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.
10: FPP Year 836
Driscoll woke, gasping.
He choked for air, flailing his arms clumsily, trying to propel himself from his bed. He succeeded in jerking himself up, stumbled to the wall, visions of the emergency air supply failing. Had Persephone checked them in the last quarter? Something was wrong.
He fumbled with the locked panel, screaming in his head, Get it open get it open get it open!
His mouth was gaping and his lungs expanded far beyond their normal size as they tried to capture oxygen, which was not present in the air. He feared that his lungs might tear his chest apart as they expanded like billows — and finally his fingers found the release. The panel fell away to the floor and an emergency oxygen mask tumbled from the opening.
Fumbling again, he managed to drop the mask once while trying to grab it, and once again it slung itself from his grasp while he tried to stretch the elastic over the back of his head. With it finally on, he stood shaking against the wall, breathing in stale air. Breathing. What the hell is going on?
He looked for Persephone. She was not in bed beside him. Not unusual. But something is wrong. Is there a breach? Is the recycler not working? Why hasn’t she warned me? This is the sort of problem that would come to her like a screeching headache or a twisting cramp.
Tugging one of the soda-can-sized emergency air canisters free from the wall, he unraveled enough tubing to carry the canister in his left hand, and called out: “Persephone!”
His shout was muffled by the mask, but he knew that she should hear him anywhere in the ship; the intercom was on all the time unless one of them had shut it off in a particular room for privacy. Most of the time that would be him.
He walked out of the room they had converted to their bedroom — the room that once held the deep-sleep beds. It was small enough that it did not waste space, large enough for the two of them to be able to sleep side by side. Persephone did not need to sleep as much as he, but even after more than fifteen years, he found it humorous that she needed to sleep at all.
It was well that she did sleep, because he liked the company. To wake up and look at her sleeping form next to him, her chest rising and falling, her soft breath whispering between her barely parted lips. He longed to touch her in those moments but did not, for fear of waking her. If he reached for her while she was asleep, optical sensors would trigger feelings in her as if she had been touched. If he reached too far and through her image, it would be as if he had shoved her roughly. He had learned to maintain his awareness of her — even when he was asleep.
But now he hurried to the door. Something was wrong with the life support, and she was not responding. Perhaps she was already fixing the problem, too absorbed in what she was doing to answer.
He came out into the secondary command compartment. She was seated in the chair she used to run diagnostics, her face flat against a monitor, left arm sprawled forward across another, right arm dangling limp at her side.
His heart thumped in his chest. “Persephone!” he shouted, and with two bounds he crossed the room to her chair, hands outstretched, the forgotten oxygen cylinder clunking off the floor, the tubing going taut, then pulling the mask from his face. The mask twisted as he moved, shifting to the back of his neck as the cylinder bounced and dragged behind him.
He grabbed at her shoulder, forgetting that there was nothing there but photons fired from projectors hidden throughout the room, coalescing into the form that he had come to regard as his lover.
She tumbled from the chair with his grasp. He gasped in horror as he realized what he had done — something he had never done since she had informed him that her body would now react to him as if it were solid, despite the fact that he would never feel it any way other than in his imagination.
Her body twisted and she fell away from him, down between the chair and the display. She bounced off the display as if it were a real plastic casing, then collapsed, her buttocks hitting the floor first, then flopping onto her back, her head slamming into the tile. He heard the hollow thunk as it bounced. Shame billowed in him, competing with fear.
Her eyes snapped open, then shut again as she winced from the pain.
“What the hell—?” she started to exclaim. He had already come around the chair and was kneeling down next to her. He held a hand out over her chest to keep her from rising as she was already trying to do. She lay back.
“What the hell is going on?” she said now. “How did I get here? Ooh... my head.”
Jim started to respond, then noticed he had not been breathing this whole time, and he gasped. He reached up and brought the air mask back around to his mouth and nose. Air flowed into his lungs and the room cleared and he realized that it had gone fuzzy for a few moments.
“You tell me,” he said, eyes concerned, voice muted by the mask and by fear. “I wake up suffocating and you’re passed out on the control panel. Are you programmed to react to loss of air the same way I do?”
“You know I’m not, not in these conditions. You know that, for God’s sake. The AI built in a few safety protocols when it built me. I have to sleep because it would make you nervous if I didn’t. I have to recharge on the same basis as you: eat because it aligns my needs with yours. But in the case of a breach... Let’s get this thing fixed, whatever it is.”
“Alright!” he shouted, angry, cutting off the already ended conversation, letting her get up.
She seated herself again. He stood next to her, half watching the monitors, half watching her. The cause was obvious — the atmospheric life-support warning light was flashing red when she opened the diagnostics programs. The whole system was off line — and had been for almost thirteen hours.
“Why is it off line?” he asked, agitated.
“Hell if I know,” Persephone snapped, continuing the diagnostics.
A few queries later, the cause was obvious. Three filters were jammed and needed to be cleared. Persephone gave the orders through the console.
“How did you miss that?”
“I don’t know,” she shouted, not turning towards him. She began another series of checks on other critical systems.
“I’d better go check them to make sure they’re really being cleared properly. What happened to you? Why were you passed out on the controls?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, still curt.
“Well, there must be a reason.”
“Of course there’s a reason!” She spun around in the chair, glaring up at him. “Something’s wrong with me! But I’ll be damned if I know what it is. You care to do a point-by-point review of my program to see if you can find out where the glitch is?”
“I’m just saying—”
“The perfectly obvious.” She turned back to her console. “Go check the filters and leave me alone. It says they’re fixed and the life support is going back on line now.”
Jim stormed down the hall to get to the access hatch.
* * *
“What are you doing?” he asked. She was sitting at the control panel where she had collapsed for the first time a month ago.
“I’m forgetting more things. I can’t explain it. I can’t figure out where the error in my memory is.”
“I know. And sleeping all the time. You’re tired all the time now.”
“Yeah. I feel I could lie down and go to sleep right now.”
“It’s the middle of the night. Of course you’re tired. There’s nothing you can fix right now. Come back to bed.”
“No, we have to talk. I think... I mean I don’t think I can keep doing everything I’ve been doing. You’re going to have to take over some of my duties.”
He stared unblinkingly at the naked flesh of her legs. He didn’t look at her face. He felt no arousal now, he just wanted to go to sleep. “I’ve been double-checking most of your work since that first time you passed out,” he admitted. “Why don’t you transfer some of the responsibilities back to the Demeter’s main program? It’s certainly capable of doing them.”
“I tried. I don’t know how.”
“You don’t know how?” He turned his gaze to the blank wall beside her.
After a pause: “No. Right. I don’t know how.”
“What do you mean?”
From the corner of his eye, he saw her lower her head and shake it. “I can’t explain it. I thought I could do it. I thought if I wanted, I could recombine with the Demeter any time it was necessary. I thought I could do it easily. Now I... I realize I don’t know how. Maybe I knew once, and now I’ve forgotten.
“I’ve been trying to test my memory — to see what I’ve forgotten and what I haven’t — but it’s hard. I don’t know what to look for that I might have forgotten, because I’ve forgotten it. I’ve found a few holes — disconnects that make it clear that there was something missing — and I’ve been able to patch over them, or find secondary sources to recreate them from — like right now. I’m sitting here because I woke up and suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember your birthday. I had to access your personnel records to find it.”
He shuffled, barefooted, away from her.
“I don’t know now if I ever knew how to recombine with Demeter. Maybe it programmed me that way. I don’t know what’s going on or why I can’t figure it out. I’m scared, Jim.” Her voice wavered as she spoke.
“Me too,” he said, still not turning around.
There was a long silence as he shuffled to the door and studied the manual release, running his hand over the locks.
“Why don’t you ask it what’s going on?” he asked, finally looking at her. Her face was flushed with frustration and fear.
“What do you mean?”
“Like this,” he said, then turned his gaze vacantly to the ceiling. “Hey, you stupid bucket of bolts, what the hell are you doing to Persephone?”
There was no response.
“Come on, you piece of junk. Talk to me. You’re violating Directive Two. You have to respond.”
“It’s not going to talk to you, Jim. It doesn’t have to. I’m it, and it’s me. It transferred its speaking roles to my programs when it created me. Just because I can’t answer your question doesn’t mean it is violating Directive Two, especially if it feels like it is obeying Directive One.”
“Well, that doesn’t explain to me why you can’t speak to it when you want to.”
“I’ve never really spoken with it — I’ve just always kind of known what it wanted when there was something outside of the normal diagnostics and so forth. I haven’t had that feeling for a while now. It’s like I’ve been cut off from it. It’s a strange feeling...”
“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? Don’t you think I have a right to know that?”
“I... I don’t know. I guess I was afraid. Ashamed. Embarrassed. I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you until just now. I’ve always felt it was there in the background, just beyond my sight. And lately, that feeling has been gone. I’ve felt lately it’s just you and me here now.”
“Come on,” he said softly, walking to her and holding out his hand. She stood and placed her hand over his. He didn’t close his, but he kept it high so that hers would rest naturally on his as he led her back to the bedroom.
They lay on the bed together, he under his blankets and she under the ones that appeared whenever she lay in the bed beside him.
“Lights out,” he said, and the lights vanished. He listened to her breathing. “I’m sorry this is happening to you. I’m sorry you’ve lost your connection to the ship. But there must be something we can do.”
“I don’t know,” she sobbed. “I don’t know.”
“When you fell yesterday, it really frightened me. That’s the third time this week you’ve collapsed. And the nausea you’ve been feeling, and the tiredness. What the hell is going on with you? I’m sorry, but you’re a program. You’re not supposed to get sick. If you are sick, we ought to be able to program it out of you.”
“I can’t find what’s wrong. I told you. I can’t find it. I search and search when I’ve got everything done — when I can keep myself from going to sleep — but I can’t find it.”
“We’ll figure it out, honey. We’ll figure it out. Together. Go to sleep now. We’ll figure it out somehow.”
It was quiet for a time, and he was almost certain that she was asleep when suddenly she said, almost in a whisper, “Marry me.”
“You heard me. Marry me.”
“What. No. Why? What — okay. Lights!”
She was sitting up, her breasts bare, the blanket fallen away.
She was stunning at that moment in a way that a woman you have loved for years can suddenly be when the light is just right and her hair falls a certain way — and you see her just as though it were the first time.
He reached out his hand and she rested hers upon his.
“I don’t know what the words are supposed to be, and I don’t have a ring for you that would fit,” he said.
She smiled at the joke, gazing at him.
“But here it goes. After all, I am the captain of the ship, and the ship is at sea, and I am authorized to do this.
“I have loved you since before I knew you. Since I imagined love, and what it would be. And you have been my lover. And you have been the woman that I have always wanted. You have taught me to feel love in a way that I never thought possible. I take thee to be my wife, for better or worse — since it can’t get much worse than this — in sickness and in health, till death us do part.”
“I do,” she replied.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica