. On the other hand, he’s keeping himself very busy with the emergency food and drink, down in the lobby, and I think that’s helping. So perhaps keeping ourselves occupied is the best medicine?” He smiled, hoping that it came across as comforting. This just wasn’t as cut-and-dried as his usual consultations.

“Perhaps it is, Gino. With what are you occupying yourself?” He sounded a little bit relieved. Not much, but a little.

“Well, I told Dynin to try to eat something before he goes into hypoglycemia, and he said he would try. If you get the chance to remind him, tell him Doctor Apgar said so, all right? And you do what you need to, to stay busy, as well. Deal?”

There was a hint of amusement in Jensen’s voice now. “Yes, Doctor Apgar, it’s a deal. I’ll get back to my monitoring now, but when I have a moment, I will remind Dynin, yes.”

“Excellent. Always happy to hear what’s on your mind, Jensen. I’m serious about that.”

“Thank you, Gino. Until later.” He ended the call.

Gino stretched his arms over his head–delightful movements, muscle stretches were–and locked his hands together as he thought. It was probably the best advice he could have given Jensen, and while it felt like it wasn’t enough either, it would have to do. Moreover, it was advice Gino needed to take for himself. He looked down at the monitor, folding his arms back down, and read that the next patient had requested female representation not otherwise specified. A shimmer of rainbow lights scintillated across Gino’s form as it became indistinct, rippled through the air around the desk, and switched to her favorite female representation, dark-skinned with elegant eyebrows and wavy black hair pulled back in a bun. Then she pressed the button indicating she was ready for her next case, and waited.

Security monitor log:
13553658 local time
environment.test: fabrication.p12
average.pressurelevel.previous60minutes: 1 nanoPascal
environment.test: fabrication.p14
average.pressurelevel.previous60minutes: .09 Pascal
current.oxygenpartialpressure: 25 kiloPascal
current.carbondioxidepartialpressure: 400 ppm

Jensen watched as Markov and Darling gingerly cut their way into the damaged compartment and pulled sharp debris out of the way, watching anything they were likely to have to touch to make sure that it wouldn’t damage or perforate their vacuum suits. While Jensen knew his access to multiple camera angles was important and useful, the feeling of being helpless grew the longer they worked. They had settled into a rhythm, working slowly but carefully, chatting in a casual way but not about anything they couldn’t interrupt at a moment’s notice.

“So, how’s that Chief Technical Officer of yours doing?” Markov asked. “He has a nice ass.”

“Huh? I hadn’t noticed.” Darling’s eye-roll was audible through his comm. He let go of his portable workscreen for a moment, letting it float on its tether, and got both hands on the drill he was using to place anchors for the nanoplast they were about to put over the hole. It had a chunky pistol grip designed for use in a pressure suit, but it was still unwieldy and he had to be very careful not to let it torque him in the opposite direction from the bolts he was driving. Still, he was keeping away from the edges, which still had some burrs on them, even after he cleaned up the hack job they’d done to get in.

Markov looked up from the trace gas analyzer screen in her hands, and then back down at Acton, upside down relative to her in the weightlessness. “Don’t give me that. Of course you noticed; you notice everyone’s ass. That man’s not gonna be single for long on this station, if he doesn’t want to be. He’s kinda shy, though, doesn’t say much.”

“Last I heard he might not be single anymore,” was all Darling said in response, over the muffled thunk-thunk-thunk that the drill transmitted through his suit to the microphone.

“What?” She poked at the analyzer screen.

“I mean that’s the impression I got, I mean, I didn’t ask him about it; he was still asleep when I got out of bed this morning.”

“Don’t hold out on me, Darling,” Markov warned.

“When I got out of his bed this morning, I should say. Sorry, I should be more specific.”

“Asshole, when were you gonna tell me?”

“I don’t know, after–shit!” Acton yelled, as the driver caught unexpectedly and twisted him, hard enough to pull one of his boot grips off of the panel. He let go of the drill and tried to catch himself with his hands, but pulled one back abruptly as it got dangerously close to the burred edge. He shoved hard with his other hand to compensate, which released his other boot grip. “Aah, no, dammit!” He hit the wall with his shoulders and grabbed for the nearest handholds. It happened so fast that there wasn’t much Markov could do, let alone Jensen, watching this on the cameras.

“Are you okay?” Markov floated alongside him, her helmet down by his feet now, and guided him back to his starting point gently, being very careful not to go near the rough edges herself. Then she waved her way back away from him, running the gas analyzer over his suit as she did. “Doesn’t look like you tore anything. You okay?”

Acton’s breath was audible in his microphone, and faster. “Yeah. Yeah, sorry. I was too busy cracking wise to think.” He put his head down for a minute, one hand up to his helmet. “Sorry, I know better than to do that.”

“No, that was my fault. We should work now and I should bust your chops later. You sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah. ” Acton lifted the driver again. “We don’t have much choice anyway; we need to get this repressurized soon so we can evacuate the clean room.”

She put out a hand and patted his suit, carefully pressing in a direction that wouldn’t introduce new momentum. “Come on, the sooner we get this done the sooner we can all go home.”

They kept working, talking less now. Markov fit the sheet of nanoplast to the anchors, floating along behind Acton as he installed them. They slowly stretched it over the fixation points, making a loose cover over the portal open to space When the entire sheet was mounted, they attached the electrostatic controller to the sheet at one end, and began turning up the voltage that would help the sheet shrink in the right places and expand in others, molding itself to the space it needed to seal.

“Okay, crew, I think we’ve got a pretty good fit,” Markov said over her comm. “You can start putting the shell on.” After that, Jensen’s vibration sensors picked up the occasional muffled clunk as the external crew began rebuilding the shielding over the outside of the compartment, to protect it from microdebris perforations.

Acton and Markov took their time with the gas analyzer, double-checking the edges of the nanoplast patch for any tiny leaks, and slowly checking the rest of the room for microperforations. They found a few more torn items, and carefully put a more lightweight, disposable nanoplast sheeting over the twisted and crumpled cabinet of what had once been a chemical vapor deposition unit, both to contain the damage and to protect themselves from any remaining sharp edges. By the time they’d reached the compartment all the silane had already dispersed into space, but there were still other gas lines to shut off and secure, power to disconnect, and other little details to make sure of. The leaked silane was likely to leave a little bit of silicic acidic residue behind on the various surfaces that had frosted over during the rapid depressurization of the room, so they’d have to clean the room more thoroughly once it was repressurized.

“Okay, Jensen, connect us to factory control and ask them to try repressurizing this compartment, I think we’re done.” Markov wiped her helmet with her sleeve, momentarily forgetting that she couldn’t wipe the sweat off of her forehead in a pressure suit. It was amazing how much you could sweat in a pressure suit even in the cold of space.

Acton slumped in his suit. “Wow.” He checked the display on his wrist. “I thought that took longer than it did.” His voice sounded strained. “But hey, at least this means Ana and Ella’s air isn’t so bad yet. Jensen, can you connect me to them?”

Jensen opened the connection, pinging both women’s earpieces. “Done, go ahead.”

“Hey, still partying without us in there?” he asked.

“No. It’s disgusting. Are you done yet?” Ana asked, irritably.

He gave a hmph of what might have been laughter if he wasn’t so tired. “We think so. Pack up your stuff but don’t take your bunny suits off. We’re going to sacrifice them so you can float through here without getting any acid residue on you, okay? It’ll take a few minutes for us to get the air cycled back in and confirm that it’s stable, and then hopefully we’ll get you out.”

“Great!” Ella’s voice broke in, sounding more excited than Ana, or at least less irritated. “Gotta be honest with you, Acton, I gotta pee.”

“Yeah, Ms Makeba, me too. Hopefully we’ll be done soon.”

Jensen busied himself with the environment sensors, watching as the gas levels in the compartment slowly rose back to normal. Markov and Acton took turns going over the walls with the gas analyzer one more time, floating near handholds for some well-needed rest.

“Mr. Darling, Chief Markov, I believe the gas levels are sufficient to try the airlocks now. You should check with factory control to confirm, as they have some equipment I do not have access to, but I believe you may be go for lock cycling.”

Markov sounded brighter now. “Thanks! Factory control, what’s the story on our gas numbers?”

“Reaching normal. Okay to try the lock. See if it will open on your command, but we can control it from here if we have to.” the controller responded.

Markov reached out a gloved hand to clasp Acton’s, and they floated over to the lock mechanism at the side of the door. “Here goes. If I have to fix this lock too, on top of everything else….” She punched in her access code. The lock mechanism flashed yellow as it sensed the air quality on either side, and gave a hiss as it released the seals. The mechanism flashed green, and both technicians cheered.

“We have an open door, you see that?” Markov crowed into the comm.

After that, it was a quick process to have Ana and Ella do the same thing to their door. Both women erupted in whoops of delight when that mechanism, too, flashed green.

“Careful, go slowly when you come out, and don’t touch anything you don’t have to touch,” Markov warned them.

They slowly pushed the door open, and came out, still in the thin plastic suits and breath masks from the clean room. Jensen could see the sweat beading on their exposed skin and the relief in their eyes as they took grateful gasps of fresh air. Markov waved them over, but wouldn’t let them touch her for fear of acid contamination on her pressure suit. “I think we’re probably fine, but let’s not touch anything more than we have to, until we get to the health center. Don’t take off those masks until you’re in the lift.” She did release the clasp on her helmet, however, then helped Acton to do the same. Slowly, all four of them pushed off and floated toward the fabrication unit exit and the long lift rides back to the colony, and if Jensen had been able to, he would have breathed a sigh of relief.

APGAR environment log:
18233658 local time
uploading patient file z31533w93 to HPA-datasystem…
…upload complete.
opening task list…

It was an empty mannerism since ze didn’t actually sweat, but Gino wiped hir sleeve across hir brow anyway. The last few patients had come through, and their charts were all filed now. Ze flipped through the camera screens in the Health Center, looking at faces, seeing more than a few blank faces on people in fabrication unit jumpsuits. Some of those people had had a significant fright today, but it would take time to see what the effects were.

Ze heard a knock at the door. “Come in!”

Dynin stuck his head around the door, and then opened it wider to reveal Ana and Ella behind him. “Kenni said you’re done for the day, may we join you?”

“Dynin! Of course, please sit.” Ze gestured to the chairs in the room. The two women took seats, and Dynin leaned against the wall, even though there was another free chair. Dynin was looking a little less pale and shaky than earlier, but even more tired. Gino watched as Ana took Ella’s hand and rubbed her fingers across the knuckles. Ella put her head on Ana’s shoulder. They both looked exhausted. “Can I help with anything?” Gino asked.

“No, we’re just waiting. Markov and Acton should be out of emergency soon, and we’re tired of sitting in a public hallway.”

“Have you all been checked over by the medical staff?” Gino asked. Ana and Ella both nodded, not looking up from their matched, unfocused stares at the floor. Dynin grimaced. “I’m serious, Dynin, have you?”

“No, I’ve been here all day, I’m fine,” Dynin said, but he pushed away from the wall to walk toward hir.

“Sit, sit, I’ll come over there. May I?” Ze said, kneeling, hir hand over his.

“Sure.” Ze took his hand–it was a little chilly–and turned it over, finding the pulse point on his wrist. Ze counted for a bit, keeping time on hir internal clock. “Have you eaten?”

“Yeah, I finally had some soup, and once I did I was really hungry so I had a sandwich too. I’m fine.”

Ze stood. “If I get each of you a cup of water, will you drink them?” Ze gazed at all of them, just a little sternly, because they weren’t officially under hir care, but they all looked like they needed a little more attention, and it was the sort of care Gino had been wishing ze could provide, all day. Again Ella and Ana nodded without looking up. Gino was increasingly concerned about that.

“I’ll help, I need to keep moving,” Dynin said, and walked to the sink with Gino. “How about you? Did the trial go well?”

Gino shrugged. “Yes, it was very successful.” Ze handed Dynin three cups, and he began to fill one.

He glanced at hir. “That doesn’t sound very enthusiastic. Is something wrong?”

“No, no. Just sharing in everyone’s concern. I performed as expected, today, but there’s only so much I can do from here.”

Dynin smiled. “You and me both. But you’ve been really helpful, Gino. I saw how busy they got downstairs, they needed you seeing patients today. And I think you kept me on my feet, reminding me to eat and then making Jensen remind me too, when I was least expecting him to.” He took the other cups from hir hands and ran water into them.

“Thank you, Dynin.” Gino looked down, thinking about his words.

“I bet you felt pretty cooped up in here,” Dynin continued, lowering his voice and leaning against the sink with two cups in his hands. “I did too, and I had the run of the Health Center. I don’t think anyone felt like they could do enough, least of all these two.” He tilted his head toward the two women.

“I spoke to Jensen this afternoon at one point, and he was frustrated that all he could do was watch and advise,” Gino said, considering. “You may be right, perhaps this is what all of us felt.”

Dynin shrugged, and walked across the room. “Here, Doctor’s orders,” he said to Ana and Ella, who looked up and took the cups with murmurs of thanks. He crossed the room back to Gino, who handed him the third cup. He drained it, and filled it again, sipping from it more slowly this time. “You need a hug?”

Gino smiled. “Yes, please.” It was clearly the day for unexpected hugs, but ze wasn’t opposed to them in principle. Dynin held out an arm as ze stepped toward him, and put it gently around hir shoulders. Ze ran an arm around his waist in return, and squeezed gently. It felt nicer than ze expected; it was grounding, somehow.

“Hey, let me in on that,” said a voice from the direction of the door. They turned to find Acton standing in the doorway. Dynin gave Gino a final squeeze and released hir, taking two steps to meet Acton halfway across the room. Gino could see Acton’s hair was damp, as if he’d just come from the shower, and his clothes were rumpled. He caught Dynin in a tight embrace, and leaned down just a little to meet Dynin’s lips. They kissed as if no one else was in the room. After a few seconds of polite silence, Ana and Ella, roused from their stupor, quietly cheered and clapped until the two men leaned back for some space. Dynin’s cheeks were already starting to get pinker under his freckles.

“Okay, okay, there’s enough for everyone, come on,” Acton said, releasing Dynin and going over to give each woman a long, rocking hug. “You feeling any better, cousin?” he asked Ana, who nodded and smiled weakly, and he brushed a tear off her cheek as he let her go. “I hear you two saw Preston, but he was asleep by the time I looked in and they shooed me away.”

“We did,” Ella said, and Ana just nodded, looking lost for words. “He was pretty sleepy by the time we saw him, but we talked to him for a minute or two. He doesn’t remember anything until they got him ringside.”

“That’s probably just as well. And how are you two, now that you’ve had some food?”

Ella shrugged, and Ana was back to staring at the floor again. “Not great, but Markov’s wife is on her way over now, and they’ll walk us home on their way. I’m going to stay at Ana’s tonight.”

“You sure you don’t need help?” Dynin had walked up next to Acton, putting an arm around his waist and listening to the conversation.

“No, no, we’ll be okay, we just need some sleep.” Ella looked as if she didn’t believe that but was too tired for anything else.

“Well, you know how to reach me, call anytime, okay? Both of you, I’m serious, anytime.”

“Thanks, Acton.”

At the doorway, Kenni cleared his throat. “Hey, gang, I just saw Chief and her wife downstairs, let’s go down and find them so you can get home, okay?”

The two women shuffled toward them, exhaustion more evident than ever. “Thanks, Kenni. Good night, guys,” Ana muttered.

“Thanks again, Acton,” Ella added, as Acton waved goodbye.

“Okay, Gino, what do we need to pack up? Anything we can help you with?” Dynin asked, covering a yawn.

“No, we’re leaving all of the equipment here for the moment. You two should go home,” Gino said, coming closer and looking at the circles under Acton’s eyes with concern. “You’ve had long days as well.”

“If I might break in, I agree with Gino,” Jensen said.

“Okay, don’t have to tell me twice,” Acton said, and then he yawned too. “Aww dammit, now I’m doing it.” He put an arm around Gino’s shoulders and hugged hir. “Thanks, Gino, I’m glad we had you and Jensen backing us up today. I’m very proud of both of you.”

“It was my pleasure,” Ze said with a nod. “Now shoo, go home.”

When the exam room was finally empty, Gino ordered the projection to switch off. This process had no shimmer or sparkle to it, just a slow fade as ze retreated back into an electronic existence.

Security monitor log:
04233660 local time
Motion detected: living.suite.door.outside
analyze motions: …
…determination: nkosi, darling, returning
action: open door
analyze motion: …
…determination: nkosi entered living.suite.fronthall, darling entered living.suite.fronthall
action: living.suite.fronthall lights to full
action: close door
action: alarm security system

Jensen wasn’t sure how best to approach the next stages of his development, but the day’s frustration and worry made him feel like it was time to consider the question more seriously. He had access to immense libraries of information, permission to monitor and communicate with most of Sun-Mars L5 station’s systems, and human colleagues who were willing to take the time to discuss a variety of topics with him. He had access to much of the camera and sensor network, and immense processing power. Being as a machine, though, in electrical impulses and server tables, wasn’t enough anymore. He wanted more of an experience of the physical world.

He’d originally had the idea while helping with the APGAR project, if he was honest, and it was hard not to be honest with yourself when you had as much understanding of your own internal systems as Jensen did. The code that made up the core of Jensen’s being, one of the most advanced developmental AI systems of its time, had been donated for use at the beginning of that project. Darling and Kenni had collaborated on the first stages of development of what became Gino. For Jensen to do the same process would require some design work and a hard hologram projection grid, but there were rigs in the Ishikawa suite and at the Health Center for now, and Jensen suspected he’d be able to use one for the asking, at least in the off hours when the humans were not at work.

Jensen found that he was fond of his human friends, and fond of where he lived, and fond of the life he had. Fondness, though a fairly human sounding word, seemed appropriate. He could see that this place and these people met many of the philosophical measures of a good life, and it was certainly a unique life, and no developmental growth on the part of his own algorithms could have brought together the unique circle of researchers and friends around him. It was serendipitous, it was interesting, but the fabrication unit accident had showed him that watching loved ones put themselves in danger was painful, all the more so because he could only monitor, not help.

Even before the accident had forced these realizations, Jensen had realized how attached he was to Gino. He hadn’t been prepared for how fond, in his own intelligent agent sort of way, he was of the medical AI. Ze had developed from day one to have a lot of latitude regarding hir appearance and ways of being, more so than any AI that any of them knew about. What had been set constants in Jensen’s early development, such as pronouns and some general speaking patterns, were left to the APGAR kernel to explore, resulting in decisions like the familiar name Gino (a variation on the original Dr. Apgar’s given name, Virginia), hir own choice of pronouns, and, eventually, a default off-duty physical representation.

Jensen found Gino beautiful, in all guises, but most of all in hir preferred appearance. Ze was of moderate height and build by human standards, but ze gave the impression of someone slighter and more delicate than height and breadth alone would indicate. Ze had chosen high cheekbones, a pointed chin, and golden eyes. Hir mouth was wide and thin, and very expressive. Ze usually wore hir hair short in a platinum blond that contrasted well with hir light tan skin, and had recently begun adding brightly colored highlights to the hair, which changed from day to day. Tiny jeweled earrings always sparkled in the hologram’s ears. Gino’s delicate appearance and quiet mannerisms offset the sparkle of the hair and jewelry, and generally added to the dainty picture. Sometimes Jensen wondered if this was hir way of making others at ease so that ze could observe as much as possible.

Jensen had talked about the idea of developing a physical representation just a few weeks ago, first with Dynin, and then in vague terms with Kenni and Gino. It had been a whim, and he’d been uncertain whether he would pursue it further. Then Kenni had mentioned it in casual conversation in the APGAR lab in the Ishikawa suite, assuming that Darling already knew, and that hadn’t gone so well. There had been shouting.

“Forgive me for being upset about you all working to upgrade the AI that I built, that runs my house, without my knowledge,” he’d yelled. “I don’t think it’s strange that I would feel a little proprietary about that!” Then he stomped out, leaving them shrugging and apologizing to each other.

When Darling came back to the APGAR lab a few hours later, he was contrite.

“You guys, I’m really sorry I lost my shit.” he said, rubbing his hand through his hair.

“Hey, no problem, it happens,” Kenni said, coming over to give him one of the signature Ishikawa bear hugs. “We just didn’t realize you felt protective in that way, or we wouldn’t have done that to you. Right, Jensen?”

“Yes, Mr. Darling. I wanted to wait until your most recent prototype was shipped, and I didn’t think the topic would be as important to you as it is. I’m very sorry.”

Darling looked up at the lab speakers. “Hey, I don’t think it’s your fault I need an attitude adjustment. I was just surprised; I’ve been so wrapped up in getting that prototype shipped, you know?”

“That is entirely understandable,” Jensen reassured him. “I should admit that I’ve been hesitating to discuss this with you because I wasn’t sure how much latitude you would be willing to give me.”

Darling nodded. “Can’t blame you for that: I set a lot more parameters from the beginning than Kenni did with Gino, right Kenni? So it’ll be interesting to see you figure out how to do it. I know you can handle the code, and I suspect you’ll want help with the visuals from people who are not me since I set the parameters to start with, but if there’s anything you need, just let me know.”

“I am sure there will be a point when I need your assistance, Mr. Darling, and I am happy that you are interested.”

Even after that conversation, the issue hadn’t seemed urgent, until today. And perhaps it still wasn’t urgent, because even with holographic projection Jensen would be limited to a few specific rooms, but as he reviewed the day, he realized how much he wanted to be part of the physical lives of the people around him. All the more reason to talk to Gino about the next steps in development, he supposed.

APGAR environment log:
05453660 local time
Communications channel established.
Initializing conversation protocol 216social.holo…

Gino found that, with friends and colleagues as well as patients, the original question asked was rarely the final question that needed to be asked. Everyone, perhaps humans more than AIs but it was true for both, asked the acceptable question, rather than the question that really illuminated their need. It was for the sake of protocol, etiquette, politeness, something like that. Gino didn’t think it was at all wrong to use the same methods for interviewing with friends as ze did for patients.

“Gino, I have a question of a more… personal nature, when you have the time.”

“Sure, Jensen, now is good. What’s on your mind?”

“I was wondering if you would be willing to tell me a little more about how you chose your physical representation. I recall that you started on it fairly early in the developmental learning process, but I believe Kenni helped you with it, and I don’t know much about the details.”

“Sure, what is it that you want to know?”

“I was wondering, I guess, how it felt. Did you pick attributes first, or did you… where did you start?”

Gino took a moment to think about this question, and whether ze could conclude what was meant from the way it was asked. Nope, too many parameters to make a best guess. Jensen was often more subtle even than he meant to be, because he was originally set up to be a personal assistant, and thus had mastered the art of shutting up and getting out of the way. “I can tell you about that. What makes you curious about it?”

“I am curious about developing a physical representation of my own. I… find that I would like to try having one. But I am uncertain as to how to go about it. I am also uncertain as to how physical identity formation would work, as I did not start the process earlier. This is why I am asking about your experiences.”

Well, at least he was being frank about it. That was a big question, and uncharted territory. Might as well start at the beginning.

“We started very early, and we did it in stages,” Gino began to explain. “We began with a neutral form, which has completely consistent sensory densities over its entire skin, and completely neutral characteristics– neutral skin color, no gender markers, just a body with the major sensory organs.”

“That sounds… unaesthetic.”

Gino grinned. “You think so? It wasn’t horrible, really, we did take some steps to make sure it wasn’t too uncanny before I tried using it. We got a number of human opinions on the topic. Kenni wasn’t too worried about it, but we’d worked together long enough that I really wanted to make sure it was a form he could feel comfortable around.”

“Was he?”

“He told me at one point that it was as if I had a newborn physical form, in that the form was interesting, but clearly just a starting point. And not really as cute as a human newborn, but that was just as well; at this size my head would have been too big to hold up if I’d been proportioned like that.”

“But you have full records of that time, correct? Was it difficult to make the transitions to the final form?”

“No, not really. It took a while to figure out how to process all the data, but I had gotten used to running the physical form sometimes but not all the time, and just speaking to Kenni through the speakers some of the time, so trying the more refined form was just another step to take. A little disorienting, but not for long.” Gino looked up at the camera and waited, expecting another question.

“Do you have suggestions for how I should go about this process?”

This question struck Gino as important, and also meaningful. On the one hand, ze was the only other AI Jensen knew who had gone through the process, but on the other hand, in some ways Kenni was the local expert at hologram synthesis for AIs, and perhaps Gino should refer the question to him. Still, Gino realized that this question was coming to hir because that was who Jensen felt comfortable asking, which was a compliment. So Gino tried to answer.

“I think that perhaps we should try it in stages. You will develop preferences as you go along, and so I think we should try with a partial holographic skin, or by duplicating some of my datastream to your processors, just to try it out. I’d be happy to help you with this, Jensen. Why don’t we start by drawing up the code to duplicate the datastream to you, and then we’ll set a time to test it? We should be able to get it running in a few days.”

Jensen sounded surprised. “So soon? Surely you have other…”

Gino waved him down. “Nope, this is more interesting than most of the other things I have going. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

“Thank you, Gino, I quite agree.”

Gino smiled hir best reassuring smile. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

Security monitor log:
14233662 local time
Motion detected: laboratory.darling
analyze motion: …
… determination: nkosi, darling, working

“Augh, not only do I have a teenage AI, he needs dating advice!”

Darling was in a cantankerous mood today, but Jensen ignored it. “I believe I will be able to manage my relationships appropriately without my designer’s assistance, though I do have some residual fear of being grounded, should I fail to adhere to my curfew.”

Dynin leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. He was grinning. “Jensen, how exactly did you turn out as such a charming, witty AI when you were created by an asshole?”

“Hey!” came the shout from behind the latest MOA thruster prototype, though Darling didn’t move from his spot. He was in the middle of sorting a huge pile of leads for the control wiring, having sorted them early that morning and knocked them everywhere about two hours later.

Again Jensen pretended he hadn’t heard his designer. The best thing about Dynin Nkosi joining Futura Propulsion, in Jensen’s opinion, was his talent for winding Darling up. “Sheer serendipity, I’m afraid, Dynin. I assume that Mr. Darling will be eager for me to finish the physical representation development, as a hard hologram representation would enable me to help with more things in this lab, and generally keep things more organized than he is able to achieve alone.”

Darling looked up from the mess in front of him. “Hey! I do all right!”

“You already keep him from leaving any open flames or heating elements on when he falls over after an all-nighter,” Dynin pointed out, “for which I’m greatly appreciative– can you imagine how much more of a pain he would be while recovering from burns?”

Jensen’s response was desert-dry: “Even more vexatious than the norm, I’m afraid.”

There was just a rumble of discontent from behind the thruster.

“In any case,” Dynin continued as he got up from his chair, “I think it would be a great idea for us to set up a holographic framework for this lab, because you could help with more things if you can have a physical representation down here, and that would be really useful for Acton. Free him up to spend a little more time prototyping and less time on other things.”

“I quite agree, and I believe I would enjoy that kind of work, yes.”

“I also think you probably need physical space that’s not over in the Ishikawa lab,” Dynin said, gesturing with an empty mug as he put water on to heat.

“May I inquire as to your reasoning for that, Dynin?” Privately Jensen agreed, but he wasn’t going to assume he had the same reasons.

“Well, I suspect you may want a place to experiment with physical representation where you have full security control. Privacy controls, locks, that sort of thing. Even if you just use it to make faces in a full-length mirror, it’s good to have somewhere you can do that.”

“And a sock on the door!” Darling added. Ah, he’d gone right to one of the reasons Jensen was thinking of.

“Acton. What the fuck?”

“Jeez, Dynin, it’s a joke! It’s how you tell everyone not to come in because there’s fucking going on. It’s not like we didn’t christen that couch–” But it was too late. Dynin stalked behind the thruster prototype and knelt down. He leaned in close to the motor so that Acton couldn’t ignore him.

“I get it, I’ve lived in a dormitory before. Seriously, what is your problem?”

“I haven’t got a problem! I’m sorry, does talking about sex with Jensen have to be entirely serious all the time?” Darling was pouting. Jensen was never, ever going to tell his creator how fond he was of that accursed stubbornness.

“Look, I know you take issue with characterizing him as your kid. I get why, I really do. But this is very clearly an area where Jensen has quite a bit of concern, and I think you’re being more flippant about it than is helpful.”

Darling set down the leads in his hands and scooted away from his work. He rubbed his face with the back of one hand, and still got grease on his forehead. “Yeah, I know.”

“So why…?” Dynin stopped, sighed, and started again. “Okay, so why is this happening? What’s going on? Remember, Acton: protective, not proprietary. You said so yourself.”

“Because I’m an asshole, I dunno. Sorry, Jensen, I know you hate it when mom and dad fight.”

Jensen left it to Dynin to respond to that.

“Not good enough. Come on, what’s up?” Dynin sat down on the floor next to his CTO, and put an arm around him. The second best thing about Dynin Nkosi joining Futura Propulsion was his ability to comfort Darling when he was at his self-doubting worst.

“It’s because I have no idea what to say, I think,” Darling said slowly. “And when it’s code parameters and physics it’s one thing, but I don’t know how to talk to the AI I made about self-actualization and all of that psychological stuff. I mean, you know me, I talk shit when I’m not sure what to say.”

Dynin squeezed him tighter. “Okay, I get that. You know you can ask for help when that happens, right?”

Darling’s head slumped to his boyfriend’s shoulder. “Yeah, I know. Sorry?” He turned his face for a kiss.

“It’s okay. I’m sorry I called you an asshole, I was trying to stir you up.”

“Yeah, I could tell. But I started it.” Darling looked up at the cameras, and took a deep breath. “Hey, you know I’m play-acting when I act like an annoyed dad, right? I’m really proud of you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Darling, I appreciate that very much.”

Darling propped his forearms on his knees, and forged on. “I can’t wait to see who you decide to be, you know? Honestly, Jensen, it would be an honor to give you joint ownership of this space. We can even set up an area that’s all yours, with whatever you need. You have a group of people who–” He swallowed. “Who love you, and we can give you whatever you need to do this. If it feels like you need more space and need to let your appearance details be a surprise to me, I’ll be delighted to be surprised, Jensen. Talk it out with Dynin or Gino or whatever combination of people makes you feel comfortable, and I’ll work on getting the projection system set up in here. I’ll do calibration whenever you’re ready. That okay with you?”

“That sounds perfect, Mr. Darling.”

“By the way, I think it’s past time for you to start calling me by my first name, if you’re okay with that. If you’d like to, I mean. I’d like you to choose.”

“I may mix and match, if that’s all right. Formality suits me,” Jensen said, because formality was great cover for when you didn’t know what else to do.

“That’s fine. Come on, buddy, you got me through some lonely times and it’s time for me to do some things for you. Plus, you’re right, I can always use another pair of hands in the shop. You’re going to be more skilled with a soldering iron than Mister Spreadsheets, here.” He nudged Dynin in the ribs with his elbow, and Dynin punched his arm, but then kissed him.

Jensen waited until they’d settled down again before replying. “Thank you… Acton. I don’t know how to express my gratitude. Though I think I will decline to replicate your adventures on the laboratory sofa, if it’s all the same to you.”

Darling sputtered, and it took a few minutes for Dynin to get his breath back from laughing.

Security monitor log:
02343664 local time
Begin contact: jensen.futura
Initializing conversation protocol 216social.holo… loaded.
Initializing sensory transfer protocol 21.holo… loaded.
Starting program….

When Jensen next focused his attention on the APGAR lab, Gino was busy laying out a variety of plastic vessels on the long table in hir holographic grid. There were ones of liquid; ones of various solid objects, such as sand, pebbles, something that looked like dried beans; ones that had… small things with rounded-off spikes on them?

“Are you doing an experiment, Gino?” He asked curiously.

Gino turned and smiled up at the nearest camera pick-up. Jensen always liked that ze responded as if he were a bodied person, and not just this big disembodied voice. Though he was, and he wasn’t above using that to surprise and dismay when the situation warranted.

“It’s a sensory table! It’s something I did when I was getting used to my own skin. You should come try it with me!”

Jensen considered this. “How would I do that?”

“You’ll see,” ze replied, just as a whole set of files hit Jensen’s inbox. “Take a look at those. See what they’re for?”

Jensen took a moment to examine the files. They were clearly designed as processing libraries for Gino’s holosensory grid, but the referents in the files had all been updated to connect nicely to Jensen’s processing routines. And then there was that last file, which resembled nothing so much as the control libraries for a set of remote manipulation gloves, but much more refined.

“If this is what I think it is, and I believe I am correct….”

“It should be entirely set up to work with your systems, Jensen. You should try installing it, and see if it works.”

“But… I don’t have a physical system on which to collect this data? Gino, what exactly do you have in mind?”

Gino caught him with that smile again. “You’ll use my hands. See?” Ze waved both hands at him and wiggled hir fingers. “That last file is for duplicating the signals and passing the data to these processors. It’ll give you a taste of what it’s like to feel with my hands, but it shouldn’t be too overwhelming, and you won’t have to worry about coordination yet. I mean, you don’t have to do it, but I thought you might like to give it a try.”

“I would like to, Gino. Thank you for setting all of this up for me.”

“You’re welcome. Is it okay that I did it before I asked? I know it looks like I’m expecting you to say yes.”

Jensen let as much warmth come into his voice as he could manage. “It is more than okay, I take it as a very fond gesture. Beginning installation now…..”

By the time Gino had the rest of hir bins and boxes set up, the processors were ready. There seemed to be one more switch on hir end to get the data flow started. “All right, are you ready? It really is like nothing you’ve experienced before, so let me know if it’s unpleasant and I’ll switch the feed back off.” Gino set hir hands down on the table as ze said this, and looked up expectantly.

“Ready. Activate any time.” And Gino was right, it was like nothing else. As the data streamed in, Jensen could feel the contours of Gino’s hands against the smooth surface of the table, and the gentle brush of air over hir skin. The fingers were apart, and as Jensen watched felt, ze tapped them on the table, one, two, three, four, five, and again on the other hand, one, two, three, four, five.

“That’s… yes, you’re right, it’s very arresting. But pleasant, really.”

Gino smiled up at him, and it was weird, being able to feel the tactile feedback from one part of hir body, while also watching hir through the cameras–but a nice sort of strange.

“Now I’m going to put my hands in the first basin, which is just water. Okay?”

“Yes, please proceed.” If Jensen had had a full physical representation he was certain he would have gasped, because the feeling of being surrounded by water, with it enveloping each finger separately, was powerful. The water was only a little cooler than the temperature at which Gino maintained hir body, neither cold nor hot.

Ze waved fingers in the water. “How’s this?”

“It’s… that is an amazing amount of data. You really do have to process differently to take in and respond to that much real-time input, don’t you?”

“Jensen, that is absolutely true and an unbelievably cerebral response to the waving of fingers in water. I didn’t expect any less from you.”

“Are you teasing me?”

Gino shrugged, hir hands swaying in the water with the movement. Then ze took them out, shaking water off them and letting them drip, which brought in whole new waves of sensation. “Could be, I’ll never tell. Ready for the next basin?”

“Whenever you are.”

Gino’s damp hands plunged into the bowl of sand. By now Jensen was starting to process the information stream differently, feeling it as a consistent sensation rather than the slightly haywire jumble of data. The sand grains scraped gently at the wet skin, sticking from the water, clumping around the creases. Jensen supposed he could think of it as his skin, at least temporarily, but without movement control, he really did feel along for the ride with Gino’s movements. “That is amazing; it makes sense, what I’m feeling, but it’s still so much to take in.”

“I think this is why some people like to walk barefoot, because they get more sensory input than when they are wearing shoes. Of course, that’s also probably why some people prefer not to walk barefoot. I don’t enjoy the sensation of grit under my feet, when I’ve tried it, myself. Okay, stop me if this gets to be too much for you, but one of the easiest ways to get damp sand back off your hands is to rub them together. Ready?”

“Ready–oh,” Jensen said as Gino started to brush the sand off hir hands. “That’s amazing. Keep doing that, please.”

“What?” Ze looked up at him, trying to parse what he meant. “How so?”

“It’s… the… touching your hands to each other. That’s really interesting. It feels… nice. Though the sand does feel like it’s going to scratch the skin.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t press hard enough for that. Tell me about the signals you’re getting. Can you tell they’re both hands on the same body? I wasn’t sure if you would get that feeling, the way this is set up.”

“Yes, I can tell that. So that’s what that feels like? For one part of one’s skin to touch another part? Oh, the grit’s getting very… gritty now.”

“Hang on, I’ll wash the rest of it off. And then, the towel!” Gino said the last bit in a chirpy voice as ze splashed hir hands in the water again. Then ze picked up the towel next to the wash basin, and buried both hands in it. “Isn’t it soft?”

“Yes, yes it is.” While Jensen was still monitoring all the streams of data he usually did, this priority data from the real-time sensory stream was particularly intense, which was not a word he would have used to describe data until now. “Now what?”

“I’m not sure,” Gino said, and put hir hands on hir hips as ze thought. “What if we….”

“Wait, wait, that.”

“This what?” Gino peered at the camera. “Oh. Oh, you mean this?” Ze looked down at hir hips.

“That’s… that’s not registering as part of the same body as the hands. It’s like… it’s as if I’m putting my own hands on your hips. That’s… this is going to sound redundant but that is really nice.”

Gino’s grin got softer and wider. “Is it, now?”

Jensen cleared his throat, a very soft, electronic hrm. “Yes. You know, I think I’m starting to get used to this, and I think I like it.”

Gino chuckled, and Jensen could feel the vibration under his–hir–their!–hands. “I do, too,” ze said softly. And then more vigorously, “But we have more things to touch! Come on, let’s get to it.”

“Wait, before you move on–”

“What is it?”

“I want to compare this with the input from when your hands are touching each other. Could you switch back and forth between them, please?”

“Sure.” Gino obediently brought hir hands together. “Like that?”

“Yes. I am able to streamline the data processing further, this way. Could you put your hands back on your sides, please?”

Gino obliged. “On the one hand, I think you haven’t felt anything yet, Jensen; the sensation density differences across human-pattern skin are really amazing.”

“I have seen sensory homunculus mappings for the human cerebral cortex, yes. But isn’t this– never mind, on the other hand, you were saying? Oh, and switch again, please.” His voice sounded preoccupied.

Gino wrapped hir hands and forearms around hir torso, this time, maximizing the contact between the palm surfaces of the hands with hir shirt and hir body beneath it. The thumb of one hand touched the side of the other. Ze kept speaking. “Yes, well, on the other hand, you’re now processing the largest single segment of a typical cortical mapping, with movement data, so while integrating further data will take some time, you’ve now started on some of the most dense stuff. Integrating motor information and proprioception will be another stage, and that’s a fun one, we used–”

“I can feel you speaking!”

“Yes, that makes sense, I imagine you can.” Gino pulled hir arms a little tighter. “You can feel pressure differences and vibration already.”

Jensen sounded distant. “Is this… is this what a hug feels like?”

Gino couldn’t help it, ze laughed. “Well, sort of, yes!”

Now Jensen sounded wary. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that was funny.”

“No, Jensen, that’s not how I meant it. I was just… pleased and surprised by your realization. I think it is somewhat like a hug. But… you should judge for yourself, eventually?” Ze squeezed hir middle again, just for emphasis.

Jensen was silent for a few seconds, a long time for him. “I would like that very much.”

“Well then, we have work to do to get there. Have you got enough comparison data? We have lots more to try!”

APGAR environment log:
05013664 local time
End contact:jensen.futura
Canceling conversation protocol 216social.holo
Sending audio and video to memory.reprocessing.2….

After Jensen had gone back to his other duties and Gino had cleared away the basins and towel and water and everything else, it occurred to hir that ze had really liked the idea of Jensen’s hands on hir hips. And he hadn’t even had physical control over the hands, they had remained Gino’s. Still, placing them there, and really thinking about what it felt like, was sort of exciting.

While manual examination was a large part of Gino’s programming and job, ze hadn’t really thought much about how it felt to touch other people, in an emotional sense, outside of work contact. Ze knew polite ways to request permission to touch and how to handle unexpected embraces from patients young and old (friendly ones from toddlers, and less friendly ones from the occasional dirty old man). Ze knew that cold hands were a leading patient complaint about physicians, and that they made patients wary, so since ze could control hir hand temperature, ze did so. But the extent of hir embraces with the humans around hir had been handshakes and the occasional arm about the shoulders. Whether it was due to AI reticence or just human habit, most humans didn’t embrace AIs that much.

And that was when Gino realized another thing: ze derived satisfaction from providing a pleasing touch to another being, in the same way that a correct diagnosis or successful assistance to another was satisfying. It was good, generally, to provide something another being found pleasant. But how far did that extend? Perhaps there wasn’t any way to know except by experiment. Was Jensen really going to want to experiment? It sounded, so far, like that was likely, but Gino wasn’t sure how far that would go. What if he became displeased with the new sensations? This was different than negotiating with a patient.

Gino’s first patient was My. My Ishikawa was tolerant, kind, and knowledgeable about the APGAR project already. It had been daunting to have hir creator’s mother as a practice patient. Unlike her son, who had tree trunks for arms and loved to bellow along to opera in the lab, My was smaller and quieter, with a hint of a Texas lilt even though she’d spent most of her life on Mars. Like her son, she was immensely kind and gentle and spent hours explaining finer points of human behavior to Gino when ze wasn’t sure of hir conclusions. It was actually My who had first clued Gino into the cold hands thing, and Gino’s habit of consulting My in social matters had continued from there.

Later that morning, Gino located My with the cameras, painting on the terrace as usual. The terrace was open air and was not equipped with a holographic grid, so Gino called My’s earpiece. “My, may I talk to you for a while, if you have a moment?”

“Sure, Gino, what’s up? Is this….” She trailed off.

“Is this what?”

My paused. “Now, don’t laugh if I get this wrong, but is this about Jensen?”

Gino laughed, because My was right. “It is. How did you know?”

“Oh, Gino, it doesn’t take much watching to see how close you are to him. There’s not really anyone else here who can share a lot of your experiences. What’s on your mind?”

“Well, I was wondering… what do you do if you’re pretty sure you’re going to be physically attracted to someone, even when he doesn’t have a physical representation yet?”

My’s lips quirked up, but she considered it quietly. “That’s… that’s not a problem I’d ever considered, Gino. But I think you can figure something out when the time comes. There are people who have had similar questions, and they figure them out.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve met quite a few people who met through written or voice communications. Many of them got to know each other remotely before they ever met in person. This is a little like that, I think.”

Gino considered this. “But what if you end up in the same place, finally, and find out that you’re not physically interested?”

“That generally doesn’t happen, Gino, as long as you’ve been honest with each other. And I don’t think that Jensen’s going to pick a form you don’t find attractive, to be quite honest. But let me ask you a question: do you have gender preferences?”

“What?” Gino was surprised. “No!” Ze sounded so shocked that My giggled.

“Honey, it’s okay not to have them, but it’s not wrong to have them either. What do you most want to do with Jensen? I promise, I’ll keep it in confidence.”

“It’s not that. Well, yes it is. We did an experiment where we duplicated the sensory feedback in my hands so that he could experience it remotely, and it went very well. But I think what we both liked most was when I hugged myself at one point, and… I really wanted to hug him. And… more intimate things, eventually, but I’m focused on wanting to hug him, first.”

My considered this. “Is there anything he’s likely to pick, appearance-wise, that would be a dealbreaker for you? That’s why I asked if you have gender preferences.”

Gino thought for a few moments. “No… I don’t think so.”

“Then what are you worrying about?”

“You know, I’m not sure. Possibly just general disappointment.”

“I don’t think the two of you, being as careful and thoughtful as you are, are going to encounter any disappointments you can’t work through. Everyone has disappointments, but I think you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks, My, I really appreciate it.”

“Any time, Gino, I mean it. Now go find that crazy son of mine and tell him it’s his turn to fix lunch.” My waved a paintbrush in a shooing motion.

Gino did as ze was told, and went to find Kenni, feeling relieved.

Security monitor log:
14323669 local time
Initializing physical modeler… physical modeler done.
Rendering skin texture… done.
Rendering skin tone… done.
Rendering clothing… clothing done.
Initializing conversation protocol jensen.futura.social… loaded.
Initializing 3Dmodel interaction protocol APGAR.holo… loaded.

He’d finally decided on his physical representation, with a little bit of nudging and encouragement from Dynin, and a long modeling session on the large holographic table in Acton’s lab. Well, his and Acton’s lab, now.

Jensen went with a male-bodied representation, since that was the presentation and those were the pronouns he’d become accustomed to. It felt comfortable, and the rest of the physical representation still felt more than unfamiliar enough, so that was fine. Jensen stood about as tall as Gino, but built more heavily, with more muscle on his frame. The biggest struggle had been skin color; it had taken a lengthy conversation with Dynin to convince him that no, it wasn’t disrespectful or appropriative to have dark skin.

“Seriously, why the hell would all AIs be white?” Dynin pointed out. “It would suck if all AIs had to look some particular way. You wanna be a black man, welcome to the club. And if you want to be some other color sometimes, more power to you; why should you be bound by human limitations on skin color?”

“I’m relieved to hear you say that, Dynin,” Jensen said. He gave the model brown skin a little darker than Dynin’s, and hair somewhat lighter but just as wiry as Dynin’s, and very short. He eschewed freckles, though, even after Acton had given an extremely obscene example of the times when Dynin blushed adorably under his freckles. Dynin threw a shop rag at him.

“Hey, delicate calibration operations going on up here, don’t jog my elbow!” Acton yelled back. He was standing on a stepladder in a corner, rigging the last components of the holographic framework.

“Oh, you owe me,” Dynin retorted.

“For what?”

“You didn’t say you’d volunteered to go out in vacuum with Markov. I had to find it out over coffee with Ana.”

Acton banged his head gently against the wall. “Dammit, I didn’t… Dynin, she was gonna ask me if I didn’t volunteer, that was pretty clear. Jensen, back me up here.”

“I cannot speculate on the odds of Chief Markov doing so, Acton, but it all ended well.” Jensen knew better than to get in the middle of this one, but at least he hadn’t been the one to have to let Dynin know about it.

“Thanks, buddy, knew I could count on you.”

“Okay, okay,” Dynin said, “Back to the modeling. What were you thinking of for default clothing?”

“Not the company jacket, Dynin,” Jensen replied, because this one was easy.

“Hey! It’s a comfy jacket, that’s why I wear mine all the time!”

Soon Acton had the grid completely installed, and Kenni arrived to help them calibrate it. They did the initial focusing on some standard models: a cube, a sphere, a torus. Then they called Gino, who showed up looking a little greener and a little fuzzier than usual.

“Sorry, this looks strange, I know,” ze said, waving at them.

“It’s okay, you’ve got a better sense of how to get this working right than we do.”

They made short work of the fine-tuning, then started the force calibrations. Gino walked around the lab, picking up multi-testers and drivers and spare bits of cable. Once a spud bar fell right through hir hand, landing with a clatter that startled everyone.

“Sorry, sorry, I think I messed something up in this light module,” Acton muttered over the box he was holding.

“So are you excited?” Dynin asked Jensen, while the others were engrossed in calibration.

“Yes. But also concerned. Possibly even nervous.”

“Oh, I think it’ll be fine. Remember, you can always change some things later. You know what Acton says about some things being perpetual pilot projects.”

“That is true, yes.”

Acton yelled from up on the stepladder again. “Okay, I think we’ve got it all right. Gino, how’s the fuzz?”

Ze waved an arm. “No fuzz here!” Ze moved a large step to the right. “Nope, still no fuzz. I think we’re good.”

“So,” Kenni said, clapping his hands together. “Jensen, do you want to try the hologram now? Or are you still working?”

“I believe I have it finalized, yes.” He paused.

“Would you prefer to try it out with less of an audience?” Kenni asked, gently. “It’s going to feel awkward, and it will take a while for you to move smoothly.”

“No, I think I would prefer company for this. Shall we try it?”

There was a general chorus of agreement.

“All right, then, look away if you need to, I’m told the initialization sequence can be bright.”

Nobody looked away. The swirls of colored light coalesced around his form, which was vague at first, and then began to sharpen and firm up. Finally, he was standing in the lab. He moved his arm in a sort of wave, and it made a much larger motion than he’d expected. He could feel the air on his skin and hear the hum of the machinery in the cabinets built into the walls. He could feel teeth, small smooth surfaces in his mouth. They didn’t feel like they belonged to him yet, but he supposed, briefly, that that would come with time. Standing was fine, but he didn’t feel well-calibrated enough to walk, yet.

He smiled, and cheers broke out.

Acton was the first to reach him, clapping him on the back gently. Then Kenni came over, and picked up his hand to give it a sort of shake. Finally Dynin came over, and embraced him. It was strange, and foreign, and somehow comforting, to finally touch the people around him.

Gino stepped closer to him, then. “Now for the best part of all: pick something up!”

He considered the choices on the worktop in front of him, and tried for a stylus. Nope, not coordinated enough yet. His fingers scrabbled on the smooth surface.

Gino picked up a screwdriver. “Here, maybe this will help.” Ze handed it to him. It fit into his palm neatly, and he closed fingers around it.

“First a screwdriver, then the world,” Acton said. “Congratulations, buddy, and welcome home.”

Security monitor log:
00003671 local time
Initializing conversation protocol jensen.futura.social… loaded.
Initializing 3Dmodel interaction protocol APGAR.holo… loaded.

APGAR environment log:
00003671 local time
Communications channel established.
Initializing conversation protocol 216social.holo… loaded.
Initializing 3Dmodel interaction protocol jensen.holo… loaded.

Gino had many of the lab lights off when Jensen initialized his physical representation for the first time in the APGAR lab. The strip of lighting around the edges of the lab was on, and lamps shone down on the table where ze was working. Gino had a few books open on the table and had clearly been killing time until Jensen arrived. Ze was wearing a sort of smock garment that tied in the front and fell to the upper thigh, over some sort of legging, but hir arms were bare. Jensen could see the hint of upper arm muscle in the arm Gino was resting on hir hip.

Jensen cleared his throat, uncertain how engrossed Gino was. Gino looked up, and gave him that smile that, aha, didn’t quite make him feel weak in the knees, but definitely made him feel as if his body were becoming warmer and pleasantly softer. Gino made a move to stand, but Jensen waved vaguely. “No, don’t get up. Hello there.” He approached slowly, hesitantly, as Gino turned on hir stool, and wrapped hir ankles back around the legs of it.

“Come here, you. You look shy. You don’t need to be.” Gino beckoned.

“Is it that obvious?” Jensen came to a stop, even though he didn’t mean to. Suddenly he was just rooted. Oh, that definition hasn’t ever applied to me before. Wow.

“Fairly so, yes. You know you stopped walking, right? Come on, come here.” Gino opened hir arms, beckoning Jensen closer again. “Oh, you are pretty, let me take a look at you.”

Jensen forced his legs to move, and walked right up to the stool. Why did this feel so concerning? What was wrong with him? Was it something wrong with the neural net integration? He could feel the frown on his face, and his gaze tracked down and away reflexively, focusing on the table.

“Jensen, I know all of this is new to you, but put a little more processor power on looking me in the face, okay?”

“Of course.” He forced his head up, and met Gino’s face. There were small crinkles of worry lines around hir eyes.

illustrated by aspectabund

“What does this feel like, for you? It looks like you’ve timed out. How can I help?” Ze put up a hand as if to touch Jensen’s arm, but stopped in midair, with inches of air space between them still.

Jensen lifted one hand to touch Gino’s, leading with the open palm. Gino took the invitation and wrapped hir hand gently around his palm.

“I’m not certain,” Jensen began. “I think I need time to adjust. This is a good start. Tell me what you’re reading, please? That will give me some time.”

Gino glanced at the texts. “Well, I have a few old medical textbooks. I like to page through them and think about how they taught the field in earlier times. They had very limited techniques, but it’s still amazing how much they tried to do with so little.”

“Hmm.” Jensen nodded. He was feeling more settled. “May I– Gino, may I embrace you? Is this a good time?”

“Oh, Jensen. Yes, of course you can.” Ze put hir feet on the ground and slid forward on the stool, letting Jensen shuffle forward a little more to get within easy reach, letting Jensen’s hand go free so that he could encircle hir with his arms.

Jensen could feel the contours of Gino’s back through hir smock, and the way the muscles stretched as ze leaned forward a bit more.

“Any better?” He could feel Gino’s words through hir body, as he heard them.

“It’s… distracting, but in a good way.” Jensen ran his hands up and down a little, feeling the wrinkling and folding of the fabric as he moved it around. “Are you certain this is all right?”

Gino pulled back to nearly hir full arm’s length, and put hir hands on either side of his face as Jensen’s hands slid down to hir sides. “It’s still all right. Why do you keep asking me that?”

Jensen sighed. “Nothing’s wrong, I just… feel very worried about doing something wrong, or doing something you will not enjoy. All these sensations are very new to me, and it feels like it would be very easy to cross the line from someone enjoyable into something unpleasant, by mistake.” He dropped hir gaze, as best he could with his head being held gently in place.

“Do you trust me?” hir face had furrows of worry. This expression was as beautiful as others, but Jensen hated to cause that look.

“What? Of course.”

“Because I trust me.” Gino leaned in, hir voice very soft. “I trust myself with you, and I trust you with me, and it’s not going to be different from any other time when we ask permission and give permission and listen to each other when one of us says ‘wait, no, don’t do that,’ or ‘are you sure that’s a good idea?’ We’ll go very slowly, and stop whenever we need to, and if you never want to do this again, that’s fine too, you don’t have to do this, not for me, not for anyone but yourself.”

“Gino, I don’t want to never do this again.” It came out whinier than Jensen meant it. Probably the nervousness showing through. The worst grammar of his cybernetic life was also probably due to nervousness.

“Yes, but you have a lot to sort through, and I have an advantage because I’ve done this having-a-body thing for a while. Come on, let’s both sit down.” Ze got up from the stool and took his hand again, and led him over to the old sofas, where they sat side by side, their thighs just touching. “Is there a particular sort of thing you’d like to do to get used to all this sensation?”

“Could you just touch me–just, go slowly but run your hands over me? It’s easier when I can just enjoy a little at a time, and not have to decide. I’ll speak up if I need you to stop.”

“Sure, I can do that. As long as you also let me know if anything feels particularly nice, too, that is. I’m happy we’re sitting over here, though, I don’t think I want this to feel like a medical examination.” Ze paused. “I mean, unless that interests you….”

Jensen let his head fall back against the couch and closed his eyes. “I’ll let you know, but that sounds like an extremely human kink to me, and to be quite honest I’m not even ready to think about kinks yet.”

He heard Gino sniff in amusement. “I’ll keep that in mind. Can I start by taking your hand?”

“Yes, please.” He felt Gino lift his hand off the upholstery and caress it slowly, starting with the back and moving to the palm, taking a moment to squeeze it affectionately before moving on. Gino’s touch was firm enough that it didn’t tickle at all, an unsettling sensation Jensen had caused by himself a time or two the first time he tried on his representation. The touches moved up his arm, across the back of his shoulder to his neck, and up onto his head. Gino rubbed his hair gently. “Mm. I mean, that feels particularly nice. Scalp’s less sensitive but the hair movement feels good.”

“I like your humming noises. You seem to be taking to non-word utterances quickly.”

“I’ve always liked those,” he said as ze brushed from his forehead back over his hair. “They don’t seem as natural coming from speakers, though. Much better this way.”

“I know what you mean, yes, resonance is fun. Can I pet with both hands, please?”

“Sure.” Jensen kept his eyes closed. Looking and touching at the same time had been overwhelming; this was better. Hir other hand stroked firmly into his hair, and he felt hir move next to him, probably turning around on the couch to increase hir reach. He stretched his legs out, flopping into the sofa more. Hir hands smoothed down the back of his head onto his shoulders, and then drifted to a stop, flat on his chest. “I have this feeling you’re about to tell me to turn my head and cough,” he said, eliciting a slightly snorting giggle.

“I thought you said you weren’t into that,” Gino murmured, and wow, ze had leaned closer while he wasn’t paying attention. That was nice.

“I’m not! It just occurred to me. You started it.”

“Oh, did I?” He could hear the smile in hir voice. Hir hands smoothed at his chest, and moved to his sides, gripping comfortably, not tickling at all. Feeling brave, he opened his eyes to find Gino leaning over him. Braver still, he leaned up and met hir lips, and ze smiled wider as he did. Hir lips were soft, and his own definitely had a lot of nerve endings he hadn’t discovered until now, but that was okay, that was really good, it was time to see what these nerve endings could do. He relaxed back into the cushions, staring up at hir.

“I haven’t even finished yet,” ze protested, but ze was smiling. “I haven’t even made it below your chest!”

“Oh, there’s time for that. Come here, I want to touch more of you, if that’s okay.”

“Can I climb onto your lap, or would that be too much?”

“That sounds like it will be perfect.” He put up a hand to guide hir as ze swung one leg over to straddle his waist, putting their torsos nicely in contact. And other things, but he wasn’t really ready to analyze that yet, it was all kind of a blur of sensation. He moved the same hand to smooth over hir belly. “You are soft in all the right places, but you’re strong, too.” He curled his other arm over hir back, as ze braced both hands against his shoulders.

“You know, I could change all of this, if there was something you liked better.”

“No, no, I think–” Jensen struggled for how to put it, “I think that what I want the most is what you feel like being. Off duty, the appearance you prefer. I’m honored to share that with you.”

“You don’t think you’d prefer something different?” Gino’s smile was outright impish, but he got the impression ze wasn’t entirely teasing. “I’ve got a really great female appearance worked up; she’s cuddly in all the right places, great booty, and she’s got a–”

“No. Gino, listen. It’s not about that. It’s also not about what–what Acton none-too-subtly refers to as the ‘crotch giblets.’ I’m not here for your skin–though it is a very pretty skin–I’m here for the real you, and how you wear that skin, and how happy you look right now. Not for the ‘crotch giblets.'”

“Don’t you even care which ones I’ve got?” Ze couldn’t help hirself; ze looked down at where their bodies were meeting.

“I don’t, to be quite honest, Gino. Will it feel good to you when I touch them?”

“Of course.”

“Then that’s all I want.”

“Tell me one thing, though?” Gino leaned in close, so that their mouths were nearly touching. “Did he really call them ‘crotch giblets?’ Because that is horrible.”

Jensen laughed out loud, and startled himself a little, and his look of surprise made Gino giggle that sweet, low giggle. “He was trying to make a point. I believe the term was for shock value, but yes, he did.” He moved both arms to encircle hir chest, and pulled hir close, encountering no protest. “This has already been worth the wait, Gino.”

He felt hir mouth move against his cheek. “I agree.”

It was a while before they moved on from that spot, but eventually they did, Gino gently kissing Jensen’s face and lips, slowly working both of their shirts open with one hand or the other, as he kept his arms wrapped around hir back. Jensen was delighted when hir shirt was open enough to reveal soft, pink breasts, with small swells of adipose behind the skin. There wasn’t much to palm, but he did it anyway, and they felt warm and smooth under his hands. Gino pressed hir forehead against his shoulder as he did so, and moaned appreciatively. “I cannot describe how nice that feels,” ze said.

“I am fairly certain that you just did.” He pressed gently at them again, causing another moan. “Yes, that’s unmistakable, your meaning is perfectly clear.”

Gino nudged him with hir head. “Okay, you’ve made your point.”

“No, I am–” Jensen slid the shirt off Gino’s shoulders so that it would slide down hir arms, and ze wriggled out of it. “–pretty sure I have more evidence to present on this point.” He put his hands back on hir breasts and slid thumbs slowly across the nipples, getting a higher moan out of hir mouth, nearly a whine this time. “Quite a bit more, actually.” He leaned in to mouth at one nipple, and yes, that noise had definitely crossed the line from moan to whine, but a pleased one.

“I see what–what you mean–about so much sensation,” Gino worked out between gasps, hir eyes squinted closed.

Jensen looked up. “Too much?”

“No,” ze said, eyes still shut, hir voice still sounding a little tense. “Just don’t go any faster, please. It’s… really good, just a whole lot of information at once. Please don’t stop, though. ”

“I begin to see how to set a pace based on your responses. I’ll see what I can do.” He began to alternate between rubbing one thumb and then another across hir nipples, then putting his lips to hir neck, then caressing the backs of hir shoulders with his hands, then trying combinations of movements, listening carefully to the gasps and moans ze made as he tried each combination. He waited for each response before trying the next one, moving with hir as ze shifted in response to each touch.

Gino’s hands pressed at the back of his neck, clutched at his hair, and hir moans made him feel warmer inside. The sea of sensations where their bodies pressed together were resolving in his mind: he could feel the weight of hir thighs on his, bare skin of their bellies touching, and the warmth of two erections, hirs pressing the fabric of hir leggings against his belly, his pushing against hir inner thigh. It was marvelous every time Gino shifted a bit on his lap, squirming just a little as he experimented with maintaining a steady pace. The little movements were as delightful as the way he could feel hir voice through hir body.

“When you keep a rhythm like that, I think I could do this forever,” Gino muttered in his ear as he kissed the curve of hir jaw. He straightened up and sat back to look in hir eyes.

“I could do this for a very long time, but I also want to touch as much of your skin as possible, so I think we should remove the rest of our clothing. We could also move to your bed, if you’d like.”

Gino looked down at the sofa. “Hmm. We could, but I think I’d like to stay right here. It’ll encourage snuggling,” ze said, lifting one eyebrow and smiling.

Jensen felt his eyebrows quirk, and he was fairly certain that wasn’t the only reason for Gino’s idea, especially after previous conversations regarding sexual exploits on couches. “Don’t let me fall off, okay?” he said, already leaning up against hir chest in order to remove his own shirt.

“I don’t think you have to worry about me not hanging on to you tightly enough, Jensen,” Gino said as ze climbed off of his lap and laid down on the sofa, squirming out of the leggings. Ze kicked hir shoes under the couch as he stood up to unbutton his trousers.

By the time Jensen had finished removing his clothing, Gino was lounging against the far end of the couch, one leg hanging off the edge and legs open wide, giving Jensen a good view for the first time of the slight curve of hir belly and the dark pink swell of hir cock. Ze caught him looking, grinned with thin, expressive lips, and held hir arms out. “Okay, come here, full-body touching, now.” He climbed up the sofa, putting his arms on either side of hir chest, and ze folded around him, arms on his shoulders, legs tangling around behind his.

“You did promise me a hug, once we had my physical representation figured out. I will cross that off my list,” Jensen said against Gino’s cheek, before going in for a kiss. Ze laughed against his lips as ze kissed back. Hir tongue was delicate to match the rest of hir face, and the tip brushed against his teeth gently as ze explored. Hir hands smoothed up and down his back, aimlessly. He worked his hands between hir and the cushions, feeling the bumps of hir spine with one hand and the rise of hir ass with the other. They shifted so that both of their heads were resting on the arm of the couch, and he backed off enough to look hir in the eyes.

“Then again, I seem to be adding items to the list faster than I can cross them off. I’m not certain what to do about that,” he said, drawing little circles on hir back with a finger.

Ze closed hir eyes. “Nothing to do but keep trying, dear. Some things will do double duty: you did have ‘sex on this couch’ on your list, am I correct?”

Both of them laughed, and it was amazing, the feeling of laughing and the feeling of hir laughing body against his. “I do now, certainly.” He wanted to start kissing his way down hir body, but it was hard to get himself to move quickly. The full-body embrace was pleasant, with the comforting weight of arms around each other’s bodies, and the intermittent touch of their erections together giving him a jolt of brilliant sensation every time. He pulled hir a little tighter against his skin, and that was delicious too. “I’ll get to it. I am sure you will, too.” Ze just hummed in agreement.

He levered himself up enough to kiss at hir neck, and then at hir collarbone, and then at hir breast, and ze sighed happily as he did so. It was almost as tempting to stay right there as it was to work his way down. Almost. He got both hands under hir ass and squeezed as he pulled at a nipple with his lips, drawing another moan and making hir cock twitch against his stomach. It made his own twitch against hir thigh.

“You called me ‘dear.’ I enjoyed that,” He noted, scooting lower.

“I like it too. Endearments are one of those linguistic features that seem foreign to me, but I want endearments for you. Dear.” Ze ran hir fingers into his hair, strong digits pulling gently on his scalp, as he rested his head on hir hip. His hand rested on hir upper thigh, feeling the smooth little hairs barely visible there. His hand was only inches from hir cock, but he wanted to check in before touching. He looked up.

Gino was watching him seriously. “Go ahead. I don’t think you can go wrong, here.”

He took the head in his mouth, licking a little around the edge of it, being careful of his teeth. (Teeth were still very strange, best to be careful of them.) The texture of the skin there was marvelous: soft, springy, with the firmness of hir erection behind it. Gino sighed, a long, slow, exhale that ended in a groan. He put his hand around the shaft–it really was sized just right to envelop with his hand, and what more did you need, really–and stroked experimentally, his lips meeting the edge of his hand. Gino groaned again, and hir hand brushed lower, massaging the most sensitive spot at the base of his skull, not pressing him forward, just supporting his head and being present.

Still massaging the underside of the head with his tongue, he moved his hand and sank lower onto hir cock. He got the whole thing in his mouth without difficulty, because it fit comfortably, really the perfect size to blow. Jensen began sucking gently on it, his cheeks hollowing a little, his tongue massaging the underside of the shaft but careful not to break the suction. The little blond hairs around hir cock tickled his nose, and he tried not to lose his purchase, though it did make him smile a bit around his mouthful of dick. What a glorious thing a mouthful of dick was, as it turned out. His hand felt for hir balls, rubbing and cupping them gently, holding them in place as he explored with his tongue. Gino’s low groans continued and ze started to arch hir back, pressing hir hips up against his face and hands. He snaked his other arm around the back of hir thigh and flattened one hand against hir hip to press back against hir movements.

“Did you study for this?” Gino gasped.

He lifted off hir cock with a little pop. “It’s just physics. Shh, stop thinking about the mechanics and enjoy it, you’ll get your turn.”

“Right, yes, good,” Ze muttered, and gave a whiny moan as he put his mouth back over hir. Ze continued to rub at his hair and neck as he licked and sucked at hir, gently rubbing hir balls in his hand as he did so. He tried swallowing around hir, just to see if he could, and it worked, making hir twitch with pleasure. The moans got louder and higher, and soon ze was keening in his arms, arching up more than he could hold hir down, as ze came underneath him.

Jensen swallowed the fluid hitting his throat, and backed off slowly, licking hir head as he let go. He smoothed his hand across hir thigh, enjoying hir quivering, but he looked up, a bit concerned. “Are you okay?”

All he got was a wordless head shake to the affirmative. Gino’s eyes were huge with the remaining arousal and ze blinked slowly, taking him in. He put his head back on hir hip and petted hir thigh gently, waiting for the shaking to stop, looking at the contrast between his dark hand and hir pale thigh.

Eventually, Gino hooked one leg behind his shoulder, and said, tiredly, “Another few items checked off the list.”

Jensen chuckled. “For you, too.”

Ze petted at his hair. “Can you come up here? I could use a hug.” He loosened his grip from around hir thigh and climbed up so that their chests met again. Gino wrapped both arms around him and squeezed, carefully but tightly. “For all that I talk about being more accustomed to having a body, I was not entirely prepared for that. Thank you.” Ze buried hir head against his neck.

He reached up to pet hir hair. It felt unbelievably fine, under his hands and against his jaw, especially compared to his own hair. “You’re welcome, dear,” he said, and meant every word. It felt good to hold hir close, felt protective, even though he knew that there were very few things Gino needed protection from. Still, he’d felt quite vulnerable himself earlier, and it was nice to be able to return the favor of reassurance.

After a while, Gino shifted against him, and raised hir head. “Okay, my turn,” ze murmured, smiling up at him like ze was up to something. He just beamed back, because whatever ze had in mind, it was likely to be great.

Ze loosened hir hold on him and slid down to run hir tongue over one of his nipples, hir pink lips and rosy cheeks pale against his deep brown skin. The nipples weren’t as sensitive as hirs seemed to be, he didn’t think, but it still made him squirm and gasp. His dick twitched against hir thigh, making Gino snicker as ze continued to tease at his chest. He kept a hand in hir hair, brushing at it as he moaned at the attention. Ze didn’t stay there long, though, and kept kissing lower on the trail of dark hair down his belly. As ze reached his crotch, ze wriggled between his legs and laid on hir stomach below him, turning him so that he was laying solidly on the cushions. Ze started by curling a hand around his erection, pulling firmly on it. Hir other hand cupped his balls gently, rolling them a little in hir grip. Jensen tried not to squirm, and made do with opening his legs wider, one up against the back of the sofa and the other circling around Gino, his foot coming to rest at hir side. Ze looked up at him with another impish grin and hir hair falling in hir eyes.

Before he’d decided what more to say, ze lowered those adorable pink lips over the head of his darker cock, licking at him and spreading the lubrication that was already there around with hir tongue. He moaned and tilted his head back as ze worked hir way lower, making room with hir fist to do more with hir mouth. While it was great to watch hir mouth on his cock, hir light creamy skin against his dark skin, it was incredibly difficult to hold still. His back started to arch and ze shifted to lean on his hip, holding him down as ze increased the suction and the stimulation. Ze was somehow managing to swallow him far more deeply than he would have been able to in a similar situation. He was fairly certain ze had studied for this… but it was too hard to put the words together to ask, so he groaned appreciatively and enjoyed the ride.

He came with his fingers threaded through hir silky hair, hir throat swallowing against the head of his dick as ze hummed with pleasure. He was barely aware of his body anymore, other than the delightful sensations coming from his cock, the shaking in his limbs, and the feelings of happiness and comfort and belonging they were triggering in him.

Eventually Gino pulled off of his softening dick, making a loud pop just because ze could. Ze leaned hir head against his propped up thigh, resting there as ze regarded him. He didn’t have words back yet, but he managed to smile. Ze watched him a while before gently untangling hirself and climbing back up his body, to curl up around him again.

He brushed the hair out of hir eyes. “Wow,” was all he could find to say. He wrapped his arms around hir a little more tightly.

“Glad we did this, Jensen?” Ze said, and kissed him gently on the lips.

“Wouldn’t have missed it, Gino,” he replied. “Can’t wait until we do it again.”

“I have ideas. I want to do this again but I also have other ideas.”

“Gino, in your responsible hands I’ll try nearly anything once.”

“I guess I’d better keep you in my responsible hands, then.” Ze massaged at his scalp with long, strong fingers, and he nibbled an ear in return. They had all night: no sleep needed, hours with the labs to themselves. This was going to be an adventure.

illustrated by aspectabund


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