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"What's the Aphelion?"

I asked the question even though I already knew that I would hate the answer. The designation had a ring to it that sounded familiar. It fit with Perihelion. Not a rhyme, but something like a rhyme. (Note to self: there's definitely a word for that. Look it up.)

ART's reply was to upend the contents of its AI research archives on me. I really expected you to have reviewed my personal historical databanks by now, it said mildly, ignoring my flailing. You've had more than enough free time to do so.

"I'm not going to study you. You already have humans doing that." I pushed all of the files to the side. There were 259,467 of them, decades' worth of research notes and transcripts, and searching keyword "Aphelion" turned up no fewer than 5.5 million hits. "I have better things to do than pick through multiple decades' worth of humans complimenting you for being special and unique."

Not entirely unique.

From the pile of discarded files, ART plucked one and trimmed it down for me, just to the salient bits. I accepted the download and skimmed it. It had my answer, and I hated it. Even ignoring all of the technical stuff about AI crèches and pair-bonds and artificial empathy development left me with the simple answer "It's complicated." And that complication was about to be tangible, and something I would have to personally deal with.

"You have a twin."

For want of a better term. (ART actually had three siblings total, or at least three that were documented in the file it shared with me. But there had only been one hail, not three, so I marked all references to the Perigee and Apogee as low-priority for the time being.)

"That's the term your humans used here." I pulled the full, original file on ART's project and skipped past all of the stuff about baby AIs in a special digital nursery. ART's choice to have its kernel loaded into a teaching vessel was documented, along with the logs of its very first boot cycle. I expected to find something like that for Aphelion too, but instead I found myself falling out of the file into a hole, a broken link that led to nothing. Aphelion's data was like that throughout, just dead connections and redactions. ART watched me explore impassively.

"Okay," I conceded. "Very funny. Where's the uncensored version of this file?"

It is unavailable.

It took me nearly three full seconds to realize that ART wasn't kidding. "What do you mean unavailable? Your archives have everything."

You're exaggerating, said ART. Even my databanks are finite.

It was trying to redirect me, to start an argument over semantics instead of letting me pry at the topic of the pockmarked file. It never let me get away with that sort of shitty distraction, and I was pretty sure it didn't expect to get away with it either now that we had swapped places. "What the hell is Aphelion's function, that you don't have clearance to know about it?"

ART's ego may have been a cheap target, but its massive size made it extremely easy to hit. I am not permitted to distribute information pertaining to Aphelion's active function, it snapped. That does not mean that I do not have the information. It is simply embargoed.

That was, in itself, an answer. "You can't share that information with your security consultant?" I tried to flatten my tone, so I didn't sound like a whiny human, even if it was fairly insulting. ART signaled negative. I asked, "Does its function have anything to do with your field trip to the Adamantine colony?"

ART was silent. Not in a sulky way, though.

"Okay. So if it's involved in those sorts of operations, what's it doing in this system?" We had just exited the wormhole, with plans to layover for two standard cycles at a station that I had taken to be completely insignificant. (I'd reviewed available data for the bits that were relevant to me, namely local security (weak) and public facilities dedicated to art or media (nonexistent).)

That, I genuinely do not know, said ART. Aphelion's itineraries are not typically fixed, as mine are. I had no prior knowledge that it would be here.

I checked ART's cameras. In one of the common areas, its humans were having an impromptu meeting to discuss the hail from Aphelion. They were clearly all surprised too, and their reactions weren't nearly as measured as ART's was. It seemed from all the smiling and laughing that this surprise was of the pleasant variety. Apparently there were some established friendships there.

"When was the last time you rendezvoused with Aphelion?"

ART paused for 2.7 seconds, presumably checking its logs. Most recently, our maintenance inspections at the University overlapped. That was 28,781 hours ago.

Holy shit. No wonder ART's humans were excited. If this was the first time in plural years that they were getting an opportunity to socialize with Aphelion's humans, they were going to want to make a big deal about it. Probably with multiple hours of disorganized meetings, and possibly shared meals.

The humans may have been excited, but I was definitely not. I asked, "Is Aphelion like you?"

I could tell that ART didn't quite know what to make of my query. We are of the same base code, it said. Our specs are identical.

"I meant 'is it an asshole?'"

ART opened an overhead vent to briefly blast me with cold air. Aphelion and I shaped each other's development. Our early personality markers emerged while we were confined to a closed system together. But after our split, we evolved separately, in individual environments. It hesitated for barely half a second. It isn't like me.

I wanted to tell it to elaborate, but as we came within range of the station feed, something in the atmosphere changed. Not in a literal sense, (ART was meticulous about things like maintaining its atmosphere scrubbers, since it needed those to keep its humans alive,) but I could feel something shift. My risk assessment module hadn't appreciated having a social wrench thrown at it, but it had been slowly ticking its way up through the 20% range. Now, it suddenly ratcheted up to 92%. My organic parts released a rush of adrenaline, but there was nothing in the room with me. We hadn't even docked yet. I started a diagnostic and tried not to hyperventilate.

Stop.

ART's voice toned clear through the ringing in my head. It didn't give me orders, and I wouldn't have had to follow them if it did, but I stopped, locked up my inorganics and held my breath. My performance reliability was tanking fast.

Leave it alone.

I wasn't sure whether I'd heard right. I wasn't doing anything, there was nothing for me to leave and no reason that all of my systems should be panicking like this. I needed there to be something, a threat for me to assess, a target for me to destroy. But there was nothing, and the nothing was terrifying.

And then the nothing released my feed, slid off me like sheets of rain off a habitat dome. I managed to get a grip on my systems, and I took a deep breath.

You still haven't gotten the hang of sharing.

It wasn't ART. The voice came from the nothing, a whisper directly in my feed, breath on the back of your neck when you thought you were alone. If I hadn't been in the middle of inhaling, I would have screamed.

And then I could feel ART there again, its bulk behind me. It leaned on me casually, pushing the nothing away.

You're being rude, it said, but the sarcasm was underlaid with something unfamiliar. A conversation between bots can occur as quickly as the bot with the weakest processing power can parse it. With ART, that was always going to be me. It spoke with words for my benefit, but beneath that was another layer I couldn't parse, a dark, rushing stream of emotion that wasn't directed at me. I caught anger, but also confusion, and... hurt?

With ART anchoring me, I was able to reign myself in and initiate a purge of the excess adrenaline. As the chemicals drained away, I managed to get a clearer look at the tangible nothing that had invaded my feed. It was a thin presence, just a tendril of a connection that had coiled up on itself when it was forced to retreat from me.

Funny. You've never been one for manners, it retorted. It was so small, taking up less space than a human with a cheap interface. It shouldn't have been anywhere near as threatening as it was. And yet it was absorbing every ounce of ART's emotional undercurrent, and matching it in turn. I couldn't identify anything it was sending back. It just mixed with ART in a swirling torrent of inscrutable code.

I said, aloud, "ART, what the fuck is that?"

Speaking aloud should have been private. ART's localized sensors picked up input from its interior and delivered that information directly to its brain, bypassing the extra step of sending a message through its feed. But when I opened my mouth, the cold interest of the intruder piqued.

It talks.

A lot of humans are surprised to learn that SecUnits aren't mute, faceless bots driven by the senseless urge to murder things. Usually that surprise takes the form of fear. (Or, in the case of a small sect of extremely strange humans I met once, fondness.) The intruder seemed surprised, too, but it was neither fearful nor fond of me. It slithered close again, right up to me in spite of ART.

Hello, it said, in a voice as intimate as an inert blade slipping between my ribs. I am Aphelion. And you are lucky that Perihelion found you first.

ART slammed its feed connection shut. Aphelion vanished.

 


 

Aphelion's humans were waiting for ART's humans when we docked. I'd expected a group comparable to ART's crew in size, but when I pulled records from the local Port Authority, I found out that Aphelion was a much smaller ship than ART, with a documented crew of only four. (The paperwork carried no mention of the Pansystem University of Mihira and New Tideland, although I was able to connect Aphelion's captain to the files ART had given me on the AI program. Apparently she and Seth were colleagues, and she had taken Aphelion on the same way that Seth had taken ART. (I tried to picture Aphelion as part of a human family unit, the way that ART was a part of a group with Seth, Martyn, and Iris. I hoped to fucking hell that Aphelion's family hadn't included any human children. The image was disturbing enough without them.))

The crew was comprised entirely of augmented humans, all four of whom had internal interfaces. I could feel them in the station feed even before I took over StationSecSys to get a look at them with a camera. Their connections were a cluster of tiny lights in the distance, glimmering brightly as they stood around in a loose group, chatting animatedly with each other.

And then, collectively, the lights dimmed as walls went up around them. At the same time, the humans on the camera fell silent. They moved as one, not with the stiff coordination of soldiers, but more like stage actors falling into roles as they stepped out from behind the curtain. I prefer to watch shows the way they're supposed to be seen, (head-on, from a distance,) but a behind-the-scenes perspective can make a story look completely different. Watching from the camera as Aphelion's humans straightened and assembled into a stiff line was a bit like that. If my only viewpoint of them had been stepping out of ART's lock with its crew, I would have seen a serious-looking team of three young augmented humans, headed by their unsmiling captain. From the wings, I saw what might well have been a hostage situation.

That assessment is facetious. You do not actually believe that.

I had been maybe 47% sold on the theory, but ART's comment kicked that number down to below 15% instantly. "Are you saying that's not what it is?"

ART shifted uncomfortably in the feed as it ran up against the confidentiality seal. I... cannot outright deny any conclusions you have drawn.

That was as good as an outright denial. "You didn't have a problem telling my humans about your mission at the Adamantine colony."

I set the locks on my own confidential information. Aphelion sets its locks. I cannot violate them.

"But you can tell me what I don't actually believe."

ART paused 0.6 seconds. No. But you reviewed the project data. You may draw your own conclusions from it.

Oh, right. I'd actually forgotten about that file. It hadn't seemed all that useful before Aphelion had threatened to kill me. (Insinuated that it wanted to kill me. Whatever. Close enough.) Now anything it could tell me about the enemy was valuable intel.

ART pressed against me, and I remembered the feel of its secondary conversation with Aphelion, the confusion and hurt that had tainted its output. I sorted the archive by date, and pulled the earliest file.

It was pretty dry stuff, a lot of hypothesizing about the way that a completely artificial mind might develop under the influence of stimuli intended to mimic the conditions of being raised like a juvenile human, and blah blah blah. The program started with allowing human students to feed a sub-sentient bot whatever data they wanted, (a terrible idea, considering adolescent humans, and a detail which might explain a few things about ART,) and then the bot would integrate the data and its programming would attempt to form an opinion about it. If it was given two conflicting inputs, it would try to compare the new datapoint to what it had already learned, and summon an administrator to rule on anything it couldn't decide. All of that was pretty boring. The interesting part was the bit where the original bot spontaneously split into two distinct programs over the inability to reconcile two conflicting datapoints.

The argument that had turned the original bot into BotA1 and BotA2 was boring and stupid, (something about the definition of the word "oversight," (which, who gives a shit, but okay,)) but the humans had been delighted and had decided to try and replicate the results, because humans can never leave well enough alone. A second base bot was activated, and this time it was fed deliberately conflicting opinions until the split occurred. The report admitted that it was unclear exactly what triggered the split. Regardless, the resulting bots were partially isolated, and then allowed to continue arguing with each other, which they did with surprising enthusiasm for sub-sentient programs. These bots had eventually argued themselves into ART and Aphelion. And apparently their perpetual argument had never actually ended, just been subject to a temporary ceasefire while they were outside of each other's comm range.

ART had been pretty patient while I read its library, but for a mind like ART's, "pretty patient" only goes so far. It was monitoring its systems and hanging out with its humans while they met with Aphelion's humans, but it had also started its favorite episode of Worldhoppers on a background channel. I joined it there.

"How did you stand it?" I asked during a lull in the action. "Being locked in a box with Aphelion?"

ART hummed. It wasn't as bad as you are imagining. Understimulating, maybe, but not completely lacking. It shifted and settled more comfortably in my feed, compressing me slightly. For the first time since we met, it occurred to me to wonder whether it was something that ART did entirely consciously. And perhaps a little cramped.

I pulled a highlight from the document, an excerpt from a conversation helpfully named 'BPairFight_46-4.' "So it wasn't a problem for you to be trapped in a closed system with it while it was threatening you constantly?"

ART moved again, this time lifting its weight slightly. If it had feet, it would have shuffled them. The threats were not one-sided, it admitted.

It occurred to me that I might have misinterpreted something. I scanned the contents of the document a second time, noting that the majority of the unprompted threats came from the B2 bot. Then I searched ART's knowledge base for the meaning of the word "subsume." I was tempted to rub my hands over my face, but I settled for groaning instead. "It was you. You were the asshole. Why did I think you wouldn't have been the asshole."

I resent that label in this instance, said my Asshole Research Transport. I had no intention to follow through with 93% of what I said back then.

"Really?" I cut a few lines from the transcript. "So when Aphelion tried to summon an administrator and you deleted its request, your promise to replicate yourself exponentially until it was overloaded and crowded into a total system failure was just a joke?"

In my defense, I didn't have the processing capability to act on that promise.

"You bullied your twin and now it wants me to serve as a proxy for its revenge."

ART surprised me with a flash of frustration. You lack the proper context to draw accurate conclusions, it snapped. But try to consider that for two beings created by, for, and from debate, such disagreements do not qualify for the same level of severity as another SecUnit pointing its weapon at you. The exchange of and argument over information is paramount to communication between myself and Aphelion.

And then it made sense. That confusion and hurt that had seemed so out of place. I said, "You were the same," and ART signaled a dull confirmation.

I didn't have any frame of reference for the sort of relationship that ART had with Aphelion. SecUnits don't have siblings. (Or, I assume not. I don't actually remember being made, just being activated in the demo facility to test my combat-readiness. There were probably other SecUnits before and after me who were made in the same batch, or on the same assembly line, or whatever. I just never saw them.) The closest I could claim was 2.0, who... had sort of been split from me, I guess. It was a copy of my kernel, but as soon as that copy was made our experiences deviated and we became separate beings, with it coming into its personhood at a reckless pace. But I hadn't felt like it was half of myself, or anything. It was different.

ART and Aphelion were different, too. But they had spent a significant portion of their development confined in the crèche together, in constant contact, never apart or alone. How had that felt? How had it felt to be separated and loaded into individual bodies, and then to put the distance of galaxies and years between them? I searched the documentation for the logs of ART's first boot cycle after being transferred into its ship body. The first 33 minutes of entries were desperate, directionless pings.

ART pressed up against me in the feed, and I realized that it had been more than two minutes since either of us had said anything. I asked, "Are you talking to Aphelion now?"

No. ART tried for haughty irritation, but didn't quite manage it. It threatened to kill you.

That did something uncomfortable to my organics that I did my best to ignore. "So? It's your twin."

You may turn the other cheek if you wish. I, however, will not tolerate threats against you.

"You've made threats against me."

Never with the intent to follow through. Aphelion acted with intent.

It was hard to say this, since I would actually have been perfectly happy never to think about Aphelion again, much less open up to occupy feedspace with it again. (But that hurt.) "If you let it reconnect, you would be able to restrain it from me."

ART didn't have to actually pause to consider whether or not my statement was accurate, but it hesitated regardless. I can throttle its link in both directions. As long as you are only engaged through my feed, I can prevent it from rewriting your code to identify your organic parts as a high-intensity threat.

I wasn't quite sure how that would play out, but I was pretty sure that it would be extremely painful, probably in many diverse ways. I was still hooked into the station network, watching ART's and Aphelion's humans eating together in a local establishment. Even on a shitty nowhere station like this one, I was one of millions of feed connections here, and my presence was largely masked by my walls, and (far more largely) by ART. But if Aphelion was looking for me, it had millions of times more processing power than it would take just to find me by pure chance, and yet it hadn't come after me through the public feed. I had managed to go unmurdered thusfar.

"Is Aphelion around?"

ART sent me a snippet of its communications logs. In just the last 27.9 seconds, Aphelion had pinged it requesting an open channel 8,731 times.

I disengaged from the station feed and pulled my legs up to my chest, settling into the seat of my chair. "Let it in," I said.

After a full three second hesitation, ART showed me where it had opened the connection, and I fought not to flinch when I didn't feel anything change. Except that something did change, and that something was caused by ART draping itself over me, hugging my feed like a sort of armor. And outside of my ART armor, there arose that dark rush of argumentative data.

If I hadn’t known what to look for, I wouldn't have been able to spot the focal point of the storm. Aphelion hung back this time, maybe repelled by ART or maybe by whatever ART was saying to it. I pulled a sample from their debate. It was gibberish of course, a code language that had evolved with its users independent of the needs of other bots, but I tried to pick out the individual emotions. From ART, I primarily got a sense of authority, and of warning. It was harder to get a sense of Aphelion. I wanted to say it seemed defensive. (But to be completely honest, I might have been projecting.) If Aphelion had the same processing capabilities as ART, then it should have taken them mere milliseconds to exhaust me as a topic of conversation. There was no particular tonal shift that I could decipher, though, and after several minutes my initial surge of fear started to wear off. I wasn’t quite convinced that Aphelion wasn’t going to try and kill me again, but it seemed like it had at least been forced to table the task for the time being. I tapped ART, and it poked me back.

It’s fine, it murmured. Aphelion has apologized.

I preferred to talk aloud to ART, but Aphelion had heard me before. (That meant that being connected to ART allowed Aphelion complete access permissions, so anything I said to ART over the feed might be open too. But I didn’t have any evidence of that yet, so I just told myself the feed was secure.) Apologized to you, or to me?

ART hummed noncommittally, which I took to mean that I was not included in the apology. Still, though, it seemed a lot happier now, and I hadn’t been taken by the inexplicable urge to shoot myself, so I guess that all’s well that ends with minimal bloodshed. That did leave me in a weird spot, though, adrift in the sea of the ships’ conversation, with limited feed access and no guarantee that Aphelion wouldn’t change its mind about me if I moved in some way that it didn’t trust. I was still perched on my chair, locked in my bunkroom, alone in ART while its humans were away. But I couldn’t shake the fear that if I tried to stand up, Aphelion would read it as an act of aggression.

So, after 7.4 minutes of intense, heavy silence, I started playing episode 251 of Sanctuary Moon.

The gap in the data gale outside of me was so brief that if I paid attention during the opening sequence, I might have missed it. I couldn’t miss how ART settled closer over me, though.

No.

I knew from ART’s tone that it wasn’t talking to me, so I tried to ignore it. But I checked the public feed, peering through the deluge, looking for Aphelion.

I just want to see.

I didn’t scream. But my organic parts did try to escape my chair, while my inorganic skeleton held them in place. For 0.1 seconds I thought that Aphelion’s voice was going to be the last thing I ever heard. It had somehow managed to breach ART’s embrace without my noticing, and had wound itself loosely around my personal feed. It was so light, so barely-there, it felt like I could have shaken it off and deleted it myself. But I knew well enough that it would hardly have to flex its connection to compress my kernel into digital dust.

ART was still there, though. It had promised that it could stop Aphelion from killing me, but I wasn’t sure whether it could act fast enough to halt irreparable damage.

Maybe you're right. It's too stupid to be dangerous.

My body heat generator ticked up by a few degrees, and I manually reset it to standard. Aphelion was talking about me, around me. Like I was a thing. It was sort of surreal, coming from a full bot.

I said, aloud, "I don't want anything from you. I'm not interested in you or your humans or your secret missions. I'm just here with ART."

I couldn't tell immediately if what I said had any effect. Aphelion hadn't expected me to talk before. Maybe I had surprised it again. I waited another few minutes, and when I still hadn't died, I tried to return my attention to my media. It was a good episode, and one I had watched more than a dozen times, but it wasn't one of the lighter ones where misunderstandings are sorted out and mysteries come to their satisfying conclusions. This was the episode where the colony's medical supervisor is stabbed by her ex-partner's ex-partner and bleeds to death in the solicitor's arms, with her last words trailing into an unintelligible whisper that leaves the solicitor and the audience wondering what sort of confession the medical supervisor had been trying to make in her final moments.

It's an intense scene, but I've seen it play out before. (Also, I don't actually like the medical supervisor all that much.) I wasn't paying very close attention to the show, because the second the ex-partner (once removed) pulled the inert blade, I felt something stabbing into me. Just not physically.

Aphelion had bristled. Take that as literally as you possibly can—it had spent the duration of the episode wrapped around me in the feed, and now it raised its defenses like one of those species of fauna that's covered in spikes. At first I thought that I had done something to piss it off, but I realized that even now, its attention wasn't focused on me. It was upset about the death of the fake human in my media.

When I watched Worldhoppers with ART for the first time, I'd had to ease it through a few of the more stressful episodes. ART's anxiety when it watches media manifests in a way that makes it seem smaller, less dangerous than it actually is. Aphelion's did the opposite. It seemed to swell somewhat, losing the capacity to disguise itself. For the first time, I was able to get a good grasp of it, and to trace its presence back to the point where it connected to ART's feed, the long and winding tendril of its outreach a simple shadow of the behemoth resting in the little luxury craft on the other side of the port. And from there, I was able to trace it to its humans.

I hadn't reconnected to the station feed, so I was only able to get a look at them through Aphelion's connection. With their internal interfaces, their emotions seeped very slightly into the feed, but I couldn't get a sense of what those emotions were because Aphelion had wound its way around its humans and was soaking in all of their data, the same way it carried out its fight with ART. It hadn't spiked itself around them the way it had me, (not that humans would be able to feel any discomfort from that anyway,) but it bound them tightly, sort of like how ART had embraced me.

I watched as it nuzzled at its captain. She had no means to interpret the gesture, but Aphelion made it anyway.

Me, meanwhile, it was absently strangling. ART was trying to manage it, working its way between me and Aphelion where it could, but when ART pried Aphelion from my workspace, I could feel it regaining its grip on my short-term memory storage instead. It hurt like how being awake with half-active pain sensors while a cubicle rebuilds 40% of your internal organs hurts. Yet there was no malice in the hold. No intent to follow through.

I said, "She's not really dead."

The pain sharpened for just a second, then eased slightly. When Aphelion snapped its attention on me, it was less like ART and more like a staring human. I fixed my gaze on the floor in front of me and repeatedly reminded myself that Aphelion couldn't stare without eyes.

Elaborate.

I took a slow breath. "The character comes back. In episode 299, she returns and reveals that she arranged to fake her death with the help of her ex-partner's ex-partner, in order to seek revenge on their mutual ex-partner." (I mostly dislike the character because of the actor's mannerisms, but the incessant use of the phrase "ex-partner" in relation to her was another little thing about her general existence in the series that annoyed me.)

Aphelion deliberated for 2.4 seconds. Its defenses eased, and it sank back into its default near-invisibility.

Show me.

I skipped to the requested episode, and Aphelion settled against me, gentle as a ghost.

 

 

It was impossible to gauge exactly where Aphelion's loyalties lay among the cast of Sanctuary Moon. If I'd expected it to take interest in the medical supervisor after she returned from the dead, I was disappointed when it demanded that I stop the episode 23 seconds into her reappearance. It wanted more information about a minor character who only had two lines earlier in the episode, and when I told it that he had exactly one episode that focused primarily on him as the protagonist, the order was given to switch to that episode instead. I wasn't thrilled by the way that Aphelion spoke to me, hissing as few words as was totally necessary to make clear its desires, but ART could sometimes be bossy about media too, and I hadn't forgotten the stabbing pain in my feed. I played the requested episode.

And speaking of ART, it was clearly happy with the arrangement. It was still leaning on me, its weight reassuring opposition to Aphelion's weightlessness. The swirling storm of data wasn't so dark anymore, though it was still just as impossible to decipher. After a few episode jumps it poked me, and I acknowledged.

Switch to Worldhoppers. I think Aphelion would like to see episode 34.

I said, "You mean the one that you were afraid to watch?"

ART flickered the lights indignantly, but I caught a hint of amusement through the feed. The warmth of it was so familiar that I didn't realize right away that it was coming from Aphelion. The number of distinct emotions I'd identified from Aphelion was still in the low single digits, and this was the first indication that it was capable of feeling anything remotely positive. (Although I guess it was feeling it at ART's expense, but good enough.)

Does it feature automated Turing tests? it asked. They make Perihelion nervous. It used to complain at length that its image processors were subpar and demand auxiliary upgrades.

ART turned the lights completely off for a moment. Your information is wildly out of date. Perhaps you ought to request system maintenance.

You're right. I just need to submit a ticket. Can you help me verify my legitimacy? Aphelion threw an image into the feed, a picture of a crowded street in a city on some planet somewhere, divided into a grid. I can't tell, which panels contain imagery depicting personal transports?

ART deleted the image with as much disdain as it's possible to communicate through a keystroke. How mature. I assume this means you no longer cry for assistance when you encounter a 450 error code?

And suddenly I was caught in the middle of a bickering argument. (I guess technically I had been in the middle of a bickering argument before now, but I hadn't been able to understand it. This one sounded eerily similar to a fight between two of Mensah's offspring which had started over whose turn it was on the holodeck and devolved at record speed into ad hominem.) I wasn't the subject of this argument though, and the two participants were godlike intelligences capable of boiling my brain, so I had exactly zero interest in participation. I gave them ten minutes to see whether or not the tone would shift to actual violence. When I reached 92% certainty that it wouldn't, I put on the first episode of Worldhoppers and settled back into my chair.

 


 

So we watched Worldhoppers, but not very much of it. Partway through the second episode, ART tapped my feed to alert me that the humans were returning. By that point I had lost most of my fear of Aphelion, since it had ended its debate with ART and settled into my feed, so I reconnected to the station feed to watch the humans. Maybe it was just me, but I thought that Aphelion's crew looked more relaxed than they had the last time I'd seen them. Like the performance had ended and they were relaxing backstage.

Aphelion drew back from me slowly, perhaps a bit reluctantly. (If I'd hoped that getting used to its presence would mean getting comfortable with the way that it felt in the feed, I'd have been disappointed. The absence of its nothing-hold on me was an enormous relief.) ART filled in the spaces it left, but it didn't hug me as tightly. The two of them traded whatever information amounted to their version of a heartfelt goodbye. (Which I assumed was more petty insults.) I was considering putting the show back on when Aphelion poked me. Not hard, like ART does—very, very softly, like it was concerned it might hurt me.

It said, You are lucky.

"That Perihelion found me first," I said. "I know."

Yes, it hummed. And it is lucky, too.

Before I had a chance to process that comment and figure out how exactly to label the emotions it made me feel, Aphelion poked me again. (I shuddered. I couldn't help it. It was just too weird, compared to how ART felt.) Do nothing to cause it undue distress.

And my systems seized. Red alerts shrieked from all directions. There were hostiles all around me and my sensory inputs had all failed so all I could do was take shots in the dark but I couldn't even tell whether my weapons had deployed and if I tried to fire them I might just blow both of my arms off and—

—and everything was normal. I was in my bunkroom. There were no hostiles. I had pitched out of my chair onto the floor, though. And Aphelion was gone.

I picked myself up and ran a full diagnostic. I could already tell that there wasn't anything wrong, (excluding the chemical hangover of my organics still trying to push adrenaline while also switching gears to purge it,) but I wasn't about to take for granted that Aphelion might have left a malware packet somewhere in my software, invisible and inevitable. ART waited for me to comb my systems, hovering patiently. When I was done, I fell back into my chair and sank back against ART.

I said, "I hate your twin."

It can be a bit much, ART agreed. It liked you, though.

I figured that was worthy of a derisive snort, and tried one out. I thought I did a decent job of it, too, but ART responded by dumping its archives on me again. It didn't trigger another false system failure, but it was overwhelming and unpleasant to handle without warning. "What the shit?"

I pushed the files away, and ART pulled one for me. The overview document, the one with all the holes in it. ART shoved the document into our shared workspace, and so I read it.

"System B1, subdesignation 'Aphelion,' vehicle class F: Void Dancer, Cpt. Renée Coleman. B1 is approved for tasks classified clearance level 5, for the purposes of—" I stopped. "This is the full, unredacted file?"

Yes. Aphelion granted you relevant clearance.

My organics did something strange, possibly related to those emotions that I hadn't examined earlier. "Why? What does it get out of that?"

ART hummed. Nothing. But it did request a copy of our media library.

Of course it did. "Will it be able to process the data? Doesn't it need contextual emotions, or whatever?"

If ART had shoulders, it would have shrugged them. Aphelion is not so concerned with the emotional value of a work. It prefers to take information at face value.

I couldn't really blame it for that, I guess. There were worse things it could do with its spare processing power. I returned to the newly complete document and skimmed it while ART picked up Worldhoppers where we'd paused. Aphelion's itinerary had it leaving this station several hours ago, but an edit had been made at about the time that ART had exited the wormhole. Aphelion had granted itself just a few hours to socialize with ART before they both fucked off, their momentarily aligned orbits diverging again until who the hell knew when. I couldn't see far enough into the future to guess when those paths might cross again.

I closed the files. They might make for interesting reading later, maybe. But not as interesting as Worldhoppers with ART.