Symbiotes

Please note that this is the second story in the Horizon series.  You don’t have to, but if you want to read them in order, you probably want to start with Horizon.

VANCE

Looking at the Systems Schematics for Horizon Station, Vance couldn’t help but think that he was looking at some obscure variety of giant space legume, Fabaceae Ouranos Maximus perhaps. It had veins and bones, skin and organs, tiny creatures that lived aboard it in symbiosis. Of course, he was one of those tiny creatures, and maybe it was just easier to look at everything bigger than oneself as alive.

He had already stripped away the outer skin of the station on the diagram, and now he removed the electrical and communications networks. That left the station’s infrastructure and water systems. The primary system was presented in a healthy blue, fat pipes leading to bathrooms and kitchens. No such luck with the secondary system, almost everything from the reservoirs to the inter-deck piping was outlined in an inflamed red.

“Vance? Where are you?” Ava’s voice blasted through his earpiece.

It took him a moment to recover. “In the atrium, why?”

“Can you come down here? I need your help.” The echo in her voice meant that she was in the shuttle bay, five decks below.

“Can it wait?” He looked down at his handheld and kicked himself. He had never changed his status over to busy, to Ava it would look like he was just relaxing.

“Vance, I just need you to help me weld some panels,” she said. “It shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.” Of course, once that small task was finished, there would be that much less reason for him not to help her with the next of its thousand cousins.

“Sorry, but I can’t.” He knew that he would pay for it later, but whether or not he helped, the lift wouldn’t be up and running for a week at best.

“Never mind.”

Hopefully, she would get over it.

Vance’s first stop was the auxiliary water storage tank. It was located on Deck 2, past the storage rooms clustered around the central shaft. When he arrived at the bank of consoles that controlled the auxiliary water supply, it had been manually shut off. In the sims, manual shutoff usually meant a lever or valve that had been closed by hand. This was not a simulation, and there was no lever or valve. Instead there was only a red light labeled manual shutoff. Every setting that he tried to change led only to an alert instructing him to press his identification up to the contact panel to unlock the console.

“Hey Remi, do you have a moment?” he asked, routing the question to her through the station’s network.

“What’s up?” came her reply a moment later.

“I need to unlock a utility console on Deck 2.” With any luck she would just be able to fix it from Central Ops.

“Hold on . . .” she said. He could hear Ava’s voice in the background. “Ava says you can figure it out on your own.”

“Alright, thanks anyway,” he said. Remi had always deferred to Ava, even when she had been sleeping with him. Vance understood; he usually deferred to Ava, too.

His handheld beeped to inform him that Remi had shut the connection. A few seconds later, it beeped again to announce a message. Use the diagnostics tool to flash the settings. Sometimes it was easier to remember why he had gotten together with Remi than it was to remember why they had broken up.

AVA

Ava paused to knock before entering Central Ops, but Remi knew she was there and gestured her in. Sometimes she seemed to Ava like a spider sitting in the middle of a web spun of information, but Ava had never given voice to the thought. She realized that she must look like an idiot standing there on the threshold while Remi waited for her.

“Hi Ava,” Remi said.

“I need a hand down in the shuttle bay,” Ava said.

“Sure.”

“If you have time. I asked Vance, but he blew me off,” Ava said.

“No problem, I needed a break, anyway.” Remi stood up and stretched away the chair-induced stiffness. “Don’t worry about Vance, I’m sure he’s working on something important.”

Ava doubted it. Her main memory of when Remi and Vance had been together had been Remi working on stuff and Vance zoning out in Sims. As though he knew he was being discussed, a stylized icon of Vance’s face popped up on one of the screens in front of Remi. She looked over at Ava, who nodded, and pressed tapped the screen, opening the channel.

“Hey Remi, do you have a moment?” Vance asked, his voice projecting through the speakers so that it was everywhere and nowhere at once.

“What’s up?” Remi replied.

“I need to unlock a utility console on Deck 2.” He said.

“Hold on . . .”

“Tell him he can figure it out on his own,” Ava said, keeping her voice down. It was petty, but she felt better nonetheless.

“Ava says you can figure it out on your own,” Remi said.

“Alright, thanks anyway,” he said.

Remi closed the connection, then tapped a dozen more buttons in quick succession. “Alright, I’m ready,” she said when she was done.

In the shuttle bay, Ava had left a stack of equipment by the doors to the lift. Inside, more tools were littered across the floor and there was a hole in the wall where she had made some repairs to the wiring. She turned to see Remi staring at the mess.

“Sorry,” she said. “I know I’m not very good–“

“This is great,” Remi cut her off. “A month ago you couldn’t have soldered two bare wires together, and now you’ve cut out a section of wall to fix the wiring for the lift.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Ava said. “I used that diagnostic tool you gave me and traced the problem to behind this wall. There was an entire section of wiring that had corroded together, and I fixed it.” She tried to hide it, but she could hear the pride in her voice.

“So what can I help with?” Remi asked.

“I just need you to hold the panel while I weld it back in place,” Ava said. She grabbed the welder that was resting up against the wall and turned it on, watching as it went through its internal diagnostic until all of the gages read green.

“No problem.” Remi pulled a pair of glasses out of her pocket and put them on, touching a button on the frames that caused the lenses to darken almost to black. She grabbed the panel that had been cut out and lifted it into place.

A few minutes later the lift smelled of ozone and the welding was finished. Ava reached over and pressed the button for the second deck. The lift shuddered and the panel lit up, but nothing else happened.

“Some of Horizon’s diagnostics still aren’t running yet,” Remi said. “I’ll get them fixed as soon as possible, but in the meantime I would check the emergency brakes, they probably seized up when the controls malfunctioned.”

“That was my thought too,” Ava said.

Remi started to leave, then turned back to Ava. “You know, you really should go easier on Vance. I’ve never known him to not help without a good reason.”

“I know that, but I still don’t see why he couldn’t spare ten minutes for this,” Ava said. “I know that he’s working on something, but this is important. We need to get things running, and soon.”

Remi just shrugged, then started to climb the steps back up to Central Ops.

REMI

After she had helped Ava with the lift, Remi made her way back up to Central Ops. She closed the door behind her and collapsed onto the couch that was the only part of the room designed for human comfort.

It had felt so good to do something simple, just hold a piece of metal while Ava welded in place. But even that had gone fractal, with the argument between Ava and Vance. There was no room in her head for more complexity. Despairing, she fell asleep.

When she woke up again in the static non-time of Horizon station, Remi had no idea how much time had passed, whether it had been minutes, hours, or entire shifts. But there were no new messages or alerts for her, so it couldn’t have been that long. After seeing to her body’s needs, she went back to Ops to see what needed her attention.

For her, there were two stations, there was the physical station, made of metal and ceramic and composite, and then there was the virtual station, composed of a million systems, subsystems, analytic modules, and daemons. They ranged in complexity from dumb lumps of code that did exactly one thing to fuzzy systems that interacted with their environment in sophisticated ways. Despite the cautionary tales of fully integrated fuzzy systems that turned on their masters, Remi still wished she had one, it would have been a lot easier. The first thing she had done when they claimed Horizon was to reset all of the systems that had seized in cascading responses to environmental conditions until near total system failure.

Sure, the station wouldn’t turn on them and kill them all, but on the other hand she would have to fiddle with just about every system on board. It was a toss up which was worse. She sometimes thought it might have been better had she been a code-head who lived and breathed software, but then something needed welding or repair out in the physical world and she was glad for her Jane-of-all-trades background.

A quick check registered that Vance had been able to unlock the console he had needed help with on Deck 2, and she moved on to other things. She brought up the systems schematic, and saw new sections of red where systems needed to be brought online. Vance had apparently been fiddling with the water supply for the atrium. After that was fixed, she went in and brought another half dozen systems that he had been working with online.

When they had first arrived and she had taken up residence in Central Ops she had considered writing something to track the movements of their handhelds, but it quickly became a moot point, as it appeared everything they touched caused a system message to pop up.

There was a knock at the threshold and Vance stuck his head in. “You’re awake.”

“Yes,” she said.

He slid the door the rest of the way open with his shoulder and pivoted through, doing his best not to spill the contents of the tray that he held in front of him.

“I checked in earlier, and you were asleep,” he said. The tray held a large cup of coffee, a wrap of some sort, and a handful of crackers. He had broken out the good food.

“What’s the occasion?” she asked.

“I was working on the systems, running them through the start-up routines, and realized that none of them were coming online. When I came up to ask you about it, you were sleeping. Every time I do something, you have to do something in the system to make it work, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s the occasion,” he said, and held the tray out towards her. She took it and set it on top of her console. “Don’t work yourself to death, alright?”

“Thanks,” she said.

VANCE

Vance checked his handheld, and both Remi and Ava had set their status as busy, but there were no do-not-disturb messages. He hesitated, but it was as good a time as any.

“Can you come up to the atrium?” Vance asked Remi and Ava through the station’s network.

“Sure, I’ll be up in a couple of minutes.” Remi’s reply was near instantaneous and she sounded like she welcomed the distraction.

Ava’s reply came a few moments later. Can it wait? It had been almost three weeks since he had refused to help her with the lift, and she was still raw over it. It wasn’t a large station, but somehow she had managed to avoid him ever since.

No. I need you to come up here right now.

I’m on my way up, then. Ava took almost a minute to send the message, and he could imagine her steeling herself for a confrontation.

The lift doors opened slid open, revealing Remi and Ava. They were standing on opposite sides of the lift, the model of awkwardness.

Vance was dirty and sore, but it didn’t matter, he smiled. He turned, and with sweep of his arms, indicated the small rectangle that had taken up so much of his time over the past weeks. Small green leaves had pushed their way through the soil. They were sickly little things, but they lived.

Remi practically ran to the edge of the plot, falling to her knees in the soil. She leaned forward on her hands, sticking her face up to one of the shoots, as though she was going to eat it right there. Instead, she reached out and touched it, caressing it gently with the tips of her fingers, as one might touch a piece of heirloom jewelry. Ava was more reserved, but he could see her giddiness nonetheless. She started back towards the lift, and as she passed Vance, she reached out to squeeze his shoulder.

“You’re alright, you know,” she said.

The Horizon series continues with Fractal.