The walls of the common room projected false golden sunlight, butter-warm and just as soothing. Indrani stretched from yoga pose to pose in a seamless flow to center himself, the artificial dawn gilding his skin. Beneath him, the floor had taken on the appearance of wood, a rich red marbled surface with knots and stripes of grain. He had never seen a tree in real life, just archival images, and seeing the complex interior dissected and polished induced a sense of wonder in him.
Had Sun seen trees before? Had they ever landed on a planet? Could they? Or was their mass too great?
Indrani sighed, shook his head, and bent himself into an arch. No matter what he did or saw or heard, his thoughts inevitably turned to Sun. It was unhealthy, Indrani concluded, and made an effort to turn his attention towards research and meditating on his Path instead of bothering his friend. Or were they just his host? No, Sun was his friend, weren’t they? Or had that also changed?
It had been a few quiet days since his encounter—was that the word for it? he thought— with Sun, and they had since made themselves scarce, save to update them on the Unbound’s progress. In terms of repair and advancement, Clumb and Helfdym had apparently made large strides towards a functional jump gate, and Sun was eager to observe a second jump demonstration themselves. But besides these progress reports, which Indrani was grateful to receive, Sun had mostly kept to themselves.
Indrani was steeped in confusion. Sun had seemed so impassioned while they were…being intimate. He had seen them shiver, saw their eyes widen, their tongue pass over their mouth as if famished. And yet once they—or more accurately, Indrani—had finished, they’d pulled down a veil almost instantly. Had it been unsatisfying? Disappointing? Had Indrani unsettled them in some way? He felt himself growing more and more disquieted as the questions insistently cycled through his head, interrupting whatever reading or activity he was trying to engage in. How would he solve this mystery if Sun seemed to be set on keeping him at a distance?
Sun watched him as he diligently went through each form. They had never recalled feeling so voyeuristic when it came to monitoring their inner spaces before. There were chambers where they refused to look on principle, like the baths, but were they really going to let this room, their favorite, become one of them? And they liked seeing Indrani use this room, breathing and flexing and pressing himself against their floor.
Sun materialized their avatar in the hallway leading to the chamber. They exclusively spoke to Indrani through it these days – using their disembodied ship voice might remind him of their constant unwelcome presence, or worse, of the way they had… used it during sex. Sun’s displeasure radiated out to their avatar, which grimaced the moment before they passed through the common room threshold. Why did you do that to him? Everything’s going to be so much more complicated now.
They composed themself back into a disarming smile and entered the chamber, quietly making a path to a chair (not the cushions, not the floor) in Indrani’s line of sight. Today’s update could wait until he was finished.
“Hello, Sun,” Indrani said softly, scanning the Ship’s comportment as they made their way to a chair. They looked relaxed and cheery, as usual, which made his stomach sink slightly. Perhaps his own insecurities and emotions were making more of their tryst then necessary. Still, he wanted to talk about it, despite the low simmer of unease in his belly. Indrani was in monkey pose, and leaned forward to touch his forehead to his knee, stretching his hands forward out to grab his foot. It was a good pose to avoid looking at Sun. He breathed in and out, slow and deep, then asked, “Any news from Helf or Clumb?”
“Yeah, good news,” they replied. “Clumb says the major repair work’s done. We might be able to test the new setup tomorrow. I’m running through the computer systems they got back online and making sure we won’t run into any problem as interesting as the last one.”
Sun studied the solid line that ran from the crown of his head, along his spine, and out to the toes of his back foot. “You’re very flexible, Indy,” they said quietly. “That must take a lot of practice.”
“Good. I’m excited to try our hand at the gate again.” He wasn’t sure, but did their conversation already feel stilted in a new way? Would it continue to be like this? The back of his neck prickled with sweat, and Indrani exhaled slowly in a bid to keep his pulse at a manageable tempo. “Yoga is our main form of exercise on Malakar. The moon’s gravity is quite light, so exercising can be difficult. We do it for meditation, too.”
But mediation and focus were the last things stretching was giving him. Especially with Sun in the room, each movement now felt weighted with potential. If he bent or stretched a certain way, maybe Sun’s boredom with Indrani would be burned away by new interest. Maybe they’d ask to touch him again. How did one keep the attention of an ancient partially-human ship?
But no, those were juvenile desires coming to haunt him again. He should keep their partnership companionable for the integrity of their mission. That he was already feeling compromised and troubled by Sun’s previous attentions—and now their lack— seemed to signal that this way lay trouble. The Path came first; his feelings, second.
“Do you have any ah, relaxing or meditative practices, Sun? When I was, well, you, it seemed…overwhelming. To even just be felt like too much.”
“I don’t—” Sun glanced up at the ceiling. They had to actually think about that. “I don’t know,” they admitted, eyes flicking back to Indrani. “I mean, I bet you were overwhelmed because you weren’t used to experiencing the things I could do without thinking. Even stuff that comes automatically, like fuel filtration or climate control, would feel weird if you weren’t used to doing them with your usual body.”
They slumped a little in their seat. “When I was in Clumb’s body, I didn’t have to make myself breathe. But hearing myself breathe, feeling the air go in and out of a hole in my head…” Sun shook their head vigorously, nose wrinkling. “It took some getting used to.”
The avatar leaned forward now. “I have hobbies. I grow plants, I read. Sometimes, when I’m studying a game, I get into a zone where I can focus on a pattern, a strategy. It’s soothing. But it’s not very physical of a practice.” They studied Indrani.
“Could I…try a pose? With my avatar? Something I haven’t done with it before?”
“Yes!” Indrani wanted to make a joke about trying a pose with their Ship-self, but was too delighted to ruin the moment. “I mean, of course. Maybe this one? It’s called the Revolved Triangle.” Indrani folded his legs up and stood, taking a wide stance and wiggling his soles to ground his feet against the floor. He let his arms hang, then took a deep inhale and exhale, raising his left arm while the right lowered to touch his left foot.
“It’s challenging, but it really wakes up your abdomen and balance. Just breathe through it, try to keep your spine long.” It felt odd to talk Sun through the pose when none of his instructions really applied to them. “Maybe…try and ground yourself in this room? If that’s something you can do. Feel the temperature of your walls. The flow of oxygen you’re venting in here. The vibrations of…of me on the floor.” Indrani blushed. Maybe this was too presumptuous of him, but he had a hunch this might be a benefit to Sun’s wildly busy mind.
The avatar continued to stare at him for a moment before slowly rising to their feet, padding silently towards him until the two of them were a meter apart. Sun turned to one side, slid their right foot forward, and bent at the waist. Mirroring Indrani, they clasped their right foot and twisted their broad shoulders until their right arm stretched toward the ceiling, and they made eye contact with him.
There was nothing about the pose that was impossible for the avatar’s rig to handle, no joint bending in a way they wouldn’t on a human body. But Sun had no experience with it, and could only go off of observation to imitate it, live in it. Their chest rose and fell to the tempo Indrani had set; they slowed their twist at the point Indrani’s body had met its natural resistance. They attempted a small grin, tempered by achievement and exertion, and shut their eyes.
They focused their attention into a pinpoint on the avatar, the pose, quieting as much as they could within their mind before slowly stretching their awareness out again, like a ripple along the floor. They felt Indrani’s feet pressed firmly against the wood, his breaths expelling droplets of moisture into the chamber’s atmosphere. They fixated on his heat signature, a column of warmth that slowly pulsed as blood flowed through his body.
“You’re right,” they spoke, keeping in the rhythm of simulated breaths. “It helps to…have something to focus on.”
Indrani felt a small flutter of pride: he’d helped Sun for once, even if it only was helping them relax. “I’m glad,” he said quietly, taking a long inhale and exhale. “How did you like being in a body? Clumb’s seemed especially unique, postie-wise. Am I correct in assuming you’ve never ah, inhabited a traditional one before?”
“Nope, never.” Sun opened their eyes. “If circumstances had been different, maybe I could have savored the experience more. But it was all so frantic…everything seemed to be moving too fast. And I needed all the time I had to get used to Clumb’s…unique features.”
They slowly rolled their neck from side to side. “I think she can turn her head almost 180 degrees. I mean, I could do that with this avatar, but it’s not typical human anatomy, is it? I’d probably give you a bit of a shock.”
Indrani smiled uneasily. “Ah yes, it definitely would. I imagine it’d give me a sympathetic crick in my neck.”
Switching sides on an exhale, Indrani watched in his periphery as Sun did the same. It was strangely cute to see Sun mimicking his movements, right down to his breathing, the flutter of his eyes as they shut in concentration. “Does having your avatar make human gestures satisfy you? Er.” Wrong word, Indrani thought, embarrassment making him bite into his lower lip; thankfully, his face was turned away from Sun. Well, their avatar. Paths, there really was no escaping their watchful eye, so why be shy?
“I mean to say, do you feel human when you…act human? And being in Clumb, did it…make you want a body? Or was the experience too strange? Or limited?” Indrani paused, then chuckled nervously, instantly wanting to backpedal. “I’m sorry, perhaps I’m overstepping.”
“You’re not, don’t worry,” Sun assured him. They paused for a few seconds. “I’ve always wanted a body. One more like the ones my passengers had. At least for some of the time. If I had been in Clumb’s body for longer, I would’ve gotten accustomed to it, certainly. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t mine.”
They extended their focus just enough to see Indrani glancing at them from the corner of his eye. They returned the eye contact. “I just want a body like yours, and to know that it’s mine. I want to do the things I’ve studied and practiced and mimicked for decades and…” Sun trailed off, hyperaware of the earnestness in their voice, and ducked their chin into their chest, “…make it count. Make it equal.”
Indrani was silent for a moment, though his thoughts were anything but. They ricocheted around his skull, doubling, echoing. You can have my body, he thought instantly. He couldn’t imagine anything more worthwhile than giving it over to Sun, infinitely smarter, more capable, more potent. Perhaps the fragment technology they were after could do that: make a gift of his flesh. Just considering this wild notion triggered a weightless feeling that filled up his spine and pooled in the base of his head, welled in his chest.
“It’s a shame I can’t share my body with you,” he said, instead of the madness his mind was whipping up. “I would gladly let you have it.” Like usual, there was an innuendo present in Indrani’s comment that he didn’t notice until it was out of his mouth. “I mean, you…you deserve the body you want.” He chuckled, added, “Even if I admire the one you have.”
Sun raised their eyebrows, slowly lifting out of the pose. “When you say…share,” they attempted, after turning Indrani’s reply over and over in their mind. “What do you mean, exactly?” The clarification was crucial, lest Sun get lost in the memory of what it was like to have Indrani’s body in this sunlit room. They tried to pull their focus away from the gravity well that was his breathing, his heat signature.
Indrani tilted his head curiously to look at them. He couldn’t think of how else Sun might interpret him. “Well, literally. Like you had Clumb’s form? Unless you have another way you could plug into my body.” He laughed, tried to make jerky robotic movements with his arms. “Like a Shell or something. You could pop in and out of me whenever you liked!”
But something like that would surely take Pre-Fragment technology. And scientists with a decent understanding of it. Like…
Like the Unbound.
Indrani blinked, jerked out of his pose with a new notion: if the Unbound’s technology could switch them accidentally, could they also make the switch happen on purpose? Or what if they were able to do exactly as he’d said, make his body a living Shell for Sun? Excitement clenched his chest as he thought of the possibilities. He needed to contact Clumb, quickly and quietly. Maybe he could even surprise Sun with some new tech.
Sun found themself relaxing, and even their avatar’s shoulders lowered a centimeter or two. He wasn’t doing it on purpose. All the nervous phrases weighted with possible meanings—that was just Indrani being Indrani. Unprompted, a smile bloomed on their face. No matter what had happened, what they’d done to him, Indrani was still…his uncomplicated self.
The word “Shell” did linger in their mind, a spark for an exciting idea, but Sun shelved it away for now. They blinked with interest as Indrani bolted upright. “What’s up?”
“Oh! Well I…” How was he always so embarrassingly transparent to Sun? Were ships psychic? “I was just thinking I’d like to visit the Unbound again, watch them work. Observe. I don’t think they’d mind.”
Indrani pulled out of the pose and did another brief round of slow deep breaths, stretching his arms out and up, then clasping them in front of his chest. When he turned to Sun, he had a boyish smile on his face, wrinkles in the corners of his eyes. “Well done, Sun. You’re a natural. I think I’ll go wash up, then float over to the habdeck again. I’m sure I’ll be back in time for dinner.”
Sun nodded, their smile revived at the sight of Indrani’s. “Sure thing. I’ll check in with you later.”
It wasn’t until Indrani had passed through the doors that they realized how little the two of them had discussed the reconstruction effort. It had felt like one of the few neutral topics they could cling to after their mishap at the Gate, and especially after their encounter in the common room. Yet this was the closest Sun had been to feeling… normal… in several days, and they hadn’t needed to rely on a heavily technical conversation to do it.
With some reluctance, they broadened their focus once again to encompass the entirety of their sensors and systems and continued their review of the Unbound’s data. The systems check was the most immediate task, but tucked within the last transmitted packet was a series of files Clumb and Helfdym had dug up.
Troubled by their unfamiliarity with the duo’s method of interfacing with the Gate, Sun had politely asked for a peek at any files that were native to the original Gate computers and hadn’t been overwritten by the Unbound’s patchwork system. Picking through those ancient files would give Sun something to do until Indrani returned—perhaps they might even find something to discuss with Clumb or Helf when they returned to the Gate tomorrow.
The most salvageable nugget in the mass of half-corrupted information appeared to be a roster of interstellar vehicles by class and affiliation. Made sense for an imperial installation, Sun reasoned, recalling the wildly escalating security procedures at every Gate—up until the series of attacks that knocked them offline forever. Operators had to know exactly what types of ships were requesting permission to pass through, and who they could trust. As such, this document provided data on each class of imperial ship beyond public knowledge, including passwords to test on the captains, even remote failsafe procedures in the case of a hijacking situation. The paranoia of the entire era was on full display.
Sun searched for the entry on “orgcore tactical vehicle,” of course, but was discouraged by its inscrutability. Inscrutable to them, of all people! Sun felt their uneasiness grow, instead of dissipate as they had hoped. The Empire had been a big place; it wasn’t crazy for Sun to be unfamiliar with some aspects of it. But for a document about their very class of ship to look this unfamiliar bothered them more than they cared to admit.
The gate was newly braceleted in stellar debris and spore satellites, but a sense of arrangement among them made the sprinkling of objects look just this side of purposeful. Indrani remembered how elegant and wondrous it appeared the first time he saw it. But now, while the gate certainly retained its mystique, it also held a melancholic humanity. In his research, people didn’t often speak or theorize about the everyday folk of the fragmented empire. Only their technology; how it worked and how it could be repaired and utilized for their own means. But people had built the Gate, used it as part of their everyday routine. Being in the Gate’s presence now, the magnitude of a people lost was suddenly magnified for Indrani. And that of those lost people, Sun was also singular remnant.
After a hesitation, the habdeck door admitted him, and Indrani floated through. When he messaged Clumb for permission to visit, she’d happily invited him, but he hadn’t missed Helfdym’s grumbling in the background. Indrani passed through the airlock and into the main room, where Helfdym was at work, tapping across the surface of his orb interface.
“Helfdym! Thank you for allowing me to visit again.” Indrani looked around, surprised to see the space was newly repaired. Even the glass viewport had been replaced with a transparent membrane. “The deck looks good as new.”
Helfdym’s darkened helmet tilted towards Indrani, then back to his interface. “You are very fortunate the Unbound aren’t superstitious.”
“Oh?” Indrani floated to the transparent membrane, missing Helfdym’s subtle derision. “Why is that?”
A multicolor blur whizzed past his peripheral vision. “Aw, don’t pay attention to the grump,” Clumb chirped as she grabbed a handhold on the ceiling. “What a repair job without a complication or two? ‘Sides, Helf, these two did help us catch a major flaw in our system.” Her rotund body was orientated to face Indrani, with Helfdym some meters behind her, but according to Sun, she could swivel her head back and forth between them easily. Perhaps she was looking right at her partner right now.
The next time she spoke, however, it was clearly directed at Indrani. “Th’ big one didn’t join you this time?”
“Ah, not this time,” Indrani answered, scratching the back of his helmet. He checked that his comms were on mute, just in case. “I actually wanted to ask a favor?”
Behind Clumb, Helfdym made a noise somewhere between a sigh and a groan. When Clumb waved her short hand in her partner’s direction dismissively, Indrani continued. “I was wondering if there was a way to make what happened earlier…happen again. But…on command?”
The two Unbound stared at him behind their opaque visors. Indrani chuckled nervously. “The ah, body exchange.”
“We know what you meant,” Helfdym said, taking his hands off the interface orb. “And why exactly would you want to do that?”
“Well, I…” Indrani paused, picking around his reasoning, realizing that the Unbound might not respect his rationale. “…Sun is a Ship, yes? But they would love to inhabit a body once in a while. They told me so.” The air in his helmet suddenly felt warmer than before. “And I was thinking, why not let them use mine? Not permanently, of course; thus the caveat of ‘on command’. But when they choose.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.” Helfdym floated closer, the black glaze of their visor reflecting Indrani’s face back at him. He looked…scared? But he didn’t feel scared. More…nervous. Excited. And something else he couldn’t quite name. Helfdym tapped a long finger against Indrani’s visor, asked once more, “Why would you want to do that? And on whose ‘command’ are you suggesting?”
Indrani cleared his throat. “Well, my command, of course. Since it’s…my body? And I supposed…” He attempted to scratch at his chin, but met only the smooth glass of his helmet. “I suppose because Sun is my friend. They’re helping me fulfill my Path, and I feel like this will help us in that regard.”
Clumb rotated in midair, tapping her fingers together as she mulled this over. “You thinkin’ this would be a two-way deal? Give you another chance to pilot the Ship, but on purpose this time?” She gestured towards her partner. “‘Cause we could work with somethin’ like that. Remember that stuff I dug up from the old computers?”
The two clipped Indrani out of the shared comm system and conferred for a moment, Clumb waving her hands excitedly and Helfdym wilting like a plant. They both turned back to him and reconnected. “We might be able to do you that favor. How much time you got to spare?”
“I didn’t think about it as an exchange of bodies.” He hadn’t considered where he would be placed if Sun took control of his body. Asleep, maybe? Nor could he imagine Sun being comfortable handing over control of their Ship to Indrani. But if the Unbound could make that happen, maybe that was the next step in their Path. “But maybe it should be. A proper swap, that is. We have as much time as you have before you send us through the Gate.”
Helfdym considered him for a moment before turning to his orb interface. “I still think you are asking for something you don’t fully comprehend, curate. But the Unbound are, well, bound to share our technology, and we cannot find a reason to withhold this from you.” He ticked his dark visor towards Indrani again. “Unless the process is turned down by Sun. We won’t force technology on them, even if you feel it is a ’gift’ to do so.”
“Of course! Of course, I wouldn’t force it on them,” Indrani said, an offended hand splaying on his chest. His face fell. “I was only trying to surprise them. But perhaps when you’ve solidified the process or program necessary for this undertaking, I can invite them here and offer it? And you can explain its, uh, parameters to us?”
“…Fine,” Helfdym grumbled. “I suppose it’s not completely unusual for an Empire ship to have an emergency human co-pilot.”
“Yeah! Exactly, Helf!” Clumb’s voice rose an octave in approval. “Just think of it as more ol’ imperial infrastructure we can improve.”