by Mark Bonica
|Table of Contents|
Dr. James Driscoll, a specialist in extremophiles, departs on the spaceship Demeter for an interstellar terraforming mission. The ship crashes wide of its target on the barren planet RO-5, and Driscoll is the sole survivor.
In the months that follow, Driscoll learns that he is not alone, for the goddess Demeter has a daughter, Persephone. The two are marooned on the planet they now call “Rogue,” and their spiral through time, space and Persephone’s programming leads them to the discovery of their ultimate purpose.
FPP Year 840
“So we understand that you had a close relationship with the AI on your ship. Tell us about that.”
Jim sat uneasily in the deep chair. The question seemed to come from the edge of space, an echo of a dying star. The thing that seemed to occupy the foremost part of his consciousness at that moment was the awkward depth to which he had sunk into the white denim cushions. He couldn’t seem to find a comfortable way to let his arms and hands rest. He felt he had grown two new appendages and didn’t quite know what to do with them.
First he tried to lean back in the seat, but he sank so low that his knees were above his navel, and he felt he was trying to stretch for something just out of reach when he rested his hands on them. Then he leaned forward and couldn’t figure out how he should hold his hands, since his arms were bent and he felt hunched. First he clasped them together, then he unclasped them and crossed his arms, clasping his biceps instead.
“Are you comfortable, Dr. Driscoll? You look cold.”
“No, no. I mean yes. I’m fine.” He uncrossed his arms and leaned back in the chair again and crossed his right leg over his left.
“So about the AI on your ship. Tell us what it was like to be trapped on a hostile planet with only an AI for company.”
“It was hard to live on Rogue. It tried to kill us however it could—”
“Persephone and I. We had to fight the whole time just to keep things going. The life support system was damaged in the crash and—”
“Yes, the audience knows about the dire conditions of the ship. But who was Persephone?” The lights hanging less than two meters overhead seemed to sear into him.
“She was — she was the AI, I guess you could say. It was the name the AI gave her, I mean. The AI was Demeter. Demeter is an ancient Greek goddess of the harvest. Persephone was her daughter. That’s how Demeter named her.”
“I don’t understand. Who was Persephone then? I understand Demeter was the name of your ship, and I understand that the ship’s computer is often thought of as the intelligence of the ship, but how does a ship’s computer have a daughter?” The host waved her hands theatrically and smiled at the audience. Driscoll heard a few snickers, but the glare of the lights made it difficult to see past the stage.
“She was a subroutine in a sense. A separate part of Demeter. She was able to think on her own. She could laugh and cry, get angry, fall in love.”
“Just like a real woman? Are you saying that the AI on your ship was capable of real emotions? Everyone knows that AIs are programmed not to have emotions.” The lenses of her glasses glinted in the artificial light.
“She was a real woman.” Driscoll could feel his throat tightening and the pitch of his voice rising.
“Like me?” More flailing of bony hands with shiny rings. He couldn’t help staring at the wrinkles where her neck met her shoulders in her signature red business suit. The rest of her face was tight like the head of a drum. She suddenly leaned in close to him, the mike held just below her chin. “Tell us the truth now, Jim. Were you in love with this AI?”
The edges of his vision seemed to blur. He realized he was clutching the too-high arms of the chair. He wanted to rip the microphone from her hands and ram it through her tight little lips that had been re-inflated with too much cellulite. He wanted to reach across and grab a tuft of her fake hair and bang her head against the plastic coffee table in front of them.
“Ferna,” he said, amazed at how calm his voice sounded, “you know you can’t love something if it isn’t real.”
“Exactly, Jim!” she said, slumping back into her own white denim chair, a satisfied look on her face. She turned to the audience, and, looking into the camera that had the red light above it now, said, “We’ll be right back with our guest, Dr. Jim Driscoll — just returned from sixteen years of being marooned in space with only his ship’s AI to keep him company.
“And when we return, we’ll be joined by Dr. Cynthia Pearson, a psychiatrist who has written this fascinating book, The AI and I — How Machines Will Never Be Human and Humans Will Never Be Machines. Thanks for watching the Ferna Smythe show.”
* * *
“I think that went remarkably well, Jim. Bravo. We really have such a hard time getting good press coverage these days. You’ve managed to inject some drama into our cause.” Sandra Toonan gently guided him through the dimly lit hallway.
It was night now. The hallway ran along the edge of the building, and the wall to their right was made entirely of glass. Through it, the lights of Miami’s skyline burned. Sandra was a publicist for the Federation of Planets and Planetoids Deep Space Exploration Agency. She had been in grade school when he had lifted off on his mission.
“What?” he asked.
“I think the Ferna interview went well. It should help the Agency’s standing with the public. Thank God you came along when you did, Jim. You’re a damn galactic hero. Just what we needed right now to put the pressure on the President to up the funding for long-range exploration again.”
Jim stopped. He heard his shoes scuff the grit on the floor.
Sandra released his elbow and stopped as well. “What’s wrong, Jim? I—”
“I don’t give a crap about the Agency. I don’t give a crap about any of this!” he shouted, gesturing toward the city lights. “Is the Director going to give me a chance to go back or not? I’ve been doing the dog-and-pony show for a year now. When are they going to decide?”
Sandra was a thin, dark-skinned woman with large oval eyes. She stared up at him for a moment, and these eyes narrowed. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said flatly, turned on her heel and walked a few paces farther up the hall and stopped. As she walked, she produced a small phone from the inside of her suit pocket.
Jim stood still while she held her murmured conversation. “It’s what he says he wants,” he heard her say at one point, loudly. She glanced over her shoulder, as if to make sure he had not slipped away.
Finally she turned back toward him, the phone still up to her ear. “Yeah, okay, we’ll be right over.” She folded the phone in half and tucked it back into the hidden pocket inside her jacket. “The director will see you now.”
She stared at him, eyes still narrowed. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica