3250 Words

They say the reason it’s mostly fems who go endo is because of the whole penetration thing, like us sirs can’t handle the wet interface, but once on leave I got my face pulped in a blood-brawl at Decker’s Draughts & Dopamine, and since the autosurgeon took five whole hours putting my jaw back together I woke up with a supersize catheter stuffed up my cock. Going endo can’t be worse than that, I don’t think.

Though I guess it might depend on the exo. Some of them, when they get old and the neurals start to break down, they get tetchy, like. Their movements get jerky and their endos come out with nosebleeds and the skin around their dockets all inflamed. I lay that on the techs, mostly, and I’m saying that as a tech. I mean, Puck is as old as any exo in the squad, but you’d never guess it from the gleamy bluish black of her hide, decalcified daily by yours truly, or the way she swims the vacuum, slicing through it like a seven-foot scalpel.

Ye, Puck’s the slickest, quickest, baddest exo in the squad, I brain. Her and her endo, tough old fem by name of Cena, have 73 confirmed ghosts, but everyone knows the actual kill count’s well over a hundred since not all corpses are retrievable, especially in space.

Cena’s old, as said, but hard and wiry, not flabbed out like some other endos, and she keeps her silver hair buzzed down to stubble around her brain docket. When she’s climbing into Puck, with the nerve dockets notched all up her spine whirring open, unpeeling like little electric blooms, sometimes I imagine Puck’s vanes going in, and think how who’s to say, really, who’s the exo and who’s the endo.

Off to my shift, though. A tech’s work is never

Ha, see what I did?

§

There’s still a few pirates holed up in the Oort cloud with smartmines and camouflage, and cleaning them out is dirty vicious work—exo work. It’s been ongoing for a month now; some people say we’re dragging it out purposefully because the Company wants our contract extended. So ye, the whole squad’s getting a little edged, but still no cause for what happened today.

One tick all was grand, all the endos slithering out with dark rings under their eyes but still laughing, joking, and then one of Puck’s tendrils was clinging hard to one of Cena’s spinal dockets, as they want to do after ten, twelve hours bonded, and instead of prying it nice and gentle or letting me handle it, she slipped a flicker out of her arm, one of those little blades in the subcutaneous sheath that everyone thinks makes them a fucking ninja, and lopped it clean off.

Puck jerked back and shivered, and I must have winced or something because Cena gave me this look, like ‘where’s your testicles at, jellyfish,’ and went right on ungearing. I’ve seen other endos pull that flicker trick, since the vanes do grow back and all, but Cena’s an old hand and she should know better.

So when the endos all staggered off to their Dozr tabs and hash, I took a little extra time getting Puck into her nutrient bath, fiddling the growth hormone levels just a bit, and was real careful around her fresh stump with the rubdown. Grody-odd thing happened, then: right before she sank down into the tank, she gripped my hand with one of her intact tendrils and gave it a little squeeze, like a thank-you squeeze, almost.

Gods and AIs know I don’t get one from Cena.

§

They say all exos look the same, but of course that’s people who’ve never seen them up close, or only seen the faked-up digital kind in netgames and such. I’ve been stale-streaming old combat footage from the Company’s archive—it’s lock-and-key shit, they pricked my thumb to get my gene signature and everything—and I can differentiate most of the exos on our squad, even with motion blur.

Puck’s easy to spot. She’s not the brawniest exo out there, but she’s quicksilver smooth, languid almost, long slender grapplers ribboning out behind her as she swims. Vacuum combat’s a vicious ballet, and she’s the prima, which is what they called the slickest, quickest, baddest dancer, sawing through pirate hullsuits, dodging thermal seekers, slinging her hooks and pinballing from surface to surface in a way gravity-bound brains can’t wrap around.

Cena deserves the felicitations, of course, as she’s the one controlling. But when you see the two of them side by side in the vestibule, back after a raid, Cena all small and sweat-drenched and Puck this big tower of graceful muscle and carbon tubing, it’s hard to remember who pulls the strings. I bet it feels like being god, going endo. Especially with Puck.

§

Right so, I had to stay late cleaning filters the other night and got back to my bunk with my hands all smelling like ammonia and yeast even after I scrubbed them. Fumes gave me a crippler headache, too. All in all, it felt like a real shitty evening, so I dropped some Dozr and got myself bunked to sleep and wake with better stars.

But then Feris sends me a spike out of nowhere. Feris is this fem I dock up with every so often when I’m on gravityside leave, and I did meet her at Decker’s but it wasn’t her who smithereened my jaw, and anyway, now she pops up all brainfucked on dust and really horny, saying all this sexy dreggy shit like, come on, soldier, let’s burn some virch, I want you deep in me, my bod’s the exo your cock’s the endo.

I’m like, I just took Dozr, I’m off to the sandman, and she’s like, just get into virch and we’ll dial back the time perception. Usually I don’t do that, because it razzes my REM cycle, but I was having a shitty evening and Feris, even on dust, is better than a lot of pay-to-play pros, so I plugged in. We dialed perception to 1/13, which would stretch my five realtime minutes before the Dozr kicked in to just over an hour.

She was skinned with a pretty standard Pretty, the kind that plumps up the lips and more so the breasts, shops out the belly fat and the body hair and any moles it deems disturbing. Her extended eyelashes loaded as solid black chunks and for some reason her naked skin had this annoying coat of glitter on it, like graphite, and by the time I got inside her I realized Pretty just wasn’t doing it for me.

Maybe it was the Dozr, but her dreggy talk from before had given me an idea, so while I was quarter-heartedly thrusting away I scanned through a bunch of skins until I found this one I’d tagged drunk one night, more as a joke than anything, and reskinned her with it.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a solid effort. The vanes curled and flexed the right way, and the hide was smooth and dark as pitch, none of this glitter stuff. Feris’ base skelly was still human-size, of course, but that worked out better, almost, since I was halfway enveloped in slip-slidey flesh every time I pushed into the space the program estimated her quinny to be at.

On my end, my prong was burying in a warm amorphous gelatin, probably meant to look like insulator, and the way it gripped me, accurate or no, had me throbbing harder than I’d ever, and if it weren’t for the virch’s help I’d already be erupting. Feris could tell I was getting really into it; panting and grunting she asked what I’d swapped skins to.

I told her to just concentrate, like, but I felt her tug the info up like a stitch—should’ve masked it, I know. She booms in my ear: what the fuck, are you fucking serious, an exo? And that rankles, so I’m like: so what, I know you skinned me your dad one time, that old man had the exact same teeth as you.

That razzes her bad, and she says I’m a real grody-odd fucking perv, and the second she gets her climax she pops right out of virch. Hypocrite.

§

They say smartmine’s a misnomer, since most of those things are dumb as the space rocks they burrow in, but today one of them lived up to its name and the unbrainable happened: Puck took a big hit. She came back to the vestibule in a pod pushed by medics, all ready with oxygen for Cena in case she’d depressurized, but when she peeled open Cena was cocooned real well, just pale and shaking a little from the biofeedback.

But Puck was fucked. Half her vanes had been ripped right off by the detonation, and her hide was cratered by shrapnel, wounds raw and weeping in the spots she’d tried to tug it out. Seeing her like that, the way she was shuddering, I couldn’t hardly breathe, like it was my ribs that had been bombed out. I put my hands on her and the medics were barking, like, get her out, get her out, and I realized they meant Cena.

I was slow and careful, but mostly the tendrils came free easy, spilled limp out her dockets like dead things. Only one stuck, and I thought I saw a tear slide out from Cena’s eyelid when I jiggered it loose, and another tear when she stood up, trembly, and saw Puck so massacred. But it was probably just the biofeedback.

The medics took Cena away, and then I set to helping Puck into the nutrient bath. Her hide was trying to seal up around the shrapnel, which causes all kinds of problems, so I had to work quick. I zippered into a wetsuit and slipped down into the tank with her, dialing up the aqueous content so I could tread in place.

She shivered every time I dug a piece out with my pliers and fingers, but I patted her and talked to her low and soothing-like after each, while I sprinkled the cell-knitters. When it was all done she traced the little wounds with one tendril, then wrapped my hand again, like she’s done a few times now, and squeezed. Under the treacly surface, I think I felt another tendril brush the inside of my leg, but maybe it was my imagination, and I then felt sort of guilty for imagining that with Puck all smithereened.

But I also felt sure, even though I know it’s dumb, that I would’ve spotted that fucking smartmine.

§

Puck’s out of vacuum at least ten days, out of combat maybe double that. I’m getting her healthy, though. Extra cell-knitters, extra growth hormone, and when I can swing it I bring some dopamine boosters that make her flex and then slack, like a stretch and a sigh, and set her tendrils wriggling happy-like.

Some of the endos are actually getting razzed, if you can believe. Say I’m not taking as much time getting their exos decalcified and prepped and such. But Puck’s priority right now—she’s the best exo in the squad, and don’t they want her back full strength, slick quick bad as ever? Wouldn’t guess that, of course, from how Cena’s been acting.

She’s only been through to check up once, crouching by the tank and stroking Puck’s vanes a little, but talking to someone in half-virch the whole time. Then she comes over to me at another exo and says, are you balancing the hormones, are you kneading those left-side stumps, all this check-list shit as if she knows better than me. Swaggers off already in half-virch again, blathering to some Company man, probably looking for hurtpay.

When I went back to Puck’s tank, all her right-side vanes, the healthy ones, poked out and waved to me. She recognizes my voice lately, I brain.

§

They say dreams are from alien satellites, at least they say it where I’m from, beaming the news reels from other multiverses and splicing them all together. Don’t know if I believe it now I’m grown, but I can’t sleep either way because I keep having this one particular dream that wakes me up and then vanishes before I can get my hooks in.

So when it happened in the deep of last night, I figured I might as well get to the vestibule early, do some scrubwork on the filters long before my shift well and truly started. The corridors were all chilly and quiet on my way, biolights grown on the ceiling ushering me through the dark with a sickly-blue glow. So quiet I could almost hear the gravity humming.

The door pricked my thumb and gave the old DNA a taste, then slid right open. I’d forgotten the lights in the vestibule are timed, so I had to fumble at the equipment locker in the dark, which is why I dropped my clampjack. It clanged real loud on the floor and I swore, and as I crouched down to get it a vane slucked out of Puck’s tank. It curled in tight, which is what she does when she wants something, and I thought maybe that one scar was itching her again.

I went over and peered down into her bath. The tanks are lit from the bottom with a soft grainy orange, and when the ceiling lights are off it has this surreal thing to it, like peering down into an alchemist’s cauldron, especially with Puck’s flesh dark and slick and gleaming, with her drifting at the surface of the tank, vanes all swirling around her, spinning one way and then the other like a dancer. Beautiful.

She was still wriggling her one tendril around, razzed about something. I didn’t have my wetsuit, since I was only planning on doing filters, but I didn’t want her hurting all night, so I leaned one way, then the other, then thought, who’s watching, and shucked off my thermal and my boots and the rest of it and hopped down into the tank.

It was thick with proteins, like sliding into a warm pudding, and the smell filled my nostrils and made me a little heady. I couldn’t spot any irritation on Puck’s hide; all was smooth and slick, but since I was in there I started to do her a bit of a rubdown. And then it happened.

Puck opened, sliding apart like a blossoming vine, exposing the raw scarlet of her internals, the sparking blue cords of her neurals. That dream I’d been having came back all at once. But this was real, and scarifying, mad, electric. Her tendrils grasped at me, and I realized, gods and AIs, she wanted me to go endo.

Tranced-like, I climbed inside, letting the tendrils push and pull, and Puck sealed up around me. The yeasty smell got stronger, and in the dark I could feel her insulation fluid seeping in all around me, gritty and warm, and I could feel her inner vanes wrapping my limbs, searching for dockets, but of course I only had the brain docket, for virch and such, and even as I thought that I felt a tendril creep up my neck. Bone-deep rasp and meaty squelch, and suddenly, I could see.

Our tank was a red blotch, one of a dozen in the grayscale plane of the vestibule, and above us the electrical wiring pulsed like delicate pink veins. Heat, electricity, motion. Then Puck’s implants kicked in, and targeting reticles started dancing over my retinas, then scrolls of trajectories, angles, vectors, all the things an endo would know to interpret.

I could feel her in my gray matter like a soft ghost. I could feel her vanes caressing my skin, slipping down the notches of my spine, still searching. It was like no virch I’d ever tried, like no dust I’d snorted or spiked ganja I’d smoked. Puck’s tendrils slipped down, and down, and finally one slipped between the cheeks of my ass and my prong stuck up hotter and harder than ever and I was throbby, achey, nearly—

And that was when Puck peeled open and a tough old hand dragged me sputtering up and out, seeing sparks as the vane in my brain docket tugged free with a wet pop and the vane down under did likewise. Then it was me crouching there shivering on the slicked deck, cock still bobbing half-mast, and Cena looming over me foaming mad, saying she knew it, she fucking knew it.

I was getting iced, I knew that much, out of the squad and out of the Company, and I felt so gutsick, not just with getting caught, but knowing I’d never speck Puck swim vacuum again, or wriggle into a nutrient bath, or wave at me on my way past. But then I thought, why is Cena here without gear, why is she only wearing a bodywrap, and then I realized.

“You came here for some freestyle,” I said. “Came to hop in the tank just like I did. Go endo.”

Her face went flushed, which I’d never seen before, and she said she would slice my fucking eyeballs out, but then she said, ye, well, when you go solo for a whole week you get to missing her. She looked down at Puck, all tender and such, and it made me fucking furious.

“That’s goof and you know it,” I told her. “You’re the one who got her mauled, and you haven’t even tapped on her tank since. I’m the one who actually gives a fuck about her.”

Then it was her turn to be furious again, and she told me I didn’t know shit, said how the Company was growing a new batch of exos and she’d been begging up and down all fucking week to keep Puck active, how they’d wanted to cut costs and recycle her after the smartmine, and since she spent all day in virch she’d started to come at night.

“Recycle,” I echoed back, feeling like the hollow sort of thing that echoes, and I swear Puck squirmed at the word. Just thinking it made me shudder myself. “That’s utterly fucked,” I said. “Puck’s the slickest, quickest, baddest…”

“She is, but she’ll get lazy if you keep being so soft on her, tech,” Cena cut me off. “Slicing a vane now and again just keeps her fresh, is all.”

I wanted to argue that, but right then I said, “Alright, alright, so this stays between us, ye?”

Cena nodded her stubbly head, and I realized I’d never really talked to her before, not for this long, and she didn’t seem so shitshow. In the shadows she even looked sort of mysterious, sort of sexy. Then Puck reached her vane out of the bath and draped it over my bare foot, and when I looked over I saw she’d done the same to Cena’s.

She squeezed.

“Is there room for two in there?” I said, because I thought it was worth an effort. To my surprise, Cena grinned at me, teeth bright white in the gloom, and glanced at my cock getting thick again against my thigh.

“Never tried,” she said, “But first shift’s not for another few hours.”

Puck’s tendrils curled more than I’d ever seen before as Cena stripped down and we slipped down into the warm tank, three grody-odd cogs in a wet interface.

Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and Edmonton, Alberta, and at 23 now works in a small Spanish town outside Seville. His short work has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon and appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, BCS, and Apex. Find him atrichwlarson.tumblr.com.

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