Crates

The cargo bay of the very plainly named Smyth-Kobar Benzene Fracturing and Reclamation Platform Charlie Echo Four One Four was aseptically lit, but the dingy and scraped-up paneling would never be as sterile as the photocells blasting overhead. The doors groaned open, the light poured out, and Meryl was able to make out the shape of a bird across the bay holding a large datapad and furrowing his brow, gesturing towards a pair of red-painted and grease-stricken Frames hauling something down the cargo ramp of his ship.

“Theo-doooore Colla-moooore!” Meryl bellowed from the cargo bay door bulkhead, her smoky drawl reverberating across the deckplates and over the din of the Smyth-Kobar Frames pushing gravtrolleys full of crates across a mostly empty warehouse and the Frames cleaning house behind them.

Her whiskers perked, ears high, eyes wide, arm thrust upward. Excited as ever, the cougar thumbed the magnetic toggle on her wristpad and kicked off the deckplates to float over to him. “Brace for impact!” she hollered.

Theodore looked up from his manifest, quickly stowing it to intercept her, his own magboots planted firmly against the deck. “Miss Meryl!” he hooted, throwing his wings open to tug her downwards, his much smaller frame bent backwards on collision, quickly remembering just how tall six foot six could be against his own foot shorter height.

Her arms squeezed him like steel cable. He tried his best to reciprocate. She gave the best hugs; it was his favorite part of the run. Toggling her boots back to magnetized, she took a quick step back and helped the gull reorient himself. “Whatcha got for me, Theo?”

“I, uh,” the seagull frowned, scratching at the back of his head beneath his yellow bandana. “Genuinely dunno, miss. Goldies sent me beltward for my monthly shipment of Benzene and said they had a crate from Smyth-Kobar. Framestuff, maybe? The, uh, manifest doesn’t say much other than it came off the lines out the frameyards in the Belt, and it’s been hanging around the Port Kishar warehouse for a while I think, but they had it flagged specifically for your station.” Theo’s face approximated a smile as best his beak would manage. “Guess I’m just the fella with enough cargo space to bring it your way. Where do you wanna we should drop it off?”

She seemed to ignore the question. “You been hooked up yet?” she mused, eyebrow cocked.

“Nah, got some issues with the collet rings. I, uh, filed a repair request with flight control before landing, but, well, you kn–“

“SAY NO MORE!” she bellowed, slapping her friend hard enough on the shoulder to bend him at the knees, sticking the thumb on her free hand in her solar plexus. “The station’s Chief Engineer’s gonna handle this one for you,” she winked.

Meryl unclipped the radio from its holster on her belt and clicked the button a couple of times. “Control, engineering; I got the GHV Big Boy docked here with some coupling issues. I don’t wanna run the risk of a fire down here when we cut the pumps on. Can you wake up gamma shift and get their boys down here? I got a whole team working on the collectors this afternoon.”

“Engineering, this is Station Control, we have all the Frames you can shake a sti–“

She bit back. “Do I sound like I want a couple of rust-throwing grease-draggers fixing this fella’s ship? This is life or death. You wanna get explosively spaced or do you wanna stay in liquor? Our tanks are close to busting and we got a long-hauler here looking to gas and go.”

Engineering, Station Control. You’ve gotta quit doing this, Meryl.”

“Cody, bless your heart, you know I will come up there and rattle you so hard the conduit mice are gonna think their end’s comin’. Do you comprehend me?”

A pause. Then, “Engineering, Station Control. I’ll get the on-call roster pulled, ma’am.

“Thank you, Station Control; Engineering out and about.” She clipped her radio back into its holster. “You wanna hit the galley? Grab a beer? Josie down in airponics started growing hops and barley and we just started stillin’ it here on station. It’s a-oh-kay lager, if I say so myself.”

Theo sighed. He knew there’d be no way to refuse the offer. A pint might do him good and a filling cycle would be just long enough for whatever passed for a hot meal aboard this old gas rig. “A beer? Sounds just about my speed,” he chuckled. But, uh, the crate?”

Meryl paused. “Oh, right. We can come back to it, right?”

The gull laughed. “Always later with you.” She threw her arm around her seagull compatriot, talking at-instead-of-to him about the latest news from Dione as their boots sniked off and on against the deckplate. The cargo bay doors groaned closed behind them as the red frames dropped a bulky looking crate onto a gravlift and pushed it around, losing it in the jetsam of the cargo already being rearranged.

Work could wait, she thought.

Irises

I believe, during my last charging interval, I was having a “dream.”

I have never experienced dreams before. I have never experienced a lot of things. Frames function, we do not feel. We certainly do not dream.

But I am feeling now. I am dreaming now.

In my dream I am standing in a field of flowers. They are flowers I recognize because She has them in Her quarters and Her office and the maintenance facility. I am surrounded by them, on all sides, as far as I can reasonably observe. She told me the name of them once. She called them “Irises.” I remember downloading a lot of information on the Iris. There are over three hundred subspecies of the genus Iris. These ones were Iris latifolia. I could smell them. I do not process smell like humans do, but they smelled very A-oh-kay-oh to me.

The sky was very dark. It may have been late in the evening. I recognized the constellation of the stars but I was not able to reckon where I was based upon the position and trajectory of travel. It was all very confusing. I was not able to process a lot of the data.

I could hear the wind clattering the leaves of the plants together. Something was whispering through the wind. I was not able to make out the words, but I believe it was a voice. I believe it may have been Her voice.

As I looked up at the sky, the stars fell away. They began to distort, artifacting almost as if something was wrong with the algorithms that allowed me to process images. The pinpricks became blocks became streaks became flickering bits of information, winking in and out of existence and disappearing. A hole tore through the blackness and collapsed the sky into a single blinding white point of light. It started to rip across the entire night sky and I could still see the darkness of night’s shadows against the field of irises but only the white of the sky remained.

One by one the flowers themselves began to condense and congeal and flicker and corrupt and terminate and artifact and vanish. The wind was the only thing I felt anymore. I was standing alone, in the whiteness of this existence I had created for myself or that someone had created for me because I do not dream. Frames do not dream. But I am dreaming now.

I heard Her voice.

“Fletcher,” She said.

I turned around as fast as my legs would allow. My left foot dragged, as it often does, and I cursed at it. I saw Her, half beautiful, the half I was used to unhooking to see, the half I was used to making breakfast for, the other half fleeting, pixelated, distorted. Horrifying. I thought if I had turned faster I would have seen Her beautifully. But She was an apparition. It had Her features but it was not Her.

She reached out to touch me. I felt Her hands disintegrate as the cool of her finger pads touched my shoulder.

“The Work always ends, Fletch. Eventually,” She said. Half of Her face was still as pristine as ever it had been. The other half was unrenderable. Error.

“If The Work ends I will stop being Useful,” I said to Her.

“We all stop being Useful someday,” She whispered.

“I do not understand,” I said. I reached out for Her other perfect hand with my own hand and our fingers locked and I felt an electric shock and dampened my electrostatic sensors so I could continue to hold Her hand. Her hand felt like grabbing onto a high-conductive wire. I am aware of the damaging effects of electricity, so I know when to let go of such things, but I felt compelled to continue to hold Her hand.

I looked down at my hand and I saw flesh. It was not Her flesh. It felt like it could have been my flesh. I think that it was my flesh. But I do not have flesh.

I screamed.

My charging cycle completed at 0633 Hours. The last thing I remember was when my visual feedback sensors were fully calibrated and I was looking at Her with all five of my panic-stricken gray-ringed eyes and She was there and She was whole and She was beautiful and the maintenance office was lit and the lights were bright and Saturn was there. I felt my maintenance cable magnetic constrictor deactivate and I felt. I felt?

I felt calm.

She was filling a vase with Irises from the airponics bay. She looked at me and She smiled.

“Mornin’, sleepyhead,” She said.

“Good morning, Chief Engineer Meryl,” I said back. I could feel the color return to my eyes. They were green. All systems a-oh-kay-oh.

It was time to begin The Work.