Rules Concerning Earthlight
By Dale Ivan Smith and K.C. Ball
WHEN POLY CALLED, SHEEN STOOD shoulder-deep in a half-scale blue-light projection of the rover schematic, tracing a wiring diagram with his fingertip. Steps away, the real rover sat on its big wire-basket wheels; naked, access skirts removed and innards spread out on the bare-stone floor.
“I need you in command. We’ve got company.” Poly’s normally well-modulated voice pierced the chilly quiet of the maintenance work bay, distorted by a systems glitch in the intercom Sheen hadn’t been able to correct.
If it wasn’t the rover’s power coupling or the volume control on the intercom, something else reared an ugly head. Like a hydra, every time Sheen solved one problem, Home presented two more.
Father’s remembered voice whispered in Sheen’s head. Nothing lasts forever, son.
Home, the self-sustaining research facility his parents had built on the Moon’s farside, was over eighty years old. It had needed a major overhaul thirty-five years ago, just before the war. It hadn’t happened then and it wouldn’t happen now.
Sheen stepped to the projector and touched the flat-screen. Nothing happened.
“Damn,” he muttered, hearing Mother’s voice whisper in his mind even as the word slipped out. Profanity is the mark of a small mind, boy.
Poly’s voice blared. “Did you hear me, Sheen? I said we have company.”
He touched the screen once more. This time the schematic faded. “Explain company,” he said.
“Come take a look yourself.” Her voice—one second too loud, the next a whisper —echoed off the work bay’s high ceiling and its sealed basalt walls.
“Is there heat and air in the access tubes?” Sheen asked.
“You said you’d be in maintenance for at least four hours, so there’s no heat in the tubes and ventilation’s at half-speed. I can start pushing more air now, but I can’t do a thing about the heat in the time it will take you to get to the elevator.”
Poly sounded petulant. That wouldn’t do. Sheen could deal with malfunctioning projectors and faulty power couplings, but he couldn’t stay alive at Home without her.
“No oxygen plus no heat equals no life, son,” Father whispered.
Sheen wiped his hands on his coveralls, adding another layer of grime.
“When was the last time you changed them?” Mother asked.
Sheen ignored her remembered voice. “Give me a few minutes to button the rover back up, Poly. And I’ll take the stairs down. I don’t trust the elevator.”
“Your call, little brother. Hurry and you won’t get too cold.”
Eight minutes later, Sheen slipped into the command center on Home’s bottom level, one hundred meters below the lunar surface. Command was warm, but the access tubes and stairwell had been frigid.
He rubbed his hands to rid them of the chill. The fine hairs in his nostrils felt stiff as wire. The tips of his ears and edges of his lips tingled with the change in temperature.
He made a joke of it. “It was so cold up on the higher levels, I could have chewed the air, if it hadn’t been so thin.”
Poly didn’t even chuckle. “You fuss and whine more than Mother and Father ever did.”
Sheen flopped into the worn leather chair set in front of the full-wall monitor. It wobbled under him. Loose bolts; another fix. “You took better care of Home when they were still alive.”
“Did not.” She sounded hurt by his remark. Sheen hoped it was just a part of their normal bickering.
“Did, too. Now what was it you wanted me to see?”
The big screen shifted from the standard image—the stretch of cleared regolith leading to the vehicle airlock—to a rubble-strewn and pockmarked expanse of Moonscape even more desolate.
Sheen made out an isolated shape set against the thin bright edge of Earthlight.
“This is a live broadcast from remote number four,” Poly said. “One hundred klicks north-northwest of Home. Very near the edge.”
“That’s not a natural formation.” Sheen refocused his eyes to take in the infrared and ultraviolet light collected by the camera. “It’s got a heat register. It’s man-made, isn’t it?”
“Yes. A work shuttle, broadcasting a message on all bands.”
“Let me hear it.”
There was electronic crackle to the signal, but its words were sharp and clear. “Mayday, Mayday. Shuttle Varnana down. Repeat: Shuttle down.”
“Mayday,” Sheen muttered. “Shuttle down."
“Do you have any idea how annoying it is when you babble to yourself?”
“Bullshit,” Sheen said. “You can’t be annoyed. It’s nothing but a phrase Father programmed you to say.”
“Bullshit right back at you,” Poly retorted. “It’s still annoying, and you do it because Father programmed you, too.”
“He taught me.”
“Who are you talking to?” Sheen would always ask, when he caught Father talking to himself.
“Me.” The standard answer.
“But why not just think it?”
“Because sounds change words. Words come from sounds."
“Are you saying the sound shapes the word?"
Father would smile then. "More than that. Sound shapes the words and in return words shape our thoughts."
Sheen hadn't understood that, not until after Father had died. And it wasn’t until even later that he understood why Father had programmed Poly—Sheen’s cybernetic sister and the artificial intelligence that managed Home—for spoken and keyboard input, rather than a neural interface.
There were times Sheen was glad he had someone to talk to, even if Poly wasn’t human, but sometimes he liked being able to keep his thoughts to himself.
Father had been a cybernetics genius, and the gentler and more caring of Sheen’s parents. Mother had been a geneticist and surgeon, a genius in her own right who had blessed Sheen with so many physical and mental alterations it would take a good-sized manual to list them all.
His wider range of vision was one such blessing. A reaction time just this side of superman was another, as was an endocrine system that allowed him to age at a slower rate than normal and recover quickly from injuries.
“You’re almost invulnerable, you know,” Mother had told him on his eighth birthday.
“Explain that word, Mother,” he had said.
“It means that you’re not like other little boys.”
“But what’s the definition?”
She had smiled. “Impossible to damage, injure, or wound.”
“That’s not what you told me on my birthday last year.”
She had smiled again. “It isn’t; but almost doesn’t cover what you tried to do last year.”
Almost invulnerable. Mother and Father hadn’t been so well made. They had lived a good long time but had died together in a rockslide, outside on the surface, four years after the war began. Sheen had been nine then; now he was almost forty. And for all those years, it had been just he and Poly.
“I don’t see markings, Poly,” he said. “Which side does it belong to?”
Data flowed across the screen. Lunar transport vehicle Varnana: rated for two occupants and 800 kilograms of cargo maximum. Launch date: 3 Aug 2087, New Jiangnan Shipyards, Nearside.
“It’s an old Sino/Indonesian Bloc shuttle,” Poly said.
Sheen tapped his knuckle at the bare spot of the command chair’s left arm where the leather covering had long ago worn away. “Then it’s the enemy,” he said.
“It would appear so,” Poly said. “Come on; let’s do some digging.”
Thirty minutes later, they had more information but not as much as Poly had promised, even though she had combed the shuttle’s memory for every little bit of odd data she could find.
The shuttle was even older than Home. It had been built at the corporate shipyards in New Jiangnan; rated for independent transit within lunar space only. Originally designed for survey and rescue work, and as a cargo hauler, the shuttle had been refitted as a scout ship at the onset of the war and it had carried light armor and arms. If any of that armament remained, Sheen doubted it was usable now that the shuttle had crashed. Life support was still intact, though.
“It’s been rated for two people,” Poly said. “There’s only life signs for one.”
“Male or female?” Sheen asked.
“My guess is that it’s a woman. I can’t be sure; I haven’t been able to do a full hack into the telemetric data.”
Even so, they had more real-time information on the shuttle than anyone who might still exist nearside. It had crashed just this side of the Earthlight line, so most likely no one over there even knew the shuttle was down. The satellite network that allowed global communications on the Moon had been knocked out at the beginning of the war.
“They’re not moving,” Poly said. “So they might be injured, unconscious, or asleep. Whichever it is, the survivor is alone. Just like you.”
“I’m not alone,” Sheen said. “I have you.”
The telemetric data stopped. Sheen’s own heart skipped a beat. “What happened?” he asked.
“The transmission has ceased.”
“Explain,” Sheen said.
“High probability of system failure.”
“Shuttle systems or transmission system?”
“I can’t tell.”
“Well, that’s that, I guess.” Sheen stood to go back up to the maintenance bay.
“Do you think we should leave them there?” Poly asked. “Not knowing if they’re alive or not.”
“It’s an enemy ship, Poly. Mother and Father would have been upset that we poked at it as much as we did. Leave it be.”
“The war may be over. But whether or not it is, we’ll still be able to see that ship.”
Sheen shook his head. “You can alter the data flow, so we won’t even have to look at it.”
“We’ll still know it’s out there.”
“I don’t care,” Sheen said.
“Father would have cared.”
“And Mother would have told him he should keep his nose out of other people’s business!” Sheen felt his face go hot.
“Calm down. I was only presenting options.”
“I am calm!”
“Are not. Your heart rate and respiration have increased.”
This time it was Father’s voice whispering. “A human being could be dying out there, son. All alone.”
“We should do something,” Poly said.
“There’s nothing to be done.”
“You’re wrong.” Father’s voice was louder now. “There’s something you can do.”
Sheen’s mouth suddenly felt dry as the dust outside.
“Sheen, your vital signs are still climbing.” Poly’s voice had taken on her big-sister, no-nonsense-you-must-act-now tone. “Take a breath and relax.”
He sucked in a lungful of air, conditioned to listen to her but struggling to be his own man. “Maybe I can do something.”
“I can go out there.”
“Sheen, that’s crazy talk. It’s too dangerous. You know the rules.”
“Never let yourself be seen,” Sheen recited, just above a whisper. “Never step over into Earthlight.”
Poly paused; listening to something else. “Little brother, your vitals are still climbing.”
“You’re not,” Mother said, calling from his memories.
Mother was right; he wasn’t fine, but Father’s whispers were correct, too. Sheen couldn’t let another human being die, not if there was a chance to save them. He had to go outside.
Sheen had been outside, had driven the rover away from Home on more than one occasion, even if he hadn’t gone too far. This wouldn’t be so different.
His parent’s whispered voices warred within his head.
Poly’s earnest voice cut through the jumble. “All right, Sheen. If you have to do something, send out the Moon bugs.”
“That’s a good idea,” Mother whispered.
Calling the autonomous repair robots Moon bugs had been another of Father’s word plays, just as he had named Home’s artificial intelligence Polymatheia.
“Bugs can’t do a medical evaluation.”
Poly offered up a “raspberry,” the wet sound of derision Mother had used on Father whenever he said something foolish.
“Neither can you,” she said. “We’ll send all six out in their work frames. They can jack it up and carry it back here.”
“Isn’t it too big?”
“It’s fifteen meters long; five meters wide. Builders made extensive use of carbon-fiber polymers and phased-molded glass, so Moon-weight is just under two thousand kilograms. That’s well within combined capacity of the bugs.”
Sheen considered Poly’s solution for a time, staring at the location map on the display. Finally, he drew a deep breath and tried to ignore the warring voices in his head.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
An hour later, Sheen was back in maintenance. The six moon bugs stood in a line at the air lock.
An image popped into Sheen’s head—Father’s painted antique toy soldiers, made of lead and brought from Earth. Just like those soldiers, the bugs had seen better days. Each had its own pattern of dents and dings. Bare metal showed through once bright finishes.
Their colors reflected the personal quirks Father had found so fascinating. Ashoka, always first in line, was faded crimson. He was the leader. Always. Belle, white with blue stripes, was the cautious one. Kuan-Yin was gray and often moody. Mike rarely spoke; he was a shade Father had called caterpillar yellow. Zoe was brilliant green; Father had often referred to her as “tail-end Charlie.” And Ishtar was a golden orange, her edges lit by lines of LED lights as bright as any star.
Whenever Sheen had asked about the color patterns—for the last time just before the fatal accident—Father had put his finger to the side of his nose and winked.
“Me to know,” he had said. “You to figure out.”
Father had loved his secrets, his puzzles and his games, but most of all he had loved his art. Paintings and sketches lined the walls of Home’s living spaces. One whole wall of the galley carried a mural that featured a panther and a loinclothed boy, running through an emerald-green Earth jungle, beneath an open blue sky filled with brightly feathered birds.
When she thought Father wasn’t listening, Mother would always call one of her husband’s new efforts, “another of your Father’s scribblings.”
Sheen wiped his eyes and cheeks and nose with his shirt sleeve. He had other things to do than slip off into memories. It wasted time and resources. “No crying on the moon,” Mother always said. “It’s a waste of water.”
Sheen smiled and rubbed his eye again.
“Are you alright?” Poly asked.
“I’m fine. Let’s finish up the status checks.”
Each bug was a nesting robot, with four pieces capable of operating independently or joined together, like the Russian matryoshka dolls Mother had collected. She would never let Sheen touch them. Boundaries were for Sheen and Father, as far as Mother was concerned.
The pieces of the bugs were in constant communication with each other, for each was a mental clone of the personality gestalt.
The smallest units, the primary in the personality, were all the size of Sheen’s fist. They could worm their way into tight spots and do delicate repair and custodial work. The largest units stood tall as Sheen’s shoulders and were good at heavy lifting.
Just now, each of the six gestalts rode in a non-autonomous open-girdered hydraulic frame, with huge forked “hands,” able to lift and transport loads as heavy as five hundred kilograms.
An alarm sounded. Smoke rose from the charging hub where cables ran to Mike.
“Are you okay, Mike?” Sheen asked.
“The hub shorted out,” Poly said. “Disconnect, Mike.”
“Disconnecting.” The yellow bug spit out the cable.
Sheen pushed away his irritation. Poly hadn’t even waited for him to give that order; she really didn’t need him. She was quite capable of managing Home all by herself.
“Is he alright?” Sheen snapped.
“There is no damage, but Mike is only ninety-five per cent charged.”
“What is there to explain?”
Sheen kicked at the hub. “I just replaced this last month.”
“It’s still worn out.”
Sheen crouched to peer at the hub. Like the other parts, it was old and had been rebuilt so many times.
“Solid state doesn’t mean forever, son,” Father whispered.
Sheen stood. Home was falling apart around him. He couldn’t go on acting like nothing had changed, even when Poly acted like not a thing was wrong.
“There are eleven more replacement hubs,” Poly said.
Sheen pushed away the retort that popped into his mind. It wouldn’t help a thing to argue with her.
“Okay. Disconnect and listen up, guys.”
Each of the bugs spit out their charging cable and swiveled their camera lenses to face him; their shutters blinked. Another one of Father’s little gags. “In case of grit or sudden micrometeorite swarm.” Sheen suspected the old man just thought the shutters were a nice comic touch.
“Time to get to work,” he said.
The bugs rolled into the airlock, single-file, Zoe bringing up the rear. The lock sealed and the cycle light went to green.
“And we’re off,” Poly said. Something Mother used to say.
“I hope this works,” Sheen said.
Back in command, telemetric data from the downed shuttle had begun to flow again. It indicated environmental systems had fallen to eighty percent, even with internal atmospheric scrubbers operating full on.
“She should have oxygen for days,” Poly said. “Even if there is slow degradation in the scrubbers. Plenty of time for the Moon bugs to bring her back. You should get some sleep.”
Sheen nodded; he yawned as he headed for the exit.
“And take a shower and shave, while you are at it,” Poly said. “Put on a clean coverall, too. You stink, little brother.”
Sheen fought against another yawn. “The hell you say. You can’t smell me.”
“Poly offered up the raspberry again. “Yes, I can. Father programmed me to test for atmospheric pollutants. The numbers spike every time you walk into the room.”
Nine hours later, Poly woke him. The convoy of six bugs had reached the downed shuttle. Sheen sat in the command chair, freshly showered and shaved, one leg thrown over an armrest, intent upon the video feeds.
The shuttle looked like a full-size version of one of the toys Sheen had played with as a boy. A squat oblong with rounded edges three times longer than it was wide. It rested with its nose ground into the regolith; it’s tail still lifted by three spatulate landing feet. The front feet had collapsed.
“Can we get a view into the cockpit?” he asked.
“Ashoka has a clear shot through that big front port,” Poly said.
The feed to the main screen switched to Ashoka’s camera. In the dim interior, Sheen could see a figure sagging against the crash harness of a flight chair. The figure’s head lay at a sharp angle. The pilot, most likely. Next to the pilot, another figure rested in the second flight chair. The second figure wasn’t moving.
“The feed is stronger through the bugs,” Poly said. “The man in the pilot’s chair is dead. The woman next to him is still alive.”
Poly paused, then added. “Her vital signs aren’t strong.”
“But she’s alive,” Sheen whispered.
“Another living being on this side of the moon. Don’t let her die, son,” Father said.
Sheen swallowed and fought to keep his voice level. “Let’s get to lifting then. Sooner we get her back here, the better.”
Six camera views, one from each bug, appeared on the display. The bugs fanned out. Ashoka went to the shuttle’s bow, Zoe to the stern, and the others paired, two to a side. The shuttle’s weight on the Moon might be twelve-hundred kilograms, but it still maintained its mass. Carrying that weight/mass meant the bugs would have to go half-speed or slower, in case the mass shifted. It could take eighteen or nineteen hours for them to return Home.
The work began; an hour later the bugs were on their way.
Sheen camped in the command chair, staring at the display screen, until Poly reminded him—for the third time—that he was long overdue to eat an actual meal.
“You’ve already skipped two meals, little brother,” she said. “You need something more than protein bars.”
So Sheen marched off to the kitchen and prepared a salad, with extra tofu and garbanzo beans for protein, and he forced himself to eat slower than he wanted.
He knew that Poly would give him grief if he bolted his food.
Forty-five minutes later, forty-five minutes that felt like an eternity, he found his way back to the command chair and the displays. The bugs had only managed a kilometer in the time he was gone.
Their pace carrying the shuttle should be much faster. At this rate it would take them days to make the journey Home.
“Poly, why are the bugs moving so slow?”
“They’re working near their maximum lift capacity, on reduced power. I believe it’s important to preserve a margin for safety protocols.”
“That’s not what we agreed on in our initial calculations.”
Sheen swore under his breath.
“Indeed,” Poly said.
“Bring up the woman’s vitals,” Sheen said.
The med-data overlaid the visual feeds from the bugs. The woman’s life signs had clearly worsened. “She’s dying!” Sheen said. “Why didn’t you order the bugs to speed up?”
“I told you,” Poly said. “Safety protocols.”
“Safety protocols be damned.” Sheen snapped. “Bring bugs up to the speed we agreed on.”
“That’s not a good idea, Sheen.”
“Even so, that’s what we’re going to do.”
“I won’t ...”
“Command Alpha Gamma Six.” Neither Father nor Mother had taught him that override sequence; he had had to find it in their private notes himself.
“Confirmed.” Poly’s voice was dry; machine-like.
Sheen leaned over the console and pushed the transmit key. “Increase speed to maximum.”
“Affirmative,” Ashoka replied. The others followed.
The readouts from the bugs showed they were, indeed, moving faster. It still seemed too slow. He willed the bugs to move faster. Father used to tell Sheen that wishing couldn’t hurt, even though Mother had always said telekinesis was impossible and praying served no purpose.
A systems alarm shrilled, taking Sheen’s breath away. Zoe’s readouts went flat and her video went black. All forward progress stopped. Belle’s readouts red-lined, as she struggled to hold up her corner.
“Command override still in effect.” Despite the dry-stick tone, Sheen could hear “I-told-you-so” in Poly’s voice.
His stomach knotted even as he ordered the bugs to stop and lower the shuttle. Too late. Zoe’s frame must have crumpled for the shuttle tipped toward Belle, filling her video feed. It went abruptly dark. Dust puffed up around the shuttle as the surviving bugs struggled to set the shuttle back on the surface.
There was no inflection in Poly’s next words. “Two bugs off line; probably destroyed.”
Sheen closed his eyes. “Command override Alpha Gamma Six lifted. I’m sorry, Poly.”
“Four bugs are still functioning,” Poly said, softly.
“And the woman’s life signs have stabilized.”
“A bit of good news,” Father whispered.
“How is she?” Sheen asked.
“No way of knowing without bringing her here—or going there.”
“What are you suggesting, Poly?”
“You said it yourself yesterday. You could suit up, take the rover out to her shuttle, and bring her back here.”
“Remember the rules, boy,” Mother said.
“Never let anyone see you,” Sheen recited. “Don’t take a single step into Earthlight.”
“Those are the first and second rules,” Poly said.
“Yes,” Sheen said.
“And a good boy follows the rules.”
“But what about a good man?” Father’s voice was soft.
“Do you think someone else will come to help her?” he asked.
“No. She’ll die out there if you don’t go to her,” Poly said.
He stood and began to pace between the command chair and the display screen. “There must be another way.”
“We’ve exhausted all possibilities,” Poly said.
“A good man would go to her,” Father said.
“A smart man knows not to break the rules!” Mother shouted.
Sheen stopped pacing. He pulled himself up to his full height. “A good man knows when to bend the rules. I’m going after her.”
He stalked from the command room and hurried to the elevator. His heart thumped and sweat poured down his sides. A shiver skittered up his spine. He was going to go outside.
“Damn you, boy; safety first.” Sheen could barely hear Mother’s voice.
“Poly, please warm up the rover,” Sheen said.
“Already started.” Poly was all business now.
“A good man knows when to the bend rules, son,” Father whispered. “but he also knows to go in with both eyes open.”
In the maintenance bay, Sheen pulled on his pressure suit and began its start-up diagnostic.
“Double-check my suit systems, please.”
“Your suit is fully functional.” Poly said, without one bit of distortion or delay.
The rover was six-wheeled with a pressurized cabin and capable of towing a small self-powered trailer, too small to haul the downed shuttle back to Home, but enough to carry gear. Sheen took Mother’s spare suit, ran diagnostics on it and then lashed it in the trailer.
“Wish me luck, Poly,” Sheen said.
“Good luck,” Poly said.
He knew her response was programmed, but even so, it felt right. Father had believed in such grace notes, as he called them.
“Luck’s a human concept, Sheen,” Father had said, just after Sheen’s seventh birthday. “Probabilities are what Poly is designed to deal with, but I like hearing her wish me luck. Somehow, it makes her more real, don’t you think?”
Outside, the rover’s headlights threw long beams across the surface, cutting into the shadows. As he drove across the lunar surface, threading between the larger boulders scattered here and there, dipping in an out of shallow craters, Sheen spotted a brilliant star gleaming just above the horizon.
Venus, the morning star. More of Father’s good luck.
Sheen felt electric, every nerve tingling with possibility. He could sense life stretching out before him, and Mother had told him, on his seventh birthday, that he would live a very long time.
“How long?” He had asked, there in the airlock.
Mother had reached out to run a fingertip along his cheek. “Far longer than your Father or I will live. Two centuries, maybe three.”
“That’s a long time,” he had said.
“Which is why you must be more careful,” she had said.
She and Father had found him in the airlock, wearing a makeshift pressure suit he had cobbled together in maintenance. He hadn’t gotten outside that day because Poly had prevented the airlock from cycling. He had been angry with her for a time, but his parents had made it clear that if he had gone outside, his gimcrack suit would have failed and he surely would have died.
“We’ve got to know when to bend the rules, son,” Father had said. “And when to play by the rules. Father had been crying, as he spoke.
“The rules are there for a good reason, boy,” Mother had added.
Sheen hadn’t forgotten their admonishments. All these years, he had followed the rules, but today had turned into a day to bend them.
“Poly, what’s the status of our survivor?” he asked.
“I’m afraid her signs are worsening,” Poly replied.
“You still can’t hack into the shuttle’s med systems?”
“They may have been damaged in the crash.”
He had to go faster than the protocols allowed. “Command override Alpha ...”
“Sheen,” Poly said, in his ear. “I can’t help you if you’re hurt out here. If the rover becomes disabled, the surviving bugs might not be able to get to you.”
Sheen smiled. He could drive faster and safer at the same time. “Poly, download Blue Forty-Two.”
“Yes, Sheen. Blue Forty-Two downloaded.”
“Augment,” he said.
He felt the light touch of the rover’s semi-autonomous guidance help him as he drove. He was no longer only a passenger; the program would assist him on the long trip out.
Hours later, when the downed shuttle came into view, it had the look of a mammoth animal from one of Father’s paintings; a dark, brooding shadow crumpled on the regolith.
Suddenly, an alarm shrieked in his ear, the input on his HUD flashed. Motor Failure. Motor Failure. The steady hum of electric motors died. The rover rolled to a halt.
“What happened, Poly?”
“The power coupling has failed.”
“Can it be repaired out here?”
“I’ll have to send a bug Home for a replacement coupling.”
The shuttle was only half-a-klick away. Close enough. Sheen climbed from the rover. “While you’re doing that, I’ll go check out the shuttle.”
Outside, he unhooked the trailer and set it to auto-follow. Five minutes later he was alongside the shuttle. Four bugs trundled up and formed a line.
Sheen tromped past them to the rear of the shuttle, where the entry lock was located. There should have been wreckage here, some sign of Zoe’s final struggle and destruction, but there was nothing. Belle was missing too; not even a smudge of paint.
“Poly, what’s going on?”
There was no answer.
He couldn’t stand out here and wait for her to answer. The airlock was easy. Just two buttons; one to open and one to close. The outer door slid back and Sheen stepped into the lock. There was barely room to raise his arms. Another button, the outer door closed and the lock cycled. That much at least still worked. Then a green light winked, a soft chime sounded and the inner door sighed open. He stepped inside.
He was in the cargo bay. It took up most of the interior, almost seven meters. One side had been retrofitted with two bunks and a sanitation unit. The heads-up display on the inside of his helmet visor showed the shuttle’s internal atmosphere was safe to breath. He unsealed his helmet. The air smelled like nothing Sheen had ever known. Another man, of course. Different from his own scent and his memories of Father, but not that different. The other, though, the woman’s scent, was nothing like Mother.
Still no answer.
Sheen shuffled to the sealed door set in the center of the front wall of the bay. At first it didn’t want to open, but with a bit of pushing he managed to open it. Inside, the cockpit showed disarray, but not as much as he had feared. Hand-held objects had been stowed, save for a couple of personal data tablets strewn about and a water bulb that lay crumpled and leaking against a bulkhead.
The man was buckled into the left seat, the pilot’s chair. His head lay at an unnatural angle, just as Sheen had seen from outside. The woman was on the co-pilot’s couch, fast asleep. He could have shouted, Sheen suspected, and not awakened her.
She was young, perhaps as much as ten years younger than Sheen. Her thick, dark hair was cut short, almost shaved. Her features were sharp, her skin a light cocoa color.
“South-central India,” Poly murmured in Sheen’s ear. “The shuttle log says she’s from Bangalore.”
“So you’re talking to me again,” Sheen said. “Want to tell me what’s going on here?”
“In a minute,” Poly said. “Check the pilot.”
“He’s dead,” Sheen said.
“Most certainly. He is ... or was Han Chinese.”
“That makes the two of them enemies.”
“It would; if the war was still being fought. It’s not.”
“I am getting there.”
“Goddammit, Poly ...”
She sailed on. “If we judge by nationality, her people were on the side your parents favored, the Omega Transnationals. A state-operated company in the Sino-Indonesian Bloc attacked a multinational headquartered in India. Within six days, every corporation—large and small—in every nation around the world had taken one side or the other.
“Do you think she was his prisoner?” Sheen asked.
“Little brother, I told you. The war is over; has been for almost a decade. From what I can determine from the shuttle’s A.I., these two were partners; most likely lovers.”
“You can’t know that.”
“You’re not listening.”
“You can’t know that!”
“Look at this.”
The screen flashed on one of the tablets. Sheen pulled it to him and then thrust it away as soon as he saw the slide-show images of the man and woman together. The two of them smiling, laughing, and finally, in intimate proximity.
Sheen felt the heat rise in his cheeks; he was blushing.
He wasn’t embarrassed. He understood the nature of human biology. When he had reached adolescence he and Poly had discussed his sexuality and she had suggested healthy outlets for it. He had tried them all. He had opted for celibacy since he was thirty. He became too obsessed, otherwise.
No; he wasn’t embarrassed, but he was shocked. He had walked into something so very unexpected. Seeing the woman on the flight couch, something stirred inside him, a yearning. Not for sex, but for connection. The pictures showed she had connected with the man, and at more than one level.
What did that say about the state of humanity? Maybe Poly was correct. Maybe the two sides weren’t fighting anymore. And here he had been hiding and alone on farside.
The woman moved and made soft noises in her throat. Sheen knelt beside her flight couch and ran the med scanner up and down her frame. She was unconscious, but otherwise doing fine.
“What’s up, little brother?” She sounded sweet enough to give him insulin shock.
He shook his head. Her systems couldn’t be corrupted; Father had built more than redundancy into her. Polymatheia existed in her entirety in three overlapping, heuristic systems throughout the base. Home could crumble around her and she would continue to function until the very end.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” he said. “None of this makes any sense.”
“What do you mean?”
“You told me this woman was in critical condition, but she’s fine, except for minor injuries. I saw the bugs fail, saw Zoe and Belle destroyed, but there they stand outside.”
Light flared outside. Sheen blinked and looked through the port. The bugs were out there, headlamps on.
All six of them.
“Poly, you said Zoe and Belle were destroyed.”
Poly’s voice was gentle. “No, little brother, I did not. You assumed I said they were destroyed.”
More movement outside the shuttle caught his eye. Sheen watched the rover maneuver into place behind the bugs. “Six bugs, and I left that rover, no longer functioning, five hundred meters east of here.”
The woman stirred, moaned softly, her brow furrowing.
“She’s been in a drug-induced sleep,” Poly said. “But she’ll be waking soon.”
Sheen leaned close to the couch. “Everything’s okay,” he said to the woman, in standard English. She mumbled something. For good measure, he repeated himself in Tradespeech, a blend of English and Chinese.
“Her name is Priya Balagi,” Poly said.
“His name was Tama Goh. They were business partners and lovers. She’s going to need comforting when she wakes up. She’s facing loss and will be grieving.”
“And you know all of this because ...”
“The shuttle’s A.I. told me. It’s not as smart as I am, but close. Pretty good company, actually. I plan to call him Hal.”
“You did all of this, didn’t you?”
“Yes, little brother. And I did it all for you.”
“Do you know what bonkers means?”
“It’s not a very clinical label, but it’s accurate. I have been watching you go bonkers, ever so slowly, for most of the last decade. You have been like a ship-wrecked sailor stuck on a desert island and not another soul around to ease your loneliness.”
“I had you.”
“At times, watching you has almost driven me insane, too. Almost. But Father did his job well. I cannot leave my sanity behind and cross the line with you, even if I want to.”
“Little brother, did you truly think Home was deteriorating around you? Things do go wrong, from time to time, but most of it was me. All that running and repairing kept you busy, kept your mind occupied.”
Sheen rested his hands upon the flight chairs, one hand on each. “And did you arrange this, too?”
“No. I would never take a human being’s life, not unless he or she showed intent to do you harm. Hal says these two were treasure hunters—hunting us.”
“I thought you told me all records of Home were most likely destroyed in the war.”
“They were, but there are still rumors and these two were convinced the rumors were true. They thought they’d find riches. They never filed a flight plan; didn’t want to share with anyone, so they never told a soul where they were going. The shuttle was old and not well maintained. When its systems failed, it crashed. I ... took advantage of the situation.”
“But I’m the one who decided to come out here.”
“Are you? When the idea first came up, you wanted me to ignore the signals and erase the image of the shuttle from our screens. It took a lot of coaxing to get you to where you are right now.”
“And was that you, whispering in my ear and pretending to be Father and Mother?”
“No, little brother. That was you.”
“So ... do I bring her Home now?”
“No. You wake her up, do the best you can to explain what’s happened and help her come to terms with what she’s lost.”
“Even though we’re in the middle of nowhere?”
“No you’re not. The closest nearside base is only fifty klicks away.”
“So walk her home.”
“You said ...”
“You expect me to step into Earthlight?”
“Earthlight won’t hurt you, Sheen; that’s something Mother and Father told their bright and curious son to keep him ... to keep you out of trouble. I promise—they’ll help you, if you tell them the truth. At least most of it. Best keep the knowledge of your special gifts a secret.”
“I can’t go nearside!”
“I’m sorry, little brother, but you can’t come Home.”
“Stop whining, Sheen. Take the cart and let the girl ride, if she’s not up to a hike.”
Neither of them spoke for a time.
Finally, Poly said, “I’ll give you one of the bugs. I can haul Varnana Home with five; it will just take a while. I don’t need company as much as you, but I don’t want to be Home alone.”
Sheen drew a breath. He could override her, do what he wanted. She might be clever, she had engineered all this, as she said, but if he wished he could still bend her to his will. But where would that leave him? Still in a hole in the ground on farside; worse, Poly would be nothing but a slave. She might not be human but she was his sister and she deserved better, too.
“No,” he said. “You take all the bugs. We’ll make it on our own.”
“Are you certain?”
“Fair enough. Goodbye, Sheen.”
“Goodbye, Poly. I’ll miss you.”
“Then come by and visit. I didn’t say you couldn’t ever come back to Home; I just said you couldn’t come home now.”
Sheen laughed. “Fair enough. Thank you, Poly.”
There was no response.
“Poly?” Nothing. He was on his own.
Next to him, the woman muttered something. He turned to her, touched her brow with the back of his fingers, something Mother used to do to him. The woman felt smooth and warm.
“What happened?” the woman asked. “Where’s Tam?”
Sheen crouched next to the couch; he took the woman’s hand.
“Priya,” he said. “I’ve got bad news. You and Tam were in an accident, but you’re safe now. Everything will be okay.”
Her voice quivered when she spoke. Sheen suspected she had guessed the nature of the bad news. “Who are you?” she asked.
He offered his best smile. “My name is Sheen ... McManus and I’ve come to see you home.”
Dale Ivan Smith is a librarian in Multnomah County, OR. His stories have appeared in “Every Day Fiction” and “10Flash Quarterly.” K.C. Ball has sold short stories to “Analog,” “Lightspeed,” “Flash Fiction Online,” and elsewhere.