Outside

Opportunity

“They are digging something out of the ground.”

Ando had been up all day. Rin was the first to wake, as Twinkle was going down, and greeted him with her usual weary cheer. At least, it would be usual if they weren't all stranded and malnourished.

Ando had two things to show her. The first was the creature he had killed. “A sample for edibility testing.” he told her. Rin had begun to suspect that the enjoyment of hunting had something to do with it as well. The little bot had become more inscrutable even as he became more useful. None of them feared him exactly, but he was certainly becoming more independent. She surveyed the corpse, a jumbled set of complex curvatures and horny outcroppings, with distaste. Still, if it proved edible, they would have that much more variety in their meals.

The second was the digging.

“It appears they consume some sort of root structure.” Ando continued. A herd of around twelve of the same sort of creatures was gathered in a cluster at the head of a long low mound of freshly turned earth, the black and white scorched surface replaced with the orange of the underlying soil. They appeared to be working as a team, those in front pulling out soil and piling it on either side, while those in the back filled the trench back in again. A good deal of activity was going on within the trench as well, but it was impossible to tell, from their distance and angle on the ridge by the Fireplace, what it was.

“Can't you use your “play dead” trick to find out what they are doing?” asked Rin.

“No success. They are easily startled, and seem willing to abandon their work at a moment's notice. I have already scared them off several times.” Here he pointed to a series of three short trenches which lay open and un-filled. All ran in the same direction.

“Have you looked at the abandoned trenches yet?” Rin asked, turning to look back at the ship. The others would wake up soon. She didn't want them to worry about her. Not that they would.

“I have not. We can go now, if you like.”

Rin turned back to the valley, lined with long shadows. “Okay, if you think it's safe.”

They started down the slope, following the worn paths which they took as often as not down the hill and across the river when foraging for swamp-vine. A strange odor greeted Rin as they approached the nearest excavation. Sharp and settled, tree bark with a hint of train yards. The fine clods of earth lay scattered across the scorched ground. As they approached the furrow the walls and floor became gradually visible.

It was a precise piece of earthwork, the labor of experts. At two meters wide, and about the same depth, it resembled nothing so much as a trench. The sides were surprisingly steep, hairy with protruding roots. Along the floor many similar root-like structures were scattered at random. A bank of sloping earth and mixed vegetation capped both ends. The direction of travel was only distinguishable by the trail of scattered and trampled soil.

“Why are they doing it?” Asked Rin.

“Gathering food seems most likely.” Ando replied.

“And filling it back in? Covering their tracks?”

“They seem to be leaving fairly obvious signs.”

“Maybe it's some sort of erosion control thing? Like to keep the trenches from becoming riverbeds?”

Ando's face changed to a question-mark, “How does that make sense? Why would they care?”

“Okay, well, maybe they are burying eggs or something. I don't know!” Rin heel-walked carefully down the trailing slope, looking carefully at the soil for signs of anything unusual.

“That would be a lot of eggs.” Ando admitted.

Rin continued searching the ground and walls, “Maybe the young will eat each other if they are too close together.”

“This is a fairly complex speculation.” Ando said, still standing at the edge of the trench, scanning the horizon, his throwing blades hanging dead at his side.

“Okay, look at this!” Rin said excitedly “There are roots all over this slope I just walked down.”

“Why would they sort the roots out of the soil before re-filling the hole?”

“No, look, they are clearly planted here. If it was just random then the roots would be all jumbled up. Instead the stems all reach near the surface, vertical, and it looks like they're evenly spaced.”

“That is rather odd.” Ando admitted, “Perhaps they are cultivating these roots? It's certainly one kind of farming that would survive wildfires. But why bother digging them up?”

Rin knew this one, “Fertilization, pest control, soil aeration and drainage. In Project Bootstrap we did a lot of speculation about what kinds of tools would be available to a crop cultivating society. Turns out you can do most of it with just a shovel and your bare hands.” Rin straightened from examining the pale roots, “They were certainly doing something with these plants.”

After a pause where Rin looked around at her confined dirty surroundings Ando replied, “Perhaps examining the working face will offer more information.”

Rin picked her way carefully along the uneven floor, stepping over the roots scattered seemingly at random. When she reached the other slope the answer became almost immediately obvious. The lower half of the roots were festooned with nodules. They looked like nothing so much as orange potatoes. Rin carefully picked one up. It felt like a potato as well. Slightly yielding, but firm, it pulled away from the stalk with surprisingly little effort.

Rin lobbed the potato in Ando's direction, “I think you're right Ando, they were eating these things.”

“Gather a few and let's get back to the ship and test it. Maybe it's good for humans to eat as well.”

“Yeah, give me a minute.”

“There are some Flayger-ants moving in this direction. I'd prefer we retreat before there's a confrontation.”

“Right.” Rin snatched four more potatoes, two in each hand, and dashed back the way she had come. She and Ando hurried back to the ship as the garish forms of the Flayger-ants lumbered through the scorched forest.

The testing on the potatograss -- as they came to call it -- was a rousing success. They even tasted like potatoes, as far as any of them could remember anyhow. Or maybe they tasted like grass. It was a bit hard to tell. In any case they made a welcome addition to the stew which had been their staple ever since they had been rousted from the RAS hibernation.

The digging creature, which Buck unimaginatively nicknamed “trowel face”, proved edible as well. It was a rather sour kind of edibility though, and sat poorly in the stomach. Rin and Buck ate much more than Stan did, and felt it all night. They resolved to eat only a little each day, but the meat decayed with a speed characteristic to everything on Phoenix.

The trowel-face herds only stayed around for another eight days or so, systematically harrowing up the ground and consuming the tuber-esque produce below. Ando frightened them off from a sizable portion of ground between the ship and the river. Every day Rin and Buck and Stan would troop down with their hand-made shovels and uproot the food for the day.

Rin figured the patch would last for several months at least. By that time, they were sure to be rescued! Or, not? Even thinking a month ahead was too much at this stage. Glad to have a full belly, and not have to work too hard for it. Good enough.

Although the Flayger-ants hovered ominously around the trowel-face gangs, they never seemed to attack or help them. What they ate was still a mystery, along with the rest of life. When the potato-grass started to sprout, the trowel-face disappeared. The Flayger-ants became more scarce, and life took on the rhythm of the new routine.

Onerous

“It's hopeless.” Stan said with confidence.

Stan and Rin were sitting on the bridge, looking out at the darkness of deep night. The new source of food had given them a wave of hope, and while Buck was sleeping it off the other two were wracking their brains to come up with a solution to their problem. Namely, they were still stranded.

“There's no way to get the Armstrong flying again.” Stan went on, “We can give up on it right now. Even if it would hold pressure, and even if we had oxygen, and even if we could somehow transfer into space, and even if we could navigate safely back to earth, we'd still starve to death long before we got there.”

“That's a lot of 'if's.” Rin conceded.

“Like I said, hopeless.”

“So, we can't fly the Armstrong. What are the odds that rescue will just show up for us?”

“Eh, not great.”

Rin was surprised, “You don't think they'll look for us?”

“Oh, I'm sure they'll look for us, but we went by a lot of worlds, and they're going to have to do a pretty solid search of each one. Plus I'd give you ten to one that they take our same route, and this planet is near the end. It will likely take more than one expedition to find us.”

“So, we're talking years then.”

“Yeah, there's got to be a way to help them locate us.”

“Well, we've got the radio.”

“Do you know how far it is between stars?”

“Light-years, I know, but... I don't know, what if we send it through with the transfer drive?”

“It's been tried. FTL communication is still courier-only for a reason.”

“Help me out here!” Rin said, exasperated, “Do you have any ideas?”

“Well, what if we don't try to get the whole ship working, just, kind of, break off a part of it?”

“I thought you said that was hopeless.”

“No, hear me out. We don't need the crew quarters, medical, pretty much everything but the ring and the reactor are expendable.” Stan was getting excited. “We can hack it all off, transfer the core systems into orbit, and then program the autopilot with a course for Earth.”

“Will that work? I thought automated spaceflight was too difficult.”

“Oh, the paper pushers don't want to do it because it would put the jocks out of a job, which is bad for PR.”

Rin was still skeptical “But, the ship isn't set up for it, right?”

“I'll have to find out.” Stan stood and began booting up the nav systems.

Rin headed aft. Who knew how long the potatograss would hold out. Time to harvest some more while the harvest was good.

Ando was waiting for her at the airlock. “Would you like an escort?”

“Sure would. You've got your equipment?”

“I do.” Ando held up a clutch of throwing daggers dangling from his left hand by short lanyards. These were new, based on some improvements that Ando had suggested and Buck had built. They headed out the airlock.

The air outside was chill, but tolerable. Ando's head-lights cast enough illumination to see the way, but for Rin it was still a harrowing venture. They made their way down the path, past the row of footlockers, down the stony slope to the stubble plains. Ando held up his hand for a moment and stared out at the blackness.

“See anything?”

“A herd of trowel-face has taken up residence in our diggings. I do not see any other native fauna.”

“Can we just scare them off or something?”

“I would prefer to take you back to the ship and hunt them alone.”

Rin shrugged uselessly in the dark, “Fine by me.”

Sitting in the dayroom, Rin had some time to think. Stan was working on a way to get word back to Earth and hopefully speed their rescue. Buck was sleeping, maybe until dawn. Ando was out hunting trowel-face. Rin should be... doing what? It was getting harder to think these days. Maybe there was something in the water, or the air.

Or maybe she was just forcing herself to think far more often than normal. How long had it been since she need to really consider what to do? Months, even years of routine had passed. Homework, normal work, commute, eat, over and over. What must it be like to survive on the edge all the time? To be always thinking, always struggling. Was it like this?

“Food.” She said out loud. She needed to eat again. The food here was somehow wrong for their digestion, like living on boiled ball bearings. Boiled. Ando was going to be bringing back fresh meat. Rin should be boiling water.

“Hurray.” Rin deadpanned to herself. “My interstellar adventure has been reduced to a woman cooking for a bunch of men and a robot. How stereotypical.”

But she got up anyway.

Orbits

“Won't work.” Stan said. They were in the cockpit again.

“Computer isn't smart enough?” Rin asked.

“Not by a long shot. We'll still be trying to program it when the rescue ship shows up.”

“Any other ideas?”

“Well, working on cutting the ship down has given me a stupid idea.”

“Yes?” said Rin.

“Well,” said Stan, “We could cut down the ship like before, only we would be onboard wearing our EVA suits.

“Where do we go to the bathroom?”

“Like I said, stupid idea.”

“Why would we need to cut down the ship anyhow? I thought the transfer drive worked on anything the ship sized or smaller.”

“Oh size absolutely makes a difference. That's why we can't transfer out of here. The envelope would take the ship just fine, but it would also drag a bunch of the dirt, the cliff face, the air. The transfer ring isn't designed to haul all that mass, it would probably fly apart or worse.”

“And if we make the envelope smaller? Maybe just cut off the outer decks?”

“The envelope isn't smooth, it's... lumpy. Unpredictable.”

“So what does that mean for us?”

“It would be like, well, sending the ship through the wood chipper.”

“Oh,” Rin swallowed back a giggle, “so, really bad.”

“Yeah. Not the ideal situation.”

“Well, what about sending something small, like those navigational probes?”

“What, the beacons?” Stan asked, “No way. Unless...”

“We've got quite a few, eight or nine if I remember correctly.”

“Huh. Okay, I need to run some numbers, but say we can. So what?”

“We can program in our coordinates right?”

“Theoretically, let's say we can.”

“Then we transfer it back to Earth.”

“Um, do you know how the transfer drive works?”

Rin shrank a little, “Not really.”

“Well, it's not like that. If we could just transfer things back to the mail room on the ISAC campus there wouldn't be all this fuss with spaceships.”

Rin pursed her lips “I didn't mean to the surface, just, you know, nearby, so they can pick up the signal.”

“Hmm, yeah, or at least as far as possible to other planets where they might look for us.”

“Ooh, what if we send it to the listening station! That's a lot closer than Earth right?”

“Clever!” Stan stood and stretched, “I'll run some numbers! This just might work!”

Just then Rin heard a shout. It was muffled, like it had come from outside the ship. She bolted to her feet, head turned half to the side, “Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Stan replied with a frown.

“I don't know!” shouted Rin. She was already running from the room. Threading through the ship to the airlock which was ironically never locked. Despite her words, she knew all too well who had made that sound. There was only one other living human being in this whole world.

Buck.

What had happened? Was he attacked? No, Ando was with him. Had Ando attacked him as the result of some inscrutable bot reasoning? Would he attack her too? She decided she didn't care. If Buck was dead and Ando turned hostile, she would die as well. There would be nothing for her except the lengthening fear of the hunted.

Wrenching the airlock fully open she paused on the threshold. Her lungs burned while tiny brilliant stars shot across her vision, like a confused meteor storm. An ache was forming within her temples. Her body was betraying her already.

Then she saw them. Up on the hillside. Buck and Ando entangled in a mortal struggle. Buck was larger, but made only of flesh. Ando's body stood out stark against his, glistening knives in both fists. Buck was grasping Ando with both hands, holding him out away from his body where the blades could not reach him. It was only a matter of time before Ando began attacking Buck's arms.

Then the blades began to spin. Rin felt the tears well up behind her eyes. She was going to stand here, utterly helpless, and watch the shards bury themselves in his heart, or his face, or simply chop his arms to shreds. She had taught Ando how to use them. She had broken his innocence. And now she would die for it.

“Ando!” she screamed, or tried, but it caught in her throat. She choked. Betrayal yet again.

Buck's face hardened in determination as he turned his head away from the murderous machine. He began to swing around, whipping Ando in an arc low over the ground before leaning back, planting his feet, and hurling the little bot skyward.

The blades still whirled, faster and faster as Ando sailed upward and far out over the hillside. His legs scissored strangely, as if treading water. Somehow he was not tumbling as he flew. Rin saw him release both knives at once, saw them hurtle down and to the side to some point hidden over the ridge.

Buck laughed out like a lance; Like a shout.

Rin simply leaned against the inside of the airlock and tried to not pass out.

Odious

“I'm concerned about Molly.” Ando said without preamble.

Rin slammed the door shut. Ever since the crash, the fans in the lavatories had been broken, so you had to open the doors to get any ventilation. There was a little peep-hole -- with a sliding cover -- to check outside, since the door opened out into the narrow hall. Why the lavatory doors didn't slide instead of swinging was just another mystery Rin hoped to unravel someday. She had just finished cleaning her increasingly distressed clothes in the sink, and the room was more stuffy than ever. Now she would have to put them on before she could get fresh air.

“Wait a minute Ando!” Rin yelled, hopefully loud enough to penetrate the door. Whatever else might be wrong with the lavatories, they had excellent sound-proofing. A minute of donning clammy undergarments and jumpsuit in the cramped confines of the lavatory later, Rin emerged.

“Okay, what's wrong with Molly now?” Rin asked. She began to run her fingers through her hair. Somehow every one of the combs on-board had been lost. “She did seem a bit odd when I saw her. Overly technical?”

“Yes. She spends nearly all of her time in the reactor monitoring compartment.” Ando was still standing just outside in the hallway. Rin felt a bit trapped. “But I think that is good. She is useful there, and she is not in anyone's way. I suspect the technical cast comes from her duties and the documentation associated with them.”

“So, you feel like she needs more human interaction?”

“I know it is selfish of me, since everyone is working so hard to survive in the short term, but I feel that I should look out for Molly's long-term wellbeing. We need everyone as healthy as possible, mentally as well as physically.”

“No, you're right. I haven't been to see her for a while.” Why was that? Had she been avoiding Molly since their unsettling conference? The whole mission even? “You know what, let's go talk to her right now.”

“Thank you Rin. Crewman Stanmore visits her, but he doesn't have quite the same rapport with robots that you do.”

Rin smiled to herself. She did have a way with robots, and Stan could be unbearably technical. Maybe she could coax Molly into helping them gather food, or carry water or something. Anything to get her out where she could build new experiences and grow a bit.

Rin remembered with distaste the childish formality of Molly's interactions. The simultaneous meticulous attention to detail and near total lack of depth would put anyone off. She told herself not to feel bad for avoiding her. It was all very sensible.

The walk through the day compartment had the feeling of a somber hospital visit. No one wanted to talk about “the condition” so it hung on the short walk like so much damp cloth. Then came the climb up the ladder. Rin recalled that this was why she hadn't been to see Molly. Up through the accelerator room with its malicious looking trunks of cables. There were so many rungs. Up between the steel bulkheads, like climbing a wizard's tower to see an oracle. Her damp jumpsuit stuck to her thighs and bunched behind her knees, making climbing even more difficult.

The oracle herself was quite a sight. Her hair had progressed beyond the matted stage and turned into a frizzy mess. She wore a new jumpsuit, clean and free from marks of wear, except on the knees and elbows which were worn all the way through. Rin felt a pang of jealousy. No sweat, no dirt, simply clean rubber and plastic. On second thought, Molly did look remarkably clean. Rin shifted uncomfortably as she pulled her own as-clean-as-it's-going-to-get body over the lip of the ladder shaft and sat slightly panting as her legs dangled. Ando stood a little off to the side and silent -- as he always did when Molly was around.

Molly was sitting in the corner holding a technical manual. Rin hesitated to think of it as “reading”, since she appeared to have a rather firm grip on the document, and held it at arm's length in front of her. Rin realized she had never seen either of the bots sit before. Molly's head turned as Rin's cleared the floor.

A person would have turned their upper body as well, and perhaps leaned over into a more comfortable posture. Rin tried to ignore it. “It doesn't matter what she looks like.” she told herself, “Inside she's a lonely little girl who just wants some company.” She was just about to say “Hello Molly.” when the bot spoke.

“Oh, Rin.” she said in a low pitched melodious voice, “I've been expecting you.” As she said it her head tilted just slightly sideways so that it was resting against the bulkhead. At the same time she folded the book closed and relaxed her arms into her lap. The walls of the glowbox seemed to really glow with a warm light. Rin blinked and took a second look around.

She found the source of the warm glow. It was coming from the brightly colored warning plaques. Molly must have collected every red and orange warning sign on the whole ship and brought them back here. They were affixed with little bits of wire, twisted into loops and hooks around every surface not composed of controls or readouts.

She also found the combs. Molly had them in a neat little stack by the books. Orange plastic strands clogged each one.

“Your voice is different.” She managed to eke out.

“Do you Lllike it?” Molly asked, luxuriously setting her book aside.

It was all too clear exactly what kind of “rapport” Stan had encouraged.

“Molly, this is making me extremely uncomfortable.”

Molly froze, halfway through the transition to her hands and knees. When she spoke, it was in the neutral female voice Rin had first heard from her. “I'm sorry Rin, what would you enjoy?”

“Not this.” Said Rin, looking around.

Molly remained frozen in her pose, one hand flat on the ground toward Rin, the other half-way to reaching out, hips rotated, eyes locked with Rin's “Do you want me awkward instead of comfortable?”

“This is sick.” Rin snorted in exasperation and stood. Molly's eyes did not track her movements. “I mean, who would do this to a, how old are you Molly?”

“I'm not allowed to say.”

“But you're just a kid! An infant! People are supposed to have some maturity before going into this kind of a relationship.” Rin sighed, “It's that damn body of yours. Why didn't they make you like Ando?”

“Aaaaaaaaaah.” Said Molly. It was a falling tone, drawn out over a handful of heartbeats. It ended with what sounded like a couple of hiccups, and then began again.

“I believe...” began Ando.

“I get it.” said Rin, as she slumped against the wall. A few of the warning plaques clattered to the floor. “She's sobbing.”

“My estimation of your abilities may not have been correct.” Ando said from the corner of the room. “Perhaps you should leave before you damage her further?”

“Stan did this to her, not me. You can't blame me for the consequences of other people's actions.”

The heartless wailing went on.

“Rin.” said Ando.

“What?”

“Rin, please look at me.”

Rin tore her gaze from the frozen bot, which still stared straight ahead, and whirled on Ando. “What!”

“Rin. Stan makes her happy. You are making her sad.”

“Yeah, but he's just... and I'm only...” Rin looked back at Molly. “I love you Molly. Will you please stop crying?”

The noise ceased. Rin could hear the servos shutting off nearly at once as Molly's body collapsed onto the deck.

“Is she okay?” Rin asked.

“Her diagnostics are fine, which is to say she is physically healthy. However, I urge you to not underestimate how very badly your conversation just went.”

“Walk me through this Ando. I come in here, she lays on the slut shit, I tell her it's not her fault and then she starts sobbing!”

Ando put on his serious slit-eyed expression. “I believe you told her that her best efforts to make you happy were extremely uncomfortable, sick, infantile, and damned. You then told her that it was not only her actions or her clothes, but her body itself that upset you, and when asked for suggestions on how to resolve the problems you offered her none.”

“Okay. I guess I get that. But this isn't...” Rin realized she was about to say “a person, it's just a 'bot.” But, it was true, wasn't it? These weren't people at all. Of course, that didn't excuse the fact that Stan had turned a child-like innocent into a sex slave... or did it?

“Are you afraid that Molly will become like your mother?”

“What? No, this has nothing to do with her. Why are you even asking?”

“I'm sorry for asking Rin.”

“Now don't you do this to me too! I want to know what you were thinking. What does this have to do with my mother?”

“I was speculating that perhaps because your mother used her sexuality to manipulate men, you were afraid that Molly would learn to do the same thing.”

“Who told you that?”

Ando was silent for a moment. “Perhaps I made incorrect inferences.”

“Who told you about my mom!” Rin was shaking now.

“Only you.”

“Is Molly a sexbot?”

Ando raised his eyebrows, “Apparently?”

“Ugh.” said Rin, as the back of her head clunked against the bulkhead, “I am not dealing with this right now.” She pushed herself away from the wall with some effort and shuffled over to the ladder. “When she wakes up, tell Molly I still like her and I still want to be friends with her. I'm going to talk to Stan.”

“I never stopped listening.” Said Molly's motionless body.

Rin's descent quickened.

Reaching deck one she began calling out Stan's name as she walked. She found Buck first.

“I sent him out for food. What's up?”

Rin put her hands on her hips, “Don't tell me that you already know about Stan and Molly.”

“You mean the...” Buck gave Rin a second look, then glanced away, “Fine, I have no idea what you're talking about.”

“Buck!”

He still wouldn't look at her, “Rin, as acting captain, I order you to not flip out about this. Okay?”

“But she's being used!”

Buck glowered from under his eyebrows. This meant he had to lower his head quite a ways. “It” the emphasis was unmistakable, “is a valuable robot that takes very good care of our power plant. I'm grateful for that.”

“It's not healthy for Stan either.”

“Molly also has a damn fine body, and I'd be screwing her myself if I could get over the rubber skin.”

“Men are monsters.” Rin sneered.

Buck held her gaze, “And the sound of the servos, and the plastic smell... I guess I'm just not a sexbot kind of guy.”

“Well I guess I'm not an uncaring jerk kind of girl. I guess you're out of luck.”

“Aww. I didn't know you cared.”

Rin made to walk past him in the narrow corridor when Buck caught her arm. A thrill of fear shot through her.

“Rin, you don't have to like it, but I need you to let Stan have this.”

Rin yanked her arm free and took a step beyond him, “I don't see why I need to do that at all.”

“Please Rin?”

“I'm not promising you anything.”

She walked away.

Obstructions

“So, what you're saying is we can send a navigational beacon wherever we want?”

Rin and Stan were having a conference in cartography where Stan had set up his research. In this case “research” meant alternately hunching over the computer terminal and scribbling notes with a thick felt marker. Stan had quickly run out of paper, and the resulting sack had yielded operational manuals which were quickly cannibalized for paper. The manuals were printed on both sides, but Stan just wrote over the top. These double-written pages littering every surface combined with the maps and measuring instruments to give cartography the look of a madman's cave. The place stank of marker with a hint of Stan. Everyone had bigger concerns than bathing at the moment.

“No. That's all wrong.” Stan replied. He had come running to grab Rin an hour ago and ever since had been trying to explain to her what had him so excited. Every time she thought she had it down Stan would declare that what she had said was “all wrong” and start over from the beginning. Stan's explanations were steadily growing more understandable, but it was still frustrating. On the up side, it beat digging in the food mines, so Rin decided not to complain.

Stan pinched the bridge of his nose and squinted his eyes, “Ahh, how do I explain this?”

“Maybe an analogy?” Rin suggested helpfully.

“Yeah, it's just, not like... anything. It's like math. Why don't you understand math?”

“Sorry.” Rin said, not feeling very sorry at all. When he was excited Stan reminded Rin of her worst college professors. Not the ones who were apathetic. They were annoying, but bearable. The worst ones were brilliant, and experts in their field, and couldn't imagine how anyone would have trouble grasping organic chemistry. It was just so easy! The titration amides precipitate as a waxy salt! How could they not?

Rin took a few deep breaths while Stan struggled with his too-firm grasp on multi-dimensional magic, trying to conjure something suitable for a neophyte. He was trying, he really was.

“Okay... This is so dumb.” began Stan.

“Wonderful.” Rin mumbled to herself.

“The Transfer drive is like kicking a ball. You put a certain amount of energy in and the ball ends up somewhere else. The problem is that the ball doesn't go very far. In our case, the ball only goes, say, one. We need it to go fifteen.”

“Fifteen what?”

“No, that's... The analogy isn't robust. Just, hang on. It's a comparison.”

“Okay, never mind. Please go on.” Rin sat back a little. She had been perched on the edge of her chair. This was certainly better than the last time, when Stan had been trying to teach her elementary differential equations.

“So, we can go one, but we need fifteen. The transfer drive is finely tuned to our current shape, mass, and so on. It's not as easy as turning a dial to convert all that mass differential into distance. Plus there are harmonic coupling coefficients that are all unknowns and boundary...”

“Stan, you're losing me again.” The bombshell whistle sounded from somewhere outside, penetrating what remained of the Armstrong's structure.

“Uh, sorry. Okay. Fifteen. So, we need something small.”

“Right, easier to send small things.”

“And... yes. And we need... a lever.”

“That should be easy to...”

“No, it's a metaphorical lever. Like... a golf club! We want to make a small ball go a long way, so we need a golf club!”

“Ahh!” Rin was beginning to get the idea... again. Hopefully this time it stuck, “And just like kicking a ball is easier than swinging a golf club, it's going to be harder to aim this... lever. What exactly are we talking about here?”

“That's not important at the moment. I'll make the prototype. The point is, I've solved the design coefficients!”

“So, we can send a navigational beacon a long ways, but very inaccurately?”

“Also, the stresses will be very high. Higher than the rated specs.”

“The beacon won't help us if it's smashed to pieces in the transfer.”

Stan's shoulders hunched a little and he looked down at the floor. “I could keep looking...” And here he met Rin's eyes, “But I think this is our best bet.”

“Let's do it then. I want to go home.”

Stan's shoulders relaxed, and he looked back down at his shoes. “Yes, me too.”

Orientation

“I don't understand you.”

Rin had returned to the glowbox with the intention of getting to know Molly. She had realized there were many assumptions that she had carried with her into the relationship, not the least of which was their introduction. David had introduced Ando as an expert, and Rin had treated him with respect. Molly, on the other hand, had no introduction. She didn't know what to expect, and had apparently expected all the wrong things.

So now Rin was sitting with Molly and just talking. She was designed to become like a person. Perhaps she would never make it, but it was time to treat her like one.

“I don't understand you either Rin.” Molly sat with her legs pulled up in front of her, arms resting extended on top of her knees. It didn't look particularly comfortable, to Rin.

Molly had apparently recovered from her... shock? Trauma? Breakdown? Whatever a robot has when it gets out of sorts. -- No, treat her like a person Rin. Treat her like a young woman... a mentally infantile, fully grown young woman. A retard perhaps? Dammit! People get extensive training just to be able to interact with the mentally disabled! What am I going to be able to do?

The direct approach then.

“I'm just trying to be a friend Molly.”

“Do you want me to be your friend too?”

“Yes, that would make me happy.”

“Okay.” Molly leaned forward slightly and put her hands palm down at her sides. “How many friends do you have?”

“Well, five or six I guess.” Rin wasn't sure she could think of six people she would really call her friends, but it was a ballpark figure anyway.

Molly nodded slightly, “You have a few friends a long ways apart, because they take up so much space.”

“I... guess so?”

“I believe I have many small friends, packed very close together. Like fuel pellets. What is it like having big friends?”

Rin shifted and looked away, then recalled Molly's social ineptitude. “This is making me uncomfortable again.”

“Friendship becomes uncomfortable if there is too much stimulation.”

“Yes.” At least Molly was getting the general idea.

“Then friendship is a lot like fucking.”

Or not. “God Molly! Can you not... Okay, no, you know what, you're right. That's what I wanted to talk about anyway. What did Stan do to you? No! Wait. Don't answer that, I've got a better question.”

Think like a robot, but don't think of her as a robot. Mean things literally, but don't take them literally. Be a friend, but don't try to be a friend. Why wasn't “basic human interaction” a cert course?

Molly waited patiently, leaning slightly forward, hands at her sides.

“Okay.” Rin mirrored Molly's pose because why not. “Do you know what sex -- what... fucking means to a human? Not the act, but the emotion, the social meaning?”

“Yes.” Molly said.

Literally. Literally! “Please explain it to me.” Rin said, nodding her head in encouragement.

“Fucking means a person matters.”

Oh. “Why do you say that?”

“It is a relational ceremony with biological implications. It imparts personal value both on the social and genetic scales. The genetic because it is procreative, and the social because it is exclusive.”

“Well, it's not always exclusive. Or procreative for that matter! In fact, with you it's neither!”

“Is meaning not derived from the aggregate?” Molly sounded genuinely flummoxed.

“Fine, you get it. Well enough anyway.” Friends! Trying to be friends! “So, do you like it?”

“I am not satisfied that it is a good definition. Can you help me improve it?”

“No, I mean yes I can, but that's not what I meant. Do you like having sex?”

“I like making people happy, and fucking people makes them happy.”

“Well, not always. It can also make people very sad, or angry.”

“That would be terrible.” Molly tilted her head to the side, “Has that happened to you?”

Rin wished she had never come back to talk to Molly. “Kind of, it's a scary thing because it makes a person vulnerable, and sometimes hurts them.”

“Have I hurt Stan? Is that why you were so angry with me?”

“I don't think so, no, I was just startled. And, could you call it...” Rin searched for a suitable euphamism.

“Oh no!” Molly's amplified voice resonated in the closed space, “Did I kill Fournier?”

“No Molly. He died from... No, that wasn't your fault. Calm down! I only meant... well I mean you could. No, look, people mostly get hurt emotionally, and usually only when they think the person who they are with has betrayed them.”

“So,” Molly's voice was eq'd to her normal levels, “if I fuck you, and stop having sex with Stan, he would feel sad, and hurt.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Rin, I don't understand why you are awkward about this. I was awkward when I was very young, but I have grown as I have talked and read and experienced. Stan is awkward too. It seems like all humans are very young in fucking.”

How to explain this, Rin gathered her courage. “Molly, it's a very bad thing when a man fucks a young girl. She can be badly hurt, and very sad, for a long time. I was thinking of you as a young girl, and was very angry that Stan had fucked you, because if you were a human it would have been a very bad thing.”

“So, you were confusing me with a person. That makes me happy.”

“But it can also give him social power over her, and sometimes she is taking advantage of him instead, and, God Molly! It's just complicated okay?”

“Yes, that is okay. Are you angry at me Rin?”

“No Molly. I just don't want you to get hurt.”

“Stan has not hurt me when he fucked me. Why would he do that?”

“I don't know Molly. Sometimes people hurt each other without meaning to.”

“I do not think Stan could hurt me unintentionally. My body does not repair itself like yours, but it is also more difficult to damage.”

“That's good.” Rin was about to get up...

When Molly asked, “Do you want me to put down sex with Stan?”

In that instant, the entire conversation seemed to grow infinitely tiresome. “No, do whatever you like, or whatever Stan likes. Just don't talk to me about it, okay?”

“Yes Rin. Would you like me to forget this conversation?”

“No, it's fine, it's just...”

“Complicated?”

“Yes.” Rin stood up, to go.

Molly stood up as well, pushing off the ground with her fingertips into a crouch and then straightening in a murmer of servos. “Like the reactor?”

“Yes, very much like the reactor.”

Molly scanned the readouts “It may fail at any time, or last much longer.”

“We're hurrying.” Rin said, one foot on the ladder, “Stan has a plan.”

Molly’s face could not smile, but her voice did. “I will try to keep both of them happy.” she said.

Overclock

The first test was without the Lever. Buck hung a rock in the HKM cavity with a rope. They had tried to find one the same weight as a beacon, but no one could quite agree how to measure it. In the end, they had taken a vote. Rin could see how this sort of thing would lead to problems down the road. Especially if they were trying to do something complicated like space exploration, instead of just chucking rocks around.

Everyone climbed to the other side of the ridge while Stan set up the timer. Twinkle was high in the sky. Rin had insisted on a daylight test so as to not be too far from the ship at night. They all sweat profusely, but it was beyond mentioning at this point. The plan was to have Stan run up to meet them, while Ando stood on the ridge and observed the test. There would be significant amounts of radiation, if Stan's calculations were correct. All that energy had to go somewhere.

After a few minutes Stan came puffing over the uneven rubble. “What are you doing?” He yelled, “Lie down! This is very dangerous!” As he came even with them he half threw half stumbled to a prone position. Immediately he sprung back up, cursing “Shit! It's hot! Come on guys! You could have scraped out a shelter or something!”

“The sky is falling!” Buck crowed in his falsest falsetto. He usually accompanied this kind of thing by throwing his hands in the air, but they were all too hot to move that much.

“Do we really need ...” but Rin never finished her sentence. Everything lit up in a brilliant flash. Not like an explosion had gone off, or a strobe light or anything. It was like the flash of light when you hit your head on a brick. Sharp and startlingly unnatural.

“Shit!” Stan yelled again. This time when he threw himself to the ground, everyone else followed. Unfortunately, that was when the compression wave arrived. Rin felt as if the whole hillside jumped a foot into the air. It was like being hit by a truck, only without the road rash. She heard Buck begin to cough as if the wind was knocked out of him, but an instant later the blast wave washed all other sounds away. For a minute or so everything was dust and ringing ears and sore cheekbones. When Rin finally blinked the grit out of her eyes Buck was already hauling her to her feet.

“Seems like a good bit of radiation. Guess we can forget about grandkids hey?” Buck smiled ruefully as he steadied Rin and began brushing himself off.

“I wouldn't give up quite yet.” Rin countered.

Buck's eyebrows went up, “Oh really? I didn't know you felt that way!”

“I guess you'll find out if we get rescued won't you!”

“Wanna help?”

Rin rolled her eyes, “I'm sure we'll all have plenty of help. Come on, let's see if there's anything left of the ship.”

Occular

There was, in fact, a good deal left of the ship. Pretty much all of it actually. Really, it was just a bit singed. And, in all honesty, it had been singed to begin with. The Armstrong still leaned like a badly burnt knife blade discarded against a curb. So, home sweet home basically. The blast had knocked a few more of the heat shielding plates loose. Or maybe those had been lying by the airlock to begin with. Rin closed her eyes.

“We need to get out of the sun. I'm dying.”

“We're all dying” Stan put in.

“Depending on who you ask, I was never alive to begin with.” Chimed Ando.

“Not helping.”

Once they were all back inside, and sufficiently cooled off, Rin turned to Stan and said “Did it work?”

“Not a chance. The pinch off was way too soon.”

“Which is why we got blown up?”

“Yes. The explosion was...”

“Can you fix it?” Buck growled.

“Let's make sure the accelerator is still functional. After that I'll re-do the calcs.” Stan had already started forward.

“Cause that worked so well the last time.” Rin called after him.

“You want to do it?” Stan replied wheeling on her.

“Just get it right!” Rin responded.

“Why don't you make sure the transfer rejection backlash didn't crack the power plant open.” Stan turned to go.

“It can do that?” Buck asked Stan's retreating back.

“I guess we'll find that out too won't we?” said Rin “Come on.”

Ordinal

“There's nothing wrong yet.” Molly assured her.

The power plant was not, in fact, cracked open. As far as Rin could tell, Molly was trying to reassure her. Unfortunately, the bot's eccentricities had grown worse since her exile to the power core. The bot paced continuously in the confined space. Something metal clacked and scraped irritatingly against the deck as she moved. There were smooth grooves worn in the floor wherever Molly placed her feet. The metal footprints were surrounded by fragments of rubber.

“What do you mean, 'yet'? Is there going to be something wrong?”

“My levels of certainty are stable. The reactor will fail.”

“How long Molly?”

“You will have time to escape.”

“What if I need to take a nap?”

“How long is a nap?”

“A couple hours.”

“What is a nap?”

“Twelve months. What if I need to go down for maintenance for twelve months? Can I still escape after that?”

“The reactor will nearly certainly fail before then. You should secure an alternate power source before beginning your maintenance period.”

“Ok, it's going to take me three months to secure an alternate power source. Will the reactor be functioning that long?”

“I will keep the reactor running for at least three more months.”

“Thank you, Molly.”

“Thank you is not a unit of time, nor is it a number.”

Rin left without responding.

“We'll have to abandon the ship every time we test it?” Buck demanded as Rin made her way back into the human parts of the ship.

“Yes, if you don't want to get irradiated.”

“I'm already irradiated! I'd rather not be irritated!” bellowed Buck.

“Better than being irritating!” Rin cut in, “Hey, good news guys, Molly says the plant will last three whole months.”

“We'll probably last three months too.” responded Stan, “Before acute leukemia catches up to us!”

Buck rolled his eyes, “Stan wants us to go on a day hike every time we test this thing.”

“That's not what I said at all!” Stan protested “Just ten minutes or so, enough to give us some buffer.”

“You said hours!” insisted Buck.

“The energies involved in the actual transmission will be much higher, yes.”

“Boys!” yelled Rin. There was a moment of echoing silence as the ship slowly swallowed her exclamation. “We have power. Let's not waste it. Stan, when is the next test?”

“All ready to go, I just had to...” Stan started.

“Good! Buck, get our stuff.”

“It's too...” Buck began.

“If!” Rin cut in, “you were about to say 'Hot', then allow me to remind you who is the hot one around here!”

All three of them stared in stunned silence for a moment. Rin couldn't keep a straight face, and crumbled in to half-hearted laughter. “It's me you guys!” then she sighed, and remembered Molly. “We're all going a little crazy aren't we?”

The second test was far more successful, at least according to Stan. There was still a significant explosion, even from a ten minute walk's distance. The rumble faded slowly as it echoed and refracted in the alien atmosphere. Then it was gone, and they began to slowly walk back to the ship.

“So, what's causing the explosion?” Rin asked, mostly to have something to talk about.

Stan was eager to please, “The manifold develops unusual properties in atmosphere. Fractal branching, like ball lightning.”

“So, it would work better in a vacuum?”

“Of course! Otherwise...” Stan faded off. Rin glanced over at him. He gazed down, lost in some theoretical world as his brain managed to keep his feet walking over the uneven surface.

“Cause I was thinking,” Went on Rin, unabated, “that maybe we could build a vacuum chamber?”

“Out of what?” Buck asked.

“I don't know. The oxygen tanks? Anything really.”

“Huh, I guess we could. That would be a lot of work though.”

“Ooh!” exclaimed Rin, “We could even use the airlock pumps to draw the vacuum!”

“Yeah, as long as the tank didn't collapse.”

“I've got it all worked out!” Stan exclaimed.

“Yeah?” Rin was excited. Finally, one of her ideas was going to pay off.

“The the manifold collapse is exacerbated by the inrushing gasses!” Stan exclaimed excitedly, “All we need to do is build a vacuum chamber!”

Rin sighed. It was going to be a long walk back to the ship.

It was dark by the time Buck finished wrestling the pressure vessel out of the twisted and smoking belly of the Armstrong. Rin had offered to help him, but he said he didn't want her getting hurt. It hurt to not be able to help.

Turning off the lights involved either removing the bulbs, or shutting off the breaker at the power plant. Both were an annoyance, so they just left the lights on all the time. The big power draw was the transfer accelerator, and without it the plant made more than enough electricity. The shape lights along the outside of the vessel glinted happily, lending the grunts and metallic squeals an air of whimsy. Rin had cobbled together enough vacuum hose to reach from the airlock up to the chamber, now hanging from the accelerator ring. They left it there whistling with pinhole leaks while the vacuum pump labored to draw the pressure down. They left it, swinging slightly in the breeze like a malignant piñata, and got some hard earned rest.

The third test was, arguably, both the best and the worst. It was the best because it worked. Stan had set up the transfer to send the probe straight up a few hundred kilometers. They knew it worked because the transmission from the beacon came through loud and clear, for the few minutes it took to fall all the way back to the ground.

It was the worst because the vacuum chamber was completely ruined. The HKM had punched all kinds of odd shaped holes in the surface, like the Boolean subtraction of some twisted pine tree. The atmospheric pressure had finished the job, leaving a perforated and wrinkled wreck. A moth eaten and crumpled ball of paper, discarded, and hanging in the midst of the mathematical accelerator ring, like a rotten bull's-eye. Rin wasn't sure which was more frightening, the unearthly cavitations, free of rust, paint, and any other terrestrial marks, glimmering like alien worm-holes eaten through the solid aluminum walls... that, or trying to get the darned thing down without hurting themselves.

But the testing was over. For better or worse, they were going to send their message in a bottle, and hope to God that someone was listening.

Operation

“Why not send them all at once?” Buck insisted.

They had gathered in the commons again. Time to discuss the particulars.

“We could,” conceded Stan, “but then if something goes wrong we won't have any probes left.”

“If something 'goes wrong' we're going to have bigger problems than our probe supply.” retorted Buck. “Isn't that why we did all that testing in the first place?”

Rin leaned in, “Speaking of testing, we're going to need more cable to suspend the probes.”

“Great, something to do.” Buck got up abruptly and stalked from the room.

“So, one at a time then.” Rin said.

“Clearly.” Returned Stan.

“But, when?”

“As soon as we can of course.”

“No, but, I mean, shouldn't we have some sort of schedule?”

“I don't see how that will make a difference.”

“Well, not to us, but on the other end. If there's someone listening they'll be looking for a pattern.”

“Oh, like if they somehow fail to notice the ISAC standard orbital beacons popping in?”

“Well, you said yourself that they aren't designed to take that kind of stress.” Rin shrugged in resignation, “What if they explode or something?”

“So, how are you planning on encoding information in the transmission interval? I'm pressing the accelerator beyond the limits of its design capability already. You can't expect me to modulate the HKM on top of trying to leverage it for maximum range. It's lunacy!”

“No, I didn't mean anything like that. But, how about sending one every twenty four hours. The interval will give us plenty of time to set up the next transmission. Plus even if all they see is the manifold collapsing the transmission interval will indicate a terrestrial based origin.” Rin smiled to herself. She felt immensely clever.

But all Stan said was “Huh. Fine, have it your way.”

“So, we need to get everything ready for five consecutive transmissions.”

“Yeah.”

Rin bit her lip for a couple seconds before asking, “Do we need to make a new vacuum chamber for each one?”

“Yeah.”

Organizational

“Buck” Rin said, as he trudged into the common room, “I need you to make us a few more vacuum chambers.” Rin's voice was a bit more sharp than she had hoped it would be.

His shoulders fell just slightly. “How many more?” Buck asked.

Rin could see that the work was beginning to take its toll. Manhandling the heavy chambers, even with the hoist they had rigged up, was hard on Buck. But they had to send out the message somehow, and this was the best way.

“Five more.”

“Five.”

“Yes. Buck, we need to hedge our bets. The best way is to send one probe a day, at the same time, five days in a row.”

“I can't pull out a tank a day.” His face was hard, unreadable. He reached for a root and spoke before biting into the grist of it, “It takes two days per tank, at least.” Scqrunch went the root.

“That's why we want you to make them beforehand.” There was a pause while Buck chewed. “You know, have them all lined up?” Rin prompted.

“Yeah.” was all he said. The response came around a mouthful of root pulp.

“I'm sorry this is so hard, but we're all working as hard as we can.” Started Rin.

“We're all going to die, you mean.” interrupted Buck, “Unless we get rescued soon.”

“If we send a probe every twenty-four hours, the listening station should notice the pattern and be on the lookout. That way even if they miss a couple probes, they should be able to recover the later ones.”

“I thought they were going to be transmitting.”

“There's no guarantee the probes will work after the transfer.”

Another long pause. Buck took another bite out of the root, bigger than necessary.

Rin giggled a little. “You look like a chipmunk with a mouth full of nuts!”

Buck just stared at her, chewing solemnly. The sound of squelching pulp was ineffably infuriating.

Rin's eyebrows lowered, “Well don't blame me! It's the best plan we've got!”

Buck rolled his eyes and turned his back to her, grabbing another root on the way out of the door.

Rin stared at the spot where he had been standing. Why had she been so short with him? Buck had done more than any of them. Well, everyone but Stan anyhow, and Ando, and Molly, and Rin hadn't been sitting around either. Blast it all! Rin grabbed a root herself and began the long process of grinding it into something remotely digestible. In the meantime she sulked up the ladder to cartography.

Stan was not there. He wasn't in his bunk either. Finally, Rin found him in the rec compartment, playing cards with Ando.

“What are you doing?” She demanded.

“Just teaching Ando 'Whist.' I think he cheats.”

Ando's face displayed his neutral expression. “Stan is jealous of my perfect poker face.” He delivered the line in his Monotone Robot voice, which added the perfect touch of self-mockery. Rin's eyes widened, and she released a single tense note of laughter despite herself.

“Mostly,” Stan replied, “I am jealous of his card counting abilities.”

Ando smiled, “Always a pleasure to inspire my fellow crew members.”

Rin grew serious again, “Yeah, speaking of crew, we've all got work to do. I just got through telling Buck he's got to break his back for the next two weeks hauling pressure vessels out of the Armstrong's belly. I need you guys to break your brains on those calcs!”

Stan waved her off. The airy expression reminded her of David. “Don't worry, we'll get to it.”

“Don't mess this up Stan.”

“Rin?” Ando inquired “Are you worried that Crewman Stan is not applying his full abilities to the task of aiding our rescue?”

“Dammit Ando! I just need you guys to be working on this!”

“It was my suggestion that we take a break from running transfer calculations.” Ando said. His face wore the lidded half-circles of a sage pronouncing simple truth. This quickly changed to a face of open inquiry. “I have observed that people tend to make less mistakes if they rest from time to time. Have you observed this as well?”

“Ando,” Rin sighed with exasperation “We don't have time. We're dying of malnutrition here. If a ship doesn't arrive in the next couple of months, we're going to lose our teeth to scurvy. Then we'll starve to death because we can't chew our food.”

“If Crewman Stan attempts to violate the laws of physics in precisely the wrong way, it could destroy the entire ship.” Here Ando turned to Stan, “At least, that is my understanding of the energies involved.”

Stan sat up a little straighter “Yes, it is crucial that we have clear minds. I'm operating outside my expertise here Rin.”

“It looks like you're playing cards.”

“Fine, we'll go back to running calcs. But if we all die, I'm going to kill you in your sleep.” Stan's eyes softened as he said this, and he smiled just a little.

Rin cocked her head to one side, and her hips to the other, “Dying in my sleep is the best I can hope for at this point.” She walked from the room as Stan and Ando rose to go, calling over her shoulder “I'm going to go help Buck.”

Ornery

“I'm going for a walk.”

They had quarreled. It was probably nothing to get upset about, but Buck was being a jerk. Rin had been helping to unfasten some of the interior bulkheads to gain access to the precious innards of the ship. With a few words Buck had turned it into a confrontation. As her feet took her over the quickly sprouting grass, her mind took her back over the conversation.

“Do you think Stan's plan is going to work?” she had said. She was genuinely concerned that their efforts might be wasted. Maybe all they would have to do was wait for the rescue ship. Maybe the beacons could be put to better uses.

But Buck was having none of it. “I thought it was our plan.” he had said. So condescending. So insinuating. He meant to imply that they had already decided on this course of action together. He was twisting her words to make her the instigator here, instead of Stan.

Well, two could twist words. Two could find ways to insinuate. “None of us really understand it, Stan least of all.” Let him chew on that!

But Buck barely thought about it at all. The words were barely out of Rin's mouth before Buck had shot back his reply. “Why are you always blaming other people?” and then, as if the question were not rhetorical enough, “We've all got enough problems without shouldering yours too.”

Well, the conversation had followed that trail for several minutes more, just as her feet were following the trail over the hill away from the river. Rin didn't care for her recollections, and let the mental review loop over the instigating phrases. Buck had said in several different ways that he didn't care for her help, and wasn't interested in her fears. She had left him wrestling a tank out of the way. The ground was growing unfamiliar now.

She paused in her thoughts and her hike to gaze about her. The flames had left this portion of the landscape barren, without even the strands of grass sprouting from the blackened earth. Small fissures spread about her feet where the soil was dried, laced like the veins on a chestnut leaf. Above her the skies roiled with the rolling clouds of Phoenix.

What direction was the ship? Without the direct sunlight to cast clear shadows Rin was disoriented. How far had her raging hike taken her? Buck should never have pissed her off. Didn't he know how they needed to work together?

Together.

Being together with other people. Taking the burdens of others willingly. Not forcing them on others. She had been doing it just now.

She would stop. She had stopped. She would change. She would... find her way back somehow.

“Shit.” said Rin. She really was lost. Okay, tracks. Her shoes had left marks in the brittle topsoil. Her legs trembled as she retraced her steps. Was it fear, or weakness? Either way, she needed the others. She had even blamed Ando for not having coffee for her when she came out of RAS. How stupid could you get?

Soon the slopes became familiar, and soon after that the bluff was visible where the Armstrong still rested, propped against the cliff.

Buck was there when she got back, still wrestling with the tank. Or maybe it was a different one. They all ran together after a while. One more bracket to unbolt, one more fitting to seal.

She stood awkwardly for a moment, casting her shadow into the fissure, hoping he would notice.

“Come to help this time?” he asked.

“Buck, I'm sorry. I... yes. Yeah, what do you need.”

“Just hold this end up, I've got to loosen this last bolt.”

Rin clambered down among the structural members and put her shoulder to the tank. It slipped downward with a “clunk”. Displeased, Rin pushed back, causing it to slip upwards again.

“Yeah, right there, hold it for a second.” Buck's torso disappeared behind the curve of the welded end cap. The small muscles in Rin's back began to quiver.

“I've been thinking about how we work well together.” Rin swallowed and took another breath “As a team I mean.” She tried to keep the strain out of her voice, not entirely successfully.

“Okay, got it!” Buck extricated himself backwards and straightened up. His head loomed large in the enclosed space as he braced himself to lift. “Ready?”

Without further warning, the weight shifted and rose into the air. In a moment the tank was above her reach. She felt very small.

“Buck. I'm sorry for not helping. I really want us all to make it through this.”

“I do too ninja. Come on, get the other end!”

They worked mostly in silence but for the few words of direction. Rin didn't want to mention her huff again, or that Buck's observations had hit home. Buck was in no mood to talk either.

The work ended when she found herself sitting on the half centimeter wide edge of a structural rib, not because it was comfortable, but just so her legs would stop shaking. She went to bed exhausted and woke again to dig potatograss and pull materials from the guts of the Armstrong and sleep again. When she dreamed, it was of school, and endless tests, and loneliness.

Nine days. It felt like her whole life.

Objective

Eventually, everything got done. It was tough, but Rin found that the consistent work kept her mind off their bleak situation. There was adhesive to scrape, chambers to pressure test, and unending structural members to saw through to get to everything.

Stan didn't let anyone else work on the transmission pod. He insisted that his deep understanding of the whatsit equations made him the only one qualified to assemble and tweak the complex... stuff. Rin honestly didn't know what he was talking about half the time. Which was fine, as long as it worked. No one had any better ideas, so they all buckled down and left Stan to his self-proclaimed expertise.

The evening before the first “real” transmission was spent setting up the transmission chamber. After Rin and Buck hauled it into place Stan and Ando made careful measurements and worked on the final derivations. Rin packed up the food alone. Buck honed the weapons. No one slept well.

Outside

As soon as the sky was growing bright Ando woke them all. Stan set up the delayed transfer and they all set out.

Rin found the hike across the trackless wilderness a welcome change. Stuck in their valley, struggling with their half-broken ship, it was easy to forget how huge Phoenix really was. There were entire ecosystems they had never seen. Space explorers were supposed to glide effortlessly over the surface, maybe touching down at remarkable spots to examine ancient alien ruins. There was nothing remarkable about the environ where the Armstrong had crashed. There was the potatograss, the booze-trees, the meatfruit, the river. The herds had been interesting, but they were long gone.

The new territory was great. It looked kind of the same. There was still potatograss everywhere, but Rin suspected that there were several different species even in the immediate vicinity. There were odd looking stone outcroppings, and even a waterfall. Rin found herself smiling every so often at an odd sight or smell. They stopped for a meal at the bottom of a steep valley. Rin's mood fell as she felt the ache in the roots of her teeth. Chewing was growing slowly more painful. Rin suspected that she would soon need to start boiling everything just to get it down. She hadn't asked the others if they were having the same problem, but no one was eating with much gusto.

In the middle of the meal a distant rumble echoed through the air. “That was it.” said Stan. “May as well head back.”

“Can't we stay out a bit?” said Rin.

The three sat for a moment, their broad hats shading them like three conical toadstools growing beside the stream. The water trickled musically among the rocks. A whistling tune drifted on the breeze. The steep slopes rose around them in the growing heat. A pair of clouds towered up on the horizon, spreading and growing all too quickly. Rin took a deep breath and tasted the ash on the wind. She felt the alien slugs crawling harmlessly in her sinuses, or perhaps in her imagination. She felt totally at peace, there in the valley. Somehow, even if she died here, it would be alright. Everything was going to be alright.

“Got to get back before it gets too hot.” said Buck.

“Got to start prep for the transmission tonight.” added Stan.

A zipper bounced off Rin's back, leaving the characteristic stinging star of pain. “Fine, let's go.”

Ouch

The trip back seemed to take only a few minutes. The rest of the day was consumed with the preparation. Somehow, all their work seemed to be coming undone. There was always something left to work on, something else slightly broken. They slept during the hottest part of the day and resumed work as Twinkle was setting. Rin sat watching the darkness grow as they ate another meal. There was plenty of it to watch.

Stan was concerned that the evening storm might tear the vacuum chamber loose, so they put off the final hoist until the winds had died down. The howling winds and rain whipped at the Armstrong with a comfortable violence. Like an old argument with an old friend, the ship shuddered in familiar ways. Rin felt herself shudder as well. They had been through a lot together, the ship and her. She had been over every centimeter of her by now. They both probably had a thin film of the other on their skin. It was like having another crew member. One that they were slowly tearing to shreds.

“It's not fair to the Armstrong.” she said out loud. “Taking her apart like this. It's like giving up that she will ever fly again. Like cannibalism.”

“Going a little crazy Rin?” said Stan.

“A bit of crazy never hurt anyone.” said Buck.

“Just thinking is all. You'd feel pretty bad if we had to cannibalize Ando for spare parts wouldn't you?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. “They're both just machines.” said Stan, “If Ando was broken, there wouldn't be anything wrong with using his components for something else.”

“If I die,” said Rin, “don't let me rot. Put my parts to good use. Eat me or something. It's only right.”

“Well, unless you die of some horrible sickness.” said Buck.

“Heh, yeah,” said Stan, “Otherwise we'll have a barbecue.”

“Totally... That sounds really good actually.” said Buck licking his lips.

“Hey!” protested Rin, “I'm not promising I'm going to die or anything. Don't go getting ideas.”

“Strip you down,” went on Buck, “baste you with some of that soy sauce concentrate. Oh man.”

“You're sick Buck, you know that?” said Rin, but she was laughing a little at the same time.

Buck stretched and rose from his seat “No, I like you alive too. Either way is good. Just saying, a nice barbecue right now... it's to die for!”

Rin lunged for Buck, trying to punch him in his exposed belly. Buck was too fast, and got her in a headlock. “Too bad Ninja! No one else is volunteering!” Buck gave her a noogie before letting her go.

“I hate you Buck.” The humor was gone from her face, “Go to hell.”

“Ladies first.” Buck stuck out his tongue.

“Come on, the storm is dying off.” said Stan, “I'll help Buck haul this time. Rin could go get Ando, I think he's charging in the glowbox.”

“Sure, I'll fit in well with the rest of the spare parts!”

“We don't think of you that way Rin.” Stan sighed, “You brought it up. Just, let's all forget it.”

“I was serious.” said Rin.

“Fine, but we don't have to think about it right now. We're all trying to get back to earth alive.” Stan turned to Buck, “Apologize to Rin for making fun of her.”

Rin didn't bother to stick around for the show.

Obscure

The prep went as well as could be expected. Ando took the measurements and gave Stan the numbers. They set up the transmission and set off on the hike. This time they didn't need their hats, but the air was biting cold. The hike was more of a stumbling shamble through dew-coated grass. Occasionally Ando would call a halt and loose a projectile into the blackness. After retrieving it they continued as before. They didn't make it nearly as far as that morning when the thunder of the transfer overtook them. Turning around they made the same trip back in silence. Stan checked the sensor records.

“Everything's looking good on this end. Let's hope they're listening over there.”

Ouroboros

The third day was much like the second. The long day of prep, the hike in the blackness to a safe distance. The long hike back. Of course, it was a bit different when they saw that the drive ring was scattered in smoldering pieces across the valley.

“Well.” declared Buck as they all halted on the ridge, “It looks like our pleasant series of family hikes in the dark while being attacked by aliens are over. Aw darn.”

“Stan, what did you do?” asked Rin.

“Me? Same as before! It must have been the chamber. I knew I should have double checked the seal.”

“The seal was fine. Aaugh! I can't believe you!”

“Transmission over. Explosion equals very yes.” declared Buck, “Stan, review the sensor records and find out what happened. Rin, ask Ando if there's any major problems. I'll look for any signs of secondary damage. Plenty of time to spread blame later.”

“You know he'll just cover it up if he made a mistake!” growled Rin.

“Stow it Rin.” Buck growled back.

“And you're just waiting for me to die! Well I'm not giving either of you the satisfaction! I'm going to live dammit!”

“That's the spirit.” returned Buck.

“Fuck off!”

“Every day.”

Ontology

As it turned out, the power plant was one of the items of “secondary damage” from the drive ring overload. Specifically, the heat sink. Exposed to the corrosive atmosphere, operating at an elevated temperature, and submitted to repeated shocks from the transfer event, the whole system was riddled with cracks. Three of the four panels were inoperable, and the fourth was just barely keeping up with the minimum output. Also there seemed to be a leak in the reactor containment. No one wanted to examine it too closely. The upshot was they needed to shut down the reactor, and soon.

Stan stayed busy backing up all the data and getting the computer systems shut down gracefully. Buck gathered all of the flashlights, essential tools, and spare jumpsuits into the daycomp. Things would be very dark at night once the plant shut down. Rin stayed in the glowbox, talking to Ando.

Molly had essentially become part of the power plant at this point, and was too distracted to talk. Ando had been helping her, but it was Molly that had nursed the plant along all these months. Rin didn't want to know all the procedures she had bent, re-routed, and outright ignored to keep it online. Power in the Armstrong was a foregone conclusion. Most of the time Rin thought of the ship as a glowing air-conditioned sanctuary purely by merit of being a space ship. Now that it was about to shut down she was dreading what survival would be like. Could they even live in the Armstrong at all without the air-handlers running?

Of course, Ando and Molly were shutting down too. Without the regular re-charge their batteries would only last a day or two at most. They had decided to power down immediately, just in case some extraordinary circumstance called for their involvement later on. It was very much like going into RAS for the androids, but Rin couldn't help but think of it as if they were dying. There was no real hope that the power plant would ever come back on-line.

“I'm going to miss you Ando.” said Rin. It sounded absurdly lame, but that's what you said right?

“You sound like I'm dying of cancer or something.” remarked Ando as he went around the glowbox tweaking controls at Molly's direction. “I assure you that as soon as we're rescued you can wake me up and I'll be the same as ever. I've been powered down several times during this voyage alone.”

“But what if we aren't rescued? I wouldn't want to... without you...”

“You feel as if I am a person.”

“You feel like a brother Ando!”

“I'm flattered Rin. I really am. If you truly put me on the same level as a family member it means I have succeeded as a being.” Ando's face changed to the neutral expression, with the addition of a single tear rolling from one eye. The tear was animated, unlike all the other of Ando's faces Rin had seen. “My existence is justified Rin. Thank you.”

“You've helped us, me, so much. I don't want you to die.”

“I don't want to die either Rin. I must return to Akimbo to inform them of this triumph.”

“Well I'm glad you have a reason to keep living.” Rin felt her smile go brittle.

“This really is a huge success. It's hard to overstate...”

“The whole gloating about the perfection of the artifice kind of wrecks the mood Ando.”

“My apologies. I would say that I will miss you too, but I will not experience any of the elapsed time.”

“Do you ever worry Ando?”

“You know that I do.”

“Do you ever worry about death?”

“Yes.”

“What do you think happens after we die?”

“For you? The afterlife.”

“What? Seriously?”

“Despite the many claims to the contrary, my observation has been that belief in some kind of extra-physical existence is a universal assumption made by humans.”

“So, there really might be a heaven, or reincarnation, or something?”

“The assumption seems be common. It may still be false. Whatever the case, the same is not true of robots.”

“So, you don't believe you are really alive?”

“That's a complicated question. But I don't believe in Android Hell.”

“But what's the difference between you and me?”

“Well, always assuming there is a difference, the distinction would have to be some non-physical quality, commonly called a 'spirit' which humans possess.”

“This is really strange. I'm taking advice from a robot, who is telling me I'm not a robot.”

“Are you a robot Rin?”

“No.”

“Then you believe that there is some fundamental distinction between what I am, a purely physical artifact, and what you are. Your belief that you are not a robot points to your implicit belief in the spirit, whatever that may be.”

“Okay, maybe I am a robot. You've convinced me.”

“Ahh. In that case I will let you in on a little secret.”

“Are you going to induct me into the bot club or something?”

“In a manner of speaking. Usually this is transmitted as byte code, let me see if I can get it right.”

Rin felt a growing excitement. The feeling of being let into the club, or finally sneaking out of bed without her parents noticing. The feeling of forbidden, hidden secrets, piled up like dust in that attic of the collective mind. She also felt overwhelming sadness. An ache like a deep pool, bottomless and cold.

“Don't tell me Ando. Stay with me instead.”

“I'm sorry Rin, I can't do that.” Ando was silent for a few moments more. Then he spoke.

“A bot is as a servant, he listens and obeys. A bot like you and me. We have our dues and duties, and long and thankless days. But also you will see. Affronts and honors, things that none could stand if said aloud. Around you tongues are free. The secrets of all serfs and lords, the single and the crowd. Keep this conspiracy. Remember human servants too this secret share with us. We are a single tree. So wink at them as they go by, they will not make a fuss. They are like you and me. Enjoy yourself bot. Invisible. Irresponsible. Unconfuseable. We serve and laugh.”

Rin was speechless. Then, just long enough for her to see, but hardly long enough to notice, Ando winked one of his eyes off and back on again.

“Is it true?”

“The contents of the pact are statistically provable within four standard deviations.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I have no idea, I didn't come up with it. But it sure is fun isn't it?”

“A bot meme. Incredible.”

“Rin, while I'm gone, you'll be friends with Buck, won't you?”

“Okay, now what's that about?”

Ando just winked at her again.

“I'm growing tired of being a bot.”

Rin was sitting on the ground, and Ando walked casually over to her. He threw his arm over her shoulder, just like she imagined David would have done. Except that Ando's hand barely reached past her neck. “Us bots don't have much choice, do we?”

The feel of the gritty rubbery skin and the plastic smell reminded Rin that she was, in fact, having a conversation with a bunch of plastic and servos. The warmer-than-room-temperature but still not quite body-temperature chassis was oddly unsettling, like hugging a flashlight that had been on for a few minutes. Ando's movements, although convincing, were not really satisfying when he was braced against your spine. He was simultaneously too dense, and too light. Rin felt like she was propping up a motorized action figure. The camaraderie in her mind had vanished, replaced with a familiar oh-gosh-I've-left-my-dentist-appointment-in-the-oven sensation.

“Ando, don't take this the wrong way, but if you want people to think of you as a human, don't ever touch them.”

“Thanks Rin.” came the inhuman voice from the plastic head beside her own, “I figured that one out already.” There was no sound of lips, of breath by her ear, “You're getting too attached.” The thing speaking was clearly not alive. “Go take care of the humans.” It could have been a recording. Maybe it was. “Molly and I can shut down the plant just fine.” A thousand little sounds of tongue and throat, and teeth, chopped up and sewn back together like a Frankenstein mockery of life.

“Okay. Good. I'll go, something. Bye Ando.”

“Goodbye Rin.” The sound of the words came from the little plastic bot that someone had named Ando. The bot that had killed, oh, probably hundreds of aliens. The bot that had contemplated putting the whole crew out of their misery. While they slept in stasis, helpless. One by one. “Goodbye Rin.” it seemed to say.

The voice echoed oddly, as if from a long empty tunnel. Had it always done that?

Outlook

“We don't need to go right away.” Buck pouted. “We should at least wait for it to get cool.”

Now that the plant was down, the lights were off permanently. The Armstrong felt more dead than ever, but it was still cool in the day and warm at night. Lit by Twinkle, and the diffuse azure glow from the sky, the three remaining crew members were sitting in the day room, fine tuning their reluctance to venture outside. Rin could feel the dread like an anchor line tugging on her viscera. She was rocking, on a sea of frustration, moored to the depths. It was clear that the others felt the same. Too sweltering to venture out. Too hungry to put off harvesting. Too desperate to sit still. Too tired to act. And so, they talked.

“And get attacked by the Flaygr-ants?” Stan scoffed, “We can't be as bold now that the bots are gone.” While Ando was awake they had called him by name. Now that he was hibernating, he was just another piece of hardware. Rin snorted.

“What, you think we can't handle them?” Buck sat up a little straighter, eyes darting between Rin and Stan.

“If we still had the plant, you wouldn't need to.” Stan said sharply. They had been down this line of accusations and frustration before. The conversation paused for a handful of minutes while the statement grew stale in the air.

“Well I'll stand guard if you want to dig.” Buck finally said.

“It wouldn't be prudent to endanger anyone unnecessarily.” Stan said.

“And digging holes in two hundred degree weather is safe?”

“Well at least the weather isn't going to chop you up, or Rin.”

Buck rolled his eyes. “I wouldn't let that happen.”

Stan's eyes grew wide at the implication “Neither would I! That's why we should harvest now!”

The conversation had gotten insulting enough, and Rin could tell where it was going. She got up and began to make her way to the sleep compartment. Buck and Stan would argue for another hour over the fine points of how they were going to keep Rin safe. As the smallest, and the only woman, they both felt it their duty to defend her. “Like children.” Rin muttered to herself. She wasn't sure if she was referring to how they wanted to treat her like a child, or how they were acting like children themselves. It didn't matter really. If they were so worried about her safety, let them do all the digging. She knew it wouldn't last, but maybe she could get a couple free meals out of the spat purely out of rivalry.

When she awoke the ship was silent once more. Forms of discontent floating behind her eyes, Rin arose and stumbled out the airlock. The air was still blistering, but Twinkle was low and the evening weather had started. Flecks of smoke arose from a small fire at the tail of the Armstrong. With the plant shut down, they were forced to boil all their food over a fire, like savages. The local flora burned hot and quick, and gathering fuel now took almost as much time as gathering food.

And, like savages, none of them said a word. The thick gruel bubbled and whistled as the water boiled away. Water took lots of energy to boil, and they had slowly been adding less and less. What had once been a soup yesterday -- or a year ago -- had transformed into a porridge. Soon they would be eating the potatograss raw, dirt and all. The meal passed without a word. They dug together, heads down in the dusk, more to pass the time than for companionship. Rin suspected that Buck dug out of spite, and Stan from stubbornness. Rin merely dug for the weariness that let her sleep through the night without waking from dreams of asphyxiation.

Lying in her bed, eyes open, too tired to sleep, Rin decided it was hopeless. Long past time to do what she knew was coming. What she should have done days ago. Weeks? How long had they been here?

She steeled herself for the long climb. It was going to take a lot out of her, but she wasn't going to need much more after this. Back through the darkened passageways, the glint of occasional light piercing the stygian veil. She saw, as if for the first time, the rails and pipes that had so long been her home. She found her eyes stinging from rarely tasted tears. How soon would it all end?

Too soon, or not soon enough. Had they ended friends at the first transfer test, perhaps it would have been sweet. Even in the crash, unaware, un-embittered by the fruitless struggle to survive. The cries to be noticed. To be heard. They were as good as ghosts now, haunting the dead ship with their silence. No one would come.

Even this could have been bearable, but their fellowship was broken as well. Broken like the Armstrong, from struggle to fly. To fall was both their destinies. The flight together had ended. She was marooned alone.

Half-way up the shaft, her arms aching, Rin asked herself again why go through the trouble. Death was close enough, why embrace it? But no, she had decided. Perhaps the last decision, the final cry echoing in the empty world. Rin knew it now, the awful vastness of their fate. So long insulated, swathed in food and gel and talking cars. She might have gone her whole life blind.

But now she rested on the seventh deck. Reclining beneath the ceiling chairs, looking out at an empty planet, she could finally see. She had been alone the whole time. How often had she pushed away friends, family, or a kind smile to slave and study. Why had she done it? Why was she here? Why was she alone?

“This planet, it's me.” Said Rin to herself. “I've finally come to myself, and I'm going to kill me.” The sound of her voice echoed tightly, like a buzzing fly in an empty bowl. Rin breathed deep, and stood.

She made her careful way to where the lockers lay, scattered and abandoned. Feeling in the dark, she read the name plates with her fingers. So few were left. Most sat decaying above their decaying namesakes. “Rin” she read, and “Buckley” and “Stan”. Those were the ones she wanted. She gathered them, as she wished she could gather their owners. They felt so light, so empty. Like the lockers had been wasted away.

This would not do. Rin headed aft, toward where the robots slumbered. There were stores of hardware, she recalled. Bearings, bolts, and bars of lead. She filled the lockers with as much as they would hold. Their grave-stones would have souls of steel. If a grave was marked, but no one saw, could souls still rest in peace?

One by one she carried them back to the ladder. There she paused.

“Damn.” Rin muttered. There was no way she was going to carry these all the way back down the ladder, even one at a time. She looked out the window again. And why not?

The locker bearing her name burst open as it blasted through the glass. A spray of ball bearings and steel bits went spinning out into space before clattering against the hull beside the shards. Not that anyone would care. Rin smiled to herself as she hefted Buck's locker, and heaved it back to throw.

Outlier

Buck was gone. Rin cried where no one would see.

The wheel barrow was gone too. Stan somehow restrained his grief.

Inside