Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

Advertisement

Fiction

Long Enough and Just So Long

I’d never wanted to go to Earth until the doctor told me I couldn’t, that my bones were too brittle. After that, it wasn’t an obsession, just an edge to my days.

Otherwise, my life’s good.

I run a courier ship between Earth, Luna, the space stations, Mars, and the Inner Gate. You need as little mass as possible to run a snipship, and due to what that doctor called my defects, I’m one of the smallest, fastest. Good pay, and most of the time I’m low-g, which is easiest on me.

Freetime I slum around Luna, where my best girlfriend Pippi lives. Or she and I go prospecting out in the shadow of the Gate, like the dozens of other crazies, hoping to stumble on an alien artifact, make us all rich. Not too impossible a dream, though. It’s happened before.

I had a permanent cradle walker left at Luna, that’s how much time I spent there. Pippi worked as a sportscaster for the biggest Moon channel, MBSA. Her name’s not really Pippi, but she had orange braids and long legs and freckles everywhere, so what else could everyone call her?

I’m used to my name getting distorted. My parents named me Podkayne after a girl in an old story about Mars. It becomes Poddy and Special K, usually Kayne.

In college, though, they called me the Gimp. Most of the time it was affectionate. Pippi was my roommate, there from day one. She had eight siblings, ranging from twelve years to three months. A roomie with lower limb reduction syndrome didn’t faze her. I’d come in with a chip pre-loaded on my shoulder, but I relaxed after a couple of weeks.

Pippi was borderline Aspie, called it like it was, which caused her enough troubles on her own. You had to explain to her why you were angry or sad or whatever, but once she knew what was going on, she knew what sounds to make.

The Aspiness makes her an excellent sportscaster. She knows every sports score for the last half century, and a lot of pre-Net stuff too. You can’t come up with a trivia question that’s lunar sports-related that she can’t answer. That was the only thing she really got passionate about, and in a way that charmed the camera.

We never hooked up. Both of us were wired straight. Pippi had a regular friend named Trevor who was usually away on business trips. I paid for it or went virtual every once in a while, and left things at that.

We were both enjoying sunlight at our favorite park, two blocks away from Pippi’s apartment complex. Sitting beside a sculpture there I’ve always loved, spindly rails of color tumbling taller than me like animation lines, edges glinting pink and blue and purple. The smell of tomato and basil and sage filled the air.

Pippi had her face turned up to the light, soaking in the warmth. She had been indulging in tanners again. Her orange shirt and shorts were vibrant against the expanse of her brown skin.

I was more cautious. I don’t want skin tumors later on, so I keep a gauzy over-shirt and hat about me. Silvery sleeves to deflect the light were set over my arms, strapped into the walker’s maneuvering legs. Underneath the sleeves, mercurial light played over my skin.

We both saw him when he entered the park: Tourist-new, still dressed in arrival shorts and paper shirt with “Be nice, I’m a newbie” printed on the back, which guaranteed him a 10% discount at any participating business.

Pippi squinted over. “Is that…”

I followed her gaze. Dark glasses gave me the advantage. “Yep. It’s an AI.”

“Not just any AI, though,” she said, eyes watering. “Unless I’m wrong?”

“Nope, it’s a sexbot,” I said.

#

It was just after what the newsies were calling the Sexbot Scandal, when that Senator was caught traveling with an AI and had used the momentary notoriety to call for AI rights. Now the Senator’s ‘droid and several others of its kind had bought themselves free. I’d seen an interview with one while trapped in line picking up Chinese takeout the night before. Its plans for the next year were to travel with its friend, another of the bots. Wink wink, nudge nudge.

The oldest human urge: Curiosity about who or what each other was fucking.

He had the white plastic skin most AIs were affecting that year. On his head a slouched wool hat like a noir detective’s.

He looked up and saw us looking at him. He froze, like a car grinding gears to a stop. Then he moved again, almost impatient, flinging an arm up as though against us, although I realized a second later that it shielded his eyes from the dazzle of sunlight off the sculpture. Trapezoids of colored light danced over his tunic, glittered on the lenses that were his eyes.

Pippi waved.

He stepped backwards, ducked into the tunnel.

Of course we went in pursuit.

#

He took the West tunnel. Moving fast, dodging between walkers moving between stations, grabbing handholds to hurl himself along. It wasn’t hard to follow him—I’m small, and mostly muscular in the chest and shoulders, so I can rocket along as far as anyone from handhold to handhold. Pippi slowed me down, kept hissing at me to wait up for her.

We emerged in the most touristy of plazas, the complex of malls near the big hotels, the public gardens. I thought I’d seen the flicker of his tunic, his hat’s crumpled feather, as he ducked into the Thai garden.

The dome overhead admitted unadulterated sunlight. There were parrot flowers and bua pood, a waterfall, and a grove full of gibbons, safely behind mesh. Trails led off to discreet clothing and lifestyle boutiques, a restaurant, and a walkway to the next mall. I saw his hat bob through its glass confines and elbowed Pippi, pointing.

She said, “He could be going anywhere from there. There’s a tube stop in the middle of the mall.”

“Where would a sexbot go?”

“Do you think he’s for hire?” she said.

The interview had said only a few sexbots had chosen to keep their professions. Most of the others had made enough to fund other careers. Most had become solo-miners or explorer pilots.

“It can’t be the first time he’s been asked the question,” Pippi said.

I hesitated. I could talk her into asking. Could machines feel embarrassment? What was the etiquette of communication? Was a sexbot, like a human, capable of being flattered by a flirtatious or even directly admiring question?

Gibbons hooted overhead. A long-billed bird clung upside down to the other side of the mesh. If we stayed here much longer, we’d have a park fee added to our monthly taxes. Two parks in a single day was way too extravagant.

We went home.

#

I had a run to the Gate the next morning, so I got up early, let myself out. Took the West tunnel to the tube stop. Grabbed a mushroom roll on the way and ate it on the platform, peering into shop windows at orange and blue scarves and fake ferns and a whole window wall’s worth of animate Muffs, the latest wearable animals. The sign said they lived off air impurities. They had no eyes, which to some people made them cute, I guess, but to me just looked sad.

Tourists going past in bright shirts and arcs of perfect white teeth. Demi-gods, powered by cash.

A feather reflected in the window. Behind me stood the sexbot.

This time I followed at a distance. Got in the train car at the opposite end, but kept an eye on him. Luckily for me he was getting out at the port. I don’t know what I would have done if it’d looked as though he was going further.

Maybe followed him.

Why? I don’t know. There was something charming about the way he held himself. And I was curious—who wouldn’t be?—about the experience of someone made for sex, someone for whom sex was his entire rationale for existence. What would it have been like for him (it?) awakening to that?

The port platform straddled the Dundee cliffs, overlooking the Sea of Tranquility. He was there at that flickering curtain of energy and I remembered what it did to constructs—shorted them out, wiped them clean. He had his hand outstretched, and I’m the last to deny anyone their choices, but even so I shouted, “Hey.”

He turned, his hand dropping.

I caught up to him. I was in the cradle walker because I was being lazy that day. I could see him taking it in, the metal spidering my lower body, the bulge where my flesh ended, where legs might have been on someone else, the nubs of my left hand—two but as useful as three of your fingers, I swear.

I said, “Want to get a cup of tea and talk about it?”

So cliché, like something you might have seen in a cheap-D. But he said, “Okay,” and his voice sounded as sincere as a mechanical voice can.

The café was half-deserted, just a couple of kids drinking coffee near the main window. We were between main shifts, and I was late for my pick-up, but I thumbed a don’t-bother-me code, knowing I was one of the most reliable usually. They’d curse me but let it slide.

It’s weird, talking to a mechanical. Half the time your mind’s supplying all the little body movements, so you feel like you’re talking to a person. Then half the time you’ve got a self-conscious feeling, like you were talking to your toaster in front of your grandmother.

Maybe it was just as strange for him. There’s a lot of Gimps up here—lower gravity has its advantages, and in a lot of spaces, like my rig, the less you mass the better. Plus times are lean—less elective surgery. Here he was in the land of the unbeautiful, the people who didn’t care as much about their appearance. Strange, when he was beautiful in every single inch, every graceful, economical move.

We didn’t say a word about any of that.

I told him the best places to sightsee, and where he could take tours. I thought maybe he had some advantages—did he need to breathe, after all? Could he walk Outside just as he was?

The big casinos are worth seeing, particularly Atlantis and Spin City. I sketched out a map on my cell and shot it to him.

“Where do you like to go?” he said.

I’m not much for shopping, and I said so. I liked to take the mega-rail between Luna and the Cluster—cheap and you could stare out the window at the landscape.

“Let’s do that,” he said.

#

The Cluster used to be a fundamentalist-founded station that ended up selling its space to private concerns in order to fund itself. The remnants of the church were there. They ran the greenhouses that grew food for Luna, where most of the water got processed too. The stuff at the market there was always fresh and good and cheaper than in stores.

A jazz club had bought space, and a tiny government office matched its grander counterpart in Luna. And there was Xanadu, which was a co-op of five wealthy families. Along with a scattering of individuals who dealt in rare or hand-crafted goods.

There was always music there, and it had enough reputation for being dangerous that all but a few tourists steered clear.

His name was Star. He would be all right with me. I knew enough to keep him safe.

We ate berries and sat beside rippling water. He told me about Earth—never about the people, but the landscape. Trees, pines and sycamores and madrona, maples and honey locusts and cedar. He talked about cliffs that were bound with color: Yellows and reds and deep browns. Everything grew there, it seemed.

He talked about rain, about slow gray clouds and tearing nor’easters. Rain drumming on a tin roof versus its sound on slate. Fine spring mist and the hot rain that fell during drought, coin-sized and evaporating too quickly. Rain on sand, echoed by waves. Thunderheads, gathering themselves over the ocean. He had lived beside the sea for a few years, he said.

I wondered who he had lived with.

So much was unsaid. It was like a cloud in the room. We relaxed despite it.

He didn’t know where he was staying. He had no luggage. I approved of that. I stick to plas-wear and carry no souvenirs other than the rooms inside my head. Even my ship, where I spend more time than anywhere else, is unpersonalized. I liked it that way.

I was staying with Pippi. Star had money, or so he said, and asked where a clean hotel was. I steered him to Blizz, which caters to the Gate regulars, and went back to Pippi’s.

She was surprised to see me. I hadn’t felt like going out on a trip, I said, and offered to take her out to dinner.

All the time we were eating sweet potato fries and tempeh steaks, I tried to figure out how to tell her about Star.

I don’t know what kept me from just blurting it out. That was usually the level we communicated at. Straightforward and without pretense.

I felt like a shit keeping quiet. Eventually it would come out and the longer it took, the worse it would be.

#

I wasn’t prepared to see him at the door the next day.

Pippi answered the door. “Bless you, my dear little friend!” she shouted over her shoulder.

“What?” I scooted back in my chair, glimpsed his hat.

“You got me a present!” She reached out her hands, “Come in, come in.”

Her place is tiny. Three of us made it feel crowded. We stood around the table, bumping it with our hips.

“How much do you cost?” Pippi asked Star.

He looked at me. “I don’t do that anymore.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I came to see Podkayne.”

Pippi was unembarrassed. She shrugged and said, “Okay.”

He wanted advice about buying into the colony, where to pick a spot. I made him buy me lunch in return for my advice, and we took Pippi along since she knew better than I where the good deals were.

“Over there in Cluster, someone told me a month or two ago,” she said. “He was saying the Church is going to sell off more space, and it’s going to get gentrified. It’s a long ways off though, over an hour by tram.” She licked barbecue sauce off her fingers. Star pushed a wipe across the table towards her.

#

“I don’t think he likes me much,” she said to me, later.

“I don’t think he likes humans much,” I said. “He makes allowances, but I think he’d be just as happy dealing with mechanicals only.”

“Not many mechs up here,” she said.

“Why?” I said. “You’d think it would be ideal for them. No rust. Less dirt. Fewer pollutants in the air.”

“It would make sense,” she said. “What does it say about us, we’re so crazy we pick a place even mechanicals don’t want to live?”

Maybe ten thousand on the face of the moon. The space stations ranged in size from a few hundred to a few thousand. Twenty thousand on the surface of Mars. I didn’t go back there much, even though it was where I had grown up, after my parents died in a crash. Maybe two or three thousand existing around the bounty of the Gate, another hundred pilots and vagabonds and Parasite-ridden.

The few, the proud, the crazy.

Why had Star chosen to come up here?

#

I asked.

He said, “There’s too many living things on the planet.”

“Why not Mars? It’s enough people to qualify as civilization.”

“They’re spread out and it’s dusty. Here it’s clean.”

“You like the sterility up here,” I said. “Then why think about living over in the Cluster? It’s the most organic spot on the moon.”

His face never smiled, just tilted from one degree to another. “It’s a controlled organic.”

“But what do you want to do?”

“Live,” he said. “By myself, with a few friends,” he nodded towards me, “according to my own devices.”

“What about sex?” I blurted out.

He froze like a stuck strut’s shadow. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just that I was somewhat interested, but only if you were.”

He shook his head, mere centimeters of rejection. “I’m afraid not.”

Words I’d heard before. Including what he said next. “We can be friends, though.”

#

“He’s not interested,” I told Pippi.

“Screw him,” she said. “Let’s go play Sex Rangers.”

We climbed into the virtual suits and tapped in. I found someone interested in fooling around on a rocky shore, underneath fuzzy pines. The suit’s as good as sex, any day—releases all the tensions you need released, in my opinion—and a lot cleaner.

Afterwards we logged out and ate pizza and watched a deck about boxing. Pippi said the guy had an 87 percent chance of winning (he did), 54 percent chance by knock-out (he did not).

“I asked Star to come mining with us,” I said to her when we were getting ready for bed. I took the couch; she had a fold-down bunk.

“You did what?”

“He’ll be an extra pair of eyes. Not like he’ll take up oxygen.”

She paused. “Fair enough.”

#

He was good enough at spotting. He learned the difference between ice and metal fast enough to satisfy impatient Pippi, who hated explaining things. I focused on getting us close to the debris that swirled in and out of the Gate. You never knew what you might find. One guy picked up a device that fueled a company in food replication and yielded over forty patents. One pilot found a singing harp. Another the greasy lump that ended up becoming snipship fuel.

You never knew.

Pippi and I had a routine. Star didn’t intrude on it much, went to the secondary display and focused on looking for mineral spikes.

Usually we chatted back and forth. There, Star was an intrusive, if silent, presence. Pippi ended up thumbing on the usual newschat channel. Nothing much. An outbreak on Mars, but small and well-contained. An ambassador stricken but rallying in order to continue his mission through the Gate. How much he looked forward to being the fifth human through the interstellar passage that allowed us access to the wild and varied universe. How much he looked forward to opening new trade channels.

Who knew what he might find out there?

“What’s this?” Star said.

From afar just a glitter. Then, closer, a silver-sided chest, the size of a foot locker but covered with golden triangles. An odd, glittery powder encrusted the hinges and catch as it spun in space.

We brought it in.

Pippi’s gloved hand reached to undo the latch. I waited, holding my breath.

Nothing hissed out. A glass sphere inside, clouded with bubbles and occlusions. As Pippi slipped it out of the gray material surrounding it, we could see oily liquid filling it.

“Could be useless,” Pippi said, her voice unhappy. “Plenty of stories like that before.”

“Could be beaucoup bucks,” I pointed out.

“Of course,” Pippi said, her voice loud and angry, “it’s the time you bring someone along, to split it three ways, that we actually hit a lode.”

“I don’t want any claim,” Star said.

Flummoxed, I stared at him. What must it be like, to have enough to not need more, to have just that one extra layer against yourself and poverty? My parents had left me enough to buy my snipship, but all my capital was tied up in that rig.

“I just wanted the company,” he said. “I thought it would be interesting.”

“Fucking tourist,” Pippi said. “Want to watch the monkeys dance? We’ll kiss for another five grand.”

He backed up, raising his hands. His feet clattered on the deck. Before he had moved quietly. Did he choose to make that sound to remind us he was a machine?

“Thought we’d just love to take the walking vibrator on tour?” Pippi said. When he remained silent, she turned on me. “See, it doesn’t have anything to say to that.”

“He,” he said.

“He? What makes you a he, that you’ve got a sticky-out bit? I bet you’ve got a sticky-in bit or two as well.” She laughed. Meanness skewed her face.

“Enough,” I said. “Let’s tag the find, in our names, Pippi.”

She dropped back. I clung to the rigging, started to thumb in figures. She pushed forward, “Let me, it’s faster.” Fingers clicking, she muttered under her breath, “Get us all home faster that way.”

I took over after she’d tagged the spot and put the coordinates in. I was trying not to be angry. Hope mellowed out some of the harsh emotion. It could be a significant find. It was nice of Star to give up his claim.

#

Back in the ship bay, the lights laddered his face till he looked like a decoration. Pippi was strapping our find into a jitney.

“Why not a place where there’s rain?” I said.

“That could only be Earth,” he said. “Do you know the worst thing about rain there?”

“What?”

Pippi tied a rope into place, tested it with a quick tug, glanced over her shoulder at us.

“Rain there has gotten so acidic that if I stand out in it I have to come in and shower after a few minutes. It damages my outer skin.”

I tried to picture the cold, then acid burn. Luna was better.

“I’m sorry about Pippi.”

She honked the horn.

“Go ahead. I’m taking the tram over to the Cluster,” he said.

I hesitated. “Meet me later?”

“I’ll call you.”

He didn’t, of course. We cashed in the case—a lump sum from a company’s R&D division that doubled our incomes and then some.

I texted him, “Come celebrate with us, we’re dockside and buying dumplings.” But he didn’t reply until three days later. “Sorry, things got busy. Bought house. Come out and see it.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow morning. I’ll make you breakfast.”

I left in the morning before Pippi was awake.

#

His place was swank, built into a cliff-side, with a spectacular view of the endless white plains below. He made me waffles with real maple syrup. He was an amazing cook. I said so.

“I was programmed that way,” he said, and made a sound that was sort of a laugh.

The sexbots—all of the AIs struggling for emancipation lately—had had to demonstrate empathy and creativity. I wondered what that had been like.

He was standing uncomfortably close. I leaned forward to make it even closer, thinking he’d draw back.

He didn’t.

“I’m programmed a certain way,” he said.

“How is that?”

“I want to please you. But at the same time I know it’s just the way I’m programmed.”

“It can’t be something more than that?” My arm was pressed against his surface. It was warm and yielding as flesh. I couldn’t have told the difference.

He pulled away. I bit my lip in frustration, but I liked him enough to be civilized.

I drank the last of my coffee. Real Blue Mountain blend. He kept his kitchen well stocked for human visitors—who did he hope would stop in?

#

As it turns out, Pippi. Next time I came through on a quick flight (I might be rich, but who was I to turn down fast and easy money?), she told me how he’d fed her.

“Pasta,” she said, rolling the words out. “And wine, and little fish, from Earth. And afterwards something sweet to drink.”

She said they’d fucked. I believed her. It wouldn’t be her style to lie. It would never occur to her.

So I did and said I’d fucked him too. She didn’t respond, not right off the bat, but I caught her looking at me oddly by the time I said toodle-oo and went off to sleep in my ship.

It wasn’t the first time I’d slept in there, not by a long shot.

I wished them both happiness, I supposed.

#

Still, two weeks later, I came in response to Pippi’s panicked call. He was going back to Earth, she said.

We both showed up at the farewell hall. He was standing with a tall blonde woman, Earth-fat. Star slipped away from us, came over with a bearing jaunty and happy, his polished face expressionless as always.

“Who is that?” Pippi said.

“A journalist. She’s going to help me tell my story, back on Earth.”

“I see,” Pippi said. She and I both surveyed the woman, who pretended not to notice us. Her manicured hand waved a porter over to take her luggage aboard, the hard-shelled cases the same color as her belt.

Pippi said, “Is this because you don’t want to fuck me any longer? You said you liked it, making me feel good. We don’t have to do that. We can do whatever you like, as long as you stay.”

He averted his face, looking at the ship. “That’s not it.”

“Then what?”

“I want to go back to the rain.”

“Earth’s acid rain?” I said. “The rain that will destroy you?”

Now he was looking at neither of us.

“What about your place?” Pippi said.

“You can have it,” he said. “It never felt like home.”

“Will anyplace?” I asked. “Anywhere?”

“When I’m telling my story, it feels like home,” he said. “I see myself on the camera and I belong in the world. That’s what I need to do.”

“Good luck,” I said. What else could I say?

#

Pippi and I walked away through the terminal. There were tourists all around us, going home, after they’d played exotic for a few days, experienced zero-grav and sky-diving and painted their faces in order to play glide-ball and eaten our food and drunk our wine and now were going home to the rain.

We didn’t look at each other. I didn’t know how long Star’s shadow would lie between us. Maybe years. Maybe just long enough for sunlight to glint on forgotten metal, out there in the sky. Maybe long enough and just so long.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Cat Rambo

Rambo, CatCat Rambo writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, appeared from Paper Golem Press in 2009, following her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories in 2007. Among the places her work has appeared are Asimov’s, Weird Tales, and Clarkesworld.

4 Responses »

  1. Enjoyed the story. Appreciated the characterization and the world building :).

  2. Wonderful, more and more from Lightspeed please. i just love the audio podcasts

  3. Lovely. I’m all melancholy now.

  4. Awesome story. I listened to the podcast version and really enjoyed this sensitive rendering of an AI/sex ‘bot. I’ve always wanted to write about a character like Star, but could not have imagined one as complex as Rambo’s. Brava!

Leave a Response