To Know You Is To Love You

“Astonishing! Where you come from, they really let humans pilot your own mechs? Just, what, with your hands? Operating buttons and levers like a carnival ride?”

They crowd me, far more curious than I ever expected a bunch of human-shaped machines could be.

“Yeah?” I answer, confusion apparent in my voice. “Why? What do you do, just plug a cable in?”

As one, the mechanisms in their faces shift and slide into configurations I’m learning to associate with amusement. They suddenly seem eager to show me every port on their bodies in a way that feels uncomfortably voyeuristic to watch. They may be machines, but…

It’s hard for a pilot to not see the life in a machine when our lives depend on being completely in tune with our own.

I don’t know whether to envy Nixie or feel sorry for it that it doesn’t get to have its own version of this conversation with the other mechs resting on standby. It can only communicate externally in bursts of radio waves, and I’m not authorized to share its decryption key.

One of the pilot units speaking to me demonstrates how it slots neatly into its counterpart’s docking cradle. It rattles off a litany of specs on data throughput, latency, handshaking protocols. My familiarity with Nixie’s specs helps me translate the numbers effortlessly. It’s an astonishing rate of data, capable of bidirectional real-time exchange of sensor readings and near-zero delay between decision and action. No wonder they’re so much faster than us on the battlefield.

I have instrument panels and HUD messages from Nixie to read. I’ve got controls to manipulate, external video feeds to scan, and mental calculations to perform—it’s all instinct now, drilled into me—and I can acknowledge how clumsy that makes us compared to them.

“Together we act as one” the pilot says, “with negligible barrier between our sensory and computational arrays.”

I put a hand on my partner’s armored leg, and for the first time I feel our acute separation, a gulf as wide as any between steel and flesh. I came here full of pride in what we could do together, with my skills and Nixie’s state-of-the-art amphibious design and our ability to work as a unit, but now… It’s nothing on what these machines have together, isn’t it?

I grimace. “It’s a shame I’ll don’t know what it’s like to connect like that.” So intimate. My heart aches for it. “I envy you,” I admit aloud.

The room is silent. The others go still, perhaps communicating via silent side-channels.

“Would you like to?”

How could I refuse?

The first surgery is the most delicate. Their tech is incredibly advanced in some ways compared to ours, but even so, brain implants always carry some risk.

A modest computer and a radio, plugged right into my head. It feels frightening and alien at first. Metal at the base of my skull and a gaping hole in the back of my mind. I worry about what kind of mistake I made, letting them operate on me.

Then I recite my memorized key into the void in my mind, and it unfurls its petals. It blossoms into language. An impossible torrent of language that overwhelms me at first until, seemingly in response to my distress, it slows to a manageable trickle.

NXE-110001 attempting send rate negotiation
establishing link
attempt: 2

I think an acknowledgement back into that link. Then, after a moment’s consideration, I follow it up with a few repetitions of the test pattern described in our manual so that Nixie can calibrate itself with my own send speed.

NXE-110001 link established
hello pilot

We spend some time experimenting with the limitations of the link. As much as we’re both used to communicating with each other using language, it rapidly becomes clear that it is the slowest information protocol we have.

It takes time for my mind and Nixie’s algorithms to learn how to parse each other’s nonverbal signals, but every day we get a little bit better—and a little faster—sending thought-fragments, images, and sensory data over the link until it’s unconscious instinct for me. The more in-tune with each other that we get, the more effective we are, cooperating on a deeper level than I’ve ever dreamed before. The mechanical pilots encourage me as if taking personal pride in our ability to catch up with them in speed.

But I’m still not fast enough. Nixie is still throttling its communication speed for me to keep up. While I don’t think “frustration” is an emotion it experiences, I know its algorithms are designed to optimize, and right now, it’s my hardware that’s the bottleneck.

Maybe my new friends can cure that too.

With their support, we plan several more surgeries: hardware upgrade for my skull integration point to add a physical port for higher data throughput, additional ports in my spine to parallelize transfer, a secondary computer in my lower back to offload additional processing.

The physical recovery for each surgery is tedious and exhausting, but in contrast I feel only exhilaration during the time spent learning our new capabilities after each upgrade.

The presence of the secondary computer is the strangest sensation of all, by far. There is the initial novelty of sending it commands to perform calculations I could never have done on my own. (The cube root of 110001? Approximately 47.9143438.) But with time and familiarity it loses that feeling of otherness, becoming just my “other brain.”

And then with more time, it loses even that feeling of otherness. My mind just has two halves, each more suited to some subset of the mental processing I must do.

My friends and I design and fit a custom docking cradle for me into Nixie, and the day it no longer has to throttle its communications with me is the happiest of my life.

The term “pilot” feels ill-fitting now. Plugging into Nixie is just joining with my other half. When we connect, we become one in almost the same way as the flesh and machine halves of my brain do. Dives that once felt like operating a submarine now feel like swimming in the waters of our own home, no different than operating my own body.

I considered us a team before, but we’re so much more now, easily on par with my friends and their partners.

Well, now they’re showing off all the fascinating weaponry and sensor arrays built in to their own bodies, and I find I still have room for envy.

I wonder how many more upgrades they might be willing to offer?