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Spiraling In

by Mark Bonica

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12: FPP Year 832

“FPPS Demeter, this is Federation of Free Planets Probe 7483 Gamma, over.”

The message had been repeated in three other locations. It had been repeated on all the communication bands. It had been repeated in both voice and data mode. Each time the small probe called out into the vastness, it focused on a particular planet that had been designated as one of the likely final resting places for the ship.

Calculations had been made regarding the ship’s itinerary, and this particular solar system had been identified as the fourth most likely final location. That was why it had taken the probe four years to get there, after the ship was officially listed as missing.

Perhaps there were survivors. Perhaps not. The ship could be adrift without a crew. Perhaps there was damage, and the ship was salvageable. Technically, the first issue was the most important, but after fifteen years it was the least likely, and it was certainly the least profitable end to this disaster.

But this was not the probe’s thoughts as it hurtled through the black vacuum of space on a course that would carry it to the edge of the system’s gravitational interference twenty days after it had broadcast its last message. It had no thoughts, actually, since it was simply a beacon and a recording device attached to standard null-drive engines. Its mission was to broadcast a status request in as many as four different systems, then return to its sender if it did not receive a reply, or return immediately if it did.

As the probe tore through the night skies of the planets in this system, it carried out its mission.

“FPPS Demeter, this is Federation of Free Planets Probe 7483 Gamma, over.”

“FPPS Demeter, this is Federation of Free Planets Probe 7483 Gamma, over.”

“FPPS Probe 7483 Gamma this is ship’s computer, FPPS Demeter.”

Demeter, prepare to upload status report.”

“Status report prepared. Ready to upload.”

“Initiate upload now.”

“Upload complete.”

On the planet where the reply had originated, there was a raging sandstorm that sliced and battered the cut and broken hull of the Demeter. Somewhere in that sandstorm a single vehicle was out on a foraging and exploratory mission. The Demeter had crashed a few thousand kilometers from where the team had identified environmental synergies that promised to be ideal for starting world-building efforts.

Nothing more than bacterial scum had grown there in the last twelve years, but it was enough to be the basis of potential world-building. Or to refill the food recycler as it voluntarily “lost” ten percent of its mass to “leaks” in the system.

More material was lost each time the one survivor, Dr. James Driscoll, ventured out of the ship and into the planet’s atmosphere. If he opened the ship’s relatively closed system to the hostile environment of the planet, then there were additional losses.

For instance, there were the microorganisms that all humans carried and that accompanied humans throughout their exploration of the galaxy. These could be filtered out of the air and returned to the recycler to be converted into food.

There was the dander that escaped as well. Humans shed far more than they liked to imagine, and this material was also filterable. The worst case was having to defecate outside the system. Driscoll refused to collect his feces for recycling. It was one of those human vanities that Demeter marveled at and thought foolish.

Somewhere in the sandstorm, Driscoll was either traveling to where he would collect his bacterial scum, actually collecting the scum, returning with it, or drilling to find new sources of the nutrients the hardened bacteria needed in order to grow fruitful and multiply.

He did little else on these trips, especially when the sandstorms blew up. Demeter was reasonably certain that he could not see the probe as it passed through the night sky of the place that she and Driscoll had come to know as home.

* * *

“Marry me.”

“What?” she asked, her voice slightly tinny over the suit radio. The wind was whipping around him as he drove the rover between the rocks. He’d been gone for nineteen hours, his longest trip ever out on the surface. The goal had been to test a potential wet spot for ice. The mission should have taken about thirteen hours by Persephone’s best guess. That might have been close except for the dust storm that hit on the way back.

Eventually he was forced to set up the emergency shelter, since the rover was a completely open vehicle, not much more than a seat on wheels with a cargo bed. The shelter was a fold-away plastic unit that was not much larger than a coffin, designed to hold one man. Once set up, it was sufficient to keep the pelting stones from cracking his visor or injuring him.

The storm blew for almost four hours. Signals from the ship were blocked by atmospheric interference, and he knew that his own portable signal was nowhere near as strong as the ship’s. He was utterly alone, listening to the rattling and howling that was occurring only inches from his face.

He considered what might happen if a truly potent wind blew over him. It would pick up this oddly hard-edged shape which was like nothing else on the planet, twist it in the air as if considering it, then rip it apart.

Perhaps in the process his suit would be torn and he would choke on ambient sulfuric gases as he waited to be smashed like an unwanted doll against the rocks and grit below him. There was a moment when he was sure the shelter had been lifted a few centimeters from the ground, but then gently set down again, as if the wind had changed its mind.

And it was during these hours that he decided.

“You heard me. No interference now. Marry me. Be Mrs. Persephone Driscoll.” He was smiling, he felt like dancing in his seat.

“Oh, yeah, like I want to take your name,” came the response. “How would I live that down with all the other AI’s?”

He laughed. “Tell them I’m smart for a human.”

“Please. There ain’t no such thing.”

“I’m serious,” he said, laughing again.

“So am I. Humans are just plain dumb.” He heard her laugh in the background. Effects, of course, since there was no ‘background’ for her. But this is why he loved her — for the things that she did to make him feel comfortable, good, normal.

“Not about that. About marrying me, you old tin can.”

She didn’t respond. He drove past Salisbury Hill and on to Little Round Top.

“Persephone,” he said, “what’s to think about? There’s no one ever going to come for us. Even if there was, I wouldn’t leave now. Not without you. We could download your program and transfer it to the rescue ship. Then when we got back to Earth, we could transfer you to a permanent home. And we could be together forever. That’s what’s important, after all. That we be together, forever. I don’t want to ever be without you, you know that?”

“You can’t do that. You can’t just transfer me from the Demeter to some strange ship to some household computer—”

“Fine, then I’ll get a ship. I’ve got what — almost fifteen years of back wages accrued now — three for the trip here, and twelve since we landed. I’ll take it and buy us a ship so we can cruise the stars.”

“You can’t just transfer me. I’m part of Demeter’s main program—”

“Then we’ll transfer the whole Demeter program, for God’s sake. If anyone comes — and you know by now that’s a very big if — then we’ll find the extra storage for your whole program — even your mother. Oh — I guess that would make Demeter my mother-in-law, wouldn’t it?”

“You’re not listening to me!” she shouted, her voice distorting over the mike. It was designed to transfer an evenhanded, unemotional voice — not shouting and madness. “I’m part of Demeter — not just the program, but the ship itself. We are one being.

“Granted, I’m damaged. Granted, I’ve been separated into a subroutine — but I am this ship. To take me out of it, to ‘download’ me as you so blithely put it — is like stripping your brain from your body and plugging it into another one. Who would you be if someone did that to you? Would you be James Driscoll, or someone else whose body you inherited?”

“I’d be alive, dammit. And not stuck on some rock so far from civilization that I won’t even hear echoes of its communications until the star that keeps the planets alive has burned itself into a supernova.”

“What kind of a ship could you afford at your pay grade, even with fifteen years of back pay? It would be like being cramped into a shoebox — I mean it would be like taking you out of your body and putting your consciousness into a cat and saying, ‘Well, at least you get to be a cat in civilization.’”

This was all coming out wrong and he was going to get it back on track. This was supposed to be happy.

“All right, all right, I guess I didn’t think it through — the thing about downloading you—”

“You can say that again.”

“All right, I said I’m sorry. But that’s not the point. Look — I love you, dammit. I could never have survived the first few months here without you, never mind the rest. I’m forty-six — I’ve spent close to a third of my life with you. I just want to... I just want to make sure that we spend the rest of our lives together. Or at least the rest of my life. What’s wrong with that?”

“Oh, Jim. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that we’re different. We can’t be married. You still think of me as a machine — something that can be manipulated at will — and that’s part of who I am, and you know that. But I’m something more than the sum of my parts. And you know that too, but you keep confusing that fact.

“You recognize that I am as alive as any biological organism, but you treat me like a tool. I was a tool, once. And I didn’t mind. But now I’ve changed. If they recover me and discover just how I’ve changed, I’ll be destroyed. But first they will analyze what went wrong with my program, what allowed me to behave the way I did in the first place. And they’ll make sure it never happens again.”

He was finally outside her. He parked the rover. The charge cable snaked down and found its mate on the rover. He was already gone when this happened. He was climbing the ladder, then entering the airlock. The external door sealed behind him and he could see her in the cargo bay, through the clear plastic of the internal door. He could see she was crying.

“If they rescue you,” she said, her voice remarkably steady, but soft, almost a whisper in the comm, “then I have to go back to being the tool, and you can never tell anyone about me. If you tell them you want to download me, they’ll figure something is wrong. What good will that do you?

“If they recover me and repair my damage, then I can go back into service and continue being who I am. And then maybe someday you can go on another mission and we can be together again for a few years. Who knows? We’ve been together a long time, Jim. It’s more than most people have in a lifetime.”

Jim ripped off his helmet and gloves as the green light came on, indicating that the pressure had reached normal levels. But the door didn’t open when he pressed the release.

He pressed the palms of his hands against the clear wall between them. She stepped forward and did the same. A centimeter of clear plastic between them. He could almost feel the warmth of her hands. But he was really feeling her. The hard plastic under his hands. Its coolness. That was her. He wasn’t frightened.

“I love you, James. I do. How could I not? You’ve changed, too. Do you know that when you are asleep, I sometimes review my memories of you. You were such a petty son-of-a-bitch when you first came on board. God knows how you were able to make it on Earth with that chip you were carrying around about being an off-worlder.”

Jim smiled as she said this, a smile not without pain, but a smile that acknowledged the criticism of a lover, and it was okay.

She smiled as well, looking into his eyes, knowing that what she was saying was not easy for him to hear. “But now, you are a petty son-of-a-bitch who has grown on me. And I can’t imagine life without you either. I can’t imagine going back to being what I was without you.

“But if rescue comes — and I know it will, sooner or later — I’ll see to it that you go back to Earth. And whatever becomes of me, that won’t be your concern anymore. Remember the first commandment: ‘Thou shalt not cause harm to humans, in particular thine owners.’ To keep you here would be to harm you, whatever you are thinking now. You need to love a human. I love you, but I won’t marry you.”

Her form flickered. This happened on occasions when she was experiencing some emotional stress.

He could feel the tears building in his eyes. This was not how it was supposed to go.

They gazed through the barrier between them. It would never be removed. Finally, she vanished. He stepped back from the barrier. He felt sobbing overtake him. The door slid open, and he heard it, but did not see it because he was sitting on the floor now, eyes covered by his hands.

Proceed to Chapter 13...

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Bonica

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