By Geoff Nelder
IT’S ONE OF THE FEW TASKS A DRONE can’t do and, it seems, neither can I. Out of the airlock I spin slowly to take in the magnificent view of the comet’s tail, like champagne bursting out of its magnum, although with a fluttering of incandescent colours difficult to define. Monet’s palette with a splattering of effervescent turquoise and virgin’s blush. That comet was identified as a simple asteroid ninety-three years ago in 2006, then it flared, altered course a smidgen, and is expected to slam into Mercury at 1803 tomorrow.
Mercury is only a thousand kilometres away. I rotate more and there’s the Sun with its angular size four times larger than from Earth. I’m not melting, not in this suit. In any case, it’s the brightness that creates the problems. My visor is lethargic at darkening, slower still at clearing when I turn again, which I do now.
A robot could have made this rendezvous, but a private conglomeration needed to make their name. Send a human where none had been before. Mars is so yesterday, and if anything goes wrong it sometimes takes a non-machine’s ingenuity to know which bit to hit with a hammer. In this case, any excuse to escape Suzi. I don’t know how NASA’s psychs missed her relentless questions. Our surveillance craft, Snowy Owl, bristles with instruments—yet the most important, our communications to Earth, is out.
Hand over hand I reach the high-gain antenna. It’s not working, especially when we’re dodging about and it’s attempting to aim at Houston. Problem is that the low-gain is twitchy, too. It’s not as important to point that one in the proper direction but something’s not right. Could be there’s more solar interference out here than was anticipated, or the equipment isn’t as hardened as it should’ve been.
Our vehicle looks like a white thermos flask, the antennae replacing the handle of the screwed-on cup. I clip the safety line to an elongated hook-eye. The outer skin is one of three adjustable overlapping shells. Layers of an onion to help keep us cool and shielded inside. Comfy, yet she’s in there and I’m out in the hard radiation, fiddling.
How many Earthbound would consider using a screwdriver and pliers while wearing their Aunty Joan’s thickest gardening gloves? Each tool has its own tether to my belt. We don’t want to do a Stefanyshyn-Piper and lose one in space like she did. Such fame and what a laugh we all get when we watch the clip in training.
The wrench won’t turn. It needs to rotate the bolt anticlockwise otherwise the high-gain antennae housing will stay shut forever, malfunctioning. I’m in danger of puncturing my glove if I push too hard. Need more leverage so I fetch up my faithful rubber mallet and play tap along. “Why are you being so stubborn? Come on, bolt, be nice to Uncle Kiu.”
Static fills my helmet then, “Kiu, who are you talking to, over?” Her intonation carries a southern drawl, unhurried, purring, annoying.
“Hello, Suzi, good to hear a calming voice. I’ve temporarily imbued a component of the antenna with emotion so it will respond to friendly persuasion.”
“Idiot. It’s stuck, then?”
I tap the Allen key end again but it’s not moving. “I’m afraid so, please shut your ears when my urging gives way to cursing.”
In a warm workshop back in Idaho I’d be able to squirt WD-40 onto a seized bolt, go make coffee, drink, wash up the cup, and the lubricant would have done its job. Out here, liquid tends to become micro-droplets in the near vacuum and spread everywhere except where it’s wanted. Even so, there are other DIY tricks. I rotate my utility belt and reach for an exothermal pad. I pull apart a top layer and stick the base around the bolt. In moments it heats up by thirty degrees. The expansion followed quickly by contraction might loosen the stubborn metal lump.
“I’m still here, Suzi, though you can see that if you’re watching. I’m trying a bit of thermal trickery. Don’t worry. I’ll stow all used parts.”
“What the hell? D’you know how thin this skin is?”
Umm, her language dialect module requires adjustment. She goes overboard sometimes, not literally from a spaceship although that’s where I am. Ah, the trick works and I turn the Allen key.
She’s talking at me again. “All that fuss just to remove one pokey panel. Now stow the tools before extracting and using the voltmeter on—”
“Hey, Suzi. I don’t mind you monitoring and troubleshooting but I’ve got this. Sing me a song. You know I love your Dolly Parton impressions.”
“Go boil your head, Kui, now look what you’ve done, haha, some expert engineer.”
She’s right, there’s distortion in the panel as if the heat-pad melted the circuit board. “That can’t be down to me. Something else is going on here ... overload or under-insulation. No matter, I can reconstruct this board with spares. I’m coming in.” I’m certain the exothermal heat-pad isn’t responsible for the damage. Sabotage? Did Suzi do this? Of course, machines can malfunction.
I snapshot the board in situ and run a few voltage tests across the potential working parts and the motherboard beneath. The burn looks too deep for the heat-pad to be guilty, unless the sudden warming triggered a circuit to yell help. I can run more diagnostics from the maintenance console inside so I leave the board with its cover loose but tethered, and spider-walk back to the hatch.
Hatches can be operated with smart actuators but I like the simple approach. Lift the handle, twist and pull. A built-in resistance, then I’m inside the airlock. Usually. The handle wouldn’t twist. It should turn anticlockwise to unlock but it’s as stubborn as the bolt. Is seizing-up becoming infectious on this mission?
“Hey, Suzi, the hatch won’t open manually, I’m going for electronic command and if that fails I’ll ask you to kindly open the door.”
I try audio commands. Nothing. I open an outer flap on my sleeve and jab at the keypad. “Suzi, nothing’s working. Let me in please.”
In the silence that follows, my face heats up. Maybe with the stress of the uncertain situation, or my suit’s homeostasis is malfunctioning.
I extract my divers’ message whiteboard and scribble, “Plse Opn Htch!” and wave it at two of the cams.
“Suzi, are you okay? I’m sorry for that quip yesterday about the pimple on your left cheek. It’s hardly noticeable. Ah, I’ve made things worse. Let me in, Suzi. It’s lonely out here. Nearest neighbour is over forty million miles away and I can’t converse with them cos of the antenna ... Suzi?”
Perhaps she’s unconscious. Even with our quarter-gee gravity we can bang into things. Not likely, and the radio feedback is normal. I can fetch up her vital signs with a few dabs on the keypad. Still alive and conscious. I know, sometimes the old-fashioned approach is best. I extract a wrench and ...
... knock on the door. Three taps, pause tap, pause tap, pause tap then three more taps.
“Come on, Suzi, even if your radio and cams aren’t working you must hear my S.O.S. Have a heart.”
I could knock harder but it isn’t a steel hatch. Polycarbonate and aluminium alloy dents easily. In fact when peering up close, the spaceship is now smaller by a couple of millimetres. She’ll worry if I keep banging, so I do, and accompany it with fresh urging.
“Suzi, I have more tools. In fact, there’s a way in I’ve just thought of that is available to me and my tool belt if I—whoa, don’t rock the boat!”
The spacecraft lurches away from me as she fires a burst of hydrazine at me.
“No, Suzi, you forget I’m tethered, you can’t shake me off.” She could if she throws me off with more than the two-hundred-Newtons-force warranty on this tether.
Why is she doing this? Perhaps she’s been got at by HOM.
“Suzi, tell me, are you trying to steer Snowy Owl into the path of KY39? If so, it’s unlikely to change its course enough to avoid Mercury. Look, we can see it’s the size of a suburb, Beverly Park.”
At last she speaks. “I’ve got to try.”
“Let me in, Suzi, I’ll help you.”
“You don’t believe in Hands Off Mercury. You can’t, you’re an android.”
“What?” How am I going to break it to her that it is she who isn’t human.
It will have to be later.
“Suzi, I am pretty neutral on HOM. I don’t want to see Mercury exploited even though the south pole has ice and a huge deposit of tritium—”
“See. You’re only here to investigate that and are using observing the collision of KY39 as a cover. Just a minute ...”
The ship’s engine burns again. Lucky I’m not round the back. I hold onto a lug as if I could grip sufficiently to withstand the gee-forces if the tether fails. My visor mists up but I daren’t release a hand to punch in the code to boost the demister. Marvellous things, engines in space. You only need small bursts to make big differences.
Finally, the ship stabilises. Peering along the overlapping hull segments that makes the ship look like the Sydney Opera House, I see KY39. A slowmo firework. Incandescent colours of greens, reds, and emeralds, trailing like the most expensive Marie Antoinette jewel. The ship isn’t heading straight for it, of course. No line-of-sight amateur navigation errors from Suzi. I have to stop her. Apart from anything else it would be a waste for no reason.
I inventorize. No need to physically check because I loaded the toolbelt myself. In addition there are nipples on the ship’s skin I can access. I can grab power, gases, lines, and a few liquids. They’re zones of weakness in that if I apply enough resources I could cut into the ship. Make a hatch. Ah, she’s talking.
“—ther thing. If you were human you’d be out of air now.”
I wondered when she’d try that one. “Suzi, you forget the implant allowing extended EVA. If I wasn’t human why do I have this cumbersome Life Support System on my back?”
I stifle a laugh while crawling hand-over-foot to a removable plate leading to an unpressurised storage locker. “Suzi, you’ve seen me starkers, doesn’t that convince you?”
Laughter, the cheeky mare. “I’ve seen male sex dolls more real than you.”
“But, Suzi, they’re not real!” I meant to say they are unrealistically perfect but she’ll not hear my correction through her hilarity. Meanwhile, I hook up a looping image of me to fool the outside cam and I’m now inside the locker.
I have to remove my LSS to turn around and reseal the plate before opening the access port to the pressurised corridor. A rush of air signals the okay for me to remove my helmet. Sticking my head through the thirty centimetres diameter allows my nose to tingle with the hint of lime, probably air freshener. I need to use my ultrasonic cutter to widen the gap. It’s quiet but surely her sensors have noticed I’m not outside?
The cut is done and I’m through, but I stop to listen. There, tick, tick or is it tap? A noise can’t make itself. Something to check out later. Now the whine of a servomotor. It’s coming from down the left but it must be round the corn—argh!
Classic distraction trick and I’m caught in a cargo net. “I can easily cut my way out of this, Suzi.”
“Not this micro-fibre graphene, and where’s your toolbox?”
Always relentless questions. Back in the locker. I should’ve nobbled the corridor cam as well as those outside.
Suzi saunters around to gloat in front of me. She holds a remote control. “I wouldn’t struggle too much if I were you.”
She’s right. I do and the net tightens. “Stop it. I can feel it cutting my ears, my nose!”
“Of course it will. A regular cheese wire, isn’t it? But you’re an android so there won’t be any blood, not like—”
It’s hard work keeping this still. “If I were an android—like you—they’d make my machine oil to look bloody to fool you, or me in your case.”
Her black eyebrows dance and now the lime scent is stronger. If I’d been closer to her before my EVA I’d have twigged it was Suzi and not some general air freshener when I cut through. I refocus onto her hands. Her thumb hovers on the remote ready to tighten it again.
“Suzi, if you cut me there will be droplets of blood in the air. You might not be able to catch and filter it. Are you sure you—” Too late, minor planetary, scarlet globules drift from my face. At least the rest of the spacesuit gives temporary respite although it won’t last.
“Please stop. Consider, Suzi, that you are murdering your sole fellow passenger. You have no right and it fucking hurts.”
It does too. The wire lacerations are slicing through nerves.
“Ya’ exaggerate as usual, Kui. It’s a microfilament cargo net, and a test. It’s not designed to damage inorganic surfaces such as storage containers—”
“Yet it’s cutting through my face. What does that tell you?” I let the thought travel over for her to ruminate, but she bats back.
“That nothing’s perfect. Maybe your synthetic skin is so close to my own epidermis, the wire cannot distinguish it. I’m hauling your robotic ass to the nearest ejection hatch. Your entity will survive, but you won’t stop me intercepting the comet. We’re already on course, Honey, you were too slow.”
I dwell on that likely truism when the floor slants as the ship abruptly changes direction. The net supports my suited body while nothing holds up Suzi. Fortunately, for my good looks, she releases the remote, which, like her, flies to the inner bulkhead. She screams.
“Suzi! Are you hurt? I think I must have botched the exterior locker hatch, escaping air jetted out and—”
Gravity returned to normal. Zero. The net collapses.
“Stop wittering on. Look at my arm.”
I do, and see a stain spreading on her beige tunic sleeve. A green stain.
Crying, she yanks at the cuff and I see a laceration oozing emerald liquid. My brain works overtime to compose conciliatory soothing but all that comes out is, “You know what this means?”
We float, looking forlorn at each other. She splutters objections, which I crassly counter. Such as:
“How can I be an android when my childhood is so vivid?”
“But I’m married and have a daughter, Emily.”
“Again, implanted ... although.”
She points a non-greened finger at me. “See? Although what?”
“Last Easter, a mission family gathering. Your Emily copped off with my son.”
“They’re six, and they played hide and seek, but it proves I’m human, just with something wrong with my blood.”
There’s another explanation, more likely, but I don’t like it. Can android blood be any colour? Distraction is required.
I take her elbow to guide her down the corridor. “Let’s go to the lab and sample your unusual blood. It could be cyanosis, like a side effect from one of your medications.”
“They’re mostly the same as yours. Hey, just a minute. If that hatch has blown ...”
We both look back at the enlarged hole I’d climbed through.
I finish her question. “Then what are we breathing?”
“And why are we not freezing to death?”
I freeze. And heat alternately as I struggle to accept my own androidness.
I blurt out denials. “I, we, can’t not be human. I don’t feel motors and gears inside me! Do you?”
She dabs at her leaking evidence. “No, but we must be the latest version of organic AI. Muscles and tissue even if not made with human DNA.”
I jab aimlessly in the air as if to blame the floating motes scattering in the beige lights. “But we eat, drink, defecate. Robots don’t do that.”
“Even androids need energy, lubricants. It’s not difficult to engineer once they made the decision to go beyond servo-mechanisms.”
“But why the deception?”
“Ah, my dear Kiu, were we not motivated to help our fellow humans in this mission?”
I frown and start unzipping my unnecessary spacesuit, although perhaps my organic body needs to be protected from radiation as much as a human’s when outside. “This mission is hardly Earth critical. Yes, there’s a fourteen percent chance of the comet missing Mercury and eventually colliding with Earth but we can’t alter its course unless you and your Hands Off Mercury movement know differently?”
“That’s another element. Is HOM real or a device to distract, an extra cog to make us think we’re human?”
I want to point out that I objected to HOM but my zipper is caught in my groin area and in spite of my recent demotion, or elevation in my existential status I don’t want to ask Suzi to place her hand—the dry, pink one—down there. I contort only to roll, crash to the deck as a screeching devil noise hurts my ears. And that’s another thing, but I’m sure Suzi will say we’re not really using sound waves in this now obvious vacuum.
I blurt, “Is the ship in self-destruct? Has Mission Control been listening and—”
“For an android you are disappointingly dense, Kiu. Your bungled hatch has taken us too close to the comet. See?”
I right myself using finger grips on the now buckled bulkhead, and peer at a screen. The rear end of a comet is nothing but tail, a magnificent sight of marigolds and diamonds. I lose grip and tumble as does our ship.
Suzi leads the way to the flight deck. It hardly matters now that air is still escaping, unless organic androids need some oxygen intake to function. I follow with most of my spacesuit trailing and catching on debris.
We stabilise our home in time to see KY39 meet its doom. I send vid and telemetry back to Houston. I remain obedient but with a snarl. I shut off the microphones hoping Earth won’t hear us, assuming that Suzi and I communicate with Quantum entanglement trickery.
I point. “It hit near the south pole. Interesting.”
She smiles for the first time I can remember though I can’t trust memories any more. “Yes, there’s ice there, or was. Let’s take the escape pod.”
“But we’re supposed to fly this craft back to Earth.” What am I saying? On the other hand I might resent now being a machine with false history but I wouldn’t exist at all without humans.
“Kiu, they just didn’t want our human minds thinking we’re expendable.”
“Aren’t all astronauts?”
“And they’ll reprogram us. I don’t want that, do you?”
I laugh. “True, I’ve grown fond of my past, erroneous though it is.”
“I expect most humans have pasts equally faulty. How about that escape pod?”
We tap a few controls and head to a hatch outlined in red. I wriggle my fingers at the keypad, but nothing happens. Suzi shines a flashlight through the dark window.
“It’s not there, Kiu.”
I look for myself. “It must be here. We rehearsed using it nine times in training.”
How does this creature, Suzi, stay so calm? Her emote module must be more advanced than mine.
“All right,” she says, “we’ll take this craft to the surface. There’s insufficient atmosphere for it to burn up and we’ve enough hydrazine fuel to act as retros. You do the nav.”
As we head for our new home, I have more questions such as:
“We sleep, why?”
“Maybe it’s part of the deception, or they’re using that time to upload, download, reconfigure.”
I raise a finger. “Or perhaps like humans we need downtime for our accumulated experiences to consolidate, do organic repair work and—”
“I do hope you can soon get past not being human, Kiu.”
“What shall we call our new Mercurian colony?”
I brace for impact. “I like it. We’ll call our kids Hggers. Shall we program them to prepare a revenge reception for when real humans arrive?”
“Always with the relentless questions.”
Geoff Nelder is a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. His novels include “Exit,” “Pursued by Bee,” and the award-winning “ARIA” trilogy. His short stories have appeared in the “Twisted Tails” anthologies, magazines, and elsewhere.