Astrid’s power sensor beeped. Her systems were functioning, but with less than thirty percent power remaining, her biological enhancements were losing shape. All of the angles in her face, made to create a Kusuvian illusion, were softening. Not that it mattered. They were done for the sake of the crew, who were now all in stasis, and for the rest of the Kusuvians they’d meet at the space station.
She pulled up the ship’s schematics, looking for power reserves. Over the last few months, she’d shut off the observation deck, mess, and gym. Now, she decided on the aeroponics bay. The life support in that section clicked off. It was the last nonessential system.
Two tubules spiraled out of her wrist and plugged themselves into the closest bioport. While she waited for them to pull power, she scanned the spatial void. There was a flash of light. An anomaly? She scanned again. No. Sensor malfunction. There wasn’t anything out here. The void’s end was still a parsec away.
“I hate the dark,” she muttered.
She should have been fully charged by now, but she hovered at fifty percent. She retracted her biomechanical veins and left for the engineering compartment. She watched the engine turn, pumping electricity into wires and liquid quinite into tubes. She pushed her palm against a tube, testing the quinite’s flow rate. It flowed steadily and pushed back against her with a subtle rhythm: Th-thud. Th-thud.
“Biomechanical ships do not have heartbeats,” she chastised. “You’re not supposed to start and stop. The flow should be constant. Now, where is the malfunction coming from?”
She pulled her hand away to investigate, but as she searched the engine, she still felt it: Th-thud. Th-thud. She looked down to her wrist and watched, frozen, as a vein pulsed just beneath the synthaskin.
It’s coming from me.
She reeled. Malfunction. It’s a malfunction. Her vision matrix was off, simulated breathing erratic. The synthaskin over her cheeks and neck overheated. There was ringing in her ears. Suddenly, she realized these weren’t symptoms of a malfunction. “Fear,” she said, breathless. “This is fear. When did they program me to feel fear?”
“I fixed you.” A small girl appeared beside her, smiling.
Normally, Astrid would have alerted the ship to an intruder, but she was overwhelmed as she tried to analyze her systems. She struggled to focus. “You fixed me?”
“You were missing all your squishy stuff. You’re all better now.”
Astrid leaned over. “Is that why I’m…” she groaned, “sick to my stomach?”
“I didn’t know how many you wanted. I had three once and hated it. But I liked having two. Do you? Most of your crew had two, too, so I thought you’d like that best.”
Astrid grimaced. “No… Oh. OH. What’s that smell?”
“Kusivian stress pheremones, I’m guessing.”
“You had no right,” Astrid turned in a slow circle, searching for a spot to focus on. She pulled at the skin on the sides of her stomach; she felt the scent glands underneath her ribs and moaned.
She started to sob and brought a horrified hand up to her cheek, then she held out her hand to the girl. “I was perfect. Now look at me. I’m leaking!”
“Tears,” the girl offered cooly.
“I know what they are,” Astrid said, sullen. She felt the spines along her nose. “You could have at least made me Benithai. Or Rhodisi.”
“But your face is too fat.”
“Really?” Astrid marched up to her, seething. “You can give me two stomachs and glands, but you can’t make my face less FAT?”
“I could I guess, but I like your fat face.”
Astrid threw a punch, but missed and hit the engine. “Ow. Oh, ow. Pain? Pain… this is awful… I think I broke my hand.”
“You should get that looked at.”
Astrid opened her mouth, but a beeping noise stopped her. “What’s that?” she asked, still seething, “Kusivian tympanic disruption? Because I’m not defective enough now? You know they’re going to decommission me when they wake up. I’m useless now.”
“You’re so melodramatic.” The girl laughed. “That, silly robot, is your stasis pod.”
Astrid was awake, still lying down in her stasis pod. As her internal sensors clicked back on, she noticed something unusual. As the crewman helped her out of her pod, she asked, “did the doctor equip me with dreaming protocols? I have… an unusual log entry in my data banks.”
The doctor came over from across the room. “I bet you do,” he said. “Your power was completely drained; you know what kind of data corruption that can cause. We shouldn’t have left you alone so long. When the sensors picked up the planet, and we woke up, you were on the floor. You managed to crack your head pretty good, too.”
“So you put me in stasis?”
He nodded. “Your skin hasn’t healed yet, though. It’s kind of gruesome.” He handed her a small mirror, so she could assess the damage. There was a deep gash, exposing her upper cranial plate.
Astrid reached up with her free hand and peeled off the rest of the synthaskin, exposing her metal plating. All traces of Kusuvi were gone. “Is that better?” she asked.
He shrugged. “It’s something, that’s for sure.”
Slowly, she started peeling the skin from her arms and chest. Then, once they’d left the room, she pulled it off the rest of her frame. When she was finished, it lay in a crumpled damp pile on the floor. She looked at herself in the mirror again. She panned it up and down her body, noticing how her frame glinted underneath the fluorescent lights, and how all of her softness was gone. She ran a hand along her torso; her sensors indicated that just beneath was a perfectly ordered collection of wires and tubes. Her metallic metatarsals curved onto the floor like talons.
There, she thought, smiling. All better.