I am doing the last round of scans on a car when an alert lets me know someone has entered the shop. It has been over a month since anyone has come in person. I am not a genius, in the world mechanics inhabit: I do good work, solid repairs, and I take my time until it is done. A genius could do what I do in a third of the time, perhaps less. I disable interfaces, turning off scans and overlays. The car beneath them is old, runing on apps and power cells a decade out of date, but the owner wanted to keep it that way. I’ve been working on it off and on for over two days, enjoying the challenge. That I only have four other vehicles to check at present is just a lull. They happen. Vehicles need regular check-ups, and those anyone can do most of the time. Repairs are less common. A lull.
If I ever wanted to be a genius, it was in being able to lie to myself. I envy people who are good at it.
“You left me a message.” Nothing else. Max comes in, the door closing behind it. Last month Max had been male, three year before that female, then male before that; I’d only known Max for six years; I’d never met Kel, but both sibs had the same genotype, a kind that that responded absurdly well to shiftings. Alter skin, clothing hair, sex, organs, graft wings: you name it, their bodies had been designed to not reject it. I wasn’t sure what their parents had hoped would come of that, but Max made a living being an exotic in private viewings. Kel had been an explorer out on the outer belts, until the sickness.
Eaten away from the inside out by a virus that mutated faster than Kel’s body could be made to adapt. Ten years in isolation chambers before it was too much, or too late, and Kel had accepted a transfer last month. Like I had years ago: take the mind, place it into a new body. Cloned bodies rejected it, but you could become part of a starliner, get a new body that seemed human enough, build your own chassis if you wanted to. It had been common for a short while, until a handful of people abused it. Transfer into a machine. Commit murder, transfer into another. Repeat. You couldn’t last long doing that; minds degrade, sanity rebels, but it had dealt the entire process a bad name.
And too high a number killed themselves. I’ve been told that, though I’ve never looked for specifics. Kel had elected to have her consciousness dumped into space, to become little more than a ghost in the ether that people might pick up on transmissions at times and nothing more. To continue exploring, however long Kel would last. I couldn’t even imagine such bravery.
I turn to Max. “I did.”
Max has wings and a tail; the wings were black vestigial feathers, the tail pale as the rest of its body. The tail twitchs a little, lashing about behind legs. “I turned off my mail system entirely.”
“I know. It was full.” I don’t add that at least a third of the messages had probably been from me.
“You risked a lot to break into that. And not just because its illegal.” I say nothing. Max walks over to the chair set aside for visitors, sits down. Almost smiles as it begins massaging its back and tail. “I came here because you asked. To talk to you, Dar.”
I take the hint and drop the default projection around my body: a boy, about eight, in a mechanics uniform. The person I’d been before the accident, before having to transfer. My body is a solid torso on treads, a dozen arms that come out as needed, a viewscreen with an adaptive face at the top. I don’t like it, but it seems to make people a bit relieved. I roll over beside the chair, keeping two arms out; it’s a good body for a mechanic. Solid design, seldom any issues. Mine.
“Kel is gone.”
“I know.” I pause a beat. My vocal interface is very good. “I thought you’d want to talk.”
“I don’t.” Max doesn’t get up, relaxing further as the systems in the chair ease pain in the wings. “I do want to steal your chair, though.”
I grin at that. Sometimes having a display is good, because Max grins back half against its desires. “I use it sometimes as well.”
“I can’t sleep. It helps me relax.” I don’t share that much, not often.
“Oh.” For a moment Max pulls away, then: “You know what happened to Kel. I haven’t – it’s been hard on everyone.”
“I can tell that.”
Max lets out a small, bitter laugh. “I was always more adventurous, with my body. This – it is a kind of homage. People blanch, move away. I don’t have to deal with false sympathies as much.” Max reaches out a hand and raps the centre of my body with knuckles. “It’s armour.”
I don’t move. “I imagine so.”
Max pauses, head cocked to the side. “Is something wrong, Dar?”
“Dar. You broke several laws to get through my personal system, to get my attention. That’s dangerous normally; even more so for a transfer like yourself.” It’s nothing I don’t know, but Max says it almost gently and that hurts. Like my message might have. I don’t know.
“I don’t have many friends. I didn’t want to lose you as well.” Nothing else. Max had found and visited me not longer after the idea of Kel having to eventually do a transfer had come up. We’d talked, and a fair bit since off and on. Often about Kel, who I’d never met. I thought it made us friends, but I wasn’t sure.
“It’s been a rough few months. I’ve been trying to hurt everyone.” Max stands, stares down at me. “You never did.”
“It didn’t even occur to me.” I move back. “I just – wanted to make sure you were going to be okay, Max. Even if I got caught.”
Max turns, eyes taking in the shop, the few vehicles, then back to me. Max crouches down, eyes even with the viewscreen. I don’t need Max to, but it’s a nice surprise. “There was another transfer killing two months ago; Kel was almost never approved.”
“Oh. Clients still bring vehicles.”
I say nothing. I could lie. I designed my vocal interface quite well, as I’ve said, but Max isn’t anyone’s fool. You don’t work as an exotic without reading people well, even if they might no longer be people.
Max reaches out a hand again, presses fingertips to my chassis, pulls them back. “How long, then, since anyone has touched your body, or even your projection?”
“A long time.” My voice is rough, cracked, not coming out properly. But I designed the interface quite well.
I almost say that, begin to pull back to run a diagnotisic when Max lets out a strange little laugh.
“You don’t need to run away, Dar.”
“I’m not doing –.”
And Max touches me again. And I can’t find words. “Oh,” Max says, drawing back, eyes wide. “There is – Dar, there is nothing behind it.”
“I know.” And I do; I know how people touch each other, how they even touch vehicles when they care for them, and this isn’t that at all.
Max doesn’t touch me again, just stands slowly. “Even Kel wasn’t alone,” Max says, its voice so soft I know I’m not meant to hear it. “I need to get to work. I’ll be back soon. To visit. To talk. All right?”
“All right. I need to get back to work,” I say, turning on the projection and moving back to the car.