Leti took up the feeder from its holder and squeezed a few drops of tea into her mouth. Coffee was not going to help, not when her stomach was already churning like Jupiter’s poles.
Christian hovered at the viz, monitoring the debris field from which they had just emerged. “I believe we’re through the worst of the junk, Leti.” He settled into his seat and strapped in.
“Yes, Leti.” He answered confidently, a confidence she did not trust.
Leti did not want to verbalize what was flitting through her mind. The last 40 hours had been hell. Her ship, the Artemis, had hit a shitload of space debris…losing a portion of its landing gear, an escape pod and two blasters. She and her two crew members were limping through space, totally defenseless. It brought Leti no comfort that the Sino-Nissi, her main competition, was probably arriving at the drill site.
“God, I miss my porcelain mug.” She squeezed up another mouthful of tea, moving the lukewarm liquid along the seam of the pouch, pushing the dab between her lips. “Fucking space.” She had given up multiple sleep sessions trying to figure out a way through. “I’m so pissed off right now.”
“You’re sleep deprived,” said Christian.
“My brain’s not firing on all cylinders, that’s for sure.”
“That’s a funny saying,” said Christian.
The expression was her grandfather’s, who in his youth had understood and worked on all things automobile. He was a mechanic, one of the last of a breed of humans on Earth put out of business by robots. He switched to fixing bots by the end of his life. He was lucky to have been clever enough to understand the complex machinery operating in the earliest AI.
“We could not have anticipated this anomaly.” Christian had read something into her silence. Now he was trying to reassure her, yet not invalidate her feelings. He was programmed to be an encourager and a diffuser of tension, which on occasion, left Leti feeling massively grumpy.
She punched the empty feeder pouch into the trash chute and slammed on the blue button, the one that sent all of her waste and hers alone, since Christian didn’t create any waste, into the compression tank. She snarled at her co-pilot. “We mastered this scenario in our training. What happened to us is inexcusable.”
“That’s not true, Leti. Unknowns can be found in all corners of the cosmos. We may have mastered the training scenario, but we are not masters of the universe.”
She let out a coarse laugh. “You made a joke, Christian. Do you know who the Masters of the Universe are?”
“No, Leti. I do not.”
“Search the net. I think you’ll be pleased,” she said.
“Fair enough, but I won’t embark on such a search until you deem us safe,” said Christian.
Leti glanced over the readouts. “I deem us safe for now, as safe as we can be inside the belly of the beast.”
Christian waved her over. “There’s one more thing. Can you come here?” He pointed at the viz, tapping the screen lightly. “You can see it for yourself, Leti. Come here, Leti. Leti, Come here.”
These redundancies made her want to smack him. So far she had refrained from doing so. Abusing her co-pilot more than she already did was not an option she wanted to entertain. She unbuckled and floated in behind him. His slender back arched delicately, like a dancer’s.
“Is the Sino-Nissi still on the radar?” she asked.
“Yes, they’re descending.”
“Shit, they’re gonna beat us.”
Christian kept tapping at the viz. “The debris. I think it is all rock, probably a small body.”
Leti squinted at the images. “By small body, you mean small bodies.”
“I mean it started out as one small body. I am working out a theory on why it became a debris field. This debris field was not on any of our maps.”
“Well…I sure can’t tell if it’s all rock…How in the hell can you?”
Christian laughed. “It’s a guess, but as we were passing through, I took the opportunity to scoop up a few fragments with our research net. I will analyze what we collected, after which we might be able to determine their origin. In the meantime, you should get some sleep, boss. You know what they say, early to bed, early to rise, makes a woman healthy, wealthy and wise.”
He had a way with old timey sayings. She had to hand him that.
Ty woke her four hours later and unstrapped her from the bunk. Ty, the third crew member, was her personal assistant and a different breed of AI than Christian. He existed in an aluminum cylinder and rode around on four wheels. The wheels were magnetized, so even in space he motored across the floor as if he were moving on Earth. He performed most of his duties with mechanical arms and though his body was the carapace of a bot from an earlier era, his intelligence chip had been upgraded for the trip to Titan.
“You are due at the bridge in approximately five minutes,” he said in his low male voice.
Leti ran her tongue across her teeth and floated to upright. Ty began setting out her work clothes while she pushed off her bunk and glided to the sink. She squirted a bubble of recycled water into her wash cloth and rubbed it over her face. Glazed anew by micro gravity water, she reached under the sink. She knew where her pouch of Scotch was by feel. She squeezed out a shot and swallowed it down. The throat burn jolted her awake. Good.
“Did Christian find anything interesting?” she asked Ty.
“There was metal wreckage in the debris he collected, along with rock.”
“Weird.” she said.
“Indeed,” said Ty.
“What was the name of the unmanned ship that crashed on Titan last year?” she asked her assistant.
“Two years ago, Santa Maria, the Vatican’s unmanned space vessel disappeared into Titan’s atmosphere. We don’t know if it truly crashed. Six months ago, Freya, the Nordic research vessel exploded somewhere above Titan. Two humans and one AI were lost.”
“The metal could be pieces of the Freya. Has Christian done a full analysis yet?”
“Christian maintains a working theory,” said Ty.
“Give me the synopsis.”
“Based on the velocity of the debris as it hit us, Christian suspects the Sino-Nissi might have intentionally blasted apart a small body of some sort.”
“And not warned us?”
“That is correct,” said Ty.
“What about the metal?”
“Perhaps, the Sino-Nissi was damaged in the process.”
Leti whistled through her still-wet lips. “Crazy theory…Strike it from the log until we verify.”
“I will strike it from the log,” said Ty.
Leti dressed quickly, then pulled her parka out of the hatch. She had lowered the internal temps to save fuel.
“Call coming in,” Christian said as Leti entered the bridge.
“From where? The mining company?” She launched herself toward her seat.
“From Earth, your hometown. It’s your ex-husband.”
“Great,” she moaned, settling herself. She buckled and zipped up her parka until the metal pull was floating under her chin.
“I’m about to connect. You want visual?” said Christian.
“Not really.” Leti ran her fingers through her greasy hair and used her sleeve to scrape some of the water off her cheeks and nose. She waited for Blake’s face to appear and lifted her hand in greeting as he came into focus.
“Can you hear me?” she asked. “Can you see me?”
“Yeah,” he said.
Blake’s new wife was toiling in the background, cooking something over the stove. It must have been morning there. She was still dressed in a slinky pink robe.
“How’s Tommy?” she asked, then remembered her manners. “How are you and Bing?”
“We’re fine. He’s fine. Trying to figure out a few things for the summer. Tommy wants to go to that soccer camp I told you about, so we need an extra six thousand.”
Asking for money, hurried communication and lack of eye contact. What an asshole.
“What are you reading or watching?” she asked.
“What?” he said.
“You’re not looking at me. You’re multi-tasking. Right?”
He scratched above his left ear and forced his eyes on her. “It’s business, Leti…the business of parenting our child. I didn’t call to be social.”
“I’m going to differ with your opinion here. Even though I’m a billion kilometers from Earth, I still have feelings…not to mention, I’m sacrificing for the Americas.”
Blake laughed. He had a beautiful, sonorous laugh. Bing approached the computer behind him and flicked him on the cheek playfully, after which her youthful face took over the screen. “She’s right, Blake. Hi, Leticia,” she said, “How is it going up there?”
“Hi, Bing.” Leti allowed herself a smirk. “You hear that? Even your wife is nice to me.”
“Okay, okay…So HOW ARE YOU?” Blake asked.
Bing exited the frame, waving as she went.
“I’m a mess. This mission sucks. Christian and I almost wrecked the ship a few hours ago and the mining contract has just been forfeited.”
“Wow. I’m sorry. How is Christian? It sounds like you’re not happy.”
“Christian’s always upbeat, perfect in all the ways one hopes, you know, an ideal space traveler.”
“Okay…Well…Will you think about the soccer camp because I have to get to work soon.”
“Yeah, yeah…I’ll transfer the money. Is Tommy there? Can he talk?”
“In the shower,” said Blake.
“Avoiding me?” said Leti.
“What do you think?”
Leti said nothing, so Blake filled in the silence, like he often had in their relationship. Strange how Christian often did the same thing.
“It’s a bummer about your issues up there. It’s dangerous, I know…but you’re a great pilot. I’m sure you’ll figure things out.”
“I don’t know shit out here…I make it up as I go…”
“You sound stressed,” he said.
“We almost died.”
Blake glanced left. He was disinterested or protecting himself from making an emotional connection. “I don’t know what to say, Leti. You love space. You chose this career.”
“It pays well,” Leti said. “One of us needed to make money for things like expensive soccer camps.”
Blake’s head snapped up. He was focused on her now, glaring and hating on every inch of her semi-gloss face. “So. That’s great, yeah…awesome. I’ll monitor whether your money comes through. God bless the Americas and all that shit.”
Leti planted her cheeks into her palms and rubbed her eye sockets. Her eyeballs were itchy and by God she was an asshole.
She heard Bing’s voice. “Leticia. Are you still there? Tommy’s out of the shower. I think he wants to talk to you.”
Leti lifted her face as she heard her son’s greeting.
“Hey, Mom.” He was wiping his spiky hair with a towel, seeming way too mature for fourteen.
Leti sprang into cheerful mode. “Hi-ya, Tom Tom. Is that you?”
“You’re not looking like that freshman I left behind. You sure you’re the same person?”
Tommy chuckled, pleased with her observation. “So, how’s it going out there?” he asked.
“Not like I planned, but I think the job will get done, one way or the other. On the up side, if I complete this contract, I’ll be set. No more long trips away.” She blinked a few times. Damn, her eyes were a mess. “Anything you want to tell me?” she said. “I’ll probably need to get going soon.”
“Dad told you about the soccer camp? The Canadian one?”
“Canadian,” she said. “Okay. That’s why it’s expensive. Anyway…Yeah, he told me. It sounds good to me. You have some friends attending?”
“Jordan and maybe Edgar.”
“How’s Español?” she asked. She had seen his mid-year report card earlier in the week.
“Not like I planned, but I think the job will get done, one way or the other.”
She laughed and shook a parental finger at the screen. “That’s an A+ for snarky humor, but don’t fail that class. Save yourself the agony of repeating.”
“I know,” he said. “Hey, you’re sort of breaking up.”
“Ok. Let’s talk soon, but remember that I love you. Only 9 months and 26 days. When I come back…no more trips, I promise! Can’t wait.”
“Okay. Bye. Love you too.”
The screen went dark. She was shivering.
“Christian. Can we bump up the temps. One degree.”
“No problem, Leti,” Christian said.
“Ty,” she said. “Would you put some of those drops in my eyes?”
The robot motored to the first aid kit and pulled out a tubular bottle. She tipped her head back and prepared for the application.
He placed a suction cup attached to the bottle over her socket. She forced her eyes open.
“Ty…Am I a bad person?” she asked. She could not read him. His one camera lens, its black glass-like bulb revealed no emotion.
“You do your duty,” he said.
He shot three or four drops into her right eye and waited to make sure the liquid had entered.
As he removed the suction cup, Leti pressed against her eyelid. “Does that make me a good person?” She rubbed the lid back and forth.
“You would do well to avoid rubbing like that,” Ty said.
“I know.” She opened her eyes for the second application.
“It makes you good by machine standards.” Ty shot the drops into her left eye.
She blinked repeatedly to incorporate her eye juices with the medicine. The coolness was soothing. She did not rub her lid.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Doing my duty is a great pleasure,” said Ty.
Ty was the perfect slave.
Christian had finished initial tests of the collected debris. He reported that some of the metal fragments were in fact off of the Sino-Nissi, which neither proved nor disproved his theory, and Leti made sure he understood her skepticism.
“I find it difficult to imagine the crew of the Sino-Nissi blasting away at a piece of rock to create such havoc that might slow us down or even end our journey and our lives. They would not do something so dangerous and unethical. Sure, they’re speeding toward Titan, attempting to beat us and win first drilling rights, but you’re talking about murder.”
The group for which her competitors worked maintained a stellar reputation in the solar system. They were known to be aggressive in business, but not reckless. Not destructive. Five years before, Leti had considered accepting a job to fly for the Asian Space Cooperative, but South American Mining had wanted her badly enough to double their offer. Her choice to pilot for SAM was all about money. She did not consider the Sino-Nissi her enemy.
“So you want to rule out sabotage?” he asked.
“I have ruled out sabotage, ” she answered. “Put it in the log.”
Leti and Christian flew their semi-disabled ship around Titan, as far away from Saturn as possible. Leti used the moon’s gravitational pull to draw lower toward the massive ice-rock, thus saving fuel. After a few hours, she needed to unbuckle and relieve herself. Ty assisted her, but even with his help, the process always took a while. Christian stayed at the viz and monitored their trajectory.
Before Leti had a chance to resettle, Christian reported, “We lost radar contact with the Sino-Nissi about seven minutes ago.”
“They’re probably way under the haze or on the other side of the moon,” she said.
“Should we look for them?” With a tilt to his head and lifting of the eyebrows Christian wore his best question mark face. What an AI marvel he was. Of course, his question was genuine and Leti needed to take it seriously. To spend energy and time looking for the Sino-Nissi would be off-script, therefore not permitted by the company. However, there was a protocol for rescues. Space law required that competing entities always be ready to abort a mission for the sake of saving lives. Few pilots had to be convinced of this international norm.
“We ought to scan for them,” she said. “That we must do, at least.”
Titan’s faint gravitational pull anchored them poetically in a yellow-orange methane haze. The colors in this part of space were view-worthy, but Leti was ignoring them and zeroing in on the barren surface of Titan. Titan, the moon of promise, that which was about to become the prize of Earth’s corporate giants. Rare minerals and methane, so many necessary elements for robot technology were assumed to be hiding under its frozen shell. She brought the ship through the haze and into a closer orbit. Christian had been working for 20 hours straight, so Leti sent him to recharge.
She tugged the hood of her parka forward, but was still shivering. She turned up the heat another degree.
Ty commented. “Was it your wish to turn up the heat, Leti?”
“Yes, Ty. I turned up the heat,” she said.
“I will recalibrate our fuel needs,” he said.
Leti brought the Artemis around, circling the area where the Sino-Nissi had gone off grid. Visibility was next to impossible, but on her third pass, she spotted the vessel, buried nose first in the Kraken Mare. The wreckage was difficult to see because of the low lighting of the crashed ship. Low lighting meant there would be very little power for life support…it was a bad sign. Not that a crashed ship in deep space could ever be interpreted as anything but catastrophic. There were always challenges and unknowns associated with space travel, but one could usually count on precision engineering to figure a way through a disaster. The wreckage of the Sino-Nissi indicated that something both very bad and unexpected had taken place.
Leti contemplated her next moves. For her to fly in closer, she needed Christian’s help. Reviving him would be no easy task given that he had not recharged to full power, but moving quickly was crucial in case any of the crew had managed to survive.
She floated across to Christian and unplugged him from the recharge dock. She floated back, carrying him to his seat. She buckled him in. She gently slapped his cheeks with the pads of her fingers. It was really more like tapping him. The scenario reminded her of pulling her adolescent son out of bed. Christian, like Tommy, woke up slowly, reluctantly.
Christian’s software eventually buzzed to life and began pairing with the ship, alignment taking place within his spinal tube, from tailbone up. He moaned and nodded, in and out of consciousness though that comparison was not quite accurate. After about 15 minutes, he emerged from the fog as his cheerful self.
With Christian assisting her, they flew toward the Sino-Nissi, observing the wreckage 100 meters above the surface. She hailed the crew multiple times and waited for a response, knowing there might be a delay.
“Sino-Nissi. This is Artemis. Do you read? Are you in distress? she asked and waited.
Nothing. Not even the buzz of an open radio channel.
It was fair to assume all those on board were ice cubes. The Sino-Nissi was home to six humans and one AI. Three engineers, three scientists and one corporate executive. The crew had voyaged to do research on Titan and to stake a claim on behalf of the Asian Space Cooperative. The Sino-Nissi was poorly equipped for anything other than that.
“I think they’re all dead,” she said finally.
“All the humans, most likely,” said Christian. “Are there any AI on board?”
Had Christian not seen the crew manifest? Where had she seen it? She couldn’t remember. “Yes. One.”
“If we were in trouble, we would hope the Sino-Nissi would come to our aid,” said Christian.
“Yes, but we know…”
“The AI might have survived,” interrupted Christian.
“Maybe,” she said. International rescue law included most AIs.
She let out a long, slow breath. “With our current deficiencies, we would probably have to give up the mining site to rescue any AI. No mining on Titan. Do you know what that means for me?”
“No bonus?” said Christian.
“No bonus. No retirement,” she said.
Leti had to slow down her mind. Some bullshit feels were building in her chest and she hella did not want that creature to emerge. She often visualized her feelings as a feline, back arched and hissing. She reached out her hand to stroke the fur of the cat. With care, she was able to calm it into a purring mass. She had been encouraged to develop a technique for compartmentalizing emotions during her first year of pilot’s training. This visualization had gotten her through more shit-hole situations than she cared to count.
“I propose we scan one more time,” she said. “If we see or hear any sign of life, we attempt a rescue. Is that valid?” Leti actually turned her torso to her First Officer to see directly into his green-pixel eyes. Had they flickered?
“Yes, Leti. I think so,” he said finally. “I think your proposal is valid and moral. Any rescue will risk our mission and our safety on the return voyage, but I commend you for your morality.”
“That’s an interesting answer.” Leti turned back to controls. She hated that Christian had brought up the money or had she brought it up?
They flew in, closer still. Leti hailed them. “Sino-Nissi. Do you read?” She repeated the message 20 times, at least, pausing to listen between each hail.
The silence yawned, howled and screamed. Leti peered through the viz, then the telescope viewer where she was able to see more details. The hull of the ship appeared to have buckled, maybe due to its landing.
Christian shifted nervously in his seat. “Our proximity is unwise,” he reported.
She ignored him. “Have our ship record everything.”
She studied the wreckage, the rip in their hull and the obvious pummeling the body had taken, maybe as it had traveled through the debris field. It looked almost…pockmarked…
“They must have encountered the same debris field we did,” Christian said.
“You still believe in the sabotage theory?” she asked him.
“I do. It explains what we see before us. The Sino-Nissi was hit by the debris that they created,” he said.
“To mention this in the log now will only taint the memory of the dead,” said Leti.
“What shall we do?” asked Christian.
“About your theory? We forget you ever mentioned it.”
“No. About the bodies?” he said.
“We leave them. We change course and fly to the mining site.”
“What about the AI?” said Christian.
“It did not respond to our hails.” She glanced his way.
His fingers hovered over the controls. Was his hand shaking? “Though frozen, it could still be revived,” he said.
Leti paused, making the calculations in her head. “You’re right. It would also give us an answer about what happened to the Sino-Nissi. Of course, we will come back for its body, but first, we set up the mining infrastructure and we drill.”
Christian seemed to appreciate her will, her decision. Although he was programmed to counter her assumptions, he was also programmed to obey her orders. Deep down, he was just a robot.
For the next 15 hours, Christian and Leti maneuvered into the swirling atmosphere above Titan. They hovered about 400 meters above the mining site. They deployed the drill machines and watched them sink into the surface according to specs, after which, they set loose the mini-bots. As the hive created the mining environment, Leti monitored the data that streamed into their ship’s computer. Based on the early readings, Titan’s wealth was going to exceed the company’s expectations. She sent the data onto headquarters along with a copy to her accountant.
She was sure that after viewing the numbers, her boss at SAM would set in motion the launching of at least two harvest vessels. That communication was the second to last item on Leti’s mission checklist. Half of her bonus would go into her account at its receiving. The other half would be delivered when she returned with the Artemis and her crew. She would message her accountant about wiring money to Blake for Tommy’s soccer camp when she got confirmation of the deposit.
Leti raised her arms overhead and whooped. “We did it, Christian. We just made bank and we’re famous. You and I and even our buddy, Ty.” She patted the robot across his top. “We will be celebrated as the first. I can’t believe we did it.”
“Leti, you have ensured a valuable contribution to South American Mining and to the Americas. Congratulations, Leti.” Christian bowed.
She responded with a bow of her own. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Christian.” Her screen was still filling with amazing numbers. She ought to celebrate with a squirt of Scotch, but needed to plan for the next phase. “We have a few hours for you to recharge before data collection is complete, and then, we head home.”
“Except we’re going back to the Sino-Nissi wreckage, to collect the AI, right?”
“Yes…” she said and cursed her shaky voice. “We’ll check for the machine.” She avoided looking at Christian while attempting to modulate her heart rate in case he was paying close attention to her vitals. “That’s what I meant. In the meantime, you should plug in. We’ll need you in top form, so we can manage the rescue.”
She pretended to ignore Christian as he plugged into his recharge dock. After a few minutes of quiet, she unbuckled and glided over to where he sat, stiff as a corpse, his head bent and resting on his chest. She touched the back of his neck. It was as cold as the temps in her ship.
Yet, he was a work of art, resembling any number of Anglo pop stars that had populated Earth in the past 50 years. Even his skin was a glittering tan. She moved her fingers, feeling around his hairline above his left ear. She found the tiny latch and opened his main brain. She pulled out his red memory square and floated back to her station. She inserted the square into the viewing port and re-watched their search for the Sino-Nissi. She highlighted the portions of their conversation that included the AI, being careful to make her edits artfully. A sloppy job here might alert Christian as to her meddling. After a few goes, she was satisfied with the result. She ejected the square and held it tightly in her hand. As she floated back to Christian, she heard the buzzing of a camera eye. Ty was watching her, tracking her every movement. She had forgotten about Ty.
“I see you, Ty,” she said. There was a slight tremor to her voice despite her best efforts to calm herself. “You probably don’t understand what I’m doing right now.”
She was hoping to draw him out, to understand his programming, what he might relay to the bosses, or more importantly, what he might relay to Christian.
“I aim to please, Leti,” Ty said. “I know full well that mistakes are a part of being human.”
“You feel this a mistake?”
Ty did not answer.
“I mean…you THINK this is a mistake?” said Leti.
“In this case,” said Ty. “I do not think. I only report.”
“But YOU used the word mistake. I did not present that idea. Therefore, you do have a thought about what I am doing.” Leti was nearly certain that if her actions were reviewed by the mining company, her decision would be praised as practical and perfectly legal.
Ty spoke again. “Remember that you asked Christian to record everything with our ship’s cameras. The ship’s memory will not line up with Christian’s, nor will it line up with mine. What you have done will not remain a secret. Do you wish your decision to leave the AI body behind to be a secret?”
Leti turned and faced Ty’s convex lens, her own bloodshot eyes reflected in the dark glass. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I have been programmed to help you succeed,” said Ty.
“So, what should I do?” asked Leti.
“That is for you to decide,” said Ty, as patiently as a Holy Priest might say to his parishioner.