Leti unlatched the feeder from its holder and squeezed a few drops of tea between her lips. Coffee was not going to help, not when her stomach was 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 it, Leti.” He settled into his seat and strapped in.
“You think?” she said.
“Yes, Leti.” He answered confidently, a confidence she did not trust.
For eleven hours, she had steered the Artemis through a shitload of space junk, losing a portion of the landing gear, an escape pod and one and a half blasters. Essentially, she and her two crew members were limping through space, totally defenseless. It brought Leti no comfort that the Sino-Nihon, her main competition, would likely beat her to 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. I’m so pissed off right now.”
“You are sleep deprived,” Christian said.
“My brain’s not firing on all cylinders, that’s for sure.”
“That’s a funny saying,” Christian said.
The expression was her grandfather’s, who in his youth had 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,” he said.
Leti glanced over the readouts. “I deem us safe for now, as safe as we can be under the circumstances.”
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.”
And now she wanted to smack him. Who was the corporate numbskull who had programmed in such redundancies? Come here, Leti. Leti, come here. What the hell? Recognizing she was in a horrid mood, she closed her eyes for a moment, unbuckled herself and moved in behind him.
He was still tapping the screen. “The debris. I think it is all rock, probably a small body.”
Leti squinted at the tiny blobs on the screen. “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 the hell can you?”
Christian gave a slight lift and tilt to his head to look back at her. He blinked once. A deliberate and programmed blink. “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, I know,” she said. Christian was a collector of old timey sayings. “Is the Sino-Nihon still on the radar?” she asked.
He flicked across the screen to the radar readout. “It appears as though they’re descending.”
“So they are gonna beat us. If that’s the case, I might as well rest before we go any further.”
She pulled off her magnetized boots and strapped herself into her bunk.
Four hours later, Ty woke her. Ty, Artemis’ 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 magnetized wheels. Ty 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. Ty’s programmer had given him a low male voice, weirdly sexy.
As Ty readied her boots, she pushed off the bunk and glided to the sink, knuckling her eye sockets as she drifted. Eye irritation was the rule in space, mostly due to the lack of moisture. Sleep deprivation always made it worse.
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.
“Did Christian find anything interesting?” she asked Ty as he helped her dress.
“There was metal wreckage in the debris he collected, along with rock.”
“Weird.” she said.
“Indeed, Ty said.
“What was the name of the unmanned ship that crashed on Titan last year?”
“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-Nihon 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-Nihon 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,” Ty said.
Leti pulled her sub-zero parka out of the hatch. She had lowered the internal temps to save fuel.
“Call coming in,” Christian said as she entered the bridge.
“From where? The mining company?” She trudged toward her seat.
“From Earth, your hometown. It’s your ex-husband.”
“Great,” she moaned, settling herself. She zipped up her parka until the metal pull was floating under her chin.
“I’m about to connect. You want visual?” Christian said.
“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. She wore a pink robe. So domestic, Leti could almost smell the coffee.
“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.” He wasn’t really looking into the camera. In fact, it appeared as though he was reading something on the table.
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.”
Bing exited the frame, waving as she went.
“Okay, okay…So HOW ARE YOU?” Blake said and though his heart clearly wasn’t in it, she decided to unload on him anyway.
“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 doing? It sounds like you’re not happy.”
“Christian…he’s fine. Always upbeat, perfect in every way, an ideal partner.”
“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,” Blake said.
“What do you think?”
Leti said nothing, so Blake filled in the silence. “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…” She threw up her hands. “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.”
She snorted. “Well, one of us needed to make money for things like expensive soccer camps.”
And oh, Blake 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, the corporation and all that shit.” He did not log out, but his face disappeared from the screen.
Leti planted her cheeks into her palms. By God she was the true 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, trying to conjure some moisture. “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 going with?”
“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. We’ll talk soon. Only 9 months and 26 days and when I come back…no more trips, I promise! Can’t wait. Love you.”
“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. “I think I need some of those eye drops?”
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. There was no way to read Ty. His one camera lens, its black glass-like bulb, revealed nada.
“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. “So I am dutiful, but does that make me a good person?” She rubbed the lid.
“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 this time.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Doing my duty is a great pleasure.”
Ty was the perfect slave.
Christian’s report, that some of the metal fragments were in fact off of the Sino-Nihon, were next on the agenda.
“I find it difficult to imagine the crew of the Sino-Nihon blasting away at a piece of rock to slow us down. They would not do something so dangerous and unethical. You’re talking about attempted 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-Nihon her enemy.
“So you are ruling out sabotage?” Christian said.
“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-Nihon 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 and blinked twice. Another adaptation? Christian never blinked twice like that. Maybe he was taking cues from her.
Regardless, the question was genuine and she needed to take it seriously. To spend energy and time looking for the Sino-Nihon would be off-script and frowned upon by her superiors. However, space law required that any space vessel always be ready to abort mission for the sake of saving lives. Few pilots had to be convinced of this international norm.
“We don’t know where they are, but we can scan for them as we approach the drill site,” she said.
Titan’s faint gravitational pull anchored them poetically in a yellow-orange methane haze. The colors here were view-worthy, absolutely, but Leti was focused on Titan. Titan, the moon of promise, that which was about to become the prize of Earth’s corporate giants. Rare minerals and methane, and other 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 still shivered. 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-Nihon 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-Nihon 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 marched across to Christian and unplugged him from the recharge dock. She returned, carrying him to his seat. She buckled him in then gently tapped his cheeks with the pads of her fingers. 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 5 minutes, he emerged from the fog as his cheerful self.
With Christian assisting her, they flew toward the Sino-Nihon, 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-Nihon. This is Artemis. Do you read? Are you in distress?”
Nothing. Not even the buzz of an open radio channel.
The Sino-Nihon was home to six humans and one AI. Three engineers, three scientists and one corporate executive. The crew had voyaged to stake a claim on behalf of the Asian Space Cooperative. The Sino-Nihon was poorly equipped for anything other than that.
“I think they’re all dead,” she said finally.
“All the humans are most likely dead and frozen,” Christian said. “Are there any AI on board?”
Had Christian not seen the crew manifest? “I think there is one.”
“If we were in trouble, we would hope the Sino-Nihon would come to our aid,” he said.
“Yes, but we know…”
“The AI might have survived.” Christian never interrupted her.
Another adaptation, perhaps? Not one she wanted to encourage.
“Maybe,” she said.
International rescue law included most AIs.
She let out a long 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.
Some bullshit feels were building in Leti’s chest and she hella did not want that creature to emerge. Take. Back. Control.
She had developed a technique for compartmentalizing emotions during her first year of pilot’s training and one particular visualization had gotten her through more shit-hole situations than she cared to count. It was always a feline she imagined, half-asleep in her lap as she stroked its silky back. If she sat there long enough, depending on the level of emotions, the vibration and the sound of its animal purring and the warmth of its body, it calmed her…
When she felt herself right again, she made her proposal.
“Let’s 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. There was no blinking this time.
“Yes, Leti. I think so,” he said finally. “Your proposal is valid. Though a rescue will risk the profitability of our mission, if we can save a life, we must act. It is the moral thing to do.”
Nodding, 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-Nihon. 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, likely due to its crash 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.
“It explains what we see before us. The Sino-Nihon was hit by the debris that they created,” he said.
“To even mention this in the log will taint the memory of the dead,” she said.
“Then 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?” he said.
“It did not respond to our hails.” She glanced his way again.
“Though the body of the AI might be frozen, it could still be revived.” His fingers hovered over the controls. Was his hand shaking?
Leti paused, making the calculations in her head. “You’re right. It would also give us an answer about what happened to the Sino-Nihon. Of course, the AI will not be damaged if we leave it for a while longer. We will come back for its body, but first, we set up the mining infrastructure.”
Christian nodded, perhaps appreciating her decisiveness. 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 Titan’s swirling atmosphere. They set anchors on two sides of the mining site, holding them in place 400 meters above target. They deployed the drill bot and watched it sink into the surface according to specs, after which, they set loose the hive of mini-bots. From the hive’s brain, data streamed into their ship’s computer. Based on the early readings, Titan’s wealth was going to exceed the company’s expectations. Leti sent the initial information onto headquarters along with a copy to her accountant. She was sure that after viewing the numbers, her bosses at SAM would set in motion the launching of at least two harvest vessels.
Her bonus was going to be huge. Half of it would go into her account when the data was officially analyzed. The other half would be delivered when she returned with the Artemis and her crew.
She 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.” He bowed from his seat.
“I couldn’t have done it without you, Christian.” Her screen was still filling with amazing numbers and as much as she wanted to celebrate with a squirt of Scotch, she 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-Nihon wreckage, to collect the AI, right?”
“Yes…” she said, “…we are going back to check for the machine.” She avoided looking at Christian while attempting to modulate her heart rate, knowing he monitored her vitals at all times. “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.”
Once again, Christian plugged into his recharge dock. After a few minutes of quiet, she unbuckled and walked over to where he sat, stiff as a corpse, his head bent and resting on his chest.
His skin was a glittering tan. He had been designed to look like a Latin pop star, one of any number that had populated Earth in the past 50 years. There was no denying what a work of art he was. She touched the back of his neck, as cold as the temps in her ship. 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 sat beside him at the computer. She inserted the square into the viewing port and re-watched their search for the Sino-Nihon. She highlighted the portions of their conversation that included the AI, being careful to make her edits artful. A sloppy job here might alert him to her meddling. After a few goes, she was satisfied with the result. As she was ejecting the square from the computer, she heard the buzzing of a camera eye. She glanced at Ty. He was watching her. She had forgotten about him.
“I see you, Ty,” she said. There was a slight tremor in her voice. “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 I am making 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. All this would be swept under the rug.
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 Christian’s 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?”
Shit. 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,” he said.
“So what should I do?” she asked.
“That is for you to decide,” Ty said, as calmly as a priest might say to his parishioner.