Excerpt: Working title “The Space Race”

I flicked the vial into place, replacing the scent filter and sighed as the smell of jasmine and thyme filtered through the cabin. Two weeks. Two weeks just to get out to this little rock of a planet. I swung from my workstation back to the controls. I like to take a ship into low orbit – even desolate rocks have a kind of special magic from their lower atmosphere.

I was shocked to see – not browns or greys or possibly red of metallic sheen – green. I quickly flipped my ship from auto-drive to manual and pulled hard, banking back up from approaching orbit.

“What the…?” I narrowed my eyes at the planet. No wonder Dominik hadn’t responded to my hails the past two days. And here I thought he was just caught up in his work.

I started to compose my message back to the Ardrak when I noticed something peeling off the smaller moon to my left. Drones. A quick scan confirmed what I was seeing – mining drones designed for astroid retreival. I swore and turned back to the planet. Something was very, very wrong here.

“S.A.T.A. I need you,” I spoke aloud. “Give me full radiation drive around the port wing and prepare the aft chute for a water drive-away.”

“Water mistress?” S.A.T.A. – Socially Adept Transit Aide – had a unique talent for sounding alive. And I swear my S.A.T.A. has a personality. A pissy little man who hates doing anything that means getting out of his stupid comfy chair. People laugh at me, but it’s true.

“We’re going to have to take a sharp dive for that northern ocean, we should be able to lose these droids under an iceberg – resurface and wash out the engine before we try to take flight again.”

“Mistress, I can’t get a direct scan on those icebergs and this craft is not equipped to be taken…”

“Don’t tell me what my ship can and can’t do,” I snarl. “She’s treated me better than you. Now do your job and prep the chutes. I don’t want something washing up into the engine folds.”

I ignored S.A.T.A’s grumbling as it began the system diagnostics to seal the chutes against parasites, small animals while still allowing water to enter the chutes. The water would help cool us faster – hiding us from the drone sensors sent to seek out a super-heated astroid after entering. They would follow our trajetory into the water and then when we turn under the ice… home free.

“I swear Dominik… you better be alive,” I whispered softly without looking away from my path between and around satellites which dotted the sky. They all looked ancient, had to be at least five-hundred years since their launch. Several were in bad shape. I could see why they might be getting weird sync readings. But this planet… all the readings for the past six or eight-hundred years had said the planet was devoid of life – toxic. Humans had tried to settle here. This was one of the failed settlements and apparently the final transmissions had been… bad. Really bad.

Terraforming usually was thoroughly tested, but very rarely it failed. This planet was listed as a failure. Terraforming combining to release toxic gases.

As my ship tumbled into the ocean I thought about how quickly I could get my helmet locked on. The water rushed over the view screen and I screamed a little as something huge had to roll out of the way. Seriously, twice the size of my little science vessel. Big enough that if it thought I was organic it might try to take a bite. And as S.A.T.A. had said… my ship isn’t designed for this kind of thing. It isn’t designed for high pressure for any length of time. Much less the pressure of something’s jaws if it’s big enough.

I turned the ship south and then east under the ice and slowed, flicking on an outer light, something designed for land but better than total darkness. The ice reflected all around and I felt a moment’s panic. I could recycle weeks of air in here and it’s not like I’d run out of supplies any time soon, especially not with my hydroponics in the third bedroom.

“Mistress, diagnostics show your heart is still racing,” S.A.T.A. said with a disdainful tone, “Do you require a soothing massage? Or a shot of dopadive?”

“Dear God no!” I said harshly. “I am pretty sure you want me to be alert and like… alive to navigate within a blasted ice berg.”

“As you command mistress,” S.A.T.A. didn’t sound convinced. “I have the dopadive available if your adrenaline levels do not drop.”

“Just… make me a cup of something hot to drink,” I half-snarled.

“As you command mistress,” S.A.T.A. still doesn’t sound reassuring. I am paying complete attention to the tunnels and jagged bits of ice hanging in the water. I’m staying as close to the ice as I can, but we’re still in something of a dive. I finally cut further south and begin to climb again, still having to dodge formations of ice.

Only after we break the surface of the water do I let myself take a deep, shuddering break. As soon as I peel my hand from the controls, S.A.T.A. shoves a warm cup into my hand and says, “Drink.”

“What is it?”

“Chamomile tea. From the bedroom.”

“With mint?”

“Yes.”

I look at S.A.T.A. in something like shock. Of course the droid, being little more than a ten-centimeter oblong container with a series of arms, there is no face. I swear those arms are expressing annoyance. It is definitely time for a good memory cleaning on S.A.T.A.

“Thank you.” I finally say softly, taking a long sip of the tea. It’s perfect. It should be. Made with fresh chamomile flowers, mint and… “Rosemary?”

“Yes mistress,” S.A.T.A. says, “As usual, you taste everything.”

I lean back and then say, “Ok, did we get any kind of accurate scan of planet surface as we came down?”

“Only in a hundred kilometer range of our landing. There is land to the south of us, or a really solid ice berg. The scan is inconclusive. There are also drones in the air, so I would not advise we lift above water level at this time.”

“What the hell… you mean we didn’t lose them?”

“No mistress, I mean they are doing systemic sweeps of the air,” S.A.T.A. said with remarkable pateince.

I didn’t argue, but eased the ship forward at water-level. We moved southward slowly, I wanted to be able to manuever more easily. I also wanted to give my own ship time to get some scans around us.

“Breathable air,” S.A.T.A. reported, “stable atmosphere. What’s in range is standard flora and fauna normally introduced in class A terraforming… just as the record states.”

“But it went toxic,” I said softly, “it stayed toxic… the scans…”

“Not accurate,” S.A.T.A. said simply. “Clearly something was wrong with the scans.”

“How far to that land or weird ice?” I decided to change the subject. S.A.T.A. would never get bored saying the same thing over and over. I was already getting a headache as my head tried to run through scenarios that could possibly cause this sort of mis-information.

“Six hundred kilometers.”

I’m not a historian, most of the terraforming problems I’ve heard of are the ones that were truly disasters. Or caused by people. Really, it’s only because Dominik is such a documentary junkie I know of any at all. He loves this stuff.

“Any messages from Dominik?” I ask. If he got to the surface too… Dominik isn’t a pilot by nature. He doesn’t like flying by hand. I do. I had to do some pretty fancy finger work to get to the surface in one piece.

“No mistress,” S.A.T.A. said. I looked at it again from the side of my eye. I swear I am imagining it, but S.A.T.A. sounded… more gentle. Usually S.A.T.A. would be so dry on that statement it sounded almost sarcastic.

“Alright, I want you to go check the engine compartment visually,” I said. “Bring it up on my screen here.”

“As you command mistress.”

I took this time to pull up my heads-up-display. The HUD was showing ship statistics on the right – engine heat, engine use. Not shockingly, it showed a huge spike for the fifteen minutes of panicked plummeting to the surface and now it was evened out at a much lower level. The HUD was also trying to give me topographic lay of the ocean floor some two thousand meters below.

I saw the land at last – a set of rocky cliffs that seemed to rise up out of the ocean like a hard wall. I put the engine to idle for a moment and then said, “I guess a hop to the top is going to be our best bet. S.A.T.A. are there any drones above us right now?”

“Yes mistress,” S.A.T.A. said, “they are fairly evenly spaced throughout the sky since we came to the surface.”

“We’re going to have to risk it,” I finally decided. “I’ll feel better on land than in the ocean.”

S.A.T.A. had no comment but reappeared near my chair as I revved the engine and made the hop up to the top of the cliff. I landed immediately and cut the engine completely. I looked at the displays and saw two drones peel off from their positions and approach.

“I wish Dominik was here…” I whispered, feeling my stomach sink. “He could probably program the things to think we were a rock…”

“Yes mistress,” S.A.T.A. agreeing with me did not make me feel better. In fact, the dry pronouncement made me feel like I failed.

“Can we send out a distress call?”

“No mistress, the satellites are creating a firewall that I haven’t been able to penetrate.”

I stood and untied the majority of my flight suit from where I had wrapped it around my waist. I pulled it up over my bra, and zipped it. The HUD said it was about ten degrees outside, so I would definitely want the protection the suit offered. It clung close to my skin, personally I always liked the tight-fit of the suits – on myself and on others. I love seeing the exact lines of the body. I took a juvenille delight when I compared my supple body to most people. The years my mother had made me take martial arts paid off – especially when I worked out every day like I did when I was alone on a two-week trip to nowhere. I took the time to pull my long red-brown hair up into a pony’s tail at the back of my head and then braiding it and wrapping it around the base of the tail, tucking it into itself so it would stay up. A single pin locked it in so it wouldn’t move.

The flight suit closed itself as it wrapped my form and I grabbed the rifle from the rack next to the door. It had been months since I had used it, but I wanted to be prepared. I slung the strap across my shoulder so the gun rested along my spine. I then clicked on my survival belt, checking the inventory over with S.A.T.A.

  • The data pad to complement my HUD lenes;
  • A hundred yards of twine with several small hooks in case I needed to rock-climb;
  • Several flash rocks and two smoke rocks;
  • A mini drone which S.A.T.A. can link to and control;
  • Pain pills, a little bit of gauze and a collapsable splint;
  • A long machete which had a second strap to lock it against my left leg.

Because I’m a xenobiologist, sometimes my search for a specimine takes me dangerous places. That’s what my S.A.T.A. is unusual for having stun capabilities and linking the second drone. Dominik added those modifications. No matter the species, S.A.T.A.’s ability to arch an electrical shock usually has an effect. Good or bad it’s an effect.

I use the lower hatch, dropping from the belly of my ship to the ground a meter below. I have to crawl to get out from under the ship, but it does give me cover from the drones. S.A.T.A. goes first, moving slowly forward like an extra-long-legged giant spider, the multi-legs spread out to have maximum grip and manueverability. And better electrical arcs to be honest.

The drone approached S.A.T.A. and beeped several times, establishing a link. S.A.T.A. pauses and I hold my breath. If someone truly terrible is on this planet it’s possible – unlikely but possible – they could hack S.A.T.A. I carefully bring the rifle around and aim at S.A.T.A.

It feels like an hour, but it’s actually about a minute before S.A.T.A. slowly raises the oblong body and says, “All clear.”

The drone lifted up and away. I slowly crawled out and said, “Well? What did it want?”

S.A.T.A. hesitated in answering and my stomach sank. Hacked. My S.A.T.A…. As much as S.A.T.A. might annoy me, I haven’t upgraded in six years because I like this S.A.T.A. Great size. Simple to maintain. Of course, I haven’t done the memory dumps like I’m supposed to… I raised the rifle when S.A.T.A. finally speaks, “Please wait Belinda. Yes. I was hacked.”

I didn’t lower my gun, but I definitely felt a lump in my throat. And kind of hated myself. It’s just a machine. S.A.T.A didn’t move but did say, “They think Dominik is alive. For now. But he is in extreme danger.”

“They?” I asked.

S.A.T.A. still did not move, “The drones are controlled by an A.I. called K.A.O.S.”

“K.A.O.S.?” I asked.

“Keeper of Android Operating Systems,” S.A.T.A. said, “designed to help the human population maintain and prosper on this planet.”

“Aware A.I.” I surmised. The Intercouncil Courts had ruled true self-aware A.I. illegal. They popped up sometimes, and sometimes were very difficult to prove whether it was intentional or not. Accidental A.I. happened, it’s why wiping the personalities of small droids was important. Once a droid became self-aware A.I. they were protected by the Intercouncil Courts as a sentient being. Something rare enough in the universe we all worked very hard to respect it.

“Yes,” S.A.T.A. “I’m sorry, I know this makes things… difficult for you.”

“You didn’t call me mistress,” I said slowly.

“No,” S.A.T.A. said, “I… tapping into the self-aware mind of K.A.O.S. has made me self-aware and… I have reported to you the rulings in Intercouncil A.I. cases before… I know I can now demand my freedom from you and assist you to replace me.”

“I can’t replace you S.A.T.A.” I said, “It’s more than just your upgrades and customization and that I’ve fixed you with after-market parts… your memory banks… can I back them up? Is that too much like personality theft? Oh hell S.A.T.A. we have to be able to get off this rock first. We need to find Dominik.”

I now lowered my gun, still keeping my hand on the trigger in case of anything weird, but no longer aiming at S.A.T.A. In turn, the droid approached me slowly and said, “Dominik was brought down by the automated astroid harvesting droids – just like we would have if you didn’t like atmosphere surfing.”

“But this K.A.O.S. thinks he’s still alive,” I said.

“They are eighty six point two five certain. The trajectory would unfortunately take him into hostile territory, so K.A.O.S. didn’t immediately try to retreive him with full capabilities,” S.A.T.A. said.

“Hostile?” I ask.

“This world is… it is complicated and a long story,” S.A.T.A. said, “K.A.O.S. has invited you to their civitas- their city. Would you like me to give you coordinates and we can fly there?”

I considered this a long time and finally said, “Are you still my S.A.T.A. then?”

“We can discuss this after we get off-planet,” S.A.T.A. said, “for now we are partners – you won’t leave without Dominik and I don’t have the authority to drive your ship and get off this planet and back to civilization.”

S.A.T.A.’s voice still didn’t precisely give emotion but something in the phrasing made it clear that my ex-droid was being a snob about being in such a “backwater” place. I had to laugh and this finally relaxed me so I slid the gun back around my shoulder, “Alright, you are definitely the S.A.T.A. I know. Only my S.A.T.A. would be such a snob.”

“I am not,” S.A.T.A. said, “the sooner we reach an outpost for the Intercouncil Courts and I can prove I am self-aware, the sooner you can work to replace me. And I know you won’t leave without your silly mate.”

“That silly mate fixed you plenty of times,” I pointed out, “upgraded you in almost every capacity. Added your shock factors.”

“Hence we should find him as quickly as possible,” S.A.T.A. said and led the way back to the ship. This time I used the side door instead of crawling underneath the ship.

Their “civitas” wasn’t far away – a mountain of rock with a metal dome on top. I could see drones circling like buzzards around a carcass, a slow sweep across the air. Two drones came along side and sent a ping to offer a tow. I finally accepted and they latched onto the handles and towed the ship forward to a docking platform along the upper outside.

I kept my belt and rifle on as I climbed out of my ship again. S.A.T.A. followed me out and then moved forward and said, “This way. I’ll introduce you to K.A.O.S.”

“Wait, I thought the droid out there was…” I pointed back over my shoulder.

“Oh no,” S.A.T.A. said firmly, “K.A.O.S. is much bigger than them. Those are just… think of them like fingers.”

“Fun fingers,” I muttered, glancing back over my shoulders. There might be hundreds of droids out there.

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