by Bill Bowler
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“What is it, M-E2?” he radioed back.
“Black cloud, sir. Swarming.”
“Has it sensed you?”
“Yes, sir. It’s moving in my direction.”
“Can you evade?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Take the truck and get out of there!”
I turned on telephoto vision and transmitted the image to Hardy’s HUD. M-E2 scrambled to the hovertruck and leapt in.
The swarm was moving quickly across the slope. A translucent cloud, weaving, undulating, climbing and falling, changing shape, stretching and receding — it bore down on M-E2.
“What’s he waiting for!?” screamed Hardy.
“He’s trying to start the engine, sir.”
As a finger of the swarm reached out and touched the truck, the truck began to move. M-E2 accelerated and pulled away. The cloud pursued, gaining on him. At full throttle, he hit a patch of loose trash, which gave way under him. The truck fishtailed and spun out of control. It slammed sideways into a bank of scrap metal and a steep pile of heavy trash collapsed on the truck, crushing it.
Sparks from the falling metal ignited a pocket of gas. We heard the boom of an explosion, and a huge fireball shot into the sky, incinerating the black cloud. We could feel the heat where we stood.
“Poor devil,” Hardy muttered into the radio, more to himself than to me.
There was nothing we could have done. Hardy began to search the junk near the wounded Philemon and found a loose door jutting from a mound of trash. We pulled it out, lifted the creature onto the makeshift stretcher and carried him slowly up the slope, around the bog, to the blackened area where the hovertruck had been.
The blast area was littered with dead “bugs” scorched in the blast. All that remained of the truck was a bent and charred front end. We combed the area for any remains of M-E2. The blast had scattered debris over a wide radius.
I discovered a broken section of his torso in a smoking pile of rubble. I might not have recognized it but the serial number was still legible. The section held M-E2’s motherboard. It was burnt and broken. Ruined. I lifted the little housing and removed the emoticon chip from its slot. A little piece of his “heart,” I thought, and gave it to Officer Hardy for safe keeping.
Alpha Base lay 90 miles to the south. With no hovertruck, we were stranded. Hardy’s oxygen gauge was deep in the red, near empty. He had maybe one hour, maybe two if he breathed shallow. We radioed our status and location to the primary computer at Alpha Base, which rebroadcast our SOS on all frequencies. But we had little hope there was any ship in range that could reach us before Hardy’s oxygen ran out.
Alpha Centauri A had set. The fog had lifted; the clouds were dispersing; Alpha Centauri B was at its zenith in the sky, casting an orange glow in the twilight. The temperature was dropping fast.
“Sir, I’m picking up another signal. Approaching from the north.”
Coming down the slope, we saw a hulking shape. A Philemoid emerged from the shadows of an overhang and came into view in the twilight. It crawled to its injured fellow, stroking it with cillia and antennae and emitting bursts of electromagnetic waves which we picked up on our sensors and which Hardy felt directly as transmitted emotion — affection, shock, and pity.
“It wants us to follow, sir.”
Hardy hesitated for a moment. His oxygen gauge was near zero.
“We might as well help this poor sonofabitch,” he snarled.
We hoisted the Philemoid back onto the makeshift stretcher and followed its companion slowly up the hill. We made our way a hundred yards or so when three more shadows approached in the twilight. The four Philemoids crawled under the stretcher, took it on their backs and relieved Hardy and me of the burden.
Hardy was panting now, gasping for breath. He seemed to have decided simply to go on until the end came.
We followed the Philemoids a short way further up the slope and came to their nest. Several domes, made of loose parts and pieces scavenged from the trash, stood on the steep slope of Perfume Peak.
I heard a wheezing gasp and Hardy collapsed to the ground. The four Philemoids, moving quickly for their bulk, grasped him with their cillia and pulled him through a membranous seal into the nearest dome. I followed them in. The interior walls and ceiling glowed dimly. The walls were a crazy quilt of junk pieces and parts, glued together by some sticky phosphorescent substance excreted by the Philemoids. The pieces of junk were organized structurally to support the dome and, at the same time, formed an intricate mosaic. The main support trusses were I-beams from large rockets. Smaller sections of wall were bordered by rows of robot arms. There were no windows, as the Philemoids were sightless.
Hardy lay semi-conscious on the floor of the dome. I ran a quick scan of the physical and bio-chemical status of the dome interior: 14% oxygen with only trace toxins in the interior atmosphere. How was it possible? The sealed entrance could filter the pollutants, but why the high concentration of oxygen?
I reset the parameters and scanned again. The oxygen concentration rose in proximity to the Philemoids themselves. They were exuding oxygen. I hypothesized it might be a by-product of their metabolizing chemicals like sulfur dioxide ingested from the trash heap. Further testing was required but this would explain the mystery of the oxygen that had lingered in the planet’s atmosphere long after the surface had been defoliated.
I removed Hardy’s helmet and pushed down on his chest with both hands. He exhaled, and then sucked in air with a groan, and kept breathing.
He revived but, to stay alive, he had to remain inside the dome and in the presence of several Philemoids. Philemoids from the village took turns with him.
“Mom-E,” said Hardy, still struggling for breath. “You must return to Alpha Base and come back with the VTOL surveyor.”
“It will take several days to reach the base on foot, sir, if I reach it at all.”
“What choice do we have, Mom-E?”
I had gotten as far as the edge of the bog when a radio transmission came in. The SOS relay from the base computer had been picked up by a Dept. of Sanitation inspection cruiser patrolling the shipping lanes between Philemon and Baucis, the third planet from Alpha Centauri A, colonized and densely populated. The cruiser was speeding towards Philemon and requested our coordinates. I radioed our location and returned to the village. Four hours later, a rescue party descended to the surface and transported us back to base.
Officer Hardy had missed the deadline to file his report on the illegal dumping, but the recorded images of the scow from the surveillance satellite feed were enough for the Enforcement Division to prosecute Galactic Solutions. And since Officer Hardy had risked his life in the line of duty, and almost lost it, he received a departmental commendation for exemplary service and was promoted to Inspector First Class. He was transferred to headquarters on Baucis and rode a desk for 15 years until retirement with full pension.
On Baucis, he met and fell in love with the beautiful, dark-eyed daughter of the Alpha Centauri System Sanitation Commissioner. They were married in a grand ceremony attended by all the top brass in full dress. The couple settled down on Baucis and, in four years, Officer Hardy and his bride found themselves with three young daughters.
Officer Hardy never tired of telling his children, with some embellishment for greater effect, the story of his adventures on Philemon, of his close brush with death, of the green-eyed android M-E2, and of the strange Philemoids who exhaled oxygen. In the telling and retelling, the story evolved and M-E2 assumed something of a mythical status among Hardy’s children, as having nobly and tragically sacrificed himself.
Hardy lived in comfort on Baucis for many years. His hair turned silver and, when his daughters grew up and had kids of their own, he told the same stories to his grand children. Dark eyed Zayla, his favorite, sitting on her grandpa’s knee, listened wide-eyed and rapt to the frightening tale of when grandpa was young, and how the robot M-E2 made the ultimate sacrifice, and how air from the monstrous Philemoids had saved grandpa from certain death.
All these years, Officer Hardy had saved M-E2’s emoticon as a treasured keepsake and kept it in a small box in the back of his desk drawer. When Zayla turned sixteen, Hardy had the little emoticon chip set as a pendant, hung from a thin gold chain, and gave it to Zalya as a birthday present.
“This was M-E2’s heart,” he told her. “Keep it close to yours and think of me.”
“It’s beautiful, Grandpa!” cried Zayla and threw her arms around him. From that time, she wore it always.
Ten more years passed. Officer Hardy joined his ancestors. Dark-eyed Zayla, grown to womanhood, was a graduate student at the University of Baucis, doing her doctoral work on the conversion of wasteland to fertile terrain.
When the opportunity for fieldwork on Philemon arose, she took it at once. To visit Philemon, the wondrous land of her grandfather’s stories, was a wish come true. She resolved, while there, to visit the places her grandfather had described, to see the base, and the spot where the black cloud had attacked, where the robot M-E2 had sacrificed himself, and where the strange and horrible Philemoids had kept her grandfather alive.
Philemon had been closed to dumping for thirty years. The deep layer of trash and junk was slowly being processed, de-toxified, and recycled. Once the thick crust was removed and the surface of the planet uncovered, plans for an immense project were in place — to bring in soil and rock, to rebuild the landscape, if not with towering mountains, at least with hills and valleys, and to refoliate and reforest the terrain, which would restore the atmosphere and, in the end, make Philemon habitable once again.
Zayla took a flight from Baucis to Philemon and transferred to the surface direct to Alpha Recycling Center, our former base, now the central facility servicing sector III of the primary continent. She was assigned an all-terrain hovercar and robot driver, and left at once, heading north towards Perfume Hill, now a small mound of trash, which was not visible on the horizon from the base.
The trip was much less treacherous than it had been for her grandfather, eighty years earlier. Most of the loose, shifting surface layer of trash had been removed, and paved roads had been laid out between the Alpha facility and the Philemoid nests in the region. In many spots, the trash was entirely gone and the surface of Philemon had been exposed. In some areas, native vegetation was taking hold again. The leaching poisons and toxic smoke from the trash heap were contained and filtered now, and the air was breathable again. In two hours’ time, Zayla came to the foot of Perfume Hill and saw a village of Philemoid domes spread across the slope.
Upon reaching the village, Zayla got her first close up look at a Philemoid. Why, they’re cute! she thought. They look like big brown beanbags, with fringe. She approached one of the creatures, explained who she was and what she was looking for, and was directed to a small dome near the edge of the village.
When she arrived at the dome, which looked like a neatly arranged pile of junk and spare parts, she saw it was surrounded by a low fence of robot legs. She pushed through the gate, walked up to the entrance and stepped through the membrane into the dome.
The air inside was wondrously fresh and clean. Strange and complex patterns on the walls glowed with beautiful shimmering colors. A large, old Philemoid was lying near the phosphorescent wall of the dome. Its worn, leathery skin was dry and wrinkled, and its cillia were stiff with many hairs missing or broken. Zayla felt, in her mind, Welcome. My home is your home.
Zayla sat amidst the dimly glowing, ornate walls. Her grandfather’s image came to mind.
I knew him, she felt from somewhere. It was during the Reign of Trash, after the mines were closed.
She gazed at the Philemoid. She could see it was breathing shallowly.
Your mind is much like his was.
She thought of Grandpa’s story of the black cloud.
It was almost the end... for all of us.
She looked again, more closely at the Philemoid, and saw the scar from a deep puncture wound on its side.
Since entering the dome, she had had the odd feeling of being watched, of eyes upon her. There was no one else in the dome but the sightless Philemoid, yet she couldn’t shake the feeling. She rubbed the pendant hanging from her neck, and turned her head. Behind her on the wall, from the middle of an intricate mosaic of small pieces of machinery and electronics, two green eyes were looking straight into hers.
She stood up, gripping the pendant. The green eyes followed her.
They’re from the M-E series android that was destroyed in the explosion. We found some of the parts.
Zayla’s heart was racing. She felt faint. The eyes were functional.
We recovered the hard drive, as well.
With two cillia, the Philemoid pulled open a hidden drawer in the dome wall. Zayla saw it was filled with robot drives, neatly lined up and organized by make and model. The Philemoid ran its cillia across the contents and pulled out one of the hard drives.
This one. The serial number matched the cranial unit.
The Philemoid pointed with one cillium and Zalya saw the arch over the sealed entrance way was decorated with a row of eyeless robot heads. The center head, burnt and dented, was from an M-E series android.
Zayla and the Philemoid searched the premises. One of M-E2’s arms was in a row of struts along the bottom of the entrance arch, and they found his legs among the fence posts of the fence outside. Zayla offered to pay for the scrap, but the Philemoid wouldn’t hear of it. He helped her gather and carefully pack the pieces and she took them back to Alpha Center and then to Baucis.
M-E2’s head, eyes, arm and legs were refurbished at the robot plant on Baucis. The missing pieces were manufactured according to the original specs and he was reassembled, good as new. His original hard drive was installed and the emoticon from Zayla’s necklace was popped into the slot.
When they powered him on for a test run, he turned to Zayla: “Thank you. You can’t imagine what it was like to stare across the room at my own head for so many years.”
* * *
I paused and leaned back in my chair. The images from the memory files had triggered my emoticon. I needed to slow down.
Our host waited quietly and patiently to see if I was done.
I turned to the dark-eyed girl, seated across from me, “There you have it. That’s what really happened. I remember it like yesterday, though it all started on Philemon one hundred and twenty years ago, in the third month of 4006, during the dark phase of a light-dark cycle. Officer Hardy was still alive, still young. M-E2 here was spanking new, just manufactured, all shiny and polished. I don’t think his labels had been removed. Zayla was not yet even a dream in the back of somebody’s mind. I saved all the files. Never deleted a single one. They are too precious. That’s why I opened them for you. I wanted you to know.”
“So, you knew my grandmother, Zayla?”
“Yes,” I said. “Quite well.”
“And my great-great grandfather?”
“We were very close.”
“And you knew them, too?” she asked M-E2, who was standing beside us.
“Yes.” His green eyes sparkled.
“And YOU knew them, too?” she turned to our host.
Yes, said the Philemoid.
Copyright © 2007 by Bill Bowler