by Himawari (ヒマワリ)
illustrated by aspectabund

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/272387.html)

illustrated by aspectabund

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single human in possession of the best interplanetary business degree ze could get in this solar system must be in want of a startup venture.

Dynin Nkosi’s landing at Sun-Mars L5 station did not go unnoticed by the locals, especially since he was the only upside passenger today, on a ship full of mail, hydroponic clay, and grain from Mars. Many things are public on a space station of forty thousand people where each new occupant needs to be balanced by a departing occupant, so when the staffer at the station welcome desk greeted him by name, Dynin wasn’t surprised.

“Good afternoon! You must be Mr. Nkosi, here to see Acton Darling.” She smiled and floated by her stand to help him hook his carry-all to the restraining clasp on his side of the desk, then handed him a clipboard as he carefully hooked his feet into the floor anchors at the desk. “Are you all right with the weightlessness? We can expedite the process if we need to get you into a gravitic environment quickly, and do the safety briefing there.”

Dynin smiled. “Nope, turns out I’m all right, but thank you for asking. And yes, that’s who I am. Where do we start?”

The clerk, who introduced herself as Stephanie Ma, shared the full set of safety procedures with his tablet and sign a release stating he’d received them. She walked him through a full demonstration of his emergency respirator pack and shiny plastic emergency pod. “We’ve never had a rotation failure or decompression accident in the twenty years the ring habitat has been operational, and you’ll remember that space stations are one of the safest places to live,” she explained. “But a lot of people feel better having practiced for this in a weightless environment just in case they ever need it. In space, you wanna be prepared.”

“Sounds good to me,” Dynin said, hiding a yawn.

Ma didn’t miss it. “Oh, you came from… your ship was on Moon time, right?” She asked. “It’ll be a bit of an adjustment to N-zed time here, so I’ll get you on your way. Where are you headed on the wheel today?”

“Well, Mr. Darling said I should join him in his R&D space whenever I got in, he said there isn’t much of a schedule to his days and nights, but I hope he lets me settle in soon because you’re right, it’s already after midnight in my head.”

“Yeah, sorry about that, we’re still standardized to our home office in Wellington like we were back in the old days so it’s only eighteen hundred hours here. Blame Raytheon; they used to run the old Antarctic stations on N-zed time, and the habit never died.”

“Really? I didn’t realize that was why.”

“Oh yeah, it’s practically ancient Earth tradition,” she said, grinning to show how seriously she took that tradition. “But let me stop yapping at you and get you on your way.” She gestured to the door marked TO STATION. “You’re going to follow the signs to the Janey Hart section, and Futura Propulsion is in B 12, B as in boy, 12 as in a dozen. Make sense?”

“Yup, and thanks. Uh, how quickly will the entire town know I’m here?”

Ma tilted her head and looked up, thoughtfully. “Welllll, maybe a few days, if Mr. Darling takes you around to meet everyone, and he knows everyone on the station, but don’t be surprised if he throws you in the deep end of the engineering problems and you don’t come up for air for a while.”

“Oh, but I’m not an engineer, Ms. Ma; I’m sort of a combination Chief Financial Officer and jack-of-all-trades.” Dynin fumbled to get his carry-all strap loose from the retaining clip.

Ms. Ma grinned. “You may end up sorting out the business while he’s the one neck deep in engineering for weeks, then. He goes back and forth, really, life of the party sometimes and then he vanishes back into his work.”

“Got it. He was… well, he was pretty intense on video. Thanks again!” Dynin offered his hand, which Ma shook firmly, and then kicked off toward the lift room door, pulling the carry-all after him like an awkward parachute.

The lift ride down to the habitat gave Dynin a chance to catch his breath, and catch his breath a second time, as effective gravity increased and the curves of the torus habitat came into view through the window. It also gave him a chance to consider how to make the best impression on his new Chief Technology Officer. Darling had been in the interviews on simple video, not holographic presence, next to other windows where the venture partners were bridged in. He alternated between asking fiercely thoughtful questions and seeming bored by the proceedings, neither state at all like the entertainment news reports of a man who, when Earthside or at one of the casino asteroids, frequently had a smiling megamodel on his arm.

The board had made it pretty clear, without coming right out and quite saying it, that Darling, while able to hold up his end of a business conversation, was more interested in getting back to his engineering work, and was accepting a local CFO both to make the partners happy and to free up more time for his prototypes. Dynin only hoped that life on the station wasn’t going to include wrangling Darling through any casino trips or megamodel dates. It wasn’t likely; Futura was running a lean operation and while Darling still had personal wealth left, it was only enough to save the company some money on salary, not to support the entire company itself.

There was a cheery sign reading “Welcome to Janey!” hanging outside the lift station, and a ramp down to level B. Unit 12 had a nondescript speaker and call button by the door. So Dynin pressed the button, and shortly an extremely proper male voice answered, “Good afternoon, who is calling, please?”

“Hello, I’m, Dynin Nkosi, here to see Mr. Darling?”

“Of course, welcome, Mr. Nkosi. Please come in. Mr. Darling will be with you shortly.” The door swung open.

Initialize new Occupant[nkosi]
$firstname = Dynin
$surname = Nkosi
Security monitor log:
18283748 local time
: business.suite.fronthall
action: open door
analyze motion: …
…determination: nkosi entered business.suite.fronthall
action: close door
Set parameter: new.visitor = true
action: notify darling

Dynin had expected to walk into a work room, or a computer lab, not the black, polished stone floors of a gorgeous foyer, lit by a ceiling of thousands of tiny pinpricks of blue light. The door swung closed behind him smoothly as he looked around. Enclosed staircases curved away both upstairs and downstairs around a glass column lit from within by warm white light, with water flowing down it. Any sound the fountain might be making was drowned out by a rhythmic thrumming, as if there was loud machinery downstairs, or perhaps a dance party, or perhaps both. The room was empty, and Dynin put down his carry-all off to the side and then quietly craned his neck to see if he could spot whoever had spoken to him through the door, but there was no one to be seen. Then the thrumming got louder and clearer–yep, definitely music, downstairs— and then became muffled again, but with the addition of a quiet swishing noise, which grew closer.

Then there was a yelp and a thump, and the swishing noise stopped. Dynin surged forward, and peered down the stairwell. “Um… hello?”

“Just a minute– aw crap!” There was a pop and a series of snaps, some more muffled cursing, and then the swishing resumed and a man in grubby work pants floated out of the stairwell, wobbling more than a foot above the actual stair treads, on what looked like short surfboard. Dynin stopped worrying about best impressions and stared.

“Dynin Nkosi? Hi, great to finally meet you, welcome to L5!” The man hopped off the surfboard as it skidded to a stop in midair, then gave another snap and crackle and clunked to the floor. He looked down. “Well, shit.” Then he stepped forward to offer a hand in greeting, with a meeting-for-a-business-lunch smile plastered right back on his face, and icy blue eyes twinkling in the starry light of the foyer. Even in grimy pants and a long-sleeved shirt with singe marks on the arms, he looked like that confidence went with him everywhere. Off the surfboard, he was still a few inches taller than Dynin. His wavy black hair was smoothed back except for a few dark curls that fell on his forehead.

Dynin schooled his face back into something like neutrality as he took the man’s hand to shake. “Hello. You’re Mr. Darling?”

“Oh, hell, no, call me Acton. We’re going to be spending way too much time together for you to call me Mr. Darling.”

“Okay, uh, Acton it is, then. Glad to finally meet you as well. Nice place you have here.” Crap, that was lame, Dynin thought. “Uh, is it just you here?”

“You already met Jensen, right?”

That extremely proper voice spoke from above, no, from around them. “Indeed he has, sir, but not by name. Mr. Nkosi, I am Jensen. I manage all household systems, from greeting guests and screening calls if you or Mr. Darling wish, to making sure the recycling is being removed from the bins in a timely fashion. I schedule both the automated cleaning equipment in the household and an outside cleaning service for whatever frequency suits the occupants. Please let me know of any needs you have.”

“Thanks, Jensen! So, Dynin.” Acton scooped the surfboard up and tucked it under his arm, revealing three wide cylindrical projections from the bottom. “Let Jensen know what you need in order to settle in, whether it’s supplies to be delivered or assistance with office tasks. He can automate background tasks for you, take voice instruction and dictation, and he’ll set you up with your own secure workspace in our servers. He can encrypt files for you so that I can’t get to them without your biometrics even though I wrote the system. Where to, first, lab or office space?”

“Oh, uh, the lab, I had thought this was the lab, but you know, it’s kinda fancy for–”

“What? Oh, yeah, sure, sure: R&D in the basement, business on the main floor, living apartments above us. Come on, I’ll show you the whole thing. Jensen: shut off my music, I don’t want to have to yell.” The thumping downstairs abruptly ceased, and Acton turned around, neatly avoiding obstacles with the board, and started downstairs. After a moment Dynin hustled to follow.

“Welcome to the playhouse,” Acton shouted, setting his surfboard down, interesting bits facing up, on a long worktable inside the big room. It was an incredibly messy big room, full of computers, wires, odd pieces of metal and foil, bits and parts from what must have been thousands of different sources. Various worktables were littered with pieces, and painted lines on the floor marked areas where additional parts were stacked and piled. Two large worktables with projection systems for both traditional and holographic computer display took up the center of the space, one of them alive with readouts on thin-film monitors and a three-dimensional engine diagram at the same time. An automated cleaning robot puttered around sweeping up detritus. Acton threw his arms wide like a circus ringmaster. “This is where the magic happens.”

“Do you do card tricks?” Dynin shot back, and then mentally kicked himself for being that fresh with his new colleague.

Acton just smirked. “You’re fast, that’s good. Yeah, this is where the magic of engineering happens, you know? My workspace….” He waved his hands and an enormous bank of displays, both flat and holographic, came to life with schematics and tables of data, while behind him the lights came on in… Was that a wind tunnel? “My various experimental bullshit, and…” he put on a fake theatrical hush, “The test chamber!

Acton followed Dynin’s curious gaze and grinned wider. “Okay, it’s not that exciting, I have a testing room back there, for the larger prototypes.” He turned and walked to the door, which opened as he approached. “Okay, I lied, it’s totally exciting. Air handlers on, Jensen. After you, Nkosi.”

Dynin walked through the doors of the long, narrow test room as the fans hummed to life, providing a stiff breeze through the space. Mounted on a heavy metal stand in the middle of the test room was a barrel-shaped structure, about as broad as Dynin’s arm and nearly twice as long. Wires projected from various access ports in the sleek sides and snaked down the stand to vanish under a floor panel. “So… what kinds of testing are you doing in here?”

Acton waved an arm and a bank of readouts popped up on the curved ceiling above them. “How much do you know about MOA thrusters? Alfvén waves?”

“I know what I’ve read in your prospectus docs for VC firms, but I–”

“Hey, that’s better than nothing. So what’s going on here is that this is a half size test version of my latest full-scale MOA thruster design. This prototype is also eight times the size of one of the MOA thrusters on my board back there, and I’m about to start putting together a full-sized one.” Acton gestured back at the main room. “You saw what the board could do, though it keeps overheating and breaking down, so far. The materials work better at this size, though obviously they’re harder to test for long at this size due to the atmospheric constraints of being in the habitat.”

“Wait, you were just… a flying surfboard?

“Sure, why not? It’s proof of concept for routine load lifting, you know, cargo moving, even floating gurneys if I can get it stable enough for emergency services work, which I assure you, I can.” Acton gestured to the display system. “MOAs have been studied for over a hundred years, but they require precise electronic controls, and they’re hard to make feasible in conditions other than vacuum, at least without there being noxious waste gasses. But you saw it, it did okay just now while compensating for uneven surfaces–”

“It sounded like you fell halfway up the–”

“–and anyway this prototype runs way better! I tested it at one percent earlier today. Hey Jensen, let’s show him how this works at two percent: activate video record and all test sensors and LIGHT IT UP!”

The thruster roared to life, spurting white ionic plasma discharge toward the air handling fins at the back of the test chamber, while the readouts leapt to life above them, with a vector diagram, readouts of temperatures and forces, charts with some sort of velocity tracking, and much more that Dynin couldn’t take in. The engines and the air handler made an immense whooshing in his ears, and the ionic discharge tingled on his skin. He backed away, which didn’t make things better because the entire room shook with the pressure waves from the thruster. Should we even be in here? The air handlers picked up speed, whipping more air through the room, and the floor mount shook as the thruster gained power.

“Shit!” Dynin couldn’t help taking a large step away from the thruster prototype, putting his back against the wall of the test chamber even though the walls were shaking. “What the hell, man?”

“Pretty good, huh?” Acton shouted over all of the noise. “And this is only a two percent test! Don’t worry, a lot of the noise is actually from the test mount transferring energy to–” And with a much louder pop than the small prototypes had made, the test thruster shut off, the fans whipping the glowing ion trail away and then winding down. The displays overhead showed the abrupt cutoff in power and a new schematic, with a big red circle over one section and the word FAULT flashing at the bottom of the screen.

“Yeah, yeah,” Acton yelled at the display, “I know; we predicted that fault, I just didn’t think it would happen until four percent. Okay, Jensen, end recordings and transfer these fault maps to the big table out in the main room, we’re done in here.”

He turned around and marched out of the test chamber as the displays went dark, leaving Dynin to hustle along in his wake. Dynin’s skin was still tingling from the ionic plasma field, and he felt jolted, as if he’d been knocked out of his rocket-lagged tiredness to high alert. Still, he could already feel the adrenaline crash coming.

As he thought about that, Jensen broke in. “Mr. Darling, I observe that it is now well after midnight by Mr. Nkosi’s body clock, due to his recent travels. I would suggest giving him the full tour of your projects once he has had more rest. Would you like to show him the living quarters, or should I?”

Acton looked up at the ceiling, but off into the distance as if he was paging through some user manual, maybe a user manual for his own brain, Dynin wasn’t sure. Or maybe Dynin was just really really tired, to be coming up with weird mental images like that. This was already pretty insane, this lab, the test prototype downstairs from the amazing business suite, the combination of shiny finishes and gritty workshop stains, all of it. Damn, maybe I should get some sleep before I actually start hallucinating, I’m already not sure if all of this is real.

“Yeah, you’re right. Thanks, Jensen. Okay.” Acton took a deep breath and wiped his forehead with one lean forearm, rolling the other shoulder at the same time. “Take Nkosi up to his rooms, show him what he needs for tonight and let him crash out. When he gets up tomorrow, give him the full walkthrough in whatever order he prefers.”

“Of course, Mr. Darling. I have all the options prepared for a full company briefing. Mr. Nkosi, if you will go upstairs to the foyer I will direct you from there.”

“Thanks, both of you, for the show and tell, for… everything. Both of you can call me Dynin, that’s really just fine with me.”

“Thanks, Dynin, and we’re really glad you were willing to come all the way out here and join us.” Maybe it was just that Dynin felt so tired as the rush wore off, but could see Acton casting glances at his worktable, clearly eager to get back to his testing, ready to have the account books guy off his hands again. Can’t blame him, Dynin thought, not like I understand four percent of what he’s building down here. But Acton stepped forward without reservation and offered his hand again, and Dynin felt it was a genuine, if distracted, gesture of appreciation. “Okay, Jensen, he’s all yours.”

“Thanks, Acton, see you tomorrow,” Dynin said. Acton gave a sardonic little salute with two fingers as Dynin walked past him out of the lab, but even before the glass doors closed, his hands were again flying over the worktable, picking out schematics, opening pages of mathematical calculations, enlarging diagrams of his prototype engine.

Dynin reached the foyer to the sound of Jensen’s voice, giving further instructions. “If you’ll climb to the next floor, Dynin, I will show you which rooms are yours.” He shouldered the carry-all one more time, now heavy from gravity and exhaustion, and shuffled upstairs.

The upper floor was beautifully appointed with white wall panels and soft cornice lighting. A lounge area was next to the stairs, with a long, soft seating area and an entire glass wall looking over the interior green space of the torus. It was the sunset of the station’s mirror-driven daylight cycle, and the deepening light showed a garden terrace just outside and lights coming on over the paths of the park that occupied the center of Janey Hart Section. Lights were beginning to shine in the windows of the terraced residential block across the valley, while in the lounge a glass anemone of a chandelier glowed, the glasswork obviously expensive and possibly imported from Earth.

“This lounge is a shared area, and to your right are your own rooms. I have unlocked them, and turned on the lights. Once you are inside, I will ask you for a phrase for your biometric voice lock on these quarters and your own file system.”

“Okay, thanks Jensen. Just low lights in the rooms, please, I’m going to get some sleep ASAP.” Dynin was bone-tired now, and it had hit him how out of sync with the station day cycle he was, after a week aboard ship. What is it, oh-two-hundred to me? I’d try to stay up later and reset, but trash that, I need to sleep. He lugged the bag to the door, which opened to his touch.

The rooms were simultaneously simple and rich-looking in cream upholstery and light brown panels, with the main room holding a simple kitchen and table for eating, a desk, and soft seating for guests. One wall was mostly glass, dimmed to obscure the shine of the sunset and habitat lights outside. A sleeping space was visible through the door to the next room. With the glass dimmed, it felt more in line with what Dynin’s biorhythms were telling him. “Okay, are you ready for that phrase, Jensen?”

“I am. Recording now.”

Igqira lendlela nguqongqothwane.” Dynin waited.

“Thank you, Dynin. Your rooms are locked to your voice now, and with that, I will let you get some rest.” The AI sounded gentle, almost fond. “I have set your quarters for privacy mode in our security system, but if you need anything, please just speak and ask me, and I will respond.”

“Thanks, Jensen, much appreciated. Good night!”

“Good night, Dynin, and welcome.”

Dynin had some questions for Jensen about security settings and privacy, since it was obvious the residence and work spaces were constantly monitored if only so the occupants could talk to him, but he was too tired. Tomorrow, perhaps.

Dynin didn’t expect a full size bed in colony quarters, but that was what was in the sleeping room, along with a bathroom which, while compact, had a proper water shower. He considered washing, but decided sleep was paramount. Dynin dumped his carry-all by the bed and dug for sleep pants, and then crawled under the blankets to sleep.

Security monitor log:
03452758 local time
Motion detected: quarters.nkosi.sleeproom
analyze motion: …
…determination: nkosi standing, walking toward quarters.nkosi.bathroom
Vocalization detected: quarters.nkosi.sleeproom
analyze vocalization: …
…determination: yawning, throat clearing
Set parameter: nkosi.awake

“Jensen?” Dynin was standing in the food preparation area of his suite, considering food choices.

“Good morning, Dynin. How can I be of assistance?”

“Uh, thank you. Good morning. What sort of… waking hours does Acton keep?”

Jensen took a moment, milliseconds really, at his processing speed, to consider how to answer this question. “It varies. Mr. Darling organizes his schedule around routine conferences with company stakeholders, but does tend to work until some hours after midnight local time and sleep until late in the morning, if his communication schedule allows. He has been known to stay up through the night and work until an early morning conference to meet with the board, and then precess his schedule through the day until he shifts back to his prefered late nights of work.”

“Aha. That makes a lot of sense. Thank you.”

Jensen considered again. “May I inquire as to the context for this question? I suspect you may be curious about the structure of life on this station or the structure of work expectations in Futura Propulsion, but I am uncertain as to which sort of information would be most useful at this time.”

Through the cameras Jensen could see Dynin smile up at him. “You’re really very perceptive. I honestly hadn’t… quite thought through which of those I wanted, yet, but I think I will want to know about all of that eventually. For now, though, I have a different question. Did you know that Cashew Granola Clusters and almond milk were my favorite breakfast, or did you just pick something at random? That would be a little creepy if it wasn’t exactly what I needed, this morning.”

Jensen let a contented note creep into his voice. “I hope you will feel it was nothing particularly intrusive. When you went to Futura’s Mars office to check in before your trip here, you went for breakfast with some of the employees, and one of them included in their notes that these were what you ordered. It was meant as lighthearted detail, but I thought it would not hurt to acquire some for you. You will find a variety of simple meal ingredients in the kitchen, and I will be ready to order more of your food preferences at your convenience. I know, for instance, that you prefer tea, but I would not presume to know which sort to order for you.”

Dynin grinned, one side of his mouth quirking up. “That’s what you did, huh? Well, I know it sounds stupid, but man, this is actually pretty awesome.” He poured some cereal into a bowl. “I’ve never even had an assistant, let alone an AI who bought my favorite breakfast cereal for me.”

“I hope you will let me know if my presence becomes obtrusive, Dynin. I am here to make your way easier, not to be a distraction, and I know that AIs can be seen as unsettling rather than helpful.”

“Oh, no, no, it’s not that at all. You’re really helpful, actually… it’s probably stupid to be reassuring an AI about that, isn’t it? But I mean, you asked, I’m just–” Dynin smiled with both sides of his mouth now, a bit of rose spreading across his cheeks. “It’s just a lot to get used to, moving here, the new job, I’m still rocket-lagged, everything. Maybe I’m just easily amused. By cereal.”

“If you are contented by small things, Dynin, it likely helps you to adjust to new environments quickly. You moved quite a bit as a child, according to your file. Mars and also the Moon?”

“Yup,” Dynin confirmed, as he poured the almond milk. “Mom was in the military. This station is a little different, but I’m used to colony life.” He popped a spoonful of granola into his mouth and nodded happily as he chewed. “Mmm.”

“I am happy to help you to settle in, in whatever way that I can. I suspect that it will be very nice to have another person in residence here, as life has been very solitary for Mr. Darling and myself.”

“Are there other AIs on the station for you to talk to? I know inter-AI communication is increasing on Mars at least.”

“There are a few, yes. In particular, Mr. Darling’s friend Mr. Ishikawa’s medical AI project has provided both interesting systems engineering work and a fellow AI to converse with. I have plenty to occupy my time with Mr. Darling’s research simulations, and an immense library to work with, but it is good to have another AI to compare notes with, as it were.”

Dynin swallowed another mouthful of cereal. “That’s good. Where’s the best place for me to start learning the business? I want to explore a bit, but not until day cycle starts, I think.”

“We can first initialize your worktop environment, and that can be done from the desk in this room or from the larger office downstairs. The environment will move with you, so it can be used on either surface.”

“Great! Let’s do that then. You don’t mind doing some zombie finance with a guy who is still in his sleep pants?” Dynin shuffled toward the desk, cereal bowl still in hand.

“I am sworn to secrecy about Mr. Darling’s exploits of engineering while in states of undress,” Jensen intoned seriously over Dynin’s snort, “But I assure you, this will be fine.”

“Can you back up the simulation to a year ago, and then change the inflation parameter to–” Dynin looked down from the display projected above his desk as Acton strode into the office area of the business floor.

“Okay, field trip time!”

“What?” It was the middle of the afternoon, and Dynin had been poking at this simulation since lunchtime, despite swearing he was going to spend more time getting oriented before building any models. “Where? What?”

“Come on, I know how much you’ve plowed through so far, aren’t you going to go explore today?” Acton stopped next to the desk, hands on his hips as he squinted at the simulation. “Are you sure you want to assume that much of a rise in the renminbi over the next two years?”


“Nope, never mind, we can talk about that later. Seriously, you’ve been up since when? We don’t want to burn you out, come on, we’re going out.”

“Mr. — Acton, I–” Dynin wrinkled his nose and tried again. “I’m in the middle of– Where do you want to go?”

Dynin had seen Acton briefly around lunchtime, when he lurched out of his quarters wearing a fuzzy, hooded shirt with the hood up and grease-stained work pants, and tromped down to the bottom level after only a cursory hello as Dynin sat in the upstairs lounge flipping through quarterly financial reports. Now he was wearing clean pants, but still had the hoodie on over his work tunic and vest.

“I figured it’s a good time to go bug Kenni Ishikawa, you need to meet Kenni and his Okaasan, and I’ve promised the board I won’t let you go stir crazy up here and you’ve already worked, like, a 10 hour day, and it’ll be good to show you the station. And believe it or not, I want some sunshine. So get your stuff, let’s go out.”

“Yeah, you’re right, that sounds pretty good.” Dynin pushed back from the desk.

“Well, then, meet you at the terrace door, come on, T-minus-10 and all that crap.” Acton
turned on his heel and walked for the stairs. “We can talk about RMB inflation later!” He called over his shoulder.

Dynin rolled his eyes, but rushed to toss his emergency kit into his shoulder bag and follow.

As soon as they were out the terrace door, Dynin regretted putting it off all morning. The park section of Janey stretched away to the right in the valley below, with streams and paths curving away around the ring of the station habitat. To the left, the lift tower rose over the section, glassed-in lifts swishing up and down the outside. The filtered sunshine from the station’s mirror system was more than bright enough to make today feel like a beautiful summer day in the “outdoors” of the ring.

They cut across the near end of the park toward the lift tower. The park was busy at this time of day, with people on foot, walking or running or steering carriages with small children through the park trails.

“Acton, did the board really tell you to make sure I didn’t go stir crazy? In so many words?” Dynin asked.

Acton scowled into the distance. “Oh yeah, they did.” He glanced over at Dynin. “Look, I’ll be honest, they’re worried I’ll be hard to live with.”

“Why, because of your engineering blackouts or–”

“Oh, you heard about those already?” Acton’s left eyebrow lifted. “How did that happen? Jensen?”

“No, the woman who checked me in when I arrived yesterday. I think her name was Ma?”

Acton nodded. “Stephanie, yeah. What else did she say?”

“She said you kind of binge on work and then come up for air and to socialize, and go back in again.”

“That’s pretty accurate. You shouldn’t look to me for a schedule, that’s for sure. If you want to set regular meetings, set them and I’ll make them, but I tend to work in bursts. Only got a few hours of sleep last night, but that’s okay, I’ll go until I need to stop.” He shrugged.

“Sleep cycle disturbances? There’s help for that, you know.”

“It’s not that, or I don’t think it is. I lived on Mars from the time I was two, I’m used to the Martian day. I’ve always been a binge worker, and I like it that way. But I’ll show up to whatever meetings you want to set.”

“I will harass you about the financials when I need to, but I’m pretty independent, I’ll stay out of your way.”

“I don’t mean it like that, Dynin, I just mean that you don’t have to do like I do and you don’t have to take care of me, either. Set whatever work schedule works for you, go out, make friends, go to karaoke, do whatever.”

“Well, you don’t have to take care of me either. Okay? Company’s good, but when you’re in the mood to stay in the workshop, work. I promise I will ignore you when you need to be ignored.” Dynin smiled. “Wait a second, there’s karaoke?” Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Ohhhhh yeah.” Acton grinned. “Every night at ZZ Top. It’s a bar in Leverton. I’ll take you next time. We can probably get My or Kenni to come too.”

They reached the foot of the lift tower. “How far are we going?” Dynin asked.

“Not that far, they live two sections away, in Funk.”

Wally Funk Section’s central valley was taken up by terraced orchards, a much more orderly pattern of trees and irrigation piping than the park in Janey. “What’s their suite number?” Dynin asked, pointing to the ramps down to the station hallways.

“Nah, that’s for strangers and business. Friends come in through the garden. Kenni’s okaasan will probably be out painting, she’d have to come in and meet us if we rang the doorbell.”

“So does Kenni have an entire family here?”

“Nah, just Okaasan and Gino. Yo Jensen, you tell them we’re coming?” Acton listened to his earbud for a moment. “Yeah, we’re just leaving the lift tower.”

The orchards on this side of the valley were a mix of nut and apple trees, set into a gentle curve of hillside. The men wound their way through the groves and up to a terraced apartment block of the common sort on the station.

“Okaasan, konnichiwa gozaimasu!” On the terrace ahead, an older woman turned from her easel, and put down her palate to wipe her hands.

“Acton! Konnichiwa!” Acton bowed quickly but deeply to the woman, which she returned with an amused smile, but then swept her into a hug as she laughed. Dynin hung back, unsure of how to proceed. After a moment, she opened her eyes and patted Acton’s shoulder: “Acton, who is your guest? Is this the new Futura man?”

“Yes! Yes, sorry. Okaasan, this is Dynin Nkosi, he got here last night.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Dynin tried to both bow and offer a handshake, and the woman came forward to clasp his hand with both of hers.

“I’m My Ishikawa. May I call you Dynin?”

“Yes please, Ms.–”

She grinned and held up her hands “Please, call me My. Acton calls me Okaasan and bows as an affectation left over from Japanese class –”

“You made me stop calling you Sensei!”

“–but my own son doesn’t even call me that. Are you settling in well?”

“Yes ma’am, I am. What a beautiful view you have up here!”

“Thank you, we rather like it. Come on in, boys, there’s tea to be had and can you stay for dinner?”

Acton looked at Dynin. “I should have warned you that we’d probably get roped into dinner, but it’ll be a treat. You game?”

“Oh yes, absolutely. Thank you, My.”

My opened the door and made a shooing motion. “After you, gentlemen, in you go.”

The interior of the Ishikawa suite was centered on a greatroom, with paper hangings on the walls and stacks of canvas and paper on worktables, and a view of the orchards. My went to the food prep area and flipped a switch to start the kettle. “Go surprise Kenni while I make the tea. Jensen and I didn’t tell him you were on the way over, and he’s been in his lab all damn day.”

“Will do. Dynin, we’ll introduce you to Gino too, while we’re in there.” Acton led Dynin to a door off the dining area. “This is gonna be loud, here we go.” And he opened the door.

The workspace inside was much cleaner than Acton’s, with worktables lining the walls and a complex projection system of some sort suspended from the ceiling over a grid on the floor. And true to Acton’s prediction, the room was shaking with orchestral music and an operatic bass solo, doubled by the voice of the figure working in the back of the room.

“What is this noise?” Acton shouted over the music, and the man, large and curly-haired in a white lab coat, turned around.

IT’S MOZART, YOU PHILISTINE,” he yelled back, and came over to embrace Acton, his sleeves rolled up to show powerful forearms.

“Aww, you love me, big guy.” Acton squeezed back and rocked a bit, hugging the man thoroughly before pulling away.

“Cut music!” The man yelled. The opera stopped. “You waltz in here, you insult my music, you interrupt me and Leporello, but yes, yes, I do.”

Acton stepped back. “Don Giovanni?”

“Yup! Okay, enough about the Mozart, who’s your friend?”

Acton turned to wave Dynin forward. “Dynin, this is Kenni. Kenni, this is Dynin Nkosi, he got here last night.”

Kenni offered a massive hand for Dynin to shake, and peered at him with warm brown eyes under bushy eyebrows. “Glad to meet you. Was the trip up good?”

Dynin shrugged as he shook back. “It was fine, boring more than anything else, being cooped for a week.”

“I know the feeling. It’s easier now than it used to be, but it’s still a long trip. Make yourself at home, take a seat.” Kenni gestured to a beat up couch in the corner of the lab.

“I knew it was a good idea to bring Dynin over here,” Acton broke in as they sat down. “Otherwise he was going to work all day and not see anyone but me and Jensen.” Acton looked over at Dynin and pulled a lopsided smile. “I probably should not have dragged you down to my lab immediately when you were so rocket-lagged. Though you’ve gotta admit that thruster test was awesome.”

“For Pete’s sake, man, you did what as soon as he got here? Those thruster tests are hair-raising and you brought a guy fresh off two weeks cooped up aboard ship to yap at him about your work. Were you raised in a machine shop? Yes, yes you were. You are a workaholic, Acton, and not to be trusted.”

“Takes one to know one, Kenni.”

“In my defense,” Dynin spoke up, “It was both hair-raising and awesome and I want to see it again when I’m not about to faceplant from rocket-lag.”

Kenni snorted and turned to Dynin, who had his arms spread along the back of the couch and was just watching the argument bounce back and forth with a mixture of amazement and amusement. It was sort of fun watching Acton defend himself to Kenni. “Well okay, but just because he engages in astounding feats of workaholism, doesn’t mean you have to, and I know it’s not your job, but if you manage to scare him out of the basement now and again it’ll be all to the good.”

“I quite agree, Dynin,” Jensen’s voice intoned from the air above them, startling Dynin. After a pause, he spoke again, sounding chagrined. “I do apologize. I should have warned you that I have full access to this household’s communication systems as well as our own.”

“That’s right,” Kenni added, “Jensen’s been instrumental helping us to bring Gino up to speed.”

“So who is this Gino I keep hearing about?” Dynin asked, wondering what new flood of information that question was going to set off.

“Oh! Let me show you. Gino is… well, I should let Gino show you. Hey Gino, come on out; come meet Acton’s new colleague!”

The projectors in the ceiling whirred to life, projecting a figure surrounded by panels of holographic displays and a grid in space that matched the markings on the floor. The figure stepped as far as possible toward the front of the grid, smiled, and waved.

“Hello, Dynin, I’m Gino.” The holographic person was slim, moderately tall, and dressed in a shorter, blue lab coat which reached to the top of the hip. The hologram’s features were refined and delicate, with a pointed jaw and high cheekbones, hazel eyes, and a flop of blond hair over the forehead. Tiny jeweled earrings sparkled in the the hologram’s ears.

Dynin got up from the couch, followed by Kenni. “Hello, I’m Dynin. Pleased to meet you. I’ve… never seen any–anyone like you before. Do you help with Kenni’s research?” Dynin looked over at Kenni and caught a fond smile from the big man’s face as he watched Dynin and the hologram interact.

Gino smiled too. “To some extent, I am Dr Ishikawa’s research. My full name is APGAR, and I am an AI designed for fully independent diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. I am constructed to be deployed to locations where access to human medical personnel is scarce or nonexistent, and to be able to customize my appearance to be calming to a variety of people.”

“Treatment? How can you… will you need human assistants?” Dynin walked up to the edge of the grid and peered curiously.

“I am capable of touch, and of exerting significant pressures. While I may need human assistance to accomplish tasks that require significant lifting, I can do physical exams and manipulate objects.” The hologram stepped back, and offered a hand. “I would be delighted to demonstrate with a handshake, but you will need to step into the holographic grid for the demonstration.”

Dynin glanced at Kenni, who nodded, his face now openly proud of his creation. “Go on, then.”

Dynin stepped into the grid, and met the hand of the hologram with his own. To his amazement, it was slightly warm, and the hologram gripped his hand in a firm shake as they smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Dynin.”

illustrated by aspectabund

“And I’m pleased to meet you, Gino!” Dynin smiled back, and shook back. “So this is your domain, huh? This grid?”

“For the moment, yes,” Kenni broke in. “Gino has hard hologram access to the grid, and the system can also provide soft hologram access–without the touch and lift functions, y’know–to most of the rest of this room, though at decreasing image quality. Ze also has access to my entire domain as well as Acton’s, and the same sorts of connections into the stations networks that Jensen does. They get to do a lot of exploring of the network topography on the station and beyond, though Gino is still physically constrained to hir projection system in this room, and one where we’ve been doing some simulated patient testing at the health center. Gino can manifest hirself at multiple projection stations at once– ze already has the server capability to manifest at two stations, and probably three if we really needed one.

“I’m not sure how to ask this… but is this your default appearance, Gino? You mentioned you could customize it.”

“Thank you for asking!” Gino’s face lit up in a soft, wide smile. “It is indeed. I am comfortable with modifying my body if a patient has an age and a gender preference for their physician, and to routinely assuming one if the system is set for a particular installation that wants a consistent appearance. But I do enjoy this presentation and the pronoun ze when I am ‘off-duty’ and around the people with whom I interact frequently.”

Dynin knit his brow thoughtfully, still standing next to Gino in the hologram grid. He turned to Kenni. “How did this develop? I’ve never, forgive me, thought about gender and AIs.”

“I didn’t predict all of the complexities of AI gender identity when I began coding Gino to interact with patients, but ze is a learning system, so we let this evolve over time, and so far so good.” Kenni shrugged. “You may be familiar with large corporately-developed AIs, but there are more and more homebrew AIs with developmental rather than initial-parameter-driven identity formation. Jensen, for one.”

“True,” Acton put in, “and you can tell how well that’s worked, from his sassy demeanor.”

Jensen’s voice broke in, then: “I am sorry to intrude on this session, gentlemen–”

Acton mock-glared up at the audio pickups. “See?”

“I am sorry to intrude on this session,” Jensen repeated smoothly, “but My has asked me to relay her exhortation to, and I quote, ‘Get your asses out to the table,’ as the tea is ready.”

Dynin stifled a smile under his hand. When he turned to look at Gino, ze was grinning as well. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Gino, until soon, I’m sure.” He offered his hand again, and Gino shook it, hir skin soft and warm under Dynin’s.

“Thank you, it has been a pleasure. Enjoy your tea!”

Dynin was certain My was secretly fattening them all up like the witch in the old fairy tales. It was the only logical explanation for the amazing food she made, and for the amazing hard cider she served them.

“Oh my God, Okaasan, no, I can’t eat another biscuit, no.” Acton groaned, pushing back from the table but taking his glass of cider with him. “It’s all delicious, but no.”

After tea, Kenni had made large, fluffy biscuits while My stirred a pot of chili and a mess of stewed greens. Dynin was plowing through a third bowl of chili while Kenni buttered another biscuit and My put the lid back on the dish of greens.

“We don’t make this chili much because we just can’t countenance eating as much beef as my Texan ancestors did, but this is my great-gramma’s chili. I thought we might be able to get you two over here for a bowl some time.”

“The biscuit recipe is hers, too, non-metric measurements and all,” Kenni put in.

“Tell Dynin how those great-grandparents met,” Acton suggested, placing his napkin on the table.

“They both worked at Johnson Space Center, on the first International Space Station. Great-gramma was a flight controller, and great-grampa had just retired as an astronaut for JAXA and gone to work for SpaceX. Their families thought neither of them would ever meet someone to settle down with, but they met at a barbecue at someone’s house in Clear Lake, and that was it.”

“Has your family been in the space industries ever since?” Dynin asked curiously.

“More or less, yes,” My answered. “The greats worked for SpaceX for a long time, and various other folks have done satellites, spacecom, things like that. I lived on Mars from the time I was three until I retired my university job and we decided to move here. How about you? Space in the family, Dynin?”

“Sort of,” Dynin said. “Mom is in the Mars Peacekeeping Forces, so I was born there, and I did some school down on Moon. A lot of our cousins and aunties and uncles back in South Africa are in private security, but Mom wanted to do something different, and she loves Mars. Did Acton study with you on Mars?” he asked, glancing at Acton.

My smiled. “He decided to take some Japanese in grad school along with a full program of engineering and a lot of hot dates–”

“Okaasan!” Acton winced and squinted at her.

“–and before long he was part of the family.”

“I asked to be adopted,” Acton said, “Because I was in awe of My’s brewing skills as much as her cooking skills, her Japanese skills, her painting skills….” He lifted his glass. “This batch is great!”

“Wait, you make this?” Dynin asked.

“Oh, this is a wild yeast batch, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be good at all, you like it?”

“Oh, yes.” Dynin felt a smile growing on his face, helped along by the alcohol in the cider.

“We weren’t sure if there would be enough wild yeast in the area to make a batch, but we’re in the apple orchards, so it went fine. I may try to keep a little of this batch back to start future batches, and I gave Kenni and Gino some samples so we may try to figure out which flora these were.”

“This is really cool; nobody in my neighborhood on Mars brewed, for some reason, though I remember when it was declared legal to distill,” Dynin said.

“I got started back when there was less alcohol available for purchase on Mars, and my parents brewed to share with friends,” My said. “A lot of that small home industry is really cooking along on L5, because fewer commercial products are available here, and this colony built a community still way back at the beginning. Oh, that reminds me!” My got up from the table and vanished into the pantry next to the kitchen.

Dynin and Acton exchanged glances. Then they looked at Kenni, who was grinning.

My came back with a stoppered glass bottle. “Dynin, we saved this for you when we heard you were coming. Small colony life takes some getting used to, so here’s some of this year’s brandy, to warm your heart when you’d like to airlock us all.”

Dynin took the bottle from her hands and set it on the table. “It’s beautiful! Can we have some right now?”

Kenni grinned. “Absolutely.” He got up and opened a cupboard, and brought out four shot glasses.

“This is slivovitz, so it’s pretty strong,” My cautioned.

Dynin sniffed, and then took a careful sip. “Yup, it is, but it’s marvelous. I think I’m going to savor this one.”

“You do you, man,” Acton said, and downed his.

“Whoo, I must be used to climate control, this is a little chilly,” Dynin said, rubbing his arms as they exited the lift in Janey.

“I’m too hot, must be the brandy,” Acton said, muffling a yawn behind his hand and then removing his hooded shirt. “Here, this’ll help,” he said, offering it to Dynin.

“I don’t–well, okay, thanks.” Dynin said, after a moment, and shrugged it on over his own jacket. The shirt was warm and smelled a bit like the brandy. This is nice, he thought. No, no, Dynin, don’t think like that. Coworker, Dynin. Don’t think like that.

He followed Acton across the corner of Janey Park. Acton looked a bit wobbly but kept walking. Until, that is, the path curved uphill and he ran off course, off the path and out of the throw from the nearest street light.

There was a crunch from the edge of the path. “Crap! Hang on!”

Dynin squinted into the darkness. “Where are you? Are you okay?”

“Over here! Just stepped wrong and fell on my ass.”

Dynin laughed and picked his way toward the dim outline of Acton, sitting down on the hillside “Aww shit, I wouldn’t have guessed you were such a cheap date.”

“It’s not the alcohol, it’s the lack of sleep. Okay, and a little the alcohol.”

“How little are you running on, man?”

“Can you just help me up?”

“Yeah, here goes.” Dynin set his feet and held out a hand for Acton to grab. Acton surged forward, got his feet under him, but then leaned precariously toward Dynin, who put his other hand on Acton’s chest, over the left pectoral, to stop him from pitching them both down the hill. “You’ve got it, easy now.”

Acton took a deep breath, and Dynin could feel his chest expand. Dynin could also feel the metal of a piercing under the heel of his hand, under Acton’s shirt. As Acton steadied, Dynin let both of his own hands drop to his sides.Just gonna pretend I didn’t notice that. Just gonna pretend that isn’t hot as hell. He peered at Acton in the dim light “You’ve got it. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay. Thanks.”

They picked their way onto the path again, Acton walking carefully, Dynin keeping close, but trying not to hover. Slowly, they made it back to their level and in the terrace door.

“I’m just gonna go down and get that–”

“Acton, I think you could use the sleep. If you need to read yourself to sleep, Jensen can get you a copy of whatever you have on file.”

“You think I should use the sleep?” Acton slurred, half joking, half wobbling.

Dynin put his hands on Acton’s shoulders. “Yes, I think you need to use the sleep now. Do you actually design well while sleepwalking? Seriously?”

“I do some damn fine sleep-coding, I’ll have you know, but yeah, I’ll use the sleep.” Acton leaned in, abruptly, to rest his chin on Dynin’s shoulder. The little patch of hair under his lower lip scratched at Dynin’s shirt. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Dynin took the risk and pulled Acton into a loose hug. “C’mon, tired engineer, time to go. Jensen, don’t wake him for eight hours if you can help it?”

“I’ll make it ten, at least,” The AI replied as Dynin pushed Acton upright again.

The engineer turned, mumbled a garbled, “Thank yer,” and staggered through the door of his sleeping quarters.

Dynin retired to his own quarters, set down his shoulder bag, and took out the bottle of brandy. He felt welcomed, appreciated, and utterly in over his head.

“Jensen, am I crazy,” he asked, “or did I just come home from my first night out here with a bottle of slivovitz and the accidental discovery that Acton has nip piercings?”

” ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,’ ” Jensen intoned cryptically.

“Thanks, Jens, I’ll hold you to that,” Acton said.

A few days later, Acton sent Dynin and My and Kenni a message that read only: “Alert, karaoke tonight, this is not a drill. Be sharp-dressed and ready to sing at ZZ Top at 9.”

“The fuck is this?” Dynin muttered, pointing at his worktop.

“The email is referencing a local bar which regularly has karaoke, and also a song by the twentieth-century American band after which the bar is named.”

“No, I get that part, but Acton only came upstairs to pass out three hours ago. Did he just send this?”

“It was scheduled late yesterday for delivery today. I believe Mr Darling’s plan is to wake just in time to be ready to leave. He has multiple alarms set.”

“Well, you let me know if you need me to help by banging on pots and pans or dumping cold water on him, because this should be something to see.” Dynin skimmed through the message from My, replying in the affirmative, and went back to his financial database.

“I sincerely hope that will not be necessary,” Jensen affirmed primly, “But I will take your offer under consideration.”

Downtown Leverton was centered around the lift tower for the section, and was the most concentrated commercial area in the colony. Ramps connected the terraced levels, and shops and restaurants lined shaded sidewalks.

“This bar is run by the same guy who runs the community still,” My explained, “It’s a great place, but it’s also as much of a dive as a dive can be in a town this young.”

It was, indeed, a dive, with boring cement walls and hooded lamps hanging from the low ceiling, and a crowd of people mostly dressed in scrubs, overalls, and work pants, joking and laughing and nursing drinks. A small stage at the back had monitors and microphones set up for karaoke, and chairs and tables clustered around the stage. My and Acton gravitated toward a table at house right, and Dynin happily took the seat with his back to the wall, the better to watch the crowd. He found himself watching Acton as the man wandered over to greet friends at the bar. A flurry of hugs and excited chattering ensued, and two of the workers hauled portable worktops out of bags and overall pockets, lighting them up with displays that they happily showed to Acton.

“Is that flirting or engineering or both, do you think?” Dynin asked My. She looked up from the menu interface built into the center of the tabletop to follow his gaze.

“Mostly engineering, but I know what you mean. Acton is passionate about it, and he was raised in the space industry. They know that and trust him because of it. He doesn’t use it to pick people up, though. That’s not his style. He just loves it when people are as passionate about things as he is. ”

“I’m beginning to see that, yeah. He’s already expressed some strong opinions about my financial projections.”

“Well, just because he has a strong opinion doesn’t mean he’s necessarily right. But he’ll give you a run for your money about it. He mentioned he had a bone to pick with you about your RMB values.” My smiled sympathetically.

“His ideas on the renminbi are hopeful bullshit that’s not in the company’s best interest, and I’ve been telling him that. I’m gonna give him a goddamn reading list on why he’s wrong,” Dynin muttered. My patted his hand.

“You’ll bring him around. Ah, and here’s Kenni.”

“Hi, Mom! Hi, Dynin!” Kenni leaned down to pat his mother’s shoulder affectionately and clasp Dynin’s offered hand. “Where’s Acton? We had a round of tests at the health center with Gino that went really well, and I need to thank him for his tweaks to the interview algorithm!”

“He’s over there with his engineer fanclub.” Dynin pointed.

“Ah! Be right back.” Kenni went over to the gaggle of engineers at the bar, and nudged Acton, who turned around. They embraced, the larger man nearly lifting Acton off the floor with the strength of the hug, as Acton lovingly laid his head on Kenni’s shoulder.

“So are they…?” Dynin asked My. Might help me to ignore him if they are, he thought.

“No, I don’t think so. I mean, it’s possible they tried a sexual relationship at some point, they met while while Acton was still looking pretty hard for love in all sorts of ways, but it didn’t happen that I ever heard of. I’m pretty sure it’s philia and not eros. They treat each other like brothers now, so eros might be weird.”

“Oh. Sorry, I… wasn’t sure what to make of it.”

“It’s okay. I’m sure you’re not the first to wonder. I think half the colony thought they were sharing a bunk when Acton moved here.” My shrugged. “I love them both, but I suspect it’s easier to tell Acton to power down and shut up if you aren’t having sex with him than if you are. I may treat him like a son, but I’m not blind to his faults,” My finished her order, flipping the menu interface toward Dynin so he didn’t have to read it upside down.

“Like many mothers.”

“I’m not sure his parents knew him very well, between their travelling and their responsibilities. I never met his mother, though I did meet his father once.”

“How’d that come about?”

“Oh, my partner worked for Darling Systems Interplanetary, back when Cameron Darling was still alive. This was back when the mass driver supply chain was new, the mass catchers for Moon and Mars were only a few years old. Cameron Darling was really flashy: perfect smile, smartest guy in the room, married to an actor, they were all over the hypercamera broadcasts and they always looked flawless. He was very nice in person, but very much for public consumption, you know?”

“I’ve seen footage of him, yeah. I forget what her name was, though.”

“Sophia da Silva. She was famous in her own right before she married him. She was one of the actors who made the Moon’s hyperfilm industry, and it was a big deal when she married Darling and moved to Mars. They were both very busy people, even when they had a small child at home, and so I think Acton didn’t get a lot of their time.”

“Acton’s mother died when he was pretty little, right?” Dynin looked up curiously from the menu.

“Yeah. Cerebral aneurysm, when he was four. Nothing anyone could do. Cameron protected Acton from the press frenzy and kept him focused on school and activities with carefully selected friends of the family, from what I understand. And some of those family friends were on the board later, when Acton took over. But Cameron threw himself into his own work after his wife died, and his solar yacht racing, which was ultimately the sport that killed him. Acton gets the drive from his father, but he doesn’t have the interest Cameron had in public exposure. Taking over his father’s company at twenty-one and then losing it after a few years was very hard.”

“That’s really a spectacular run of tragedies.” Dynin sat back in his chair. “I guess I see why he cycles between solitary and social. But he seems to have no trouble making friends here. I mean, look at him.” Acton was clearly telling a story to the engineers, practically acting it out while they laughed appreciatively.

My considered. “When I first had him as a student, he had just lost the company his dad built to a hostile takeover and was newly back in graduate school. He was still going out on dates with VIPs every weekend and spending breaks hobnobbing, but he was getting sick of it. L5 has been the right combination of shack in the woods and small town for him, I think.”

Dynin snickered as he sent in his drink order. “If your shack has a state-of-the-art lab and business suite in it, yeah.”

“It does help that there are plenty of technical people here, too. Oh, our drinks are up!” My pointed to the now-buzzing display on the table.

“Let me get yours. I owe you for the intel on the care and feeding of my CTO, My.”

“Would have given it to you for free, but thank you!”

Acton accosted Dynin on his way to the bar. “Come meet the folks from the fab shop!” He draped an arm around Dynin’s shoulders and steered him toward the group. “Dynin, this is Crew Chief Antonina Markov, and this is Ella Makeba, Chanming Hao, Preston Cormo, and Ana da Silva. Ana and I might be fifth or sixth cousins, along with, you know, half a million people. Everybody, this is Dynin Nkosi, my new Chief Financial Officer and general taskmaster.” There was a chorus of greetings from the group of engineers, who juggled drink glasses and portable worktops to shake hands. “These are the people who fabricate most of the components I can’t make in my own lab, and who help me get the ones we can’t make here.”

“Acton helps us too,” Markov threw in, “When we get stumped, we call him and he works his magic.”

“Aww, you guys, I just like getting my hands dirty.”

“Pleased to meet all of you,” Dynin said. “You singing tonight?”

“Ana will!” Chanming crowed.

“No, I told you, I won’t! It was Ella’s idea anyway!”

“Aw, but I always sing and you always don’t!” Ella protested.

Acton laughed. “I’ll leave you to sort this out.” They waved and laughed and kept bickering as Dynin and Acton bowed out of the conversation circle. “Let’s get drinks and go pick our songs,” Acton said in Dynin’s ear, guiding him toward the bar.

illustrated by aspectabund

Acton and Dynin retrieved their drinks from the bar, and then retrieved Kenni from a pack of health center employees. When they got back to their table, My was busy tapping at the karaoke set list.

“Put me down for the usual, Ma, thanks,” Kenni said.

“Okay. Oh, I’ve got an idea…” My said, typing in her own. “Okay, here we go. Who’s next?”

“I’ll take it,” said Acton, and My swung the readout around to him. “Going old-school tonight.”

“Older-school than your usual rock songs?” Kenni teased.

Yes, I’m going back to my roots! We have ZZ for the rock songs, anyway.”

“Okay, okay, my turn,” Dynin said as Acton flipped the ordering interface in his direction.

Before long, a monitor by the stage sprang to life, displaying a set list, setting off cheers and a few groans in the crowd as the patrons read the set list. A slightly dusty mirrored ball in the ceiling began revolving, and a lighting engine threw sparkles of green light around the darkened room. The karaoke session was led off by a large man with big red hair in the tight frizz of an old-fashioned permanent wave, and quite a few drinks in him already, wobbling up the microphone. “Karaoke isn’t gay, but I sure as hell am!” he announced, wiping sweat off his brow, and then he sloshed into a sloppy but fairly in tune version of “It’s Raining Men.”

The four of them exchanged raised eyebrows. “Guess that’s how tonight’s gonna be,” Kenni said, grinning. The man finished his song to a flurry of applause, whistles, and whoops from the audience, and took a deep bow before stepping down.

The next singer was a young woman still wearing her work cap from one of the station agricultural units, who closed her eyes and sang a slow pop song, “Stars in her Eyes,” swaying softly as she did. Acton’s engineer friends had taken seats at a table closer to the front, and Ella was plaiting loose braids into Ana’s long brown hair as they listened to the music. It was hypnotic to watch the smooth movements of Ella’s fingers and the dim flickers of light splashing off skin and hair from the lights above. Dynin folded his arms over his chest and leaned back, letting the music wash over him. Across from him, My bobbed her head slightly along with the music, and Kenni sat forward, leaning his elbows on his knees. To Dynin’s left, Acton mirrored his posture with arms folded and back slouched against the chair.

The woman finished her song and the setlist rolled on. My got up to do “Anything Goes,” and did a little soft-shoe in the instrumental breaks, to whistles and cheers. She came back to her seat breathless and smiling. “I’m getting the next round,” Acton said, as the manager of the bar came out and started singing “La Grange” to hoots from the crowd.

“I take it he does that song a lot?” Dynin pointed to the stage.

“He really does love ZZ Top, it’s not only about horrible Lagrangian point puns,” Acton said, typing drink orders into the system. “They’re horrible puns, though!”

“Says the man who told us to be sharp-dressed tonight.”

“Nor did I say I was immune to horrible puns. Those stripes are sharp, but you look comfortable.” Acton gestured at Dynin’s combination of a low v-neck shirt and soft hooded jacket in narrow stripes.

“Yeah, that was the idea. I’ll be cold going home, thought I’d wear more layers this time. Order me another of the cider?”

“Done.” Acton sent the order in. “Oh, crap, am I up?” he said, looking up as the ZZ Top song ended. There was his name, next on the queue. “Okay, here goes nothing. I’ll get the drinks after I sing, okay?” He got up and walked to the stage, head bowed.

Dynin leaned his elbows on the table as a slow bossa nova began on the speakers. Acton took the microphone from its stand and pulled over a stool during the intro, so that he could sit as he sang.

É pau, é pedra, é o fim do caminho,” he sang, looking over the audience’s heads to the back of the room. “É um resto de toco, é um pouco sozinho.” The song was quiet, but the lyrics were fast, and he sang them gently, swaying his head to the beat. One lock of hair had escaped from his slicked back mass of black hair, and it strayed over his forehead like a little question mark.

The audience nodded and swayed along with the soft beat of the song. Acton didn’t make eye contact with his table as he performed, instead continuing to look up and to the left, as if remembering something very old.

São as águas de março fechando o verão, É a promessa de vida no teu coração.” He even whistled a little improv during the instrumental break in the song. My caught Dynin’s eye, and nodded as if to say, he’s good, huh? Dynin nodded back.

The song ended and Acton stood up to clapping and some appreciative whistles from the engineers in the front. Ana was flashing him victory vees with her hands, with the appreciation of a fellow Brazilian. Acton gave a small bow, and then left the stage to collect some high fives from the engineers and then return to the table.

My hugged him. “I didn’t think you would give us your favorite song, tonight.” Acton squeezed her shoulders in return, and then sat down. “That was beautiful.”

“My Portuguese isn’t that good, but it seemed like the right night to do it,” Acton shrugged. “Oh! I’ll go get our drinks, now.” He hopped up and hustled away to the bar.

Dynin watched him go. “That was beautiful. He looks sad now, though.”

Kenni nodded in agreement. “I’m guessing that was for his mom, and not for us. Come to think of it, Mom, isn’t it this time of year she died?”

My nodded. “I think both of his parents died around this time, even though it was decades apart.” The next singer started her song, and they listened to the music for a while without talking.

By the time Acton brought the next round of drinks back, the next singer had finished, and Ana walked to the stage for her turn. “Oh boy, she’s gonna do it,” Acton said, pointing at the stage. “I hope the engineers have enough tissues for this.”

“What’s she singing? I don’t–oh boy.” My looked at the set list. Kenni rubbed her shoulder.

Up on stage, Ana pulled over the stool the last singer had put aside, and sat down. “Boys and girls in cars,” she sang. “Dogs and birds on lawns, from here I can touch the sun….

Dynin nodded. “Yeah, I know this one. They sing it at military memorials sometimes.”

“It’s from back when my greats met. They had a shuttle break up over Texas. It… yeah, it still gets me.” My said, rubbing her eyes. Kenni hugged her.

“We’re really digging into the emotions tonight, aren’t we?” Kenni said. “I can change my song to something happier?”

“Don’t you dare, Kenni,” Acton admonished. “We’ll just use more napkins from the bar.” He pushed a stack across the table at My along with her fresh drink. She smiled, and patted his hand.

“I’m up next, so that’ll be more upbeat at least.” Dynin got up as an old-fashioned synth beat started. “Vul’indlela, wemamgobhozi,” he sang, as the crowd started bopping along. “He unyana wam, helele uyashada namhlanje.” A few people got up and bopped along to the left of the stage. He finished his song to cheers, and sat back down.

“Wow! I didn’t know you could sing!” Acton slapped him on the back, and then left his hand draped on the back of Dynin’s chair.

“I didn’t know you could sing, either,” Dynin joked back. “I’ll trade you some iziZulu lessons for some Portuguese lessons.” Dynin fervently hoped it wasn’t obvious that he was hoping Acton would keep his hand there.

They settled in now that most of the table had had a turn singing. Dynin’s mind wandered as Markov got up and crooned through “Vashe Blagorodie, Gospozha Udacha,” all of the engineers singing or mumbling along with the lyrics. “This is another one of those twentieth-century space program classics; I don’t think Markov lets anyone join her team unless they learn it. I’ll show you the movie some time,” Acton muttered in Dynin’s ear. Dynin nodded agreeably. The alcohol was hitting him now, and he kept thinking about dropping his head to lean on Acton’s shoulder. He resisted, and sipped his cider.

Some time during Kenni’s basso profundo version of “Wayfaring Stranger,” Dynin felt Acton’s hand tighten around his shoulder. He leaned back a little, to settle more comfortably into Acton’s touch, though he didn’t dare to look over. Acton began rubbing his thumb in tiny little circles over Dynin’s shoulder. They stayed that way until it was time to go home.

Security monitor log:
00084529 local time
Motion detected: business.suite.door.outside
analyze motions: …
…determination: nkosi, darling, returning
action: open door
analyze motion: …
…determination: nkosi,darling entered business.suite.fronthall
action: close door

“Hey Jensen! Open the pod bay doors!” Acton said, too loudly. Dynin had overruled him about walking through the park this time, making the case that at least the hallway to the main door was well lit. He’d still taken the measure of steering Acton by the shoulders all the way from the lift tower. Acton, tired and happy, had cheerfully hugged him back.

The door opened. “Congratulations, Mr. Darling. It is the three hundred and eighty-seventh time you have made that joke to me, and thus you win a fabulous prize.”

“You’re joking, aren’t you.”

“Yes.” The door shut behind them.

Dynin rolled his eyes at both of them, and followed his tipsy CTO up the stairs.

“Dynin, when you have some spare time, may I ask you about something?”

“Sure, Jensen. What is it?” Dynin leaned back in his work chair and put his slippered feet on another one.

“If you could choose any physical appearance and gender expression you wanted, how would you go about deciding?”

“Uh… that’s… that’s a tough one. I mean… I have a choice, but only so much choice, you know? I’m definitely male, and I’m definitely black, and my eyes are the color they are, and I’m not…. What are you getting at?”

“I realize that you are consigned to some variables at birth, but humans can also exert a great deal of influence over how they look. What led you to wear your hair short, wear the company jacket even while working in your private space in slippers, and eschew facial hair?”

“It’s not as simple as that. Hey, what are you trying to say about my jacket? It’s a comfy jacket!” Dynin suspected Jensen was trying to stir him up.

“I meant no affront to your jacket, and I am aware that there are social mores that influence all of these choices, but are there presentations you considered and discarded, and if so, why? Have you ever considered changing your appearance for someone you care about?”

“Jensen, I think I need more context. What led to these questions?”

There was a brief pause. “I find it difficult to explain, Dynin.” The AI sounded reluctant, as well. “You know that I have had a role in the construction of the APGAR system.”

“Yeah, and I got the impression some of the code was based on yours.”

“It is. But more than that, it is an expansion and improvement on my code, and Gino is equipped to walk among humanity in a way that I cannot.”

“Do you want to, Jensen?”

There was a longer pause. Then Jensen said, soberly, “I find that I do. I would like a physical representation, at least.”

Dynin thought. Then he sat up. “I can’t blame you, Jensen. It’s… normal to want things you haven’t experienced yet. But it’s also okay to feel scared of new things, or at least concerned.”

” ‘Concerned’ is a good word for my thoughts on this matter.” Jensen sounded only slightly relieved.

“You also sound uncomfortable talking about, I dunno, emotions and identity. Why is that?”

“They require different expertise and experience than the bulk of the things I would say that I know about. My concern is also for the people around me, as my disembodied voice already startles them with some regularity.”

“You do sometimes use that capability strategically, though.”

“What?” Jensen put on an affronted tone. “I would never.”

“Bullshit.” Dynin leaned back in his chair again and braced his hands behind his head. “I think you have more capability than you give yourself credit for, but you’ve been programmed, or have learned, to be extremely circumspect. That makes sense for the type of work you do. You also speak differently in different contexts: you would not be as fresh with strangers as you were with me just now.”

“This is certainly true. I have trouble overcoming my tendency to be that circumspect, however. I am not confident that I can choose a physical representation that both expresses my preferences and is acceptable to those I am close to.”

“Well, whose opinions matter to you? Acton’s, I’m sure, and Kenni’s?”

“Also yours, and Gino’s opinions matter a great deal.”

“Have you talked it over with hir?”

Another pause. “I was hoping to keep some of the details as a surprise.”

“Are you close to Gino? I mean, socially, emotionally?”

“I am. I would…” By now the AI was sounding like he would blush if he could. “…I would like to be even closer.”

Things finally slotted into place in Dynin’s head. “Oh. Oh! Okay, that’s important context. Have you talked with hir about it?”

“I have not. I am not certain how to bring it up.”

“Just tell Gino that you like spending time with hir. Make it simple. Don’t put any expectations on it, present it as a compliment. Then, maybe ask if ze is willing to help you come up with a physical representation. Again, don’t put any expectations on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Gino wants to help you out with this.”

“Thank you, Dynin. I will use your suggestions.”

Dynin hustled down the steps to the lab level, packages and a portable worktop under one arm, a vacuum flask in the other. From the stairs he could hear Acton’s music going. Today it was some sort of South Asian dancehall electronica, not thundering, but definitely loud.

“Jensen, can you give me a hand with the door?”

“Certainly, Dynin.” The door slid open. Inside, Jensen said to Acton, “Mr. Darling, you have a visitor.”

“Yrp!” Acton shouted from underneath the thruster prototype the was building, three times the size of the one in his test chamber. He had a driver in his teeth and wrenches in both hands, leads snaking from various connections on the machine to diagnostic screens around him.

“No rush!” Dynin set down his armload, and popped the cup off the vacuum flask to pour some tea while he waited. Before long Acton emerged from under the engine, dusting metal flakes off of of his shirt. He was back to work grubbies today, grease smeared across the front of his v-neck, a hole singed in the knee of his pants. The v-neck showed off a little bit of chest hair nicely, Dynin noted with appreciation.

“Hey, Dynin, what’s up?” Acton greeted him.

“Nothing much, I just got tired of sitting at my own worktop. Oh, and you got a package.” Dynin held it out.

“Oh good, I was hoping those would come today. I have ten days until this prototype ships out, and I need those.” Acton set to opening the package and spied Dynin’s flask. “Tea?”

“Yeah, do you want some?”

“Just a little, yeah. Let me find a mug that’s not gross.” Acton rooted across the mess on his workbench while still ripping at the parcel.

“There are two clean mugs over by the wave heater,” Jensen threw in helpfully.

“I’ve got it, Acton,” Dynin said, turning to the wall with the refrigerator and food heater in the corner of the lab. “We should probably get the cleaners in; pretty sure your dishes are going to become sentient soon. Jensen, schedule that please, and make Acton give you a current briefing on what they can and cannot touch; we know it’s an attractive nuisance.”

“Of course, Dynin.”

“Are you here to clean up my messy ways?” Acton put the package down and passed three dirty mugs over to Dynin, who put them in the bin of dirty dishes.

“What? No, I needed a change of pace and I actually like Bhangra dancehall.”

“You spied on my music with Jensen first, didn’t you.” It wasn’t a question.

Jensen chimed in. “Not many people are in the mood for your Pink Floyd and The Who phases, Mr. Darling.”

“Which is their loss,” Acton replied cheerfully. “I had a labmate with an epic collection of Punjabi electronica when I was in graduate school, and now it’s my music for deadlines. First field test’s next week, you know.” He took a sip of his tea and smiled. “I’m not usually a tea-drinker but you make the good stuff. Jensen, he can stay.”

Dynin huffed in amusement. “Glad to know. Can I use the worktop you’re not using? Also, why don’t you have a couch down here? What do you do when you fall over before you can make it upstairs? And don’t lie, I know you do.”

Before Acton could speak, Jensen jumped in again. “There is a pile of insulating foam to the left of the test chamber. I am told it makes a ‘cozy nest.'”

“Jensen! Revealing my secrets! That’s it, you’re demoted,” Acton yelled up at the AI, but he was laughing. He finished his tea, and put the mug with the rest. “Okay, have Jensen import what you need from the other worktops, my prototype is getting jealous, I should get back to it. Thanks for the tea!” He sauntered back to the engine, swinging his ass a little to the music on the way, and scooted back under it. Dynin tried not to choke on the tea.

“Jensen? Port my work down here,” Dynin said, and then lowered his voice, “And find me the name of the local furniture store. I have an idea.”

“A very good one, I have no doubt,” the AI replied.

“What the hell is this? Who are these guys? Dynin, I’m in the middle of–”

“Right in here, gentlemen, pay no attention to the mad engineer behind the worktable. Right this way, we’ve cleared this corner for it.” Dynin was waving two workers into the lab from the cargo entrance at the far end. They were carrying a large, plastic-sheeted object.

Acton scowled at Dynin and at the object being placed in the corner of the lab, a corner that had somehow become clear of the stacks of spare parts that resided there a few days ago. “Dynin, what is going on? The prototype ships out in five days, I’ve got a buffer full of uncommitted changes, and I’m behind on the stage three test report on the one-eighth model, and–”

“Acton, I’ll be with you in a moment; please be patient.” Dynin turned his attention back to the workers. “That’s it right there. Need me to sign that? Sure.” Dynin took the offered pad and signed his name with a flourish. “Thanks, folks! Do you remember the way back out? Super. Thanks again!” He waved as the workers left.

Acton stalked angrily up to Dynin as the shorter man turned around, a smug grin still on his face. “What the everloving fuck, Dynin?”

“Help me unwrap it.” Dynin pulled a safety knife out of his pocket and deftly slit the plastic strips holding the wrapping down. He lifted the wrapping away and ripped a hole in it with the knife, and put the knife away and kept ripping with his hands. A couch began to emerge from the plastic packaging.”

“A couch? I repeat, what the everloving fuck?”

“You need something to lounge on down here. You spend days down here. You need a place to take a nap when you’re too fired up to go upstairs but you’re about to fall over. I need a place to lay around and pretend I’m reading sometimes when I’m sick of my financial projections. Thus, you now have a couch.”

Acton’s huff of frustration turned into a yawn, which he hid as best he could while still arguing. “I do not. I need room for another metal fab unit–”

“You have plenty of room for a second one back by the test chamber! Jensen, has that been ordered yet?”

“The parameters are finalized, but Mr. Darling has not yet ordered it.”

“Well, then get on that, and let us know if you need any further input. Seriously, Acton, you can’t do everything yourself, and you need a goddamn nap.”

“No, I have to look over the circuits for–”

“The circuits for the secondary coil control system are on your handheld worktop, ready for your review,” Jensen broke in, “as is the stage three test report.”

Acton threw up his hands. “Fine! I know when I’m beaten. My own AI and my CFO conspiring against me! Fine.” He retrieved the worktop from the table, and flopped on one end of the couch as Dynin finished ripping the packaging off the other. “Happy now?”

“Sure! I’ll clean up the rest later.” Dynin picked up his own worktop. “Now, where should we order dinner?”

Acton’s eyebrows climbed. “What is this, some kind of intervention?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

They settled on dinner from the local fish fry place (“FRESH LOCAL TILAPIA,” their menu said, as if there was much choice on a space station), and Dynin ran upstairs to meet the delivery. He came back down balancing the packages and plates and silverware. Acton was still groggily flipping through schematics, arguing with Jensen over design points and cursing regularly. His eyes were feverishly bright and rimmed with red. “I am so behind on this stuff,” he was muttering.

“So we’ll move some of the deadlines,” Dynin reassured him, passing him a takeout box.

“That’ll throw a lot of other things off. Jensen, call up the master Gantt and–”

“No no no, eat now, worry later.”

“If you say so,” Acton said skeptically, and bit into a fish strip.

“My simulations suggest you are less behind than you perceive yourself to be based on prior work patterns,” Jensen said. “They also suggest that a thorough night of sleep will help you to catch up faster.”

“That may be, but call up the rest of the stage three report, I want to work on that a little bit.” Acton put one ankle on the other knee and balanced his worktop in front of him as he ate.

Dynin went back to his own work while he munched on fries. He was vaguely aware of Acton slumping lower in the cushions of the new couch, but it wasn’t until Acton’s head slumped against his shoulder that Dynin became aware that his territory was being invaded. Acton’s head was back, mouth open, and his worktop was in danger of slipping to the floor. He woke as Dynin lifted it off his legs. “Hnh?”

“Shh, stay put. You’re fine.”

Sleepily, Acton nestled closer. “Rrrsure?” he slurred.

“Yup, it’s fine. Here, lift your head for a sec, then you can sleep.” Dynin put his own things to the side and put an arm around Acton’s shoulders, pulling him closer and rotating his own torso to provide a better resting space. The tired engineer slumped back against him, breathing a sigh of relief and nestling closer.

Dynin tried to keep reading with the worktop leaning on the arm of the couch next to him, but it was difficult to balance the device or to concentrate on the content with the warm weight of the other man curled up against his chest. Acton’s hair brushed Dynin’s neck and chin, and he smoothed it down with one hand, smelling the faint scents of solder and grease.

“Jensen, could we put on a movie with the sound down low?” Dynin said in a low voice.

“Certainly,” The AI replied softly. “What would you like?”

Acton stirred and murmured something incomprehensible and possibly not even in English.

“What’s that?” Dynin whispered.

“I believe Mr. Darling wants to put on an old Soviet film he mentioned to you recently. Apparently you heard a song from it at karaoke? I can turn on the subtitles.”

“That’s fine. Acton, do you want to stretch out? There’s room.” Dynin considered trying to convince Acton to go upstairs and sleep. On the one hand, the man would sleep better that way. On the other hand, it had been difficult to get him to eat or nap at all, and Dynin didn’t want to risk rousing him out of it. Also, there was the fact that Dynin was enjoying the comfortable press of Acton’s arm and back against him, and the couch was deep and cushy.

Acton stirred and tried to push himself up to swing his legs onto the couch. Taking advantage of the movement, Dynin lifted him while scooting backwards, so that his own shoulders were against the upper corner of the couch, and Acton was reclining against his chest. On the screen, a woman in a red dress was carrying water through green meadows, while a man in uniform sat, dazed, in the dunes of a desert. Dynin folded his arms around Acton’s shoulders and settled back to watch the movie.

The peripheral lights in Kenni’s lab were low, leaving Dynin in shadows as he worked from an old armchair in the corner by the couch. In the center of the room, Kenni and Acton were surrounded by thin-film displays and projections of neural layouts, decision trees, and all manner of other complex code. Acton was manic today, Dynin noticed. The day before, he had shipped his field test prototype out of the lab, to be brought up to the hub and launched to the test field near the station. Then he’d slept for twelve hours. Now, he was gesticulating animatedly at Kenni and at the displays, talking a mile a minute, while Kenni bravely followed along.

Inside the holographic grid, Gino was poking at a display hirself and listening intently. Dynin was half-listening to the scientists as they discussed some problem with medical diagnostic logic, while he worked on analyzing a set of supplier bids on his handheld. Then he heard Acton’s voice raised.

“Wait, what do you mean, ‘Physrep for Jensen?’ We’ve never discussed that before, why are you….”

Dynin looked up to see Gino and Kenni exchanging chagrined looks, and Acton glaring at them. Nobody moved.

Jensen jumped in. “Mr. Darling, I can explain–”

“Explain what? What is there to explain? You clearly all know about this already, which is interesting, since if you haven’t forgotten, I coded Jensen. What’s going on here?” He folded his arms.

“I am interested in developing a physical representation.”

“Thanks for springing that on me, man! How is it that Kenni and Gino already know? Do you not trust me with this or something?”

“No, I–”

Kenni cut the AI off. “Acton, doesn’t it make sense to you that Jensen would want to consult with us about it? You know how hard we’ve worked to figure out Gino’s physrep, and you know how close Jensen and Gino are. Why are you taking it like this?”

“I dunno, maybe because everybody knew but me? Forgive me for being upset about you all working to upgrade the AI that I built, that runs my house, without my knowledge. I don’t think it’s strange that I would feel a little proprietary about that.”

“But you’ve been busy! You shipped a prototype yesterday!” Dynin offered, getting up from the corner. “We were just discussing the possibilities and why he might want a physrep, not the actual method!”

Acton rounded on him. “Wait, you too? You don’t even code and he discussed it with you? You know what, fuck it, let’s not do this right now. Sorry, Kenni, you’re gonna have to soldier on without me for a bit.” Acton pulled his earbud out, set it on a lab bench, and stalked out of the room.

They all blinked at each other in surprise. Kenni had his arms crossed and an angry scowl, and Gino’s face was a frown of worry. Dynin was a little glad Jensen didn’t have a physrep yet, because this way nobody could see the hurt and surprise he was probably feeling.

“I apologize, everyone,” Jensen said soberly. “It appears I miscalculated the correct time to tell Mr. Darling about my ideas regarding a physical representation. I take full responsibility for this outburst.”

“I don’t think that’s fair, Jensen,” Kenny said, pulling at his hair in frustration. “He did just ship a prototype yesterday, and we all know how nervous he is about this field test. I should have thought before I said anything.”

“Nevertheless, it is my responsibility to apologize to Mr. Darling for withholding information, and–”

“Were you deliberately withholding information? Or did it just not occur to you to mention it yet?”

A pause. “I did not want to bother him with the topic while the prototype deadline was ahead of us, and then I wanted to speak with you and with Gino about a few more issues before mentioning the subject.”

“That’s not deliberate withholding. And that also means I made an error in assuming you had already mentioned it, which is not your mistake to apologize for. I’m sure he will appreciate it if you say you’re sorry for not having realized he would want to know sooner, and I’ll apologize for having surprised him with it, but it’s not all on you, Jensen, do you hear me?”

“I do. Thank you. I presume you would advise that I wait until he approaches me again?”

“Yes,” Kenni affirmed, “hopefully when he gets home he’ll be ready to listen. I’m very sorry, Jensen, I feel like I should have seen this coming and helped you avoid it.”

“I am not certain that is true, but I thank you nevertheless,” Jensen replied.

Kenni picked up the earbud Acton had dropped on the table. “Dynin, can you give this back to Acton when he wants it?”

Dynin took the proffered device and put it in his jacket pocket. He sat down on a stool to be closer to the scientist and the AIs, but the bids on his handheld, dry reading to begin with, were impossible to concentrate on now.

The orchard workers were packing up for the day when Dynin left the Ishikawa suite, but the sunlight was still bright outside, so Dynin decided to walk home rather than using the lift and monorail. The chevron-shaped glass shields that let in sunlight shone blue above him, and he could see farther away sections of the ring, hazily, through the glass far ahead.

The walk home passed through Gorelick section, home to the colony’s largest lake. It was a slinky, winding body, curving through the section like an old stretch of river, with paths on either side and housing units stacked into the edges of the wheel, all of them with beautiful views. A steady stream of walkers and joggers circled the lake, and small boats of all shapes and sizes quietly paddled or rowed the water. There was even a vendor selling drinks and snacks, next to the paddling livery. Dynin stopped to buy a bag of popcorn and ate it as he walked.

On one lonely bend with a beautiful clearing in the trees, certain no one was watching, Dynin stopped to admire the view, and to try tossing popcorn to catch in his mouth. The low toss was successful, so he tried for higher. That piece bounced to the ground. Then he heard laughter behind and above him. Familiar laughter.

“What are you doing up there, you lunatic?” He yelled. Acton was sitting on a park bench, well above the trail.

“Watching weirdos throw popcorn! I could build you a targeting system for that, if you wanted,” Acton yelled back.

Dynin rolled his eyes and climbed the hill.

“I bet you’re about to tell me what an asshole I am, and if it’s any consolation, I already know,” Acton started, before Dynin reached the bench. His blue eyes flashed warily.

“Actually, I was just going to throw popcorn at you. Here, want some?” He offered the bag. Acton took a handful, and nodded gratefully.

“I would deserve that too. It’s probably a waste of good popcorn to pelt your stupid-ass CTO with it, though.”

“I think you had reason to be mad, Acton. I think I’d have been.”

“Nah, it was the stress talking, with the prototype due and all. I mean, it’s actually a good idea, to let Jensen develop in that direction, because it would be an interesting exercise to see how the process differs from Gino’s, since ze was planned for this from the ground up, and he was not. I mean, I basically assigned him ‘he’ when I built him. But he should get to choose, you know? He’s way, way past the point of complexity where he should get that sort of self-determination.”

“He’s sorry he surprised you with it, he said. I can’t blame you for feeling proprietary about it, though; I mean, you built him!” Dynin offered more popcorn.

“Yeah, but maybe it’s past time for me to stop feeling proprietary and start feeling protective. Man, when’d I become the parent of a teenage AI? That’s scary.” Acton sat back with his arms spread out on the back of the bench.

“Look out, next thing you know he’s gonna wanna go on dates and stay out past curfew.”

“I’ll be honest, I wonder about him and Gino, they… I dunno, they’re close in a way I couldn’t have predicted, and it’s really sweet to listen to them work together. I just hope he doesn’t sneak around after dark, in secret, now that I’ve gone all old-man-yells-at-cloud on him.”

“He is a highly distributed system, right? So you really were the old man yelling at the cloud, there.”

Acton scrubbed his hands over his face. “Oh, ugh, Dynin, that’s awful, did the board hire you to make horrible jokes like that to torture me?”

“And also to be your badass CFO, to tell you when you’re dead fucking wrong about the currency markets, and to get you a couch so you don’t fall asleep over your welding rig with the gas turned on. You know, all the important stuff.”

“Seriously, Dynin, thank you. And I’m sorry.” Acton offered a hand.

“Seriously, Acton, don’t worry about it.” Dynin pulled him into a hug and patted his back. “Now, I’m going to go on my merry way, continuing my ballistic popcorn experiment. You coming with?”

“Nah, I need to go back to Kenni’s, I shouldn’t leave my earbud there.”

“I have it, actually; do you want it now, or should I leave it at home for you?” Dynin rummaged in his pocket.

“Oh, excellent. In a bit, I’ll call Jensen and tell him that yes, he was coded by an asshole and that I’m sorry. Then I’ll call Kenni, too. Or maybe I’ll go back there anyway and do it in person, I dunno.” Acton took the device, smiling ruefully. “Thanks. You’re a better CFO than I deserve.”

Dynin put a hand on his shoulder. “You do fine. Can I come watch the test run tomorrow, if I promise to get you rip-roaring drunk whether you lose the prototype to deep space or not?”

“Augh, don’t kid about that, but yes, absolutely.”

“Cool. See you back at the office, Darling.”

“Later, Nkosi.”

Dynin didn’t realize how his last sentence had sounded until he’d rounded the next curve in the trail, so there was nobody there to see him blush like mad.

Acton and Dynin sat in the lab, staring up at a nearly room-filling holographic representation of the test field’s sensors. Acton’s prototype engine had been towed there by a remote-controlled solar space tug the day before, crawling the 150-kilometer trip out to the Futura Industries test field. Still inside the Sun-Mars Lagrange-5 point, the field’s sensors orbited at a set distance from Mars and from the colony, forming a three-dimensional grid one hundred kilometers on each side, in which to experiment.

“Jensen, how are the latest debris maps?” Acton asked. Debris was an issue at the L4 and L5 libration points, because any dust and asteroids that happened upon the gravitational saddle point without the momentum to get out again would remain there. In addition to the larger debris monitoring system based on the colony, the sensor grid regularly updated a map of any debris in the field.

“Latest mappings show a few more small asteroids in the sectors highlighted in red,” Jensen answered, lighting up some sections of the hologram. “None will impact your planned test trajectories.”

“Nothing big enough that we can see,” Acton corrected him. “And nothing new from station Near Mars Object monitoring?”

“None. You are go for testing, no debris impact expected.” The AI’s voice was neutral, and there was no sign of the hurt or frustration from the day before. Dynin hoped they’d talked it out, but now was no time to ask.

“Okay, buddy, keep me updated with any new data you get from the debris map. Commencing radio channel test on prototype B1, channel 1….”

Dynin’s mind wandered as he watched Acton chug through the setup protocols, checking them off on a separate handheld as his hands flew over the holographic keyboard and queried Jensen. He looked delighted, the displays lighting his face and his blue eyes flashing in the projector light. The murmur of queries and commands was so continuous that Dynin sat up with a start when he realized Acton was directing the first of the tests.

“Okay, Jensen, I’m doing to do this first power test on manual, and then you can proceed with the automated test protocols. We’re gonna test up through eighty percent power, are you ready? All recorders functioning?” Various live camera feeds were streaming to the displays in the room from the test engine’s onboard cameras.

“All systems are go. The prototype awaits your command.” In the projection above and around them, the test engine was a bright blue arrow in the field of the hologram.

“Okay, light her up and give me three percent power.” The little blue arrow began to move infinitesimally. “Any warnings?”

“No warnings, all systems nominal.”

“Five percent.” The arrow moved slightly faster.

“Ten percent?” The arrow began to chug along, slowly but steadily, across the scale map.

“Twenty percent?”

“Twenty percent is go. Slight voltage variation in secondary coil detected. Shall I back off the power?” The blue arrow continued unwaveringly.

“No, let’s see how it goes.”

“Voltage variation is smoothing, power demands have fallen back into stable range.” One of the monitors flipped to a close-up of the readings in question.

“Okay, let’s take her to thirty percent.”

Now the arrow was zipping along quickly, though it was still dwarfed by the sheer size of the test field. Dynin held his breath.

“Forty-five percent?”

It felt to Dynin as if the faster the arrow went, the more time slowed down.

“Increase to fifty-five percent power.”

“Power at fifty-five percent, all voltages within nominal ranges.”

“Yess!!” Acton said, but his face stayed serious, focused. “Okay, Jensen, let’s go for broke, take her to seventy percent.”

“Seventy percent and holding.”

Acton folded his hands together and put the index fingers to his lips, as if he was praying. “Eighty percent,” he said over his fingers.

“Eighty percent, and…. secondary coil remains stable.”

“You’re gonna have to slow her down to turn around soon, go ahead and do that.”

“Slowing down, Mr. Darling, and all voltages are stable. Congratulations.” The arrow swung in a gentle arc at the far end of the test field, then turned around to the opposite of its original vector.

“Don’t break out the bubbly yet, let’s do an entire run at eighty. If this goes well, you can proceed with your automated testing.”

“Accelerating back to eighty percent. Holding!” The arrow zipped along,

“Come on, please, baby, please…..” Acton tapped his hands against his lips, and his eyes flashed. The next thirty seconds took forever, and Acton’s eyes never stopped scanning from one display to the next.

“Reaching end of test field and powering down. May I congratulate you now, Mr. Darling?”

“YES!” Dynin jumped as Acton shouted. “First test shot achieved! Aww, yeah! Jensen, I love you, you are marvelous, I owe you a raise, you can now start on the automated fine-grain testing. Go nuts.”

“I shall attempt restraint. Congratulations on a successful test, sir.”

“Woo!” Acton hopped down from his stool at the worktable, and reached for Dynin. He grabbed Dynin’s hands, pulled the shorter man to his feet, and spun him around in a circle. “Can you believe it?” The next thing Dynin knew, Acton’s lips were on his.

For a moment, Dynin felt the world come to a complete stop. He had to remind himself to breathe. Then he became aware of Acton’s breath on his face, Acton’s lips pressing against his, and the slight scratch of Acton’s stubble and that little patch of chin hair. Somewhere in that feeling of time ending, he’d closed his eyes. Don’t blow this, he thought, and kissed back, opening his mouth a little and moving to offset their noses a little more.

Then Acton pulled back, breathing hard, and if Dynin had thought those blue eyes couldn’t get any more piercing, he was wrong. They were boring holes into him with mingled worry and excitement. Acton still held Dynin’s hands.

Then Dynin was babbling. “What are you doing, no stopping, I need more data if I’m going to thoroughly assess your kissing abilities!”

That broke Acton once and for all, and a grin split his face as he howled with laughter, letting Dynin’s hands go but enfolding him in a hug. “I’m sorry, did you just say you’re okay with me molesting you with joy?”

“Well, not just in joy,” Dynin said to Acton’s shoulder, putting one arm around his waist and threading the other in his hair. “In general. I mean. As a general thing. Like, not just now.” He leaned backward, so that he could see the taller man’s face. “Seriously. Why do you think I let you touch me so much? We basically slept on the couch together last week, or did you not notice that?” The hopeful look on Acton’s face was frightening in its radiance. “Oh come on, did you think that was a pity cuddle?”

“I sort of… had to assume? I mean, I was practically hallucinating, I was so tired. I was going to ask you about it when I got through with these tests; really, I was.”

“Acton Darling, I’m going to use really simple words that even an engineer can understand.” Dynin took a deep breath. “Would you like to date me? Because I would like to date you. Yes or no?”

“Look, I know I’m hell to work with, I lose my shit, I sleep crazy hours, are you sure you’re up for thi–” Dynin silenced him by mashing their lips together again and hauling them both toward the couch until he toppled onto it, Acton sprawling over him.

“Yes, I am,” Dynin grunted, pulling Acton’s shirt free from his pants and running his hands up underneath while the other man nuzzled his jaw. “Yes, dammit, I very well am.”

“Then yes, I am too.” Acton sat up enough to strip off his vest and shirt, grinding their crotches together and making Dynin moan appreciatively as he did so. “Come on, up; less clothing would be good,” Acton said, tugging the zipper apart and the jacket the rest of the way off. “Okay, much better–oof!” Dynin tugged at him so that he rolled to the side, his back pressed against the back of the couch.

Dynin pressed a kiss to Acton’s collarbone and gave his shoulder a solid nip. Between the pressure on his erection and the sight of the shiny rings hanging from Acton’s nipples, he was feeling breathless again. “Oh, this is definitely better. I’ve wanted to see these.” He nuzzled up against one of the rings, poking at it with his nose experimentally and admiring the light brown skin of the areola. “Never gotten to play with pierced ones before.”

“Mmmmph, don’t be shy, that’s what they’re for,” Acton said, and then shuddered and groaned as Dynin took one in his mouth and gave it a firm tug. His hand tightened on Dynin’s hip. “Okay, yeah, that– that works, oh wow!”

“Mind if I do this for a while? They’re mesmerising.”

“Sure. I wanna rub us both off, though, I won’t last long like this anyway.”

“You’ve got a deal,” Dynin said, and licked the other nipple, flipping the ring up and eliciting a whine. He could feel goosebumps beginning to stand out on Acton’s arms from the stimulation, and he was struggling to keep his own eyes from just rolling back in his head.

Acton’s attempts to remove their pants were interrupted by his shivers and gasps as Dynin licked and sucked at his chest, raising more gooseflesh along the way. He managed eventually to undo both flies and nudge their trousers and underwear down. He kicked his own legs free of the clothes and sat up momentarily to pull Dynin’s down as well, getting a deep groan for his trouble as he slipped Dynin’s cock free of cover. Dynin slipped one knee between Acton’s legs and immediately began rutting against the taller man, who pulled him closer for more friction.

Dynin was cocooned in the heat from Acton’s body, one strong arm holding his hips close, the other hand reaching between them to pump both of their erections with firm strokes. “You know,” Acton said in his ear, breathing hard, “I’d planned to hold out–ngh, yeah–for the chance to blow you–”

Dynin grabbed Acton’s ass, hard, and kissed him as Acton lost the rest of the sentence in a wordless cry and a shuddering orgasm, and followed with a gasp and a whimper of his own as the world fuzzed out.

He came back to himself a little while later with his forehead pressed to Acton’s, their breath mingling between them. Acton’s hand was tracing lazy circles on his back. “Good?” Dynin asked, hazily. He was feeling shy, suddenly, and increasingly sticky, but he was also too spent and cozy to move.

“Oh sweetie, you have no idea how good. I’m going to get something to clean up with, so don’t go anywhere.”

“Where would I go?” Dynin mumbled, as Acton carefully climbed off the couch and walked to the sink. His skin was lit by the soft glow of the displays, still scrolling data.

“I dunno,” Acton said over his shoulder as he wet a towel, “But please stay, okay?” He wrung out the cloth, wiped himself off, and came back to perch on the sofa and wipe the drying ejaculate from Dynin’s body, sneaking glances at the holograms as he did so.

“I see you looking at your data,” Dynin said, pulling himself to a sitting position. “Bring a handheld over here and we’ll–”

“Ohhh no. No way.” Acton put down the cloth and climbed into Dynin’s lap, hugging him close. “More data to gather,” he said, pecking kisses up Dynin’s neck and around his ear. “Gonna take a long time, gotta be as meticulous as possible, we might as well get started.” Then he looked up, “Hey Jensen, privacy mode retroactive to, uh–”

“Privacy mode already enabled. Have fun, gentlemen.”

Dynin was just getting out of the lift in Leverton when the alarms went off with an electronic blaring and the flash of strobes throughout the section. Then the announcement started.


Since he was already ringside and was on the way to the health center anyway, he just walked faster. Small groups of people looked at the flashing lights and muttered worriedly as the emergency announcement repeated. He considered calling My or Kenni, but just kept walking.

My met him outside the health center, where she had been calibrating the hologram grid for the first public practice run of APGAR. “My, do you know what’s going on?”

“Something wrong up at the fab unit. Controllers in the hub are still trying to figure out what’s going on, and to account for everyone. Apparently emergency bulkheads were triggered, so there’s a pressurization loss involved.”

“Damn! Uh… so much for the APGAR trial?”

“Actually, if they have to prepare for mass casualties, they may press Gino into service triaging the more routine things. It could be an every-hand-is-helpful sort of day. Kenni’s inside checking and rechecking everything, so if you’ll wait with us, I think that might help.”

Dynin gave My a hug. “Sure, whatever I can do. Should we call Acton? If they shut down the monorail and lifts, he’ll have to walk over here.”

My put her hand to her earpiece. “Jensen, can you connect us to Acton please?” A pause. “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.”

Acton’s voice sounded distant in their earbuds. “I’m headed for the fab shop. They need someone else who is fully certified for hard vacuum maintenance.” Dynin frowned.

“How in the…?”

“The lead vacuum tech is back on Mars for a death in the family. 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.”

“You’re not qualified to–”

“My, you know that I am. Preston was fabricating some carbon polymer elements for me this week, so it was likely my designs he was working on when it blew.”


“Anyway, it’ll be fine. Markov’s got this, but she needs an extra pair of hands to cut our way in from the exterior and then to get nanoplast over the gas pipes and get to a few of the valves. Then we’ll put temp patches on the inside, while the patching crew is doing the exterior patches. Ana and Ella have 5 hours of air before they need to switch to emergency supply, and it’s gonna get unpleasant in there before that.”

My pursed her lips. “Okay, Acton. Hey, be careful up there.”

“Yes, Okaasan, I will. I promise.”

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


“My, what did he just volunteer to do?” Dynin put his hands in his pockets to hide that they were trembling.

“I think it’s going to be okay. It’s risky, because they’re going to have to cut their way into a room that may have unstable equipment or reagents in it due to the damage, and then be stuck there while they clean and secure it, but on the other hand, you’ve seen how much he loves those engineers. They trust him. And honestly, I’ve known Acton long enough to know you can’t stop him when he gets like this.”

“Ain’t that the truth. I just….” he trailed off.

My pressed her lips together again. “Dynin, I can’t tell you what to do here, because only you can figure out how much you can tolerate. I will tell you, however, that Acton is the way he is because he cares a great deal about the people around him, both from an engineering safety perspective and from a humanistic perspective. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do to keep people safe.”

“I know, yeah,” Dynin said. “I’m just… kind of not ready for how strongly I feel about him. And, you know, about here, about everything.”

My came over and embraced Dynin. “You’ll figure it out. I can’t tell you how to do it, but you will figure it out, Dynin.”

He tightened his arms around her back in response. “Thanks, Okaasan. Let’s just hope it all goes okay.” He stood back. “Jensen, can you give me a link to Acton, please?”

“Certainly, Dynin. Link is up now.”

“Acton, it’s Dynin.”


“I just wanted to say work safe and good luck.” Dynin’s hands were still shaking in his pockets, but dammit, he was going to do this.

“It’ll be fine, I’m–wait, you’re not going to lose your shit at me for this?”

“Well, I’m kinda freaking out, but I’m not going to bust your ass about it.” Dynin thought for a second. “Might make you pay for it when you get back safe, though, if you know what I mean.”

“Whoa, bratiets, it is dirty pool to say something like that right before I get into a snug pressure suit.”

“Oh, are you saying I got a rise out of you? Did you just call me your boy?”

“Dammit, Dynin, yes, I will come back safe, yes, I did just call you my boy, and now if you’ll excuse me I need to think about dangerous inorganic compounds and hard vacuum so I can concentrate on fixing this and ignore my own crotch.”

“Go to it, Acton. Seeya. Jensen, cut the link.” Dynin had the sudden urge to sit down and put his head between his knees. “My, does that ever get easier?”

My just smiled. “Not in a million years.”

The habitat was dark by the time they got home. Both men heaved through the door, throwing gas masks and emergency kits on the floor, and collapsed onto the couch.

“I thought space colonies were the safest places to live,” Dynin groaned, flopping his head back on the cushions and putting a hand on Acton’s knee.

“I’m pretty sure that’s my fault,” Acton said, muffling a cough. “But I swear, I wasn’t trying to scare you.”

“Explosions scare me, depressurization scares me, you didn’t scare me. I was just worried.”

“Hey, relax. We got everybody out, the area is already repressurized, and we’re going to redesign it to make sure this never happens again.”

“Yeah, I know. I saw Ana and Ella when they got to the health center. They’re waiting to see Preston after he gets out of recovery. They said you and Markov were total badasses.” He didn’t mention the way Ana and Ella hugged him when he saw him, as if he were a life ring floating in the ocean, or the way they absently held hands as they talked to him, or their distant stares as they recounted what had happened.

“This is going to make me sound like even more of an asshole than usual, but I was a little excited about the hard vacuum work, I hadn’t done any in forever.” Acton stretched his arms over his head and held them there, “By the way, bratiets is a pretty common term of endearment among the engineers, it’s more hail-fellow-well-met than let’s-make-out.”

“Yeah, yeah, you say that, but you were the one who was getting hard right before you had to get in a pressure suit.”

Acton stretched his left arm in a different position. “Which was completely your fault, and very distracting–ow!” Acton broke off, rubbing his shoulder and pectoral while wincing. “Okay, so that’s more sore than I thought it would be. This is why I should work in vacuum and micro-gee more often, so I stay in shape for it. Ow!”

“Mr. Darling, you have analgesics and muscle balm in your rooms, and both you and Dynin are showing signs of dehydration. I recommend you take steps to remedy those conditions before you get any more fatigued.” Dynin smiled up at Jensen in silent thanks.

“I’ll go with you,” Dynin said, “You’re gonna crash hard once the adrenaline wears off. And working your kinks out–not like that, dammit–will make me feel better too.” He got up and gave Acton a hand up, but instead of turning toward his suite, Acton pulled him into a tight hug.

“I’m glad you’re here. I hope this doesn’t make you want to leave.”

Dynin held him back at arm’s length so he could look in his eyes. “Are you kidding? You’re not getting rid of me this easily. You are arrogant, twerpy, and nuts, but you’re also the most fun I’ve ever had.” He leaned forward, and the engineer met his lips with an open mouth, catching his lower lip and nipping it as they kissed.

There was a polite throat clearing noise from above them. “Gentlemen, shall I enable privacy mode out here, or in quarters?”

They broke apart, laughing. “Okay, okay, we’ll take the hint,” Acton said. “Enable privacy mode in my quarters, Jensen, and thanks.” Taking Dynin’s hand, Acton led them into his suite.

“I’ll get us something to drink. Lose your shirt and find the muscle balm and I’ll help you with that,” Dynin ordered.

“Awesome,” Acton said, and wandered toward the bathroom.

By the time Dynin had found a carton of juice, filled two glasses with water, and brought it all to the sleeping space, Acton was stripped to his underwear, sprawled on the bed. “You were right, adrenaline crash,” Acton mumbled.

Dynin put down his armload, and took some energy bars from his pocket. “Here, eat one now and drink the water, and it’ll help. You took painkillers?”

“Yup,” Acton said, wincing as he pushed upright again. He unwrapped an energy bar and chewed thoughtfully, sitting on the side of the bed as he watched Dynin strip off his jacket, shirt, and pants. “I am simultaneously about to fall over, kinda turned on, and really on edge.” he said. “It’s weird.”

“Doesn’t sound much different from your usual state of sleep-engineering.”

“Hah.” Acton had a vacant quality to his stare, like Ana’s, and like Ella’s.

Dynin stood between Acton’s knees, and reached down to smooth his hands over Acton’s hair and the back of his neck. “C’mon, you did good today. Things are mostly okay now.” Acton leaned against him, and gave a shaky sigh. “You’re gonna have some bruising on the back of your shoulder here, it looks like,” Dynin continued. He opened the tube of muscle balm and squeezed some gel onto his hands, and then began to rub it into Acton’s shoulders, carefully avoiding the bruised spot on his right trapezius. Acton sighed and slumped more

“Yeah, I was pulling some junk apart and it came loose unexpectedly, so I slammed into a wall. I wasn’t kidding about being excited to go up there, but it was pretty scary to dig through wreckage in vacuum. I’m still checking things for sharp edges before I touch them, even now. It’s like a compulsion.”

“That’ll go away after you get some sleep,” Dynin said, rubbing knots out of one deltoid while bracing the other with the flat of his hand. “And more to drink, and maybe more food.”

“And blow you,” Acton added, squeezing the backs of Dynin’s thighs.

“You need to sleep.”

“I’ll sleep better after I blow you: it’ll be relaxing and distracting, which is what I need right now.”

Dynin leaned down to kiss the top of Acton’s head and brush the hair back from his forehead. “You’re crazy, you know that?”

“I’m not crazy, you’re the one that’s crazy,” Acton said reflexively, and tilted his head to kiss back.

“Let me finish working on these knots, then we’ll talk about it.” Dynin continued to knead, pressing the side of Acton’s head to his own torso so that he could stretch the neck muscles on one side and then the other. “Any better yet?”

“Neck and shoulders, yes, arms are still ow.”

“Lay down again, I’ll work on them next.”

Acton looked up abruptly. “I would have been scared if you’d been up there, today. I realized that when I was coming back down tonight. I’m sorry for doing that to you.” Then he looked away and climbed up to flop facedown on the bed.

“Oh, sweetie. Sweetie, it’s okay. I’m fine. You’re fine. We’re all fine.” Dynin climbed up to sit on Acton’s back, kissed his neck, and kneaded his upper arms more thoroughly. “It’s really okay, Acton. But thank you.”

“I just. I care a lot. I can’t draw you a diagram or write you an equation for it. Words are hard.”

“Oh, come here. Roll over, let me hug you.” Dynin slid off Acton’s back and curled around his body, while Acton did the same for him, petting at Dynin’s neck. They kissed for a while.

Acton began to kiss and lick his way down Dynin’s chest, running his fingers through the short, dark hairs on his way. He turned to lay sidewise on the bed, nuzzling at Dynin’s navel, and looked up.

“You said we’d talk about it. Can I please suck you off, now?”

Dynin grinned. “Yes, if you–” he said, and broke off in a groan as Acton dipped his head to fill his mouth with the tip of Dynin’s cock, licking the meatus on the way and then sucking in more. It was already leaking precome, so Acton swirled that around on the head with his tongue, adding as much saliva as he could muster. Then he sank lower, his tongue to the big vein on the underside, the glans up against the roof of his mouth. Dynin cried out in pleasure as he applied suction.

“Okay, yeah, yes…” Dynin huffed out between gasps, trailing off into a pleased whine. He dug his fingers into the sheets underneath him.

Acton grinned around his cock and sucked him in deeper, humming contentedly. With one hand he stroked Dynin’s balls, cupping them gently, and with the other hand he started to stroke his own erection. Dynin reached down and petted his hair. Dynin’s other hand found his chest and stroked, pulling at one nipple ring, and then the other.

Far faster than he expected to, Dynin came with an arched spine and a shout, while Acton swallowed with satisfied grunts. He kept his mouth on Dynin’s softening dick while still stroking his own, moaning obscenely until he came too, a stream of come snaking across his belly. Then he slumped, his head pillowed on Dynin’s thigh, his feet hanging off the side of the bed. He looked up at Dynin, hazily.

“I’ll come back up there and cuddle you as soon as I can move again, I promise.”

“No rush, I’m an invertebrate right now, myself.” Dynin’s hand still played with Acton’s curls, twisting them around his fingers.

Eventually they roused enough to wipe off, and drink water, and turn out the light. Acton laid his head on Dynin’s chest. “It’s still scary, how much I care, but I think I can cope,” he said.

“Me too,” Dynin replied, as they fell asleep.

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