The third day after their raid on the lab, Evan was feeling well enough to manage the ship. Or, that was how Jani thought of it, as she gratefully headed to her cabin. She didn't have a standard language protocol for it. Evan was... more at home with his body? Evan was the ship enough? Evan had his sea legs back? The sapient entity formerly identified as E5V-N281 had managed to simultaneously calculate the necessary parameters for travel into hyperspace and steer the ship that now embodied him to Saturn?
As they passed the invisible line of Jupiter's orbit (Jupiter being on the other side of the Sun this time of year), she re-phrased. Jani is going to take a shower.
After her shower she stretched out on her cabin's bunk, relishing how clean she felt. There was no longer evidence that she'd spent hours in a space-walkabout suit, drenched in sweat and terrified. The last remnants of a rime of salt on her face from tears were gone. Now she felt at home with herself, comfortable again, in loose, clean clothes from home, putting twists back into her hair. The repeated pressure of the pilot's helmet, its electrodes' repeated search for her scalp, had nearly shaken them loose, but she'd been too worried about getting past the asteroid belt and out of range to care.
It felt good to have peace in her head again, even as she separated her hair precisely to leave parts for the electrodes to go in. Evan said he had control of the ship now, so she'd even taken her neural jack out for her shower, leaving quiet and unable to feel the vague presence of the ship's interfaces. Of course, she'd also walked into two doors after that, since without the neural jack the ship didn't register her; she'd actually had to find the door's manual release on the wall.
But it was good, because on top of the ship's mild, mindless hum, Evan was in there too. Most of his attention was focused on implementing the superdrive, endlessly computing those impossible formulae, but when she did register him...
When they'd worked side by side, both jacked in (her neurally, him through his deceptively humanlike body) she'd seen his presence like she saw his body: whole, complete, and closed to her, their meetings in the computer's systems as revealing as bumping hands when you both reached for the same thing. But in that first moment after his consciousness transferred from the charred android wreck to the ship's mainframe, when he'd been all of the ship, when her awareness changed from the piloting mechanisms she wanted to transfer to a brief, transcendent glimpse of what being a ship felt like—
—There had been that overwhelmingly intimate moment when it felt like Evan was seeing what being human felt like, too, until he swiftly realized she was not part of his ship-network—him—and backed out again.
After that he was polite and almost distant, and without his experience of the ship, her stomach no longer turned that delicious little loop when the gravitational drive shifted its polarity to tilt the ship around an asteroid.
When her hair was finished she wrapped it up, then leaned back on her bunk with a sigh. For a minute she was almost tempted to pull out her personal headset, just to feel the cool band resting across her forehead, just to have the option to reach out to her personal handset and browse through correspondence or a half-finished drama series. She could even pull out the handset and switch it to visual-auditory mode, to keep the inside of her head quiet. But even that felt like too much work.
Jani squeezed her eyes shut and resolved never to tell her mother about this. She’d never thought there’d come a time when she didn’t want to link to a computer with her mind—especially not an entire ship! In kindergarten she’d been the only child who hadn’t worn a headset before, but even then, quicker than the other kids, she’d found that clear, attentive space in her head that let her speak to the machine as they began their lessons. In high school she’d been recommended early for a neural implant, and had to beg her mother for consent. So she was never, never going to tell her mother about the day she just relished the ringing silence in her own head.
She still liked piloting the ship, even if it was a ringing mental cacophony; even though, without a permanent pilot’s implants to handle them, she’d had to shut off input from everything but the navigation and gravity controls. In the endless hours when she thought Evan was dead (twenty-eight of them, her log told her) it had at least given her something to focus on. But once he was alive and part of the ship, it wasn’t just her in the network anymore. It was her and the person who’d misled and lied to her; then died on her; then beheld her in a moment of stricken wonder, and turned away.
Sighing, she squirmed into a more comfortable position, and finally fell asleep.
She awoke floating in mid-air.
Nothing terribly violent had happened, it seemed, but everything in her cabin had come gently unmoored. The small bottle of oil she’d used on her hair hovered above her shelf, and the blanket she hadn’t used undulated slowly above the bunk. She, probably because she moved in her sleep, had moved furthest of all, until she was half a metre off dead centre in her cabin, slightly upside-down.
I am weightless, she thought, swinging her arms. She rotated in mid-air as though her stomach was a pivot, but none of her could touch the walls. You aren’t weightless if the systems have just failed, you’re pressed against the floor by velocity. And the lights are on. The gravity is off. Either the inertial dampeners are still on, or we’ve come to a complete halt. We aren’t due at Saturn for days.
Her neural jack was in its case in the corner, next to a pile of clothes, and basically the furthest thing in the room from her.
“Evan?” she called experimentally, and swung her arms again. This pointed her at a wall, though not much closer to it; she’d lost momentum while she slept, and it was hard to build any up without something to push against. “Evan, hello?”
She didn’t know why she pitched her voice enough to make it carry down the hallway. It’s not like he was anywhere. It’s not like he’d walk in from somewhere else and come get her. His old body was pretty much ruined and his new body was a ship that could hear her whisper if it was listening.
Was there anything in the maternal repository of knowledge concerning this? What to do if you’re weightless? Should you ever happen to try to pick up extra-orbital hours on a short-haul trip to Mars, and discover that your pilot is an android on a secret mission, dear daughter, first you...
She discovered, through experimentation, that neither breaststroke nor somersaults would get her any closer to the wall, and Evan wasn’t listening.
Finally, in frustration, she just snapped, “Computer.”
The activation chime responded instantly to her command, and Evan said, “Computer listening.” In his voice, his Evan-voice, the voice of that ruined body, and not the ship’s computer; and he sounded pissy.
“I tried calling for you, but you didn’t answer,” she found herself saying apologetically. The hurtful words just a machine were still hanging between them. “I’m weightless, and I can’t get to a surface. What’s going on?”
After a pause Evan said, “I require zero gravity in the aft to modify parts of the superdrive.”
She swung bits of her arms and legs to position herself correctly. “Okay, but I’m not in the aft. Can you help me out? I’m floor-oriented.” But wait, would he know what that meant? It was Galactic Fleet lingo, not something her classmates knew. One of the few things she picked up from her mom, when her mom found her in a handstand and said, Ceiling-oriented, Sprocket? Hope they don’t turn the gravity back on at you. Maybe she’d even used it wrong; most of her mom’s Fleet-days wisdom slipped out in tiny pieces, not instruction manuals.
“The gravity is powered through the aft,” Evan said, which apparently meant no. “I will send a maintenance droid to you.”
“Thanks,” she said, and tried not to turn it into a question.
One of the octopus-droids appeared after a few minutes, moving up the walls outside like a ladder. From the doorway it telescoped an arm out to her and she wrapped her hand around the sinuous metal coil. It was about to pull her to the doorway when she said, “Wait, give me a second.” It obligingly froze, and she used the pivot of their grasp to swing herself around, then let go and kick off for the corner with her neural jack. “This way you don’t have to babysit me,” she muttered, pulling it out, then felt in her hair for the smooth metal point of entry at the nape of her neck and pushed it in.
As it slowly brought her online, the honestly unpleasant cold-metal feeling from inserting the jack faded, and she felt the multi-tonal hum of the ship, the easy interfaced reach of the waiting droid, and Evan’s muted presence. She reached out to him, tentatively venturing a thought. /Can you leave the droid with me? If I control it, you don’t have to look after me. I’ll do some piloting./
Evan’s internal voice was almost inhumanly human, in a way. He didn’t struggle to focus his mind, and his brain wasn’t confused, so unlike most people through a wetware net, his communicative gestures were clean, precise, and intimate, as nuanced and complex as face-to-face communication. To this he gave her a subvocal sense of polite assurance, which she almost glossed as a person making a small, open gesture with their hand: Help yourself. /I will resume work on the superdrive,/ he said. And before she could respond, he was gone again, a muted presence in another room.
She sighed, reaching for the octopus droid with her neural controls, and began moving both of them up to the pilot’s room.
He came back to her hours later, like a friend easing around the doorway after a fight. She just sensed him at the edges of her awareness, looking in on her. She could sense a light, hesitant anxiety; when you looked at it closely (before he shrank back from observation) it carried the computed risks of his planned action. Right now, he was worried about what she would do.
But then the main thought was... curiosity? Not in a light, flippant way, though. This was a human thing he wasn’t sure he understood. /Babysitting. Looking after you. Is that a pejorative?/
She closed her eyes and rubbed them, sighing. He was so obviously trying to reach out to her. /For me? I guess it is. Like I’m a burden or a bother. To you./
/A distraction, since I am processing the superdrive,/ he affirmed, to be sure of her meaning. /You are considerate, even though, to me, you feel I have caused you anger?/ The last bit, the statement-and-question, felt almost jumbled, partly because he got lost on his point of view. He felt almost on the verge of correcting his linguistic lapse, but knew that she got his meaning everywhere.
/Look, if you were lying to me about who you are, I can’t assume you meant why you wanted me to come. You can run a whole ship by yourself, so what do you need me for?/ And she didn’t like that Evan got the little acidic sting at the end of it, that she hadn’t given language to, the part that said, I hate feeling useless and I don’t want you to think of me as annoying.
His denial took a moment to sift into understandable form. /I have limited processing capacity and can work more efficiently when you pilot the ship. My disclosure was limited by my orders from the Orbital Fleet. You wanted to go into space, and it delighted you to go to Mars; I wanted to delight you. You are interesting; I learn about humans from you./ At the end, he felt her stifled offense, and corrected. /I know about humans. I do not know what it is like to be human. Even the body I wore could not tell me what being near you could./
/Oh,/ Jani said, and was silent, one hand tracing the edge of the screen through which she could see the stars.
/The superdrive is undergoing a physical fusion reaction my attention is not needed for,/ he said, before she could even ask.
/The piloting’s pretty boring. We’re staying on a straight course. I’m not doing much./ She felt she might as well be honest, and anyway, he probably knew already. /I don’t have a pilot’s implants, so I can’t really handle the more complicated information. Just navigation, a little bit of the fuel, but I have to rely on the ship to compute a lot for me./
/I knew you were not an experienced pilot,/ he said. /That is not why I asked you to come./
/I want to be an experienced pilot. That’s why I came. I want to get into Fleet School. But right now I don’t even have civlian pilot implants, because I can’t afford them yet./ And leaving Earth with Evan was one, wild, unexpected chance. An opportunity to see the stars from outside the atmosphere.
I piloted us out of the asteroid belt, didn’t I? she thought to herself. The ship did most of the work, sure, but I was making the decisions. I wonder if that could count towards my active piloting hours, or if they’d believe me.
Evan broke in, picking wisps of thought up from her processes, the way she caught streams of formulae from his sometimes. /Your mother?/
/My mother hated the idea, but I thought I wanted to be one of the great ship-pilots, so wired in that they’re almost the ship’s brain, or the ship is their body. But she said all the implants made you mentally instable./ She paused, then gathered the next latent set of thoughts into expression. /One of my fathers says that Mama’s got more experience of piloting technology than most people they were in the Fleet with, but she wouldn’t wish it on anybody else. I never even told her... I used to dream about being a ship./
He understood, of course he understood, those pilots; they were so close to what he was. Greater technology wasn’t supposed to be self-sentient or make its own decisions; any more powerful machine needed a human at its core, to exercise their will. Part of what made Evan so strange and new, what she hadn’t believed at first, was that he was the centre of that volition without a living body to trace it back to.
/I’m a ship,/ Evan said factually, and Jani gave a bark of laughter.
/I noticed,/ she replied soberly, laughter dancing at the back of her words.
/But not by choice. (Not that it’s a bad thing.)/
So close to something she’d been curious about, Jani jumped on the chance. She knew she couldn’t ask about his maker or his origins; they’d gotten that far in halted understanding before they’d reached the lab. /So you chose a human body?/
/A simulacra./ There was an offered sense, open to her mind like a data repository; when she focused her attention to look inside she had the almost-overwhelming sense of input, vision and skin pressure and rules for how close to stand to someone, like an old terrible machine with thousands of cogs and wheels.
/No,/ she agreed. /That isn’t what being human’s like./ She felt almost sad for him, for a moment. He was on the other side of the gulf, and didn’t have that sense of smooth, organic thought. Ephemeral sensual experience that couldn’t be computed or rendered, but only had to be felt.
/I like how alive you are. How much you enjoy things. Even the ship./ An awkward sense behind that, of the first moment they’d touched in perfect understanding; that moment of feeling seen and known for his ship-self as a mute, elated glory in her soul. He kept that moment, that feeling, that memory.
She didn’t know what to say.
He ventured, /I can interface your connections more smoothly when you pilot the ship, if you want to see what it’s like. If you want to be a pilot some day./
/Oh. Okay,/ she thought, feeling that distance again. It gave her space to curl back into her own head, to retreat and brood over her new thoughts. /Thank you./
After a day the superdrive was as finished as it was going to be before they got extra parts on Saturn, and Jani had a new, intuitive sense of the interaction of gravity and velocity in a solar system. She left her piloting chamber, octopus droid trailing her, for the refuge of her bunk. As she washed her face at the sink in her cabin, she thought to him: /If you want, I can help you see what human’s like./
He was, she realized, already feeling slips of it just in the words she sent. After all, in her brain, the biological was an unavoidable part. Anger was part of her blood running faster and her stomach feeling sick, and tentativeness made her neck feel tight, like she was waiting to see who would attack her in a vulnerable place. He’d just pretended not to, that was all, dulling himself to the input, and granted her a little privacy.
But she stilled herself, hands trembling slightly, when he ventured into that experience. Everything was new. She could feel that sense of wonder, as he felt a waft of cycling air travel over the skin of her face; when she blinked, he momentarily felt the weight of her eyelashes as her eyelids moved. She was not used, personally, to her body being a source of wonder, and had not really said of herself how amazing it was to have skin.
She lifted an arm for him, so he could feel the movement of muscle and sinew, bringing it above her head and then down again, holding it before her. He acknowledged and understood the mechanical motion, but what it was like was new. Each movement carried a flicker of memory from a time when her body had done that before.
Lifting an arm to answer a question, sure and confident, and throwing her arms up at the end of a race; holding her arms over her head and dancing. Reaching a box off the top shelf as she stood on tiptoes, Being a child, pulling on her mother’s hands, wheedling with her to come on, Mommy. Reaching out to touch the shoulder of a sad younger cousin. Touching the desk in her room in her first college dormitory. Putting her fingers on a piano.
Evan drank them all in, absorbed by their richness and eager for more, simultaneously satiated and thirsty. Experimentally, while she waited, she played a bar of Rachmaninov, and he protested: /I wasn’t ready! I didn’t catch that. You have to wait for me./ She laughed.
It was like teasing a boyfriend, in the lazy afternoons by the river at home It was too easy to rush, to have everything over so soon, and only sometimes did she truly want to set her lips to a lover and guzzle him down like water when he was thirsty. It was the most fun when she brought magnetic cable, or an old-fashioned rope, or simply taken the length of her skirt or the sleeves of his jacket, and they tied one of them until they couldn't move. Evan paused, distracted by that memory: hands straining at a knot and laughing, swearing, issuing promises and threats, to get those hands to move just a little faster.
It was a memory written in her whole body, as much as dancing and music: straining muscles and taut anticipation. The caress of hands over her face just before someone kissed her. It was human, sometimes the most human; the luminescent glow of wanting and being wanted, and needing nothing more than your existence and sensations right now.
He said, /This? This was what you wanted to do?/
/Well, yes./ Yes, when they’d cleared the Moon, and Earth dwindled behind them, and she’d been giddy from being in space and had a moment free. Yes, when she’d tracked him down and kissed him, and known something was wrong, because whoever made Evan’s human body hadn’t included mucous membranes. His mouth had been dry.
/My maker didn’t prepare me for sex,/ he said glumly. That had been the moment their initial peaceful accord and easy connection had broken. /I consider it a manufacturer’s defect. Flawed model./
She was filled with sympathy for a moment, then caught the deadpan irony under the forlornness and laughed aloud. /Your new body will have to be better./
For a moment she thought he agreed with her, in the future, before he seemed to have some brilliant, illuminating thought.
Then the droid on the wall moved, with amazing quickness and accuracy, and wrapped smoothly around her wrist. She gasped in surprise, jerking away. Her face and neck flushed hotly, blood roaring in her ears. It was a little statement, a fact, not an intention. Evan had meant to say, I do have a new body, remember? and did not anticipate the resonances. That feeling of being held, and acutely desired; of struggling against restraints that she desperately wanted to be there. Not knowing what would come next and yet yearning for it, greeting blows or kisses with desire and terror and hope and joy.
/Oh,/ Evan said. He'd thought—maybe she'd think that being a ship, sailing between planets and stars, could be better than a human body with sexual organs. She'd know and approve. She'd wanted to be a ship too after all.
/Maybe I know and approve of both,/ she thought, licking her lips. There was something enchanting about having (or being) your own ship, especially with the promise of hyperdrive. But there was still the yearning she'd left Earth with, before anything had changed. He'd been a pilot, and someone who worked with her. Respected her. Asked her if she could go to the stars. And he, well, he was willing to use this body he had, with its engines and systems and droids, for what it was worth. Her belly twisted and her skin was tight with the yearning to be touched. /Maybe it isn't either/or./
/So.../ She could swear Evan looked at her memories and squinted, mentally sizing them up. /Yes?/
/More,/ she thought firmly.
Gravity disappeared from the room with nothing more than a puff, a brief moment of disorientation before she was jerked away. The droid launched itself from the wall without warning to pin her on the other side of the cabin. She was jerked off balance-again, spun slightly, and two other legs caught her waist and ankle with inhumanly fast precision. Like a judo throw, there was no space in the motion for her to struggle. Her body was cleanly moved from one side of the room to the other, and the octopus anchored legs above the bunk while the others authoritatively placed her face-down on the bed. What she caught from Evan was like a whisper of an internal memo, almost: it was good to be moved and placed, but the droid had used normal human force calibration and there had been no sense of being thrown, so in the future...
She whimpered, disoriented and spun and upside-down, smooth cool metal limbs moving where she couldn't see. One of them took a flailing wrist and slowly put it behind her back until the pain of the twist made her whine. Evan was there, in that moment, and listened to her body when the pain became too much; the pull on her wrist slipped down fractionally, until it was just a pinch that let her know how much he had her.
/I like delighting you,/ he whispered, an arm twisting around her thigh and up, over her buttocks. Its tip curled around her side until it stopped just short of her breast, and flexed its leverage to keep her torso still but inexorably pull her leg open. Jani hissed and swore, unable to move more than thump her free foot along the bed. Another of those arms touched the free ankle and he said, /Do I need to do something about this?/
She froze, not sure whether she liked the real panic that came with losing control over both her hands, and her legs. Her answer combined an honest sense of No with /You don't need to, I'll be good/, and the faint, implicit: You may want to use that later, as things change. He acknowledged this, then let go the twisted arm, to recapture it with both her wrists held together over her head.
/You really are a wonder,/ Evan said, marvelling, through her body and connection at once captor and captive, and slid one of those arms between her legs. /Now, hold still. I want to see what this is like./
She couldn't lie, when she wanted him to move, to move there, to move faster. When her voice broke in the middle of her begging, he was still in her mind, still knew everything she was feeling. /This is good, isn't it?/
/Yes, it's good,/ she'd say, gasping. /I want it, but please, I want more—/
She managed, once, to entreat him with a thought of so much vivid memory and desire that he did reach up, finally, and produce a tiny pincer from an arm to use on her breast. She arched at that, keening deep in her throat, and another one of those arms pressed her head and neck back down. She stifled her howls against the mattress as she came.
From her memories of the best times, the times she'd drunk up sex for hours, welcomed touch after touch or body after body again and again, the droid's arms let go and draped around her, soft and gentle, one of them retreiving her pillow from the other end of the bunk.
/And I still didn't have you move inside and fuck me,/ she thought drowsily. /Either way. Or both ways. Any way you could. And we didn't—/
/I know,/ Evan said, soft and quiet. He added hesitantly, /There is a problem in the gravitational field. I think I did not reconfigure it properly./
/You need to go focus on that, then,/ she thought, and burrowed her head into the pillow. /After all, how many days until we reach Saturn?/
/Enough,/ he promised, underwritten with /3.42/, underwritten with /I will have more time for you. I am determined to have more time for you./
/I can do some piloting when I'm back up,/ she thought. Then she leaned over, gently, and pressed a kiss to one of the metal arms.