The door to the shop opens. It shouldn’t: I’ve set the privacy baffles to maximum and an automated reply to tell customers I am busy and to call back later, not that I get many customers in person. The last was at least two years ago, from the restaurant down the road, a cook who only came in person once to see about getting some of their vehicles fixed so they wouldn’t crash during deliveries. There is only one person the shop would let in these days without notifying me or asking questions. I don’t have time to clean up, less time to hide anything. I settle for swearing inside my head at length.
Max is limping when she comes in. Her body is green-grey, skin turned into an impact mesh, bone blade-sharp under it, quills extending out along her back. A second spine might explain the limp but doesn’t; the shop has a good scanning system. I do as well.
“You said you might come by tomorrow.”
“I changed my mind; leg was acting us,” Max begins lightly, then falls silent and walks over. Max has done two tours of the war: the first as male, the second as female. She was planning to do a third as neuter, if she was pressed into it. Her parents had designed her and her sib to be able to accept body-modifying traits at a staggering speed and rate of success. Neither Max or Kel had ever known why. Kel had died to illness, excepting becoming a transfer – mind leaving her body into a new shell – so she could continue to explore the universe as radio waves in her case. Max had made a living as an exotic hired for parties, until her parents revealed they had some legal clause to sign Max up for the war. And had done so.
Max had done a second tour just to spite them. And severed all contact with them after the first, legally and otherwise. Max had lost his right hand in the first tour, her left leg in the second it seemed. I’d never asked for details, Max had never offered any. All I knew was that the Hingari were alien and we – humanity – were fighting them. Just about everything else was on a need-to-know basis, even in the Infoweb, and mechanics ranked as not needing to know at all. I’m not allowed to fix military vehicles, being a transfer, so I fix civilian ones as I always have.
There are only two vehicles in the shop right now. Max has noticed that, but is more focused on me as she walks over. I don’t look good. The left side of my chassis is wide open, apps and innards visible; I’ve been using four arms to repair systems, upgrading and updating others. My transfer body is tough. Tough hadn’t been enough.
“What happened?” Max says softly.
“The restaurant closed down three days ago. I’m the last store on the road, so I win.” I grin in the viewscreen on top of my body at her, but Max doesn’t return it. “One of the cooks said they had some old vehicles no one was taking, and I could have them if I wanted to.”
“Dar.” Max steps closer. “Don’t you dare turn your viewscreen off.”
I blink, stare at her, lick my lips. I made my viewscreen well, and my voice module is as decent: I’ve never considered those a flaw until now. “There were six of them waiting outside. They had impact rifles, emp-batons. Weapons. I made it back inside.”
Max says nothing; my chassis is battered, the pieces of it on the tables still being repaired. I fixed my treads first, so I could at least get away – try to get away – if anyone broke into the shop today. Bodies are important. You learn that even when you don’t have a normal one: mine was almost five feet tall, a cylidrical shape on treads, tapering to a viewscreen, with a dozen limbs for use as needed to fix cars. I’d used them to upgrade and repair my body a few times, but never to this extent. I’d never been damaged like this, not even when my grandfather blew up the shop because my existence horrified him. It had been a lifetime ago, and you forget things. Like being helpless. Like pain.
The tip of Max’s tail twitches violently behind her; she reaches out a hand, pulls back as my arms spasm between us before I can stop them. “How bad is it?”
“I’ll survive. They did a lot of damage; it’s going to be at least a day fixing the projection system alone. I’ll have to upgrade my body after this: be tougher, more resistant to weapons.”
“More like armour,” Max says for me.
“Yes.” I finish some small repairs, and relink the rest of my chassis, test apps to make sure everything is holding together. Even in front of Max, it scares me to be naked. For Max to see too much. Max knows what I am, but to see the guts of it, the mechanics. I didn’t want that. “You were supposed to come tomorrow,” I say again, and catch the whine in my voice.
“I lost my leg; the one they built isn’t near as good as what you could do. The hand is fine, though.”
“I could look it over. Check it out.”
“Your legs are fine?” Max says lightly, poking a tread with her tail.
I manage to keep still this time. “Yes. Sit.”
Max sits down on a scanning table. I scan the leg, poke it a bit with a few limbs, open it up after disabling neural relays. It takes less than five minutes to update apps, repair a few connections, reroute others. I lose myself in the work pull back after to seal up the leg again. Max flexes the leg a few minutes later, wiggles toes, stands, walks a few seconds.
She looks over, grins. “You could branch out from vehicles into limbs, you know.”
“I like fixing vehicles.”
“I know. I’d rather not think of my leg like that,” Max says lightly, walking back over and circling me. “You look a bit battered, but it’s not too bad. Can you do a projection?”
“No.” The one I have set up shows a human me. I’d kept it as me when I’d been transferred for years until Max pointed out that an eight year old projection as a mechanic didn’t inspire confidence. My current projection is of me at twenty-five or so, or at least how I think I would have looked. It’s good enough to fool basic censors, and people prefer to interact with it than me most of the time.
“You’ll have it done by the time I come back tomorrow?”
“I could,” I say after a pause. “Why?”
“You’ll find out.” Max grins, waves and heads to the door.
I begin working on the projection app after the door closes. I don’t need much energy, don’t sleep. I don’t even rest, as humans understand it. But I can lose myself in my work, relax and have hours pass that I barely notice. Max’s light cough, and then a louder one, rouse me from the work. Hours have, indeed, passed. Max looks the same, though sans limp. I find it odd she’s keeping the impact skin, but don’t thin to ask why as I test the projection.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s working. Treads working, eight out of twelve limbs functional,” I say out loud when Max asks how I’m feeling.
She snorts. “That’s not feeling, Dar. You’re in good shape, though?”
“Yes,” I say warily.
“Good. Come on,” and she turns, heading to the door of the shop. Opens it.
I don’t move.
“We’re going for a walk.”
She pauses, leaves the door open, walks back. “Dar. If you don’t, it’s going to be harder next time. And harder still the next time you try. It’s tomorrow. I said I’d come back, and I did, and you – we – please.” She offers no poke of the tail, just her one normal hand gently resting on my chassis for a moment. “You fixed my leg: I should walk on it, to make sure. You can check out your work.”
I stare at her, then the door. “I don’t have any weapons,” I say, and my voice is small and very human to my ears.
“Do you want to?”
I shake my head in the viewscreen. My body trembles a little.
“I have weapons.” Max smiles, and the smile is hard and almost alien. “And I will use them if anyone bothers us.”
I gulp. It takes effort not to shut off the viewscreen, not to hide. I move forward, stop. Reach out a limb and extend it to wrap about Max’s tail. “Help?”
Max blinks, then just nods and walks, gently pulling me along behind her on neutral until we’re outside. Down the street a little. I finally let go of her tail, catch up slowly, treads shifting to keep balanced on the road. I’m scanning the street around us for people and weapons and I can’t stop myself from doing it.
My projection flicks on, and my eyes are darting about in the same way, wide and wary, nervous and scared. Max reaches over. I extend a limb, fit it into the projection so her hand squeezes that. She doesn’t tell me why the cook and his friends attacked me, how bad the war is going. We just walk, and she lets go, and we move side by side in silence until I say we’ve probably tested her legs just fine.
She smiles at that. “Feeling better?”
“No. I’m still terrified,” I whisper. Max says nothing to that. “Can you come back tomorrow?”
Her smile widens a little, and some tension I didn’t even notice eases in her. “We’ll have another walk tomorrow.”
She walks back to the shop with me. I don’t protest it, or try to break her silence. She’ll tell me about the war when she wants to.
We have time. We have tomorrows.