Helen pulled a can of coffee from the refrigerator and depressed the stud that activated the isotope to heat it to an optimal temperature. She needed at least two to get through a marking session. It was growing more challenging as most of her students lived in poly phasic sleep patterns, fifteen minute naps every three hours and using arcology slang in formal contexts.
Their work had a sprawling, mutant quality to it, formed from constant exposure to information but seldom knowledge. Helen prided herself on digging through the crusted cultural attachments to the sprouting seeds of awareness. Her teaching topped up her universal income enough so that her and Sienna could afford the house.
No, she corrected herself, their home.
When she was six, she had told one of her mothers that she wanted to live in a bubble house. Thirty years later, she still held a child’s trembling awe at the auspices of technology and her good fortune.
The fabrication company had sent over a series of presentation clips. Sienna and her had watched them, in their matching pyjamas which were festooned with animated versions of one another whilst sharing a bowl of coconut and cinnamon popcorn.
The smooth narration explained about the engineering advances that made their home possible. Machines no larger than molecules, programmed to manipulate matter into areas of possibility that were once the purview of magic and fantasy. They used buckyballs and buckytubes, moved and assembled by swarms of these molecular machines.
It was a beautiful illusion. Multiple layers of materials woven into a perfect sphere, insulated and isolated from the excesses of environment and vacuum and wrapped in fibre-optics that allowed them to manipulate the exterior to appear utterly invisible or transparent. Their access to upper floors was through kinetic energy lifts that resembled old cobble stones.
There was an invisible layer of organic luminescent matter that produced ambient light and oxygen as well as forming a natural place for waste products that were not disassembled and recycled by the nano machines. The swarms were silent and attentive, a smear of butter or a dusting of crumbs would be broken down and incorporated into the environment without a single command being uttered.
Helen used to unnerve Sienna’s friends at the dinner parties they held, in reaction to the patronising tones they used to refer to her ‘teaching’
Helen had become accustomed to the low-key anger experienced by mistreated pets. Sienna would spend her working time in a liquid computer bath, treating and diagnosing patients via a remote fast grown clone, or more recently, a swarm of nano machines that allowed her to produce tools and tailored medicines from the surrounding atoms. Afterwards she would sleep for long stretches to cope with the change in perception and consciousness, forced to hide inside her finite meat until she knew what was real again. Helen had once known such routines as a point of pride, but as time had gone on, it had become something else to resent about her wife.
Their home floated in orbit above Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Helen would use the kinetic lift to attend classes but all the while, she would ache to be at home again, turning the fibre optic skin off so that she could stand there with a glass of wine and look at everything.
She had started to struggle with long periods of melancholy and their schedules had allowed them to avoid going to bed at the same time. Helen had her students. Sienna had her patients and research. Neither of them had one another.
She opened another can and drank it cold this time. Sienna had gone to bed but Helen had papers to grade. Sienna’s laughter drifted through from the bedroom, a tinkling sound like an amateur touching the keys in curiosity. She wandered through and stood in the doorway as Sienna gazed into the middle distance.
‘It’s nice to hear you laugh.’ Helen said.
Sienna blushed and grinned at her.
‘Hey, I’ve had some great news.’
Helen swallowed against the tight, puckered seam of foreboding that Sienna’s words had sewn within her.
‘I’ve been accepted for the grant.’ Sienna said.
Helen furrowed her forehead.
They had perfected avoiding one another but Helen knew she would not have forgotten such news. The seldom conversations were all task and routine, news of any description would have stuck in her head.
Sienna sighed with disdainful frustration.
‘I told you months ago. The medical hub on Io have asked me to run their Neuro-Psych wing.’
Helen forced up a smile.
‘So you’ll still tele conference then? It’s in range, I think.’
Sienna frowned and shook her head. She slid her knees up to her chest and gave Helen a piercing look.
‘Baby?’ Helen said.
Sienna was the first to look away.
‘I’ve got funding to transfer into a swarm body. Pure nano machines all controlled by my mind’
Helen’s eyes grew hot and painful, swelling and pressing against the contours of her sockets.
‘So you’ll be a fucking sneeze?’
Sienna swung her feet off the bed, gritting her teeth as her nostrils flared.
‘Why do you have to dismiss every fucking thing I do?’
Helen turned on her heels and walked away before her mouth got the better of her.
She heard the slap of Sienna’s bare feet against the floor, like fat raindrops on leaves. Helen kept walking until Sienna’s hand clamped on her shoulder and forced her to turn.
It had been the first time they had touched one another in a while, Helen thought.
‘Don’t walk away from me.’ Sienna said.
Helen flinched before the raw blast of her wife’s anger, her face wobbling and clammy with shock.
‘You’ve already decided. I mean, I’m just your wife, fuck what I want.’
Sienna’s silken lips pulled back over her teeth. Helen’s eyes grew damp with a sharp pang of loss. She could never understand why her wife wanted to shuck her humanity when she had been the most beautiful thing in Helen’s life.
‘It was that passion that brought us together, remember?’
Sienna’s voice was flat and accusatory.
‘Just do what the fuck you want. It’s not like I matter.’ Helen sad.
Sienna’s eyes filled with tears and her jaw tightened. Helen did not see her hand come up until her cheek flared with pain and heat. She cried out and lurched away, holding her cheek in utter disbelief.
‘Don’t you fucking dare make this about you? You’re such a Luddite about anything and you use it to make me feel like shit all the time.’
Helen was dumb with pain and rage and grief. Her hand brushed against the cold edges of the award she had gotten from the Teaching Way Institute on Ganymede. Her fingers curled around it.
It felt right. Solid. Traditional. Substantial.
She picked it up and swung it in an arc, her thoughts lost in a terrible storm of resentment and fury. The impact travelled down her arm and the brittle snap of impact made her mouth fill with wet copper.
Sienna laid on the floor, staring upwards with her right temple caved in. The nano machines had already started to convert the pool of dark blood that spread from her ruined face. Helen stood there, her chest rising with each desperate breath.
She watched them convert Sienna into grey, odourless smoke. Helen thought that she had gotten her wish after all. The award fell from her hand and hit the floor but she did not acknowledge it.
She raised her head and looked around her. The fibre optics were on and she envied the emptiness of space. She gave the house a final glance and cleared her throat.
Most of the sub-routines were voice activated and when she spoke, it took a few attempts to replicate the vocal inflections and patterns that she had initially recorded when they moved in. When they were happy.
‘Activate Deep Clean. Unoccupied. Override Parameters.’
She laid down where Sienna had been, had time enough to whisper that she was sorry before the machines started to agitate the oxygen molecules into a sterilising ferocity.
Her skin began to blister then char but Helen did not feel it. She would have wept a little while longer but her eyes began to boil in their sockets as the lights went out in her brain.
Her last thought was of Sienna.