To our families. You mean the world to us. Perhaps even every world.

Original Author's Note

Regarding Space Travel

Any author who hopes to write a story about interstellar space travel must eventually deal with the fact that interstellar space travel is impossible. Or if not impossible, then so shockingly impractical that it's probably not worth the trouble. We can't go to the stars in real life, but we hunger to see them and discover what secrets are hidden behind all of those shimmering white dots. So to soothe our curiosity, we write stories about outer space. However, in our stories we can't travel through space for all the same reasons we can't travel through space in the real world. The only saving grace of fiction is that we can cheat.

I suppose you can write a story about a guy who decides to find out how a remote colony planet is doing, and so he spends most of his adult life traveling there. Then his daughter spends her life bringing back the reply, “We're mostly okay here, but we're fresh out of that orange cheese dust they put on chips and cheese doodles, and we don't know how to synthesize it ourselves.” Then the man's grandson takes them a shipment of cheese dust and his great-granddaughter brings back their reply of, “Thanks!” I'm not saying it can't be done, but there are certain limits on what kind of story you can tell if it takes decades to go somewhere and your characters keep dropping dead of old age. It's going to be murder on pacing.

One popular solution is to just cheat around the physical limits of the universe with technology. Take all the unknown stuff about how a ship can move in space without needing to constantly shed mass, how it can get anywhere in a reasonable time frame, how it can circumvent the unbelievably annoying restriction that you can't travel faster than light, and where all the required energy is going to come from. The author puts the solutions to all of these problems in a box, they write “magic” on the side, and then they strap it to the back of a spaceship and call it the engine. Then the author can stop worrying about all that crap and get on with their space adventure.

The other solution is for the scientifically minded author is to try to bluff their way past these problems by dropping in some ideas based on quantum tunneling, string theory, black holes, or whatever stuff is popular enough that readers will have heard of it yet complicated enough that they will have no idea what it really is. The author can cover up the word “magic” on the side of the box with jargon. The problem with this is that it takes a good bit of scientific knowledge to pull this off without making a fool of yourself, it can sometimes be a bit dense to read, and unless you actually know how to travel faster than light, you're still going to end up with a magic box.

In this book you will find my own solution to the problem. I wanted technology that was at some kind of mid-point between the booster-rocket technology we have now and the magic “warp drive” technology of the future. Something that's complicated, inconvenient, but mysterious to the reader. This fixes my most frequent objection to fictional technology, which is that it's usually not nearly enough of a pain in the ass. When I see a large-scale transportation technology that isn't an expensive logistical and maintenance nightmare, it really pulls me out of the story.


Assistant Author's Note

It was both a joy and a challenge to 'finish' this book, and an honor to 'work with' Shamus, or at least his prose. However, when working with fiction, one often has to wrestle with the issue of authenticity. In this case, two authors worked with very little collaboration to create a story. Neither of us can claim our contribution is “authentic” except that we are authors. It is in this sense that I present to you, the “real story” of Rin. It is real in the sense that it is complete, and that it is a public record of events as I see them unfolding. I have no authority to claim my extrapolations are canonical in any sense, except to the degree that they are convincing.

I have also taken upon myself to alter what Shamus has put down, altering the unfinished text to suit the direction I wanted to take with it. As I “ran with” the story, I gladly take the blame for the terrible characterization, stilted dialog, poor pacing, and occasional blatant inconsistencies anywhere in the entire text. The presence or absence of such flaws I can, of course, not confirm, having worked with the text too long and too closely to see anything but afterimages. Shamus set the stage, the characters, and the general course, but if it drives upon the rocks know that I was the captain at the time. But, of course, if one wishes to find credit for the core conceits of this tale, I must yield the floor to Shamus. His was the framework on which this story hangs, and I have only attempted to fill it out and see it to completion.

Although some attempt has been made at accuracy in physics, history, society, psychology, and philosophy I cannot claim to be an expert in any of these fields. Alas, if it were so I could no doubt write marginally better fiction. I could also, however, find much better uses of my time, so perhaps it is to your benefit that I know so little. Whatever the case, please take the contents of this story with a dash of whimsy. The technicalities are intended to be engaging and provocative, but not precise to five places (and anyway, three places is quite sufficient). I encourage you to view the following narrative not as a definitive record, but as one young woman's experience of several tragedies (intertwined, no doubt) and what seemed (to her) to come of it... As seen through the eyes of two decidedly male authors.

We often turn to non-fiction to find truth, and fiction to find novelty. It is fascinating that this relationship is inverted when writing. As authors, it is fiction which allows us freedom to express our true beliefs without the fetters of research or credibility. Likewise, authors of non-fiction are forced to learn and understand alien concepts in order to conform to a reality which often defies explanation.

It seems that this revelation of the self attracts both prophets and egotists. I hope to be one of the former, but without falsifiable statements of fact you won't be able to prove it. Here we see the dual strength and downfall of fiction. It comes closest to personal conviction, while being the furthest from corporate conviction. Nevertheless I (and I hope many others) find fiction often the more convincing. It bypasses external reality, and informs of and to the internal one directly.

This story was the most “dark”, “gritty”, and “serious” of any I have worked on. As such, you will find within harsh language, indiscreet situations, and generally things you might not want to read out loud to your kids. I don't plan on reading it to my kids, or at least not too often (though I did read an incomplete version of the text to my wife in their presence (Thanks for the feedback and support Anna!) without any perceptible ill effects). I am not ashamed to have written such a work, as I feel it reflects the state of the world as it really is. But I also admit that the events could have been cast in a much happier light, and that the dingy shadowed feel is intentional.

It is clear that when Shamus began this story he was writing unabashedly about what interested him, and I have striven to do so as well. We are (if I may be so bold as to state quite bluntly) both rather interesting people to begin with and I think we have put together a rather interesting story for you to enjoy. That this story contains topics and situations not generally considered “nice” is a side-effect of the process. I have attempted to treat everything without gratuity, but also without flinching from the fact of the matter, whether this entails the actions of characters or their own individual views. If you deduce from the result that the authors are themselves not very nice people, well, you may be on to something. I'm sure our wives will be happy to provide you with supporting evidence.

With all that said, please enjoy. This is the longest narrative I have had the pleasure to flesh out, and I hope its setting and characters inspire you to do what you can with what you have, no matter who or where you are.


P.S. if you have feedback or comments, feel free to leave them in this forum thread



Like birth, the unremembered pain and disorientation struck her as a sudden release of pressure. The light was sudden and sharp, even through her clenched eyelids. Rigid hands slowly forced her slime-covered body onto her side. Her ears were blocked, so that the sounds around her were deep and remote behind the wet gasps of her own labored breathing. If she had been an infant, she would have screamed. Instead, she pulled herself into a ball, nursing the numbing ache in her limbs. She felt very heavy.

Coming out of forced sleep on an interstellar ship was a lot like being born. Rin hacked and coughed a few times to expel the slime. A towel was pressed into her hands. She sat up and scraped off the gel without opening her eyes. There was something in her mouth. Was it some leftover tubes? No. It was bits of her long hair, which was matted to her face. She pawed at the mess with numb hands until she had most of it behind her head where it belonged. It was good that they cut her nails before waking her.

She drew in a ragged, slow breath so she could push out a single word. “Coffee.”

“I'm sorry Rin. There isn't any coffee available.” It was Ando's voice, synthetic only in its perfection.

Son of a bitch. There were hundreds of cubic meters of supplies on this ship, and they didn't bring enough coffee to last the whole voyage? Coffee was relatively cheap, in terms of storage space. Also, why was the robot the one waking her up? Where was Dr. What's-His-Face, the guy with the French accent? He didn't have a lot of jobs on this ship. In fact, thawing people out and freezing them again was pretty much all he did. Why wasn't he here?

Rin pried her eyes open and nearly threw up. She was so dizzy that it seemed like the entire RAS bay was tilting to one side. Before she slammed her eyes shut again she saw Ando standing in front of her. The grid of blue lights that made up his face were arranged to show a neutral expression, except his eyebrows were raised. What was that supposed to convey? Concern? An apology? His small frame of white plastic and black metal had been standing directly in front of her. His hands were behind his back in a way that, if imitated by a human, would come off as horribly smug.

Now that her brain seemed to be warming up, Rin realized she shouldn't still be aboard the ISV Armstrong. The doctor had put her to sleep for the remainder of the voyage. They should be back on Earth. She should have been unloaded with the rest of the cargo and woken up in quarantine. Were they back? That would be nice. Maybe she could sneak a view from orbit before they went down on one of the shuttles.

She opened her eyes again. The room-tilt was still going on. She managed to hold them open this time, shielding them from the light with one hand.

“Not Earth.” she muttered.

“There's been an accident,” Ando replied in his calm, friendly voice.

“Oh?” Rin was starting to worry that all of the questions in her head were pointing to something really serious, and she just wasn't getting it yet. “Let me get dressed and pee,” she mumbled.

“I'll wait for you,” Ando replied. His narrow, child-like frame turned and descended the ladder to the medical compartment.

Her RAS pod was still hanging open, and there was a dribble of gel from the mouth of the pod to the table where she'd woken up. Rin peeled off the soaked medical gown and lurched across the room to her locker, which was beside the pod. The dizziness was incredible. It really did seem like everything was at an odd angle.

She managed to wrangle herself into the jumpsuit without falling face-first into the locker. As she zipped it up, she caught sight of the porthole for the first time. Her left eyebrow twitched.


She stared out, hand still on the zipper. There was nothing that could explain what she was seeing, a cloudy blue sky outside of the window of an interstellar ship. It was like looking out the window of your car to see fish swimming by, or the inside of some monstrous creature. This image made no sense. Interstellar ships never took off or landed. They were even built in orbit. Had they jumped in error?

It was at this point that she realized that she wasn't dizzy. The ship really was inexplicably listing forward and to one side.

That must have been one doozy of an accident.

Rin slid down the ladder to the medical compartment and fell on her ass. Partly this was because she was still addled from the long sleep, but mostly it was because she was accustomed to using this ladder in half gravity, and she was obviously a lot heavier than that now. The thump echoed hollowly in the hull, and she cried out. The pain, in her cold flesh, was intense and aching. She wondered for a moment if she had broken her spine. What was she thinking, sliding down the ladder? She experimentally tried to move, and found that she could still stand.

Cursing her foolishness and rubbing her backside, she staggered into the head and took care of business. Emerging several minutes later with her hair properly pulled back into a pony tail, Rin discovered that her nose was running. She sniffed, a fresh splash of lukewarm water still dripping from her face. The towels were all missing for some reason. Annoying.

“Why did we land?” she asked Ando. She was very much afraid this question would sound insane, but it seemed the most straightforward way of proceeding.

“We crashed,” he said evenly, to her dismay.

Well, maybe... “On Earth?”


Rin shut her eyes. This was not her fault. “I knew this would happen.” she said bitterly.

Ando's face took on an incredulous expression. “Why did you not warn the others?”

“Shut up Ando.”


“Okay,” she said, feeling dizzy again and trying very hard not to freak out. “Where is everyone?”

“It will be easier to explain if we go outside,” Ando replied. He turned and headed aft, his rubber padded metal feet thumping hollowly against the thin deck.

As she followed Ando slowly through the ship, Rin couldn't shake the odd feeling. She had felt this way before, somewhere. The fluttering in her stomach, the lightheadedness. Her limbs had the oddly numb sensation, like they were on the verge of falling asleep. She felt the urge to take deep breaths uncommonly often, and maybe just sit down and rest for a while. Maybe she had felt this way in school, before an exam? The association hovered on the edge of her mind. If only she had the energy to grab it.

Rin shambled, half dazed, through the officers' sleeping area, through the day area, rec room, EVA storage. The ship struck her like a painting hung slightly askew, or seen in a mirror. Familiar, but not quite right. An odd odor hung about the place, like someone had burnt... something.

“Should I suit up?” Rin asked, pointing at the rack of space suits. They looked strange. Rin realized they too were hanging at a slight angle.

“No.” Ando led her into the airlock and cycled the doors. It felt very, very strange to be standing in the airlock without wearing a suit. Rin's heart began pounding and her palms began to sweat. Leaving the ship without a suit would get you killed. She slapped the emergency abort reflexively. The inner doors froze immediately in their nearly-closed position. A little red light flashed urgently beneath her palm.

“You're absolutely sure Ando?”

“You'll have to trust me Rin.”

Rin felt dizzy again. She took her hand off the abort button. The flashing red light hurt her eyes. “I deserve an explanation.”

“The others found the atmosphere breathable. The fireplace is just outside.”


Ando crossed quickly in front of Rin and deactivated the panic button. It took both of his hands. The inner doors sealed.

The outer doors cracked into a widening seam of pure white. A silent inferno invaded the airlock. The crushing wave of hot, sticky air washed over her, flooding her sinuses. At least the goop had drained. A buzzing chirruping sound filled her ears. She forced her watering eyes to squint into the overpowering blaze.

Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the light. In another context she might have described the scene as “fantastical”. If this was a concept drawing hanging on a wall somewhere, it might have qualified as “strange and alien”. But it was pouring into her, coating her skin and filling her ears and the inside of her eyes, and the only word that came to mind was “unsettling”.

Everything was just a bit off. The sky was a very deep shade of blue. The sunlight seemed a little too bright and pale. The plant life was a darker shade of green than what she was used to. The undergrowth looked wrong.

The most unsettling detail of all was the trees. They didn't look or behave like earth trees. Thick trunks grew up in twisting patterns and ended in spikes, but they didn't have a canopy of leaves overhead. Instead curtains of leafy or grass-like stuff grew directly from the gnarled trunks, like a cactus with lawn clippings stuck to the body. The trees weren't grouped together into forests, but scattered over the landscape in isolation.

The hills rolled off into the impossibly blue sky, dotted with tree spikes and covered in an even layer of hip-high undergrowth. The ground sloped away from the ship, leading down into a shallow valley.

Rin took a deep breath and felt wobbly. She put her hands on her knees, shaking as if she'd just finished a sprint. Her first freezer nap didn't weaken her this severely. Had she been asleep longer this time? “When did we crash? How long have we been here?” she asked.

“We crashed on March twenty-second. It's now July fifteenth. We've been here for sixteen weeks.”

“It's July? I think the doc put me down for the freezer nap in late January.” She paused for a moment to do the math. The math-doing parts of her brain seemed to be a bit numb along with the rest of her and this took her longer than it should. “I was under for almost six months. That's dangerously long.” Rin muttered.

“Yes. Six months is the edge for many unpleasant risk factors. You don't seem to have any obvious signs of damage to your nervous system. Hopefully your youth can protect you from the other adverse effects.”

Was she at risk for brain damage? If she was brain damaged, how would she know? “I guess the long sleep explains why I'm so hungry,” she said. “My hands are shaking. At first I thought I was weak from sleep, but no. I'm starving.”

“I don't have any food.” Ando's light-grid face showed an apologetic expression again. “I'm sorry.”

“The crew,” Rin prompted, “how far away are they?”

“Just down there.” Ando pointed out the airlock and down the slope. “Watch your step.”

Rin looked down. The airlock wasn't flush with the ground, and there was a one-meter drop from the metal frame to the planet surface. Rocks were piled as a half-hearted stairway. The ground directly around the ship had been trampled down and there was a path leading from the airlock to a spot of bare rock about ten meters away, where a fire pit had been built. Cargo containers had been arranged in a circle around the pit. They were scuffed, dirty, and dented. They had obviously been out here for a long time. Something went zing-pop nearby, but Rin couldn't locate the source.

Stepping out of the ship was harder than she had expected in two ways. Her first difficulty was her body. Jumping the short distance betrayed her. She landed heavily, legs bent. Her body decided to collapse for a little while. It seemed a good idea to rest here for a moment. She knelt on the ground staring at the trampled soil -- still achingly bright -- and took slow deep breaths. The heat of the grit felt good to her palms, her fingers. The second difficulty was her mind. Seeing the landscape out the window she had felt safe. Even while she was in the airlock, smelling it, tasting the humidity on her tongue, the whole thing seemed distant. It was the Armstrong that had crashed. The Armstrong would have to deal with it. But now the grains and pebbles pressed into her knees, her hands -- why was she so tired? She had stepped, un-prepared, through the frame and into the picture. The unsettling picture, with the unsettling plants, and not a person to be seen.

Rin had crashed on this world. All the billions of square kilometers of barren lifeless planets she had seen over the voyage clamored from her memory. She was no longer looking out the narrow windows, down at the passing scenery. Now the scenery had swallowed her up. If she looked through the windows now, she would be looking the wrong way, looking in. The ship had disgorged her onto the gravel. The voyage was inside out, and Rin was outside.

She sniffed. Her nose was still running. Rin had never been allergic before, but she guessed this is what it would feel like. Laboriously, she raised herself to her feet and made her way after Ando like an anorexic hangover victim, shielding her eyes with one hand and taking small timid steps. Looking back to the ship, she saw the Armstrong was leaning against a cliff wall, which explained how it was standing upright under gravity. She hadn't even questioned it until now.

Rin hobbled to the edge of the plateau and looked down into the valley. He pointed, indicating something. She didn't see any orange or white jumpsuits. Finally she spotted what Ando was referring to: A bare spot of ground. There were mounds of overturned dirt, some obviously older than the others. Beside each mound was a metal footlocker with a name written on the lid. Rin had one just like them, presumably back on the ship.

“Graves.” she said, flatly. It should have been a question, but it didn't come out that way.

“Yes.” was all Ando said. His tone was flat as well, like his flat plastic face.

Rin shook her head. “This is messed up.” She eased herself down onto one of the containers. “We don't have any food at all? Like, even something spoiled? I don't care, just anything.”

“No. Dr. Fournier was the last person alive. When the food finally ran out he sampled some of the native plant life. He experienced extreme intestinal pain soon afterward, and died two days later.”

She would have cried, but did not have the strength. “This is insane,” Rin said. She looked up at the thick blue sky, now a ceiling over their heads, and her breath came in a shudder.



“What planet are you from?” Rin shouted rhetorically at the car out the window. “On this one we use turn signals! Jerk.” She reluctantly let off the gas to give the pushy driver his way.

Houston did not have climate or seasons as Rin understood them. It had “hot”. Certainly, there was day and there was night. Both had smothering humidity and relentless heat. The only difference between the two was that one was significantly brighter than the other. Some days -- like today, for example -- the humidity took the form of dense, splattering rain. The inhabitants took this as an excuse to drive like crazy people.

Rin hated when this happened, because it meant that traffic would slow to a crawl. She had exactly one hour between the end of work and the start of her first evening class. This was just enough time to grab a well-deserved bite to eat. Sometimes she might skip the meal and take a twenty-minute nap in the university parking lot instead. If traffic slowed her down too much, she wouldn't get to do either. Today she had earned both.

“You are three miles from your exit,” Roberto said.

“Thank you,” she replied in a sing-song voice. Roberto was the name she gave to her late-model Mitsubishi Wayfinder. One of the car's options allowed the driver to replace the bland “business” voice with a smooth, confident, Latin-flavored alternative. Because of this, she left all of the verbal cues active, even trivial ones. She knew the way from work to school by heart, and the car projected directional cues onto the windshield, both of which rendered Roberto's vocal directions superfluous. But she enjoyed hearing his casual observations and route suggestions. On most days this was the closest thing she had to a conversation.

She glanced at the dashboard screen. It was 5:33pm. She did the math. She wasn't going to have enough time to pick up food. In this weather, drive-through would be packed. She would have to settle for sleep today. This made her more impatient, since every minute spent driving was now a minute less sleep.

“Pop music,” Rin said, hoping to wake herself up enough to make it to school.

“Is there a particular genre of pop music you would like to enjoy?” Roberto asked helpfully.

“Surprise me.”

Incongruously cheerful pop music flowed into the cabin. A woman began singing in French. Rin thought to ask for something in English or Japanese, but then realized that one string of cheerfully vapid mush was like any other. She probably wasn't missing out on anything approaching Shakespearean poetry.

Rin flicked her eyes to the left mirror. A car was shadowing her. “Turn your lights on, idiot.”

“The lights are already on,” Roberto replied triumphantly.

“Not you,” Rin said gently, the way someone might talk to a dumb puppy. This other driver was one of those people who assumed that he didn't need to use his headlights because he could see where he was going, because it was daytime. What he failed to realize was that with his lights off, his gray car blended in with the gray rain, the gray fog, and the gray spray of water coming off the road.

Was it going to rain like this tonight? She wasn't looking forward to the prospect of driving in this piss after dark. “Weather?” she asked.

The dash-screen flicked on and began a little animation letting her know that she could upgrade her autonet access to the premium plan and remove advertisements -- mostly this one, she suspected -- and get better throughput, along with the many other unspecified benefits of being on the Mitsubishi network. The music from the ad clashed with her radio. “Skip.” she growled impatiently, but the audio parser couldn't hear her over the dueling songs, or didn’t care.

Roberto was the one thing she'd dared to spend money on. Everything else was saved for school. She lived in an apartment only slightly larger than a prison cell. She ate basic staples and she almost never went out for entertainment. Early on she decided if she was going to endure this marathon of study, work, and commuting, then the one thing she would need is a good car. School was going to be a pain in the ass, but damn if she wasn't going to tackle it from behind the wheel of a car that was easy to park, fun to drive, and had the voice of a sexy, Spanish-speaking stud.

The ad ended and she was connected to the weather service, which then ran an ad for snow tires.

“Skip,” she shouted. The ad ended, and the screen presented her with an image of the planet.

Local weather, dummy!” she said with irritation.

The screen changed again, and she was worried that they were going to hit her with another ad, but instead it mercifully brought up the local weather.

“You are two miles from your exit,” Roberto said.

Brake lights lit the road ahead. “Oh no. Please don't do this to me. Not today.” Rin rubbed the side of her head and clenched her teeth. She'd been darting through traffic for the last mile, but now found herself behind a couple of harbingers of misery. In the right lane was a wide utility truck, loping along far below the speed limit. In the passing lane, someone had tried to get around the truck, but had given up half way. The road was clear in front of them, but neither one seemed inclined to let anyone else into that paradise of open asphalt.

She looked at the dash screen, but she couldn't read it. Whoever designed the cabin for this model of Wayfinder had decided that they didn't want an ugly display frame disturbing the graceful curves of their beautifully sculpted dashboard, so they went with a curved screen that was molded to follow this organic shape. The resulting convex surface turned out to be a perfect tool for catching glare. The top half of the convex display -- which was where tonight's forecast was printed -- was drowned out by the light coming in through her windshield. She craned her neck to try and get a better view.

She realized this design might be more useful if she wasn't so dang short.

Rin glanced in her rear-view. The shadow car was still there. She couldn't see it, but she could see it eclipsing the headlights of the cars behind her as it moved around.

“Manual drive,” Rin said.

“Driver now has manual control,” Roberto announced. The car dropped into neutral and the gearshift lit up.

Rin jerked the stick into third. She found manual driving was wonderful for relieving stress. Roberto's voice helped as well. It was hard to remain furious when someone else seemed so at ease.

“You have a call,” Her tel chirped.

Where was her tel? She ran her hands over the likely pockets in her shirt, but it wasn't there. Her skirt didn't have any pockets. Also, it didn't sound like the chirp was coming from anywhere on her person. She glanced around the cabin. The tel chirped again and repeated the announcement. Rin could hear the voice was emanating from the nest of fast food packaging in the passenger-side foot space. It must have slid off the seat while she was driving. This call was actually a lucky break. If not for this she might have walked off without it.

Her tel did not have a relaxing voice. It was a bargain model, and defaulted to a dreadfully retro synth-vox. If it had any personality at all, it was that of an air-headed bimbo. Rin always meant to look for an alternative voice, but she only thought of it in moments like this.

“Who's calling?”

The bubbly female voice floated out of the trash announcing, “Mister David Reed.” It mashed the first two words too close together, and then put an incongruous pause after “David”. This annoyed Rin further. She promised herself to not forget to replace the voice this time. She recalled promising herself this before.

She was off work, and under no obligation to talk to her boss. On the other hand, if she let him slide into voice mail then he'd probably just try to call back when she was just drifting off to her nap.

“Music down,” she said to Roberto. “Answer,” she said to her tel with resignation. “What is it Mr. Reed?” He was probably calling to try and rope her into orbital duty again.

“Well! Since we're being so formal Miss Shimazaki... I wanted to ask you if you'd considered-“

“I did consider it. I already said no. I'm not going into space.” She made a mental note to not call him Mr. Reed next time. It sounded strange to hear him using her last name.

“You're not even going to listen to my pitch?” He sounded more bemused than offended.

“I have school. I can't attend school while I'm orbiting our offensively soggy world.” She wanted to shout abuse at the truck in front of her, but didn't want to do so while on a call with David. She looked longingly at the opposing lanes of traffic, which were zipping by merrily. That should be her, flying on her way to food and bed.

“You can go during the summer, while school is out. That works out good for us. A lot of our older orbital techs want the summer off.”

“I'm not taking the summer off of school.”

“It's a solid financial opportunity as well. We cover your housing and food expenses.”

“Gee thanks. I won't have to bring my tent and granola bars.” she said with as much patience as she could manage.

“And the going rate for first-time techs on orbital assignment is almost triple what you're making now.”

“Oh?” Rin said, suddenly wide-eyed. Did he mention this before? It seemed like a detail like that would have stuck in her mind. She ran the numbers in her head. If she gave up her apartment and didn't have to pay for food for three months, how much would that save her? Where would she store Roberto? This car represented most of her net worth, and she didn't want anything to happen to it.

“Are you there?” David said.

“One second,” Rin said, raising her voice with excitement. The moron hogging the passing lane had just slowed down, leaving a gap for her. Rin mashed the gas and shifted into fourth gear, darting through the opening before it collapsed again.

David rambled on, “Anyway, if you want orbital duty next summer then you need to sign up soon. There are several months of certification courses you'll need to take. We pay for those, of course, but the cutoff-“

“Rin, you are exceeding the speed limit by twenty miles an hour,” Roberto said calmly. The accent coupled with the phrasing made her think of a race horse jockey trading banter with a rival as they sped down the track together.

She couldn't make sense of what she was seeing ahead. Through the rain it kind of looked like a billboard had been built all the way across the road. This was an absurd conclusion and she knew it, but she couldn't see any other way to interpret the scene. The rain was falling so heavily that looking out of the car was like peering through blocks of art deco glass. Her wipers flung the water from her windshield at a furious pace, and each pass gave her this momentary view of the world before it became a smear of rainwater. With each pass the obstruction seemed closer.

Another advertisement began to play. The weather report had vanished and the dash-screen was now blaring violin music and showing a woman running through a field. She thumped on the display to shut it up, but it obstinately continued playing. “This is all costing me sleep!” she screeched in desperation.

She later looked back on this conclusion with satisfaction. Much later she discovered it was misplaced.

“Hello?” David said. Rin became aware that he'd been talking and that she had no idea what he'd been saying.

Suddenly the scene in front of her resolved itself. It wasn't a billboard; it was the side of an eighteen-wheeler. It had fishtailed somehow and was now stretching across all four lanes of traffic. It had been traveling in the opposing lane, and was now a wall of steel heading towards her.


She cuts the wheel and stomps on the brakes, but at this relative speed and distance there is no way to avoid the impact. She tries anyway.

She can see how it will play out. Adrenaline pounds through her. Her actions become slow, like in a sluggish dream where your arms fail you. Somewhere, tires squeal horribly. Surely not her tires? Everything sounds so far away. She feels her eyes go wide and her arms braced hard in front of her, clenching the steering wheel. The rational part of her mind goes “tut tut” at this. “That's silly, you could turn the wheel farther if you didn't lock your elbows.” it observes. She ignores it. Her vision is going white around the edges now. She can see the red and silver striped tape approaching her face. It grows larger, marking -- in a highly reflective fashion -- the spot where her face will impact the lower edge of the trailer. The woman on the dash screen is having allergy problems. Her eyes close and she ducks to one side, shielding her face absurdly with her arms.

The car sailed right into the side of the trailer, with the truck's rear wheels to her right and the mid-wheels to her left.

There was a sharp impact and suddenly the rainstorm was in the cabin with her. Her roof and windshield were gone. The wind picked up a handful of fast food trash and tossed it into the air. She found herself lying on her back. Her seat had been violently reclined. She struggled to sit up, but her seat belt held her down. She had passed all the way under the truck, and her car was now in a slow spin. Above the din of whipping rain, skidding tires, and Doppler shifted horns she could hear David was still saying something.

Recovering for a moment, Rin thumbed the seat belt release and sat up. The world was a swirl of headlights. There were more impacts as vehicles collided. She grabbed the wheel and stomped on the brake. She managed to end the spin and found herself coasting backwards. Now the car was going the right direction but facing the wrong way. She glanced at the empty space where she would normally expect to find her rear-view mirror, felt stupid, and then looked back over her shoulder to see where she was going. Somehow she made it onto the shoulder.

She came to a stop and began breathing again.

The dash display continued to recite a long list of side effects. She dropped her fist numbly on the curved screen, and it went blank.

“Rin? You're scaring me here. What was that? Are you okay?” David said.

She didn't know what to say. She was shaking from the intensity of the moment, worried about how much it was going to cost to repair Roberto, and feeling a little good about herself for having pulled off such a slick move.

“Yeah. You won't believe what just happened. I was-“

A shadow rushed at her from out of the rain. Another vehicle was riding the shoulder. It had escaped being pulverized by the eighteen-wheeler and was now sailing out of control. It bounded comically along toward her, like a puppy in slow motion. A two ton puppy shedding welding equipment. She jumped from the front seat just in time to have her car swept away by a badly mangled utility truck. The grass and gravel beside the road gathered her into their hard rough crunchy embrace. By the time she was able to stand the truck had rolled away with what was left of Roberto, their grilles locked together in the automotive equivalent of a full blown make out session.

“I'm okay, I guess,” Rin called in a shaky voice. “I'm not hurt. I don't need any help.” She realized her tel had been swept away with her car. She was now talking to herself. “But, thanks for calling up and distracting me.”

Rin could hear someone shouting concerned sounding words at her over the center divider. She was definitely not going to sleep any time soon, but with some luck she just might get a free meal.


“I'm fine,” Rin said. She stood nervously in the middle of David's office, wondering what to do with her hands. It was the morning after the crash, and David had called her in here almost as soon as she finished her first coffee.

“I heard about it on the news. Three people died in that crash,” David said.

Rin nodded. “That's what they said.”

He looked her over. “Not a scratch?”

“I have this.” Rin held up her arm to show a bandage had been stuck on her elbow. “I think it counts as a scratch. I got that from jumping out of the car. Also, my ribs are sore where the seat belt caught me.”

“But nothing serious?”

“Well, not yet.”

David was sitting behind his desk, swiveling his executive chair from side to side. He did this so slowly that it took Rin a minute or so to notice he was doing it at all. Behind him was a window that looked out over the pavement that seemed to stretch to the horizon.

As far as she could tell, David was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty. If he was following the old advice that you should dress for the job you want, then he was evidently aiming for a job as a millionaire playboy super-spy. She'd never seen him in anything less than perfectly tailored suit. He often looked out of place in a building otherwise filled with sloppy, out-of-shape bureaucrats with loose ties and armpit stains.

He was handsome and charming. Rin wouldn't mind this at all if not for the fact that he knew he was handsome and charming, and often used this to get his way. She had been taken with him at first, but when she noticed he was squeezing extra work out of her with nothing more than flattery and wit she decided she didn't like him. They had been on uneasy terms in the year since then. It wasn't that he was trying to exploit her, it's just that he was often driven in a way that made him seem thoughtless. The distinction was admittedly fine, but Rin felt that it made a difference.

“How about your car?” he asked.

“Totaled. Completely smashed.”


Rin looked around the room. She was always annoyed that she had to stand when he called her into his office. There was a pair of chairs that he always kept stacked in the corner; possibly to keep the middle of the room open for golf putting. Normally she didn't like to touch the things in his office, but right now she wanted to sit. Manners seemed much less important after a near-miss with death. The chair skittered and scuffed along the carpet as she dragged it from the corner. She sat right in the middle of the room.

David seemed pleased at this.

“I do have insurance. But it's... complicated. They're not going to give me full coverage. Because I was speeding.”

David furrowed his brow, seeming to turn this new piece of information over in his mind. “Was it your fault?”

“No. No not at all. In fact, if I'd been going slower I probably would have been wedged under the truck and ended up getting squished along with everyone else when the trailer toppled.” Rin had calmed down since the crash, but now that she was recounting the experience her hands had begun to shake again. She clasped them in her lap to hold them still.

“And they know for sure how fast you were going?” David stood up and walked around so he could lean against the front of his desk. Was this a deliberate thing on his part? Did he always insist on standing when you were sitting and sitting when you were standing?

“The car had a black box thing in it. The insurance company won't care that it's not my fault. I could fight it in court, but I just don't have the time.”

David nodded. He looked down at his shoes for a minute. He always did this when he was thinking. Rin was afraid he was trying to figure out how to bring up the subject of orbital duty again.

Instead he looked her in the eye. “You should get out of here. Take a couple of days off.”

Rin was so surprised by this suggestion that her reply came out as a stammer. “I'm a, I didn't, I mean, I already burned my vacation. I'm saving sick days for-“

“No no no.” David silenced her with a quick flutter of his hand, as if the very suggestion was an annoying fly in his face. “Don't worry about any of that. I'll take care of it. Just take the next couple of days off. Come back in on Monday.”

Rin stood up and then sat back down. “I don't think anyone will give me a ride. They all just got here.”


“Mother passed when I was a kid. Haven't spoken to my father since I was seven. I lived with relatives for a few years, but we're not close and they're in Detroit.” Rin rattled this out as mechanically as possible. She knew that saying she didn't have family always made people curious, and rather than run through the list of predictable questions she preferred to get it all out at once.

David blinked in surprise. “Okay,” he said slowly, obviously knocked off-track by her sudden bulk payload of personal information. He went back to looking at his shoes. “I'll give you a ride home myself,” he said when he looked up again. Having made up his mind, he strode out of the room with purpose and without waiting for her answer.

Rin was wary of this sudden concern. She confronted him when they reached the elevator. “I'm sure you're just doing all of this to try and convince me to sign up for orbital duty.” She tried to make this sound like a joke, but she failed. Her tone was almost accusatory. It didn't help that her voice was shaking a bit.

“Yep!” he responded brightly. “We'll talk about it in the car.”

The parking garage had roughly the same climate as the inside of a crock pot, so they hurried from the elevator to David's reserved spot as quickly as they could. David had evidently started the car while they were still in his office. By the time they reached the parking level the climate control had already made the car habitable. Rin didn't know enough about high-end cars to identify the model, but she knew a European sports car when she saw one. This one was green, which she thought defeated the purpose of having this sort of car. Weren't they all supposed to be red or black?

The passenger-side seat pulled her in like she was entering the gravity well of a gas giant. The surface was deep and cool. She couldn't shake the notion that she was being unfaithful to Roberto, cuddling up to this strange new car the moment he was incapacitated. The car seemed to float out of the garage. At the top of the exit ramp was a bump that used to shake Roberto to the frame when she left work. Today she couldn't even tell where it was.

“We found another planet,” David said without introduction.

“Really?” Rin said. “I assume you mean a real planet, with life on it, and not another rock?”

“Obviously,” David said. “Now, this conversation doesn't leave this car. The planet hasn't been announced yet. Heck, the naming committee hasn't even met yet.”

She thought it was rather unfair to bind her to secrecy after telling her the secret, but she was thrilled to be in the loop like this. “So what's the sophistication level?”

“The usual. Plankton. Some fish. There's a tiny bit of green on dry land. The topology is really rough. Most of the surface is water, and the dry land is mostly frozen rock. Not much room for higher life.”

“Oh. So no mammals, then?” This was the first question out of everyone's mouth, and a source of great frustration to everyone involved with space travel. No matter how remote, exotic, rich, or beautiful a planet might be, all anyone cared about was if it had space-caribou on it. Actually, what people really cared about was if it had sapient life on it, but mammals seemed like a more realistic thing to hope for. Rin was slightly ashamed to catch herself stooping to this same behavior, but she was just as eager for discovery and contact as anyone else.

“Well, anything from a foreign ecosystem probably won't fit our classifications...” David began mechanically.

“Right, right. Not really 'mammals', but you know what I mean. Is there anything of mammal-like size and complexity?”

“No. Not that can be spotted from orbit, anyway. The survey team dropped some drones into the ocean. We'll let those things swim around for a few months and pick up their telemetry the next time we swing by the system. The thing is, this planet is mature. Probably about Earth-age. They're pretty sure this one could have fossil fuels.”

The car zipped across the campus, traveling at speeds that probably wouldn't be tolerated for anyone of a lower station. Not fast by any reasonable measurement, but still faster than the posted speed limit, which could probably be violated on foot.

The Houston campus of the International Space and Aeronautics Commission was a vast expanse of concrete and tarmac. It was a man-made wasteland, boiling in the Texas sun. Dotted with clusters of willfully ugly concrete buildings, it was an unintentional model of space itself: Tiny remote islands of detail, separated by a vast expanse of nothingness.

They were pulling away from the administration buildings at the center of the complex. Far to the south were the dorms and training facilities for space-bound personnel. To the east was the Mud Lake Storage Zone, a collection of warehouses and hangers for some sort of space-stuff that Rin had never investigated. To the north was the airstrip and hangars.

“Amazing. So are we going to harvest the fossil fuels?”

“I have no idea. Load humans on a ship, fling them all that way, have them dig up fossil fuels, drag the material into orbit, haul it all home? I don't know. Might not be worth it, energy-wise. I'll leave that one to the guys with the abacuses. The point is, we now know about four planets with life on them.”

The car slowed as they approached the security checkpoint at the main gate. To their right was a massive silo towering overhead, an old rocket-style craft from the haphazard early days of spaceflight when humans would hurl themselves into orbit using nothing more than the power of fire. It was a shrine to people who were crazy and courageous in exactly the right way.

The entire campus was surrounded by a high wall, crowned with razor wire. David lowered the windows as they reached the gate and held up his photo ID. The savage Houston air flowed in, rolling along the ceiling of the car. Rin noticed that the air conditioning had shut off when David opened the window.

Camera arms unfolded and moved over their vehicle with a faint murmur of servos. The cameras darted into the car and hovered in their faces for a few seconds. Rin held up the ID badge that hung around her neck. A screen lit up:


“That will give the computers something to gossip about,” David said in deadpan.

“What's the 'L' stand for?”

“Lambert. What's your middle initial?”

“Don't have one,” Rin said with a shrug.

The cameras nosed around in the back seat. A larger apparatus passed over the hood and trunk. Satisfied that they were not spies, saboteurs, or thieves, the equipment retracted. Most people referred to this equipment as if it was nothing more than an automation, but Rin could see intelligence behind its behaviors. This was a robot. It remembered packages that had been examined on previous visits, it noticed packaging that was out of place, and it understood how to judge the apparent volume of a person's clothes against their likely shape. It was able to differentiate between a skinny person in puffy clothing and a fat person in thin clothing. Most people didn't think of it as a robot because it never spoke audibly and it wasn't shaped like a living thing.

When the inspection was over, the many arms retracted and the machine folded itself back into a tidy booth-sized structure of dark metal plating and hydraulics. It did this almost soundlessly.

Rin guessed that the thing was probably German. Germans had a knack for making stark, impersonal robots with exquisite engineering. She wondered how smart it was. The Americans and Germans were roughly equal in terms of machine sapience, but both of them were light years behind the Japanese.

David and Rin both closed the car windows as soon as the machinery was clear. The reinforced chain-link gate opened with much mechanical groaning and scraping. It was very much an American gate.

David eased the car out. They passed the bright red signs notifying them that they were leaving the International Space and Aeronautics Commission and entering the United States of America. They pulled away from the complex and David threaded his car into the morning traffic.

“We're headed for the big blocks,” she said before David could ask where they were going. She glanced over to see he'd managed to get sunglasses onto his face without her noticing. He always seemed to be playing a game of brinksmanship where he maintained just enough charm to outweigh his smugness.

“Do you need me to put music on?” David asked.

“Need? Why would I need music?” Rin thought this was a very strange question. Not just because he implied she needed music, but because he was offering to do something he clearly didn't want to do.

“I don't know. You're tapping your feet and drumming your fingers again. I've always assumed you do that because you've got music in your head.”

Rin saw that she had indeed been drumming her fingers against her knees. “I don't think I do. I mean, I don't have any particular music in my head right now.”

“Okay. That's just you being energetic. Just checking.”

“Do I do it often?”

“Whenever you're not talking fast or walking fast.”

“I don't talk that fast!” Rin said. Even as the words left her mouth, she was aware that she was saying them a lot faster than David would have.

“You walk very fast, and you talk very, very fast,” David insisted. “I've always assumed it was because you're young and young people are like that. I suppose it might also be all the caffeine you drink.”

Rin smirked. “Yes, it could be that. I need coffee so I can stay awake. I need to stay awake so I can work hard. I need to work hard to get what I deserve.”

“So anyway, new planet,” David said, trying to re-light their earlier conversation.

“So there are four known life-bearing planets. What's the ratio now? One in a thousand?”

“This is what I wanted to talk to you about. You remember the news story from last summer? We put a telescope in orbit around a distant star. Way out there, pretty much on the edge of our range.”

“I'll be honest, I usually don't follow space news. It's either sensationalist or mundane.”

David nodded. “And filled with errors either way. The point is, some egghead figured out how to combine remote images with stuff from our local telescopes. The two telescopes, light-years apart, take pictures of the same star. Somehow, comparing the two is helping the survey team figure out where the likely life-bearing planets are. Much better than the brute-force surveying we've been doing all these years.”

“How does that work?”

“Ask an astrophysicist. The point is: It does. This recent discovery proves it well enough that it's shaping policy. The ratio of life-planets to dead rocks might be one in a thousand, but with these telescopes weeding out the losers, we're able to narrow our search down quite a bit.”

Rin was quiet while she turned this over in her mind. “Okay. But why are you telling me this? Aren't you breaking protocol?”

“I am. A bit. I want you to understand why I'm pushing you to take an orbital assignment. For a decade we've been running our fleet the same way: One ship out, two in dock. We're about to change that. We're about to move to having two ships in deep space at all times. This means expanding the refill and refit crew. It means we'll need more deep-space crew. It also means we need a better cut of technician. The guys up there now are basically just merchant marines in space. We need more educated people.”

“But educated people want to be officers.” Rin blurted out. It all made sense now. “You need better grunts, but anyone smart enough for the job wants to join the officer corps.”

“Exactly. We have a five-year waiting list for people wanting to be officers. Everyone wants to be Captain Kirk.”


David winced. The question clearly pained him. “Nobody wants to go up there and get their hands dirty with grunt work. Everyone wants to sit on the bridge, look out the window, make big decisions, and speak in halting dramatic tones. Nobody wants to crawl around the bottom of the ship cleaning gunk out of the air scrubbers. I'm not going to lie to you. The only reason I can do this is because you aren't finished with school yet. As soon as you've got your degree you'll be eligible for officer training. You're smart enough to be useful, young enough to breeze through certification, and uneducated enough that I can put you where you'll be needed.”

“I don't understand why you can't just hire the people you need. I mean, surely there must be a lot of smart people who are willing to go to space without becoming officers first.”

The conversation paused while David negotiated a left-hand turn in a busy intersection. The advantage of having a car like this was that you could jump into traffic anywhere there was enough empty space to contain the vehicle itself. The car could hit any posted speed limit within a few seconds, so there was never a real risk of “cutting someone off”. However, other drivers weren't used to the idea that others cars could jump in front of them and match their speed from a standstill. Visually, it just felt like they were being cut off. The result was that people would curse at David, even as his car faded into the distance in front of them.

David continued as the sound of horns Doppler-shifted behind them. “The world's most important committees formed a super committee. When your bureaucracies combine and form captain planetary exploration... well, you're going to have a lot of policy inertia and dysfunction. Add in the unions and the military-style command structure of the officer corps, and it's amazing the entire operation doesn't just drop out of the sky and burn up in the atmosphere. The point is, we need people like you, and having you fuss over invoices and answer phones is a waste of talent.”

“See, I don't particularly want to go to space.”

David pulled back his head and blinked, as if he'd just been slapped in the forehead. “That might be the first time someone said that to me since I came here. People sometimes want more money, or different duties, or special treatment. Sometimes I can help them and sometimes I can't. But not wanting to go to space at all? Why are you here?”

Rin shrugged. “Money and special treatment sounds nice.” The passion for space travel eluded her. Certainly it had been overly romanticized, and most people would probably hate it if they experienced it for real. “It's crowded. It's boring. There's nothing to do and nowhere to go. You have to eat paste and piss in a tube. No thanks.”

David laughed at this. She'd heard him laugh many times before in the office, which she now realized was his fake, polite laugh. It was very convincing. His genuine laugh was much less dignified. He alternately wheezed and snorted.

“You have a very antiquated view of space travel,” he said once the fit was over. “All of our stations have rotational gravity. You'll weigh about half of what you do here. That means no eating paste or pissing in tubes. It's pretty much like living in a submarine.”

“What a glowing endorsement.”

“Well, it might be a little uncomfortable, but it's good money.” David slowed the car as they entered the Big Blocks. “Where to now?”

“This is good,” she said as she undid her seat-belt

“You live here?” he asked with incredulity that bordered on offense. “When you said 'Big Block' I thought we were using it as a frame of reference. I thought maybe you lived nearby. But you actually live in one of these cells?”

The neighborhood was a dull grid of brick-shaped buildings with rows of tiny windows. There were no kids and no playgrounds in sight. The evening haze vibrated with the hum of window mounted air conditioners. The narrow gaps between the buildings were filled with bars, liquor stores, massage parlors, and gas stations where the attendants sat behind bulletproof glass. An emergency siren wailed in the distance.

“Yeah,” Rin said as she stepped out of the car.

“But why?” David called after her. “I know you're not making a lot of money with us, but I'm sure you can do better than this! This place is for union guys that live in orbit and just need a place to keep their stuff. I mean, isn't it dangerous around here?”

Rin bent down and looked at David through the open passenger-side window. “Look, I know it's a hellhole. Yes, I could live someplace better, but then I'd have less money for school. I'm already twenty-two. I'm late in starting my degree, and I don't want to have to work once I take the MCAT.”

“Ahh, you're pre-med? But can't you get a scholarship or something?” He looked distastefully at her apartment building as he said this.

“I have some. Not enough, obviously.”

A car beeped its horn. David was holding up traffic by stopping here.

“Student loans?” He seemed oblivious to the inconvenience he was causing.

“I don't want to borrow. If I borrow, I'll have to take a position with some big practice in the city. When I graduate, I want to be free and clear. I want to go to Maine and open a small private practice.”

“Maine?” he asked in a tone that made it sound like she had said Death Valley.

The car beeped again, more forcefully this time. Other drivers were now shouting profane advice at him.

“Yes. Maine. Quiet. Fall colors. Low crime. Snow in the winter.”

“So that's the dream?” David nodded as he said this, apparently glad to finally understand.

“The dream. Now get out of here before people think we're doing business.”

“Go to space!” he called to her as he pulled away.

“Go yourself!”


Rin was grateful for the gesture, but having time off wasn't quite the boon that David probably thought it was.

Her apartment was a claustrophobic box that had just enough space for a bed, a desk, and a dresser. The window on the west wall ran the length of the room, but was less than half a meter tall. The result was a window that was large enough to be a privacy concern but too small to let in a useful amount of light. The walls were covered in fake wood paneling that converted the tiny amount of light that managed to sneak into the room instantly into latent heat. The paneling was made of a plastic that was both hard and brittle, which made it impossible for the wall to hold nails, which in turn made it a pain in the ass to hang things up. She shared a common bathroom and showers with the other women on her floor. It was a dreary place, and it was only bearable because she spent so little time in it.

The only thing on the walls was a poster Rin had found a couple of years before. It was sappy and kitschy, exactly the sort of thing middle-aged housewives hung on their walls. To her internal embarrassment, Rin had fallen in love with it the moment she saw it. It was a digital painting of a small-town street scene. It had snowed, and the inhabitants were all dealing with it in their own way. The overall image was a collection of tiny, self-contained stories. One man had stopped shoveling his car free to blow on his hands. A woman had fallen on the ice and lost a shoe. Children were engaged in a kind of snow-based trench warfare. An old woman was getting her mail. And so on ad nauseam.

Rin saw the image as both a visualization of her goal and as an illustration of her struggle. Someday, she would live in this little town, and to get there, she would have to struggle just like all of these rosy-cheeked villagers were struggling. The picture hung on the wall at the foot of her bed, so that she could look at it as she drifted off to sleep. It was a little ritual at the end of each day, to remind herself why she was putting up with all this crap. Someday she would be a doctor, and she planned to hang this thing in the waiting room of her private practice.

Rin spent four days in her tiny apartment, pacing restlessly and worrying about how she was going to replace her car. She didn't have anywhere to go that she wouldn't just end up spending money, so she sat on her bed all day, watching sappy drivel and staring at the snow scene that taunted her from the end of the bed. Then she would take the bus to her evening classes, frantically do the homework that she had put off, and collapse in bed to the sound of the news droning about distant crisies.

The story of the new planet broke on Friday, and followed the same trajectory as every other news story about space exploration. First came the stories woven from ignorance and erroneous overstatement: ISAC has discovered a frozen world, brimming with rich fuel sources! It's been nicknamed “Planet Alaska”! Could this launch an interstellar gold rush? Next came grudging partial-corrections: It's not really 'brimming' with energy sources. Fossil fuels were simply detected or suspected. The actual amount and quality are unknown, probably modest, and nobody has a plan to get them. Also, the “Alaska” nickname came from the press, not ISAC. If the usual patterns held then next week the fully correct story would run, which nobody would read because it would be dry, technical, and so much less exciting than the original tale.

Rin also had ample opportunity to reflect on herself. She stood at 155 centimeters. Just over five feet, she often had to remind herself. Imperial measurements still felt foreign to her, even after spending most of her life in America. She had a slight frame and small bust that resulted in her constantly being mistaken for an adolescent. She hoped earning her degree would help with this, but deep down she knew that nothing short of lines on her face or gray hair would prevent cashiers from asking how high-school was going.

Her background of Japanese, Hispanic, and African genes gave her a face that defied easy classification. She had inherited her mother's set of flawlessly arranged teeth and smooth, dark skin. Her head was topped with straight black hair. She always fantasized about styling it in some interesting way, but usually ended up pulling it back into a simple ponytail. This did not help in her efforts to be taken seriously as an adult. Her eyes and her name were Japanese, and so she usually just checked the “Asian” box on her ISAC paperwork. This was simpler than trying to explain her lineage properly.

On Saturday she got a letter from her step-brother. Same old “I wish we could see each other more often!” and “when will you come and visit?” as he wrote at random times every year or so. She suspected he would write more often, but he was busy with his own life. Rin had distanced herself from her family. She had decided at an early age that she would rather get what was coming to her through her own merit than through family connections. She didn't want to be associated with them, and she suspected the same was true the other way around. Why her step-brother insisted on trying to stay in contact was beyond her. She rarely wrote back. There was a whole box of these letters under her bed. She added this latest one to the pile.

On Monday morning she discovered that her four-day exile from routine had re-aligned her thinking. She realized that she didn't want to do this anymore. Even if Roberto was magically repaired and she was free to continue her frantic pace of earning and education, she no longer wanted to do so. She still wanted to live in Maine and practice medicine, but she no longer wanted to take this road to get there. If she was going to work this hard, she deserved to be well compensated.

Also, she realized that being trapped in her tiny apartment and sharing a bathroom with strangers was probably not all that different from living in space. She decided that -- as bad as it was -- she could handle a few months of this.

When she arrived at work she headed to David's office and the bargain was struck. She would spend the next two weeks finishing out this semester of school. After that, she would take a year off to tumble around in space cleaning toilets and repairing airlocks -- or whatever it was that they wanted her to do.

David also saw to her transportation problems for the two weeks. Buses didn't run directly from Big Block to the university, and so going by bus would have been time-consuming and expensive. David arranged for one of the ISAC campus vans to give her rides “on its way back to the garage”. It was actually about forty minutes out of the driver's way to do this, but he was reimbursed by the mile, so he had no complaints. Also, he seemed glad to have a pretty face in his van. He managed to not be creepy about this.

Another year. She didn't like deferring her dream another year, but there was no way around it. Her hope was that once she did return to school, she would have saved enough to be a full-time student.


The semester ended and Rin began earning her orbital certifications. This was a lot like school, only easier and she got paid for it. Most of Rin's new certification classes involved unlearning everything that popular culture had assumed or taken for granted about space travel. About the only thing they ever got right was the shape of the craft.

Every ship made in the last decade had the same configuration. Their hulls were roughly the shape of symmetrical knife-blades, flying tip-first through space, although there was a lot of external infrastructure that obfuscated the “knife” shape. While they were designed using terms like “top” and “bottom”, these concepts did not line up with the way gravity was experienced inside. One edge of the knife was the top deck, and the other edge was the bottom deck, but the ship flipped over as it moved -- spinning on the tip, as it were -- so that for the people inside “up” was towards the spine and “down” was towards whichever edge was nearest.

Exactly halfway between the tip and the tail was a massive torus, slightly wider than the hull and about the proportions of a wedding band. This was the accelerator, which was in charge of forming the singularity that would allow them to hop around in space.

The instructor stopped at this point to explain -- with obvious annoyance -- that the term “singularity” was a holdover from the past when nobody understood, from a mathematical standpoint, what happened under gravitational collapse. They had the math all worked out now, thank you very much, but the term “singularity” had obstinately clung to the concept. The instructor told them that it was now more properly called a Hein-Keurorst Manifold, which nobody bothered to learn because they all sensed this was an editorial that would not be part of the final exam.

The instructor admonished them to never refer to the use of a Hein-Keurorst Manifold as a “jump”. This was childish terminology that confused people and made the ignorant masses think we were able to hop between any two points in the universe at will. The proper term -- which didn't seem like an improvement to any of the students -- was transfer. The habit of saying jump instead of transfer was hard to break for most people, and this resulted in a lot of haggling over test results at the end of the course.

The center of the accelerator was empty space, thus leaving a nice circular hole in the middle of the ship. This was because anything too close to the center during space travel would be 1) bombarded by deadly radiation and 2) torn apart by gravitational forces.

Directly aft of the accelerator was the large, ungainly lump of the reactor. This was the most detailed part of the hull. While the rest of the ship was generally smooth, the reactor was a tangle of pipes, tanks, hatches, and shielded cables.

At the rear of the craft was a crescent-shaped extrusion that pointed aft and glowed brightly when the ship was underway. This was not, as the movies led people to believe, the “engine”. The glow was bright, but it did not emit “fire”, it did not rumble, and it certainly didn't leave glowing “swoosh” trails when the ship needed to go someplace. It had nothing to do with propulsion at all. This bit was called the Thermal Emission Manifold by the people who built it and the heat sink by everyone else. When viewed up close, the heat sink was a cluster of tiny, tightly-packed spheres with a combined surface area of many square kilometers, all folded up into a very tight little package.

When the ship was underway, the power plant made electricity, which made the accelerator go. However, it also made a bunch of unwanted heat. The purpose of the heat sink was to bleed off this waste heat into space, a fiendishly difficult task given the fact that there was nothing out there to receive the unwanted energy.

Without the sink, the ship would simply accumulate heat until everyone inside was steam cooked. The signature glowing for which the sink was so famous was a result of this heat-disposal. It pointed aft so that the waste heat wouldn't interfere with the sensitive instrumentation, the majority of which was stuck to the nose of the ship.

The real propulsion was handled using nothing more than classic monopropellant technology. There were many thrusters affixed to the ship on jointed pivot-arms, so that their force could be aimed. These were used very rarely, usually only when docking.

One student made the mistake of asking why ships had to jump to the edge of a solar system and hop inward from one planetary gravity well to the next, instead of simply jumping directly to the desired location. Their curiosity was repaid with an incomprehensible twenty-minute lecture and a dry-erase board full of gibberish equations. Between all the trans-Einsteinian whatsits Rin managed to gather that this would somehow sink the spaceship. The upshot was that the instructor skipped a bunch of other information and instructed them to read their packets before the next session.

Rin asked very few questions.



Life was significantly easier for Rin once she moved to the ISAC Houston Campus. She left behind school. She left behind her closet apartment in Big Block. She left behind the administration offices full of chattering secretaries and bean counters.

She now faced several months of certification courses. Unlike university - which was ostensibly designed to cull the under-performers - these classes were designed for the lowest common denominator. Two days of actual learning would be diluted into a slow drip of information delivered over three weeks of lectures.

There was no attendance, and the final grade was a simple pass/fail test administered on the last day -- and that could be rescheduled. This made it possible for her to pass more certification classes than it was physically possible to attend. David had signed her up for everything, so she could sit in on whatever class she wished. He'd marked the half-dozen certifications that were mandatory for off-planet duty, and sent her a note saying, “Get as many as you can! [Thumbs up]”

Classes here were very different from university. These people were older than college students, and treated the process more like a job. They were more serious and less social. This, coupled with the fact that Rin only attended a few scattered sessions of each course, made it so that she didn't really get to know her fellow students.

This was her first time in the training area of the campus. It was noisy, crowded, and inhabited by an annoying number of robots. She avoided those whenever she could. It was never clear what they were for. She never saw them working on anything. They just walked around outside the training centers along with the personnel.

Rin was on her way from the Airlock Certification class -- a two week course dedicated to the arcane art of opening a door -- to the cafeteria when she was stopped short by a car horn and the slow crunch of tires. She turned and found David creeping along the drive in his green European sports car, waving her over.

Rin peered at him through the open passenger side window. He was wearing his smug sunglasses again.

“How are you getting on? How's certification?” he asked.

“I've learned that you're kind of a big deal around here. Everyone I meet calls you 'Director Reed'.”

David held out his arms, big-man-on-campus style, “Well, I AM the director. You knew my job title. What did you think I did for a living?”

“I thought you were the director of... I don't know. The office we worked in? Like, all of us paper-pushers.”

David laughed. This wasn't his real laugh. This was his fake, charming, professional laugh. “Well, I'm the director of a bit more than that.”

“So who are you?” Rin shook her head in confusion. “And why are you concerning yourself with a brand new tech who hasn't even completed certification?”

“Are you hungry?”

Rin looked down the sidewalk at the cafeteria where she'd been headed, and then back at David. She raised her eyebrows and blinked at him. Well, what do you think?

“Get in,” he said, revving the engine.

How could she refuse?

“Do you like sushi?” he asked once they were rolling.

“Don't know. Never tried it.”

“You said you grew up in Japan.”

“I did. Osaka. Until I was seven.”

“And you didn't have sushi? Ever?”


“What did you have?” He asked this cautiously, as if he expected she was kidding.

“I remember eating a lot of pizza.” Rin had never thought there was anything particularly strange about her upbringing. She was amused at how this seemingly mundane revelation was scandalizing David.


“My mother was an American expat. We lived in Osaka, but didn't have a lot of contact with hard-core Japanese culture unless my father was around, which wasn't often. Most of the housekeeping staff spoke English.”

“Right. Well, you're about twenty years overdue for your first taste of sushi.”

“You still didn't explain why a high-ranking director of ISAC is taking so much interest in a lowly tech.”

“Sushi first,” David said with conviction.

They drove on in silence until they hit the edge of the city and found themselves at an intersection where traffic had come to a stop.

“Damn. I forgot. It's just past noon. Kindergarten is just letting out. We're in trouble.” He pointed to a large moving truck sitting in front of them as he said this.

“What's the moving truck got to do with this?” Rin asked.

David leaned to his left so he could look down the center-line of the street. “This intersection has a botic crossing guard. The city bought these things about seven years ago, and they were trash even back then. They're dim-witted and clunky. I think they're supposed to allow traffic for whichever street is the most backed up. But if there's a truck in the way then they can't see the cars behind it.”

Rin rolled her eyes. “So we're going to be stuck here? For how long? Until a human takes over?”

“The bot will let us go eventually. It's just bad at prioritizing. Actually, I guess it's just bad at estimating how much traffic is obscured by the truck.”

David cut the wheel and edged his car out so that the front end was poking into the opposing lane. Oncoming traffic honked angrily at him, but David didn't back up, and they went around. The robot evidently noticed his bumper sticking out from behind the truck and adjusted its behavior, because things began moving again.

Rin got a good look at it as the traffic cleared. It was navy blue, with a paint job designed to mimic a police uniform. The arms were trimmed with reflective orange. The face was a cluster of lenses, making it sort of look like the robot was an insect with compound eyes.

“I hate how they make them so big,” Rin said distastefully as they passed. “Bots are already creepy enough without making them look like giants.”

“That's actually not on purpose,” David said. “They can't put the brains in their head, because all the cheap cameras take up too much room. Those early model cell arrays - the brains, you know -- took up a lot of space because they had heat problems. And the batteries were about double the size of a car battery. The upshot is that the brain and the battery wouldn't fit inside the chest cavity of anything remotely man-sized.”

“Well, they made them so tall and broad-shouldered that it makes them look like they're made for war. It's really creepy to have one of them staring at you. Although, I guess they had to put all of that mass somewhere. I suppose it's unreasonable to expect them to make the traffic bots look pot-bellied and friendly.”

“Not if you want to sell your robots to municipalities in America,” David smiled. He gave the robot a thumbs up as he rolled by. The robot returned the gesture.

The car weaved through increasingly narrow streets until they found themselves in front of an unremarkable block building with a wooden façade. A couple of Japanese characters had been scribbled on the wall by the door in a way that looked completely amateur. If Rin had been asked to guess what this place was, she would probably have picked either 'pawn shop' or 'laundry'.

“This is a sushi house?” Rin said as she climbed out of the car. She regarded the building the way one might regard the aftermath of an auto accident.

“Sushi bar,” David corrected her. “And yes, it is. Everyone in America thinks a sushi bar should look like a McDonald's with a Forbidden Palace roof. Don't do that. Also, try not to freak out when we get in here. This place is very... authentic. In fact, it's probably more authentic than the real thing, if you take my meaning.”

“I don't.”

The sushi bar was much more welcoming inside. Rin didn't know the name of the establishment; It didn't seem to have one beyond the highly stylized marks by the front door. There was a bar with stools, but instead of a bartender there was a chef. The walls were covered in wood paneling and there were large wooden pillars, perfectly round and smooth. Paper lanterns hung from the ceiling overhead. Rin squinted at them. The lights flickered as if from a real fire, and the cords had been cleverly hidden. Upon further inspection, she realized this was not the case. There were no cords. These lanterns were genuine flame-based illumination. She shook her head at the sheer impracticality of it.

The chef greeted them in Japanese. David answered in kind. The chef was a six-foot blond man of obviously European descent. He was wearing a white headband and an apron.

“Konichiwa.” Rin intoned meekly. Her Japanese had never been very good.

The chef answered her greeting with a slight bow before returning to his furious knife-work, which produced a lot of noise and motion and resulted in very little cut food.

David led her over to one of the small booths that lined the outer wall. The staccato of the dicing chef faded into the classical mood music.

The place was very small, even smaller than the modest exterior suggested. Rin could see no hint of modern convenience. No light switches, no cash register, no charger ports, no electric lights, no ceiling fans. There wasn't even music playing in the dining area. The food was prepared in full view of the patrons, using nothing more than knives and gas flame.

“You don't speak Japanese?” David asked once they'd settled in.

“A bit. I can remember my numbers and colors, and how to say please and thank you. I might remember more if I really worked at it. I didn't speak it often, even when we lived in Osaka. But me not knowing Japanese isn't nearly as strange as you knowing it. Did you learn it so you can order sushi and watch anime without subtitles?” She said this last bit playfully. She couldn't imagine David being the sort of man who would watch anime. Actually, she couldn't imagine him watching any sort of entertainment. What did he do outside of work, aside from maybe golf?

“Japanese is very useful if you're working in technology, which is what I did before I came here. Japanese culture is highly precision oriented. They don’t like variations, which makes them excellent at manufacturing. They also don’t like learning other people’s languages, and even when they do, they still think in Japanese. Bottom line, it’s easier on everyone if I communicate in Japanese than if they try to use English.”

“I know all about what the Japanese think of foreigners.” Rin said with more bitterness than she would have liked.

Rin found that eating sushi was highly ceremonial. There was a warm towel brought at the start of the meal, and David showed her how to wipe her hands and face with it. Then there was a great deal about choosing the proper drink. The nature and purpose of this eluded her even after it had been explained, and so she ordered a soda. David asked her to pour his drink for him, because it was apparently rude to pour your own. They had to order their drinks from the waitress, but their food from the chef. When the sushi arrived, David explained the procedure for combining it with the various condiments. Apparently dipping a sushi roll directly into soy sauce was a no-no. There were several plates involved and complex condiment-dipping procedures to be learned.

As the meal went on, Rin became increasingly impatient. At the end she took to picking up the sushi with a fork, submerging it in soy sauce, and ramming it home before the thing fell apart. David did not take offense to this.

“That was the most complicated meal I've ever eaten,” Rin said when the operation was over.

“No it wasn't. It was no more complicated than any other restaurant meal you've ever eaten. The only difference was that this was the first time since you were a child that you sat down to a meal and didn't know the rules.”

Rin looked down at her plate in doubt, trying to compare this meal to a more conventional one.

David let her ponder this for a moment, and then jumped back in to help her along. “You drink soda through a straw, but not beer. You can put syrup on home fries but not on a baked potato. You eat carrots and celery with your hands, unless they're in a salad, in which case you use a fork. Hamburgers come with ketchup, but if you put ketchup on steak it's an insult to the cook. You eat cake with a fork, but muffins with your hands. You use a knife and fork for steak, but you eat ribs or fried chicken with your hands. You can't drink soup from the bowl. And so on. I would argue that the rules here are actually simpler, because the menu is so much smaller. If a man from Mars showed up in his flying saucer, it would be easier for him to learn to eat here than at any variety-menu franchise you could name.”

“Okay,” she said. “It might be simpler, but it’s still silly to make the rules so rigid. Besides no one commits suicide over ketchup...”

Neither of them had anything more to say at that point. David paid the bill and they left.

They were both quiet as David drove out of the city. The only sound was the faint hum of the engine, rising and falling as they wove among afternoon commuters.


Once they were free of the city traffic, Rin broke the silence. “So we've had sushi. And thanks. Now are you willing to answer the question?”

“You've heard of Tangerine Technology?” David tossed this question out as if it wasn't a non-sequitur.

“I think everyone has. I'm still using the Dream 7 from last year. No, two years ago. Tough little thing. Survived that crash I was in.” Rin yanked out her tel and held it up as evidence. Tangerine had become big decades earlier when they introduced some of the first 'warm' synthetic voices -- computer voices that didn't make the machine sound addled or deranged.

“If you've heard of Tangerine, then you've heard of Wayne Zuse, right?”

“Of course.” Rin thought this was a strange question, like asking someone if they've heard of the president. Zuse was the eccentric CEO of Tangerine Technology, a sort of cult figure among technology fans. He was getting on in years now, but one particular picture of him in his late twenties had been absorbed into pop culture and was frequently imitated or parodied. It depicted him holding a normal tel up to one ear, and an antique landline telephone with a spiral cord to the other. He was smirking, as if doing something mischievous. This image had become a sort of visual shorthand for audacious courage and invention.

David continued. “Well, Wayne is a huge fan of the space program. He's actually old enough to remember the tail end of the NASA projects. I think he even saw a space shuttle launch as a kid.

“Wow. He's old.”

“To someone just out of her teens, yes, I suppose he might seem old. Anyway, three years ago the ISV Gagarin came back from a mission while the docking station was in the shadow of Earth. Those stations have exterior lights on them, just like radio towers, airplanes, and tall buildings. But it's sometimes hard to get a sense of direction and speed from a few points of light. When you're in the shadow of Earth, the station is just a black silhouette against the stars. The pilot got disoriented during docking and rammed the nose of the Gagarin right into the side of the station. Hundreds of millions in damage. It's a miracle nobody was killed.”

“I remember that story,” Rin said. “I didn't realize it was because of simple darkness. You'd think they would have some kind of guidance for the ships so that didn't happen.”

“That was the first thought that came to everyone's mind. It was an obvious conclusion, but wrong. So ISAC launched this project to prevent any more crashes. Their idea was to use a complicated system of painting nearby craft with a fast-moving laser, then have multiple cameras compare these images and a computer would build a fully three-dimensional view of the other craft. This would be projected onto the pilot's screen, helping him to see objects even if they were dark.”

“So what went wrong?”

“There were problems getting the laser-painting to work. Some hull materials weren't reflective enough, or were reflective in a way that confused the camera. Sometimes direct sunlight would screw with the cameras. And even when it worked, it wasn't completely helpful to the pilot. It could tell where the station was, but the pilot couldn't tell which arm of the station they were looking at. And the system didn't do anything to help the people on the station see the ship, or to help people on spacewalk to know what was going on around them. The only person this helped was the pilot. They blew over a billion and had a system that only solved half the problem and only under certain conditions. Wayne read about it and went nuts. He called them up and said we could solve the problem for ten thousand.”

“We?” Rin turned away from the window. They were gliding down interstate 45, heading back to ISAC Houston. “You mean you worked for Tangerine?”

David nodded. “Still do. You think I could afford a car like this with a government job?”

“I did wonder...”

“ISAC probably would have laughed or hung up if anyone else had made an offer like that. I mean, this is a government contract. An international government contract. You're supposed to bid on it through proper channels and kiss up to the right bureaucrats to even get the chance to make your pitch. But Wayne has a way with people.”

“Ten grand? That's nothing to them. Or to Tangerine.”

“I know. I mean, ten thousand bucks, right? He might as well have offered to do it for free. I have no idea where he got that number. He's odd like that.”

“So what was his plan?”

David laughed and thumped his hand against the steering wheel in delight. He was obviously enjoying telling this story. “He didn't have one. Not a clue. He called a few of us into the brainstorming room and explained the problem. He said he'd personally give the ten grand to whoever could come up with the solution.”

“That's crazy. He offered to fix the problem without having a solution in mind?”

“It might seem crazy, but it's actually what our company does. It's not like someone is shaving one morning and suddenly gets the idea to invent imitative voice synthesis or roll-up display screens. Those things got invented by people looking at some ugly bit of technology and saying, 'There must be a better way to do this!' The whole laser imaging thing just screamed out 'ugly technology' to Wayne, and he knew there had to be a better solution.”

“So what was it?” Rin found herself getting impatient to find out how a consumer gadget company solved an aerospace problem.

“I'm getting to it. My team had been working on a project that had just been canned, so we had a lot of free time. I dragged them into one of the presentation rooms and turned out the lights. We sat there in the pitch dark for two hours, talking about what the problem really was and how we could know if we'd solved it. I mean, how do you test perception problems? Implement your solution and see if there are more crashes? That’s just not acceptable.

“It wasn't just that the ships couldn't see each other. It's naturally hard to orient yourself in space. Here on Earth, you're never accidentally upside-down. In space you don't know which way you're facing and you don't know which way the other ship is facing. Ships, or sections of ships, spin in place to create gravity. And of course you've got interstellar ships transing in and out all over the place. It's chaos.”

“But pilots don't fly by looking out the window, do they? I mean, it's not like driving a car.”

“The only reason the pilot doesn't fly by sight is because it's so hard to see, which is the problem we were trying to solve. It's true that they have a lot of instruments on the bridge. I actually think the pilot has too many, but that's another issue. Imagine if we painted over the windows of my car here, and instead I had a little screen that just pointed arrows at the other vehicles and showed a number for how far away they were.” David pointed at the other cars around them as he did this. He even pointed at cars as they zipped past in the opposing lane. “There would be a lot of arrows and a lot of numbers dancing around that screen, and it still wouldn't give you a sense of distance, scale, or relative speed. It wouldn't give you the type of three-dimensional understanding you get from using your eyeballs. Even if their laser imaging had worked perfectly, it still wouldn't have been a full solution. Sure, the pilot doesn't have to fly by looking out the window, but sometimes your eyeballs make for some damn fine instrumentation.

“We came up with the idea of putting lights on stuff. Not just to illuminate it, but to define it. We tested on random objects at different scales. A floor lamp, a pair of scissors, telephone, truck, shoe, you get the idea. Anything. We knew we had the solution when we could trim a complex object with light strips, take a picture of it, and have a test subject instantly identify what the object was, what position it was in, and how far it was from the camera.”

“That's it?” Rin was disappointed. “I think I've seen those on recent pictures of spacecraft. I thought they were decorative. I guess it seems kind of obvious now.”

“Obvious? It wasn't obvious to the guys who spent all that money on laser imaging. Those guys also do defense contracts, and that's how they think. Laser imaging! Computer modeling!”

“Did adding light strips really solve the problem that easily?”

“Not just light strips. You need more information than just lines on a black background. We found color was good for this. The port side of the ship has green lights. The starboard side has blue. Then the bottom-aft corner of the hull has a triangle of red light strips that are wider than the others. This way, even a partly colorblind person can identify the exact orientation of the object, even if the object has an axis of symmetry like our interstellar ships.”

“Okay, and that explains the colors! I didn't realize there was a pattern to them. I thought ISAC was just trying to be hip and cool, and failing. You know those lights make the ship look like an old-fashioned turn-of-the-millennium disco?”

“There's also a grid of reflective tape over the surface of the hull, so techs working outside can get a sense of distance and get a feel for the topology of the hull with their little flashlights. Five years ago there was a guy floating around outside, and he strayed too close to the rotating section of the station. He was pulverized because he had no sense of how far away he was from where he was supposed to be. It was just a big white wall in front of him. I'm betting our tape would have prevented that accident as well.

“Plus the reflective tape is full of little cornerpieces, so it transforms light polarization in a very specific way that’s easy to filter. Anyone with a properly configured laser range-finder can point it at the tape and tell how far away something is. So, it’s even improves the garbage laser painting gizmos, basically for free.”

Rin was quiet for a few more minutes as they rolled along. Beneath her the seat creaked as she shifted to get more comfortable. The sun had slipped behind the clouds, and she could feel her eyes wanting to slide closed. Her belly was full, and the ride was very smooth and relaxing.


Her eyes snapped open. “Hang on. You never answered my question. In fact, you added another one. Why is a successful guy -- who knows Wayne Zuse! - working for ISAC, and why is he taking an interest in someone at the bottom of the pile?”

“Oh, sorry. I thought you had fallen asleep on me!” David laughed. “Anyway, I was sent here as part of the deal. Wayne and I are both fans of space travel. I'm sort of on loan from Tangerine. Wayne pitched it to ISAC as a kind of exchange program where they learn some of our tricks, and he pitched it to our stockholders as a kind of public relations / publicity stunt deal. We'll end up with our logo on some orbital objects, and they agreed to put our relays on their ships and stations so people with our tel units can make calls from orbit. Silly, but that stuff goes over really well with consumers.”

“Wow. So what is the space program learning from you?”

“Nothing, really. Not for lack of me trying, but one person does not steer an organization of this size. I don't have any power over policy, the unions, or spending, but I have some latitude with regard to who gets hired and what I assign them to do. On paper, I'm an adviser to the Executive Director. But he prefers schmoozing with politicians and contractors and is happy to leave me to do the boring stuff like make this place work. And if you ever tell anyone I said that I'll deny it so hard you'll die of shame.”

“Okay then.”

“To be completely honest: I don't like it here. This place is stifling, dysfunctional, bureaucratic, and capable of really petty bullshit.”

Rin opened her mouth, but David jumped in before she could ask, “I stay here because as much as I hate this culture, this is the only way human beings are ever going to live out there. For good.” David pointed up towards the sky as he said this. “I don't just mean space. I mean other worlds. This is our only way to get there, and I really want to see it happen in my lifetime.”

Rin looked over. David was surprisingly earnest and passionate on this point. “Are you sure?” she asked. “I mean, we've got quite a few private firms out there now. What were those guys that did an orbit around the moon last year? Slingshot?”

David smiled. “Catapult Aerospace. Love those guys. Quirky company. But no, they aren't taking us to the stars anytime soon. Yes, they can drop stuff off on the moon or take rich people out for a few laps around it. But think about it: What are the two things you need for traveling interstellar?”

“Well, you need an accelerator tunnel...”

David nodded. “And to power the accelerator you need...?”

Rin sighed. “I get it. You need a reactor.”

“Yes. And good luck getting permission to build one of those. Governments do not generally want private companies messing with nuclear power. So this place is the only route to the stars, assuming someone can fix the stifling bureaucracy, infighting, and graft.”

David had been lowering his voice as they approached the facility. The conversation stopped when they reached the security checkpoint. They lowered the windows and let the camera arms have their way with the car.

David continued once they were clear. “You probably don't realize it, but you are special. That's why I want you as part of my team.”

“Not to imply that I think I'm ordinary, but when you say 'special', what are you referring to?”

David began ticking off points on his fingers as he drove. “You decided you wanted to be a doctor, even though you have no active support from a family and no financial backing. You developed a strenuous plan of action to get you through med school with minimal debt. At age eighteen, you had a planning horizon that extended almost a decade into the future. You kept up with your plan, even though it led to isolation and exhaustion. You did this without complaining or unloading your stress on coworkers, and without ever failing in your duties. I know. I was watching.”

Rin shrugged. “Sounds impressive when you say it like that.”

“You're audacious. I need audacious people. Especially here. I can't fix this culture of sloth, risk-aversion, paperwork, and politicking overnight. Heck, I'll probably never fix it. But I can put a dent in it if I can get the right people.”

“Okay, so you want me on your team. What does that mean?”

“It's how we worked at Tangerine. Team leaders watch the new recruits and temp workers, looking for gems. If you see someone special, you grab them and put them on your team. We actually call it the tribal system, but I didn't want to confuse you by asking you to join my tribe. The point is, I had ten smart, hardworking people behind me at Tangerine. I'm sure they're off right now inventing a cordless smart screen that can cook dinner and give foot massages. I have to build another team, and good creative people are hard to find in this place.”

“Am I the first person to join your new tribe or team or whatever?”

“No. I've got a few others. One guy is a little older than you. He's in orbit now. I've just had a robotics expert join up. There's also a retired ship captain that stops by now and again to do some consulting for us. If I'm reading him right, he's bored and looking for a way to contribute on a larger scale. I'm keeping my eye on him.”

Rin was quiet as she turned this over in her head. Their car was winding through the complex, heading for the personnel facilities.

“So what do you want me to do?” she asked as the car eased to a stop.

“Keep doing what you're doing. Keep your head down. Make it to space and back. By the time you do that you should have a pretty good picture of what's wrong with the space program. Then we can talk about fixing it. Just like gluing strings of lights to a spaceship, sometimes a small idea can make a huge impact.”

David pulled away and Rin turned around in place on the sidewalk. He'd dropped her off where he'd found her, in front of the cafeteria. She no longer needed to go eat. She glanced at her phone and realized she had missed a training class, and was more than halfway through the next one.


Being a member of David's team gave Rin access to all sorts of nuggets of information that were probably intended for people far above her pay level. David would forward her stories, or executive summaries of proposals. There didn't seem to be much in the way of reason or order to what he sent, other than everything seemed to hint at the dysfunction he wanted to fix. Rin read these not because they were interesting, but because they were ostensibly classified and she was being allowed in on the secret.

The most interesting of these was the long chain of reports and studies regarding Technician 4 William 'Billy' Burke.

On the day he died, Burke had been assigned to perform a haul-in from the exterior storage array on ISAC docking station Berlin. Rather than maintain a warehouse within the station and go to all the trouble of pressurizing and heating it, supplies were placed into canisters that hung in nets from the non-rotational parts of the station. Once empty, the four-meter canisters were filled with trash, sewage, recyclables, or whatever else the station inhabitants needed to send back down to Earth.

The Wild West days of throwing refuse into space at orbital velocity were long over. The problem with orbiting objects is that everything is either worthless or priceless. Sooner or later some of those accumulated turds, tampons, and toothbrushes would drift off and smack into something expensive at three kilometers a second. Then people at home would naturally ask why the space agency was allowed to throw their trash out the window. So, instead, they de-orbited everything, but that meant keeping it all contained.

Billy was given the job of leaving the ship, attaching container Orange-11 to the reel line -- a space-winch, basically -- and having it brought into the ship. He was supposed to have a spotter with him for a job like this - someone who could call for help if he was incapacitated while gallivanting around in the deadly vacuum of space. Technician 2 Morris 'Stomper' Kazinski was supposed to suit up and watch Billy do the haul-in. The after-incident investigation found that Morris signed in for duty and then went to his bunk to play videogames. Morris later insisted that he hadn't done anything unusual. According to Morris, nobody on the ship ever showed up for spotter duty because all you did was float around in space watching someone else work. The other crew members insisted that this was clearly not true. They always reported for spotter duty, and they had their names on the sign-in sheet to prove it.

Billy didn't seem to find the absence of a spotter unusual. He arrived in airlock 4 and proceeded to exit the ship without making any effort to contact his spotter.

His helmet had not been properly secured, and so when he attempted to cycle the airlock an alarm sounded. Billy dismissed this alarm without correcting the problem with his suit. The airlocks often gave warnings and alarms for various situations that were generally not dangerous, and it was postulated that Billy dismissed this alarm without reading it, mistaking it for a less dangerous problem.

His suit would also have refused to green-light him for excursion. Regulation required that his suit report green before the operator should attempt to cycle the airlock. It was not clear if Billy ignored this step, if he mistook the yellow alert for green, or if the suit failed to properly detect the unsealed helmet situation. It was several days before the body was recovered, during which time the suit had been exposed to a lengthy freeze / thaw cycle that exceeded operational parameters and might have inflicted additional post-accident damage on the instrumentation. Later testing of the suit was rated as inconclusive.

When the external airlock opened, Billy floated out. External cameras -- which, in violation of regulation, were not being monitored during the operation -- showed him floating away at two kilometers an hour relative to the station. Nobody was able to explain this motion. If the decompression had been sudden and debilitating, then Billy would have been incapacitated in the airlock, and should still have been floating there when the accident was discovered. If the decompression had not been instantly debilitating, then Billy should have been able to close the door again or signal for help.

The only way for the accident to have happened as it did would be for Billy to somehow not notice the decompression for four full seconds, which is how long it would take the outer doors to open far enough to allow him to pass. He would have needed to push off, and only then become incapacitated.

The most popular theory was that Billy was drunk on the job. Alcohol was found in his body once it was recovered, but nobody could agree on how prolonged exposure to a vacuum would impact the amount of measurable alcohol present in the bloodstream after death.

The other popular theory was that Mr. Burke committed suicide. His last psych evaluation was four years old and had been performed by a doctor who apparently also evaluated twenty other personnel during that same hour, all of which had precisely the same “nothing to see here” wording in their review.

Whatever happened in space exploration, ISAC was never allowed to not know why someone died. More importantly, they were never, ever allowed to fail to have a plan for making sure it never happened again. And so it was decided that Morris Kazinski would have his contract terminated, and all other orbital and deep-space personnel would need to be re-certified for spacewalk before their next mission.

Reading all of this, Rin felt like she had never left Japan.


Rin saw the robot as soon as she entered the lecture hall. Among all the students fidgeting, slouching, ogling members of the opposite sex, flirting, reading, or nodding off in their seats, the lone motionless figure stood out. Her sitting posture looked forced, as if she was posing for a picture. She looked ahead to the front of the room, despite the fact that the class hadn't started yet and all of the action was taking place behind her. Her shoulders didn't move and her chest didn't rise and fall, because she wasn't pretending to breathe like some of the high-end personal robots did.

Rin was shocked at how antiquated the ground facilities were here at ISAC. The two-meter display screens at the front of the room had aged poorly. One had accumulated a lot of dead pixels over the years, and the other seemed to be broken entirely. The desks were throwbacks to the days before subsurface charging. You could walk into any coffee shop, restaurant, or office built in the last decade and find little yellow lightning bolt icons on every horizontal surface between waist and shoulder height. You dropped a battery powered widget anywhere and it got charged, end of story. But the tables here at ISAC had physical plugs. Useless, of course, except as a perch so Rin could set her coffee down on the desk and not have it slide off into her lap. Of course, that wouldn't be a problem if the surface was level. Did ISAC really expect people to do penmanship? Maybe there was a 'Writing Cursive in Space' certification she could get.

This class was called 'Procedures for Extra-Planetary Habitation'. Today was the first day. As far as Rin could tell, this was going to be a course dedicated to living in space, and the core of its learning could probably be summed up on an index card; Where to sleep, where to go to the bathroom, how to keep your hair out of your face in zero gravity, etc.

May as well start poking things. Rin sat down next to the robot. “So what are you doing in here?”

Several heads turned her way when she said this. The robot didn't look towards her. It failed to notice it was being talked to. It missed out on the little cues with regard to distance, position, and tone of voice that announced you were opening a conversation with someone. It just kept looking at the front of the room.

“Hey. Bot. Why are you here?”

The robot turned and the motionless face greeted her. “Hello. I'm here for the class on Procedures for Extra-Planetary Habitation.”

This was a decent mid-range robot. The voice wasn't stilted. The face was lifelike and the eyes didn't have that vacuous dunce look that Rin hated so much.

“Yes, I know what class this is, but why are you in it?”

“Hey, leave her alone!” This voice came from behind Rin. She turned to see a tall, broad-shouldered technician. He had stood up from his desk and was looking at her indignantly. He was perhaps a few years older than her. In another, less annoying context, she might have admired him for his good looks.

Rin blinked, unable to understand why this guy would be demanding that she not talk to a robot. When he didn't seem inclined to explain himself, Rin prompted him with a sneer. “What?”

He folded his arms over his chest and raised his voice. “She has as much a right to be here as you do!”

“You have got to be kidding,” Rin groaned. “Go away. Nobody asked for your help.”

He turned his attention to the robot. “You don't have to listen to her. You're fine.”

“I'm not oppressing the robot. It doesn't even...” Rin stopped herself, realizing she was going about this the wrong way. Turning to the Robot she said, “Am I bothering you? No? Please tell him I'm not bothering you.”

The robot stood and turned towards the back of the room so she could face her would-be savior. “I'm not uncomfortable. But thanks for your concern.” She sat back down.

A person wouldn't stand up just to utter a single line. For people, getting in and out of chairs was like shifting into fourth gear. You didn't want to do it if you were going to change back a couple of seconds later. If a person wanted to toss out a single statement, they would normally talk over their shoulder or contort themselves a bit to turn all the way around in the desk. A person wouldn't inconvenience themselves just to establish eye contact for something this trivial. This was just another subtle move that humans simply took for granted in one another. Rin noted this oddity, adding it to the list of thousands of other details that stood in the way of people involved in the misguided business of making human-shaped robots.

The guy stopped puffing out his chest and unclenched his jaw. He grudgingly backed down and returned to his seat. Several people took the opportunity to arrange their note paper. The sound of idly tapping pencils resumed, like scholarly crickets after a disturbance.

“Why is a bot attending a human class?” Rin said to the robot. “Why not just absorb the material through reading? This stuff is slow even by human standards.”

“I don't mind.”

The robot was designed to look like a teenage girl. Annoyingly, she was a good bit taller than Rin. It was obviously a Japanese unit, but it had an American face, red hair, and freckles. It would have been a decent face if not for the unsettling detail that her mouth didn't move. Her voice floated out of her head as if she was a ventriloquist.

“I know you don't mind, but I don't see the point. This class is for humans scheduled for orbital or deep space duty. This is a slow way to teach you something you don't need to know.”

“I'll be going to space along with the other students. I don't know why I'm being sent to classes instead of reading the material. But I don't mind. I'm not uncomfortable at all.”

“You're going to space? That's a new one.” Rin wasn't sure how she felt about this. It seemed like an expensive thing to do. Were robots sharp enough to be helpful out there, or was this robot being sent to space for the sake of novelty? “So what's the deal with your mouth?”

“In focus groups we found people disliked the animated mouth. The noise of the movement was unsatisfying to them. The locked mouth position is being tested as an alternative. I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”

Robots used synth-voices, which came out of a simple speaker built into the head or throat. The moving mouths were just puppetry. The noise of the motion wasn't loud, but even the smallest hints of mechanical friction sounded strange coming from the face of something supposedly human.

“I'm not uncomfortable,” Rin reassured the robot.

“Good!” the robot said in a cheerful voice, without that emotion being reflected on the face in the slightest. Ironically, this did make Rin uncomfortable. It made the robot seem like a crazy person.


Rin reached up and slapped her hand against the black plastic square on the front of her mailbox, which sat at the topmost position in the middle of a vast wall of identical boxes. It must have been someone's idea of a joke to assign a top box to someone of her height. She couldn't reach all the way to the back, even on tiptoe.

The box didn't react to her touch. She tried again. She tried the other hand. She leaned in and looked at the plastic at an angle so she could make out the surface in the early morning sunlight. It was covered in giant greasy fingerprints. What was this stuff? Donut glaze? Sunblock?

She was wearing a skirt and short sleeves, and her purse was made of leathery plastic. She literally had no fabric which could reach this panel to clean it. She wouldn't even bother, but her mail indicator light was flashing for the first time in a week, and she was willing to bet it was her new duty assignment. ISAC insisted on mailing simple documents that could be easily sent electronically. For security purposes of course.

She slipped off one of her platform shoes, removed a sock, and used it to buff the panel clean. Afterward, the panel responded to her handprint and released the mailbox door. There was a single large envelope inside. She snatched it and headed out to get something to eat.

ISAC had allowed a Cheese-Easy franchise to set up here on campus. The food was so greasy and heavy that it put her body into a coma-like nap, and their coffee was unforgivably wretched swill. She wouldn't bother with this place at all, but the alternative was for her to either walk a half mile off campus in the savage heat, or go without caffeine. So, death either way, basically.

The place was empty this morning. A robot was sweeping the floor and another one was minding the register. They were awful, American-made, rubber-faced twins with repetitive movements and cheap, grating voices. They were white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, “males”, molded to give the impression of a robust, healthy physique. The only other human in the building was in the kitchen.

Rin smiled. She liked when she had the robots to herself. She grinned at the cashier robot and gave her order. “I would like a large coffee... with no mayo.”

The robot hesitated. Its smooth, disturbingly shiny face looked down at the register and back up at her. “I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to put mayonnaise on that.”

It wasn't always clear what twisted logic the robots were following when responding to nonsense instructions, and they were never smart enough to explain themselves. She theorized that it heard, “no mayo on coffee,” realized that this was a nonsense request, and so assumed the customer had intended to say, “mayo on coffee”. After this logical leap, it would realize it wasn't allowed to do that, and said so. Perhaps not. Perhaps it followed some other line of non-reasoning. She still enjoyed the game.

She tried again. “I would like a large Coke, with no pickles.”

The robot continued smiling. Rin wondered if the people who made these things realized just how self-defeating it was to have a salesperson who always smiled. It wasn't reassuring. It just made the robot seem crazed, or led the human being to wonder if it was hiding some other emotion. Finally it replied, “I'm sorry, but we're not serving lunch yet. Can I interest you in our breakfast menu?”

“Oh, thank you!” she grinned ingratiatingly. If you weren't polite, the bots would occasionally figure out you were messing with them. It took much longer for them to catch on if you acted like a moron. “I'll just have the large coke with no syrup then.”

Instantly she winced and rolled her eyes. Coke was reconstituted from syrup! She might get a cup of carbonated water for her trouble. But no...

“Would you like the pancake meal to go with your drink?” The robot inquired helpfully.

She smiled to herself this time, giving a suggestion meant that the robot was all set for her killer line. She looked both ways like a vaudeville villain and leaned slightly forward over the counter.

Just then, another customer entered. Rin didn't want to hold up the line with her game, so she decided to let the robot off the hook. “Never mind. I just want a coffee.”

“What size coffee would you like?” the robot replied with mechanical cheerfulness.

“I want all the coffee,” Rin said slyly.

The robot paused again before replying. “Your order is one large coffee. Would you like anything else?”

“No,” Rin said with slight disappointment. “Large coffee” was a pretty good way to interpret “all the coffee” without engaging in surrealism. Plus she couldn't afford the other meaning anyway. Life was so sad sometimes.

Back outside, she set her imitation coffee down on one of the patio tables, which nobody ever used because only a crazy person would want to sit in direct sunlight in this part of the world. She ripped open her mail and shuffled through the irrelevant fluff to find the one meaningful document. Her eyes scanned over it until she found the words “ISV ARMSTRONG” printed in large, bold letters.

“Son of a bitch!” she shouted.


Twenty minutes later she strode into David's office without knocking. David didn't look up from his golf putter. He'd stuffed a number of small objects under the large throw rug in the middle of the room, giving it a complex topography. He was also putting left-handed, and Rin was pretty sure he was normally right-dominant.

“You need something?” he muttered as his eyes darted back and forth between the ball and the cup, lining up his shot.

“Yes,” Rin said. She walked around him, tossed her empty coffee into his trash, and slapped her assignment down onto his desk. “I would like to talk to you about this bullshit.”

David glanced at the paper and his eyes brightened. “Oh! Your duty assignment. I thought this was about you getting fired.”


“You didn't know? You're fired. Failed to notify before taking emergency leave.”

“You told me to take the emergency leave! This is your fault!

“Don't blame me! Besides, your duty assignment just came in!”

She glared at him accusingly. “You knew about this?”

“Yes,” David said, his shoulders falling. “I'd meant to talk you into it before your orders came in.”

“You were going to talk me into it? What if I didn't agree to it?”

“I hadn't really considered that. Of course, it's going to be harder now that you're mad at me. Good thing you don't have a job to fall back on.”

“Did you do this yourself? Did you actually assign me to deep space without even talking to me first?”

David took the putt. The ball rolled halfway up the lopsided hill and rolled off to one side. Rin noticed that David was missing a shoe. He sighed in disappointment and recovered the ball to try again. “No, I didn't personally assign you. Keep in mind that most people in your position don't get to come in here and talk to me personally, and a lot of them would probably be terrified at the prospect. No, your name went in the pool with everyone else's. Deep space captains get first pick of new personnel, and so when a woman with twenty different certifications came up, you naturally got drafted early. In fact, I'm pretty sure you were a first-round pick.”

“You're the one who encouraged me to go after so many certs. You had to know this would happen,” Rin said accusingly. She held up her orders as evidence.

“Which is why I planned to talk to you about it. I had guessed you’d get through the first round, but I didn’t know you’d be assigned so quickly. Hey, maybe this place is getting more efficient after all!”

“I know you're used to working on gadgets and software, but maybe you've heard that space flight is dangerous? Like, people die?”

“Statistically, it's safer than climbing Mt. Everest.” A faint tap announced another putt. This one bounced over a lump shaped like an open book and rolled under his desk.

Rin wasn't sure if she should laugh or scream, and so she split the difference and let out a sort of sputtering guffaw. “Does that work on people? They agree to do something dangerous because something completely unrelated is more dangerous?”

“I'm just trying to put it into perspective,” David said with infuriating calmness.

“Fine. Your irrelevant trivia is duly noted. I'm not leaving Earth orbit.”

David dropped the putter and strode out of the room. A second later he came back and retrieved his shoe from under the rug. “Let's go,” he said.

Rin followed David out of the building. She was already set against going to space, but she was going along because she was curious what his pitch was going to be. He might be a manipulative bastard, but he wasn't a fool, and she was eager to see what he might think was persuasive enough to change her mind.

Oddly, he didn't lead them to the parking garage, but instead exited out the front door of the administration building and into the world of direct solar radiation and stifling humidity. He led them across the road and around to the side of the executive cafeteria building. There was a loading bay here, and some forklifts were unloading a truck and moving the goods inside. David whistled at them like he was hailing a cab.

“Yeah, you! Number six!” he shouted to a yellow robot with a blocky “6” stenciled on the side. “Come here.”

An operator was standing with the robots, directing their work. He looked put out that someone would distract one of his charges, but once he saw Director Reed he gave a nervous gesture halfway between a wave and a salute, and went back to his work.

Number Six rolled over to them on its tank treads. Its arms were currently folded into its body, so it was basically a traveling yellow box. When it arrived, the “head” extended on a long, narrow swivel arm and looked down at David. The head was nothing more than a cluster of cameras and scuffed, greasy display screen. A message appeared:

How can I assist you?” It read. The message was printed in block mono-type, which was oddly difficult to read considering how easy it was to identify each character.

David rolled his eyes and turned to Rin. “Can you believe some of these companies? Tangerine will license out low-class voices for, like, forty bucks a unit. How much do you think they charge people for one of these forklifts? And they're too dang cheap to throw in voice synthesis? Hell, you can use turn-of-the-century voice synth for free. Just shameful.”

David turned to the robot. “I want you to carry us to the simulator.”

The screen now scrolled to read “I am not authorized to carry personnel.” Small bits of “How can I assist you?” still littered the top edge of the screen. Rin found this annoyed her more than being assigned to deep space.

“I authorize you,” David said as if speaking to a child. He pulled his campus ID out of his breast pocket and held it up for the robot to see.

The arms unfolded and extended. Each “arm” was a collection of slats. The slats could fit together into a single long appendage, and so the two arms could grab palettes like a traditional forklift. The slats could also be moved around like long fingers and handle large items of various shapes and sizes. In this case the robot placed all of the slats side-by-side, forming a metal platform. David hopped onto this without hesitation.

Rin looked over at the operator. “I think you pissed that guy off. You stole one of his workers.”

David shrugged. “Those guys make more per hour than you did doing office work, and they average about four hours of work for a ten-hour shift. And if I try to cut their hours or fire one of them I'll end up in a time-sucking labor dispute that will drag on for weeks.”

Rin raised her eyebrows in a delicate question. The robot forklift idled nosily.

“What I'm saying is, basically, 'Screw that guy. Let's go.'”

With a noisy whine of servos, the robot had placed the platform at a height where David could step up. For Rin the step was a lot more formidable. She was wearing a skirt, and wasn't really crazy about how it was going to behave if she tried to climb.

David saw her problem. He put his hands under her arms and lifted her like a child, setting her down on the platform beside him. She wanted to be mad at him for this, but it did seem to be the most optimal approach. So she said “Thanks” instead.

“Didn't they issue you a jumpsuit yet?” he asked. “You don't work in the office anymore. You don't need to dress up.”

“There's no way I'm walking around in this heat with my arms and legs covered.”

“That's a very good point,” David said emphatically. “I wonder if I could get away with a kilt?” He banged the robot on the side twice as a signal to go. The robot didn't move. He bent over and put his face in front of the camera array. “Hey guy. We're on board. Let's go!”

The robot rolled away with them, heading for the Mud Lake Storage Zone.

The robot trundled along at a good pace, causing the wind to whip Rin's hair and skirt around. She held her skirt down by keeping her backside against the body of the robot and her right hand on the hem. With her other hand she held onto the robot's frame.

“This is not an ideal form of transport for me,” she shouted into the wind.

“You're doing fine,” David said dismissively. “I could have called the motor pool and had a golf cart sent over for us, but it always takes them fifteen minutes to deliver the dang thing.”

“Why are we going to the simulator?” Rin asked.

“I want you to meet my robotics expert.”

So he was taking her to meet one of the other members of their alleged “tribe”. If David described this person as his 'robotics expert', then how did he describe her to other people? Was she his 'not-yet-a-doctor expert'? His 'car crash expert'? His 'young female expert'?

Rin looked at David. He was wearing his Smug Shades again, looking off to the horizon and bobbing his head slightly as if he was listening to music that nobody else could hear. Most people would be making a fool of themselves by acting this way, but the standard rules of behavior didn't seem to apply to him. Here was a guy who was probably fabulously wealthy. He worked as some sort of important person at a sexy, cutting-edge technology company and was personal friends with world-famous Wayne Zuse. On top of this, he was now in the position of administrating bits of the largest and most well-funded aerospace program on the planet. While he didn't strike her as a creative genius, he did seem to have some sort of spark or drive that put him ahead of everyone else. Perhaps it was his superhuman audacity.

“Maybe he can trick out your new ride!” She yelled.

David just flashed his teeth for a moment.

“I know I asked you this already, but what is your deal with me?” Rin asked.

“Deal?” David shrugged, as if mystified by the question.

She was pretty sure he knew exactly what she was talking about, but was feigning ignorance. Why did he do this? It was amazingly irritating, and forced her to explain things that he probably already knew. “Why are you bothering with me? I'm flattered and everything, but why are you going to so much trouble to talk me into going to deep space?”

“We had an orbital tech decompress himself a few months ago. As part of the fallout from that, everyone needs to be re-certified. Which means we're shorthanded. So I need all the people I can get.”

“But why me, specifically?”

“I read about your work with Project Bootstrap,” David said, face still turned to the horizon.

Rin wanted to cover her face with her hand, but she couldn't spare either of them. She settled for hanging her head in shame. “You heard about that? How? And you think it's a good thing?”

“Hearing about it was easy. I sent for your extended transcripts. This being a super-government outfit, they tell us everything. Anything that hits your file. Every time your student ID is swiped somewhere. Every time a face-track camera spots you walking between classes. Visits to dorms. Extracurricular involvement. It’s so bad that I’ve got a custom scrubbing program to take out the embarrassingly private information so I can read the things without blushing. College students would riot if they knew how much the school knows... and if they weren't so damn apathetic.”

“But, I practically ruined the project!” Rin objected. A bug bounced off her lips as she said this, and she spluttered for a moment. David didn’t seem to notice.

“No, you saved it. I saw you got a lot of grief over it, but you did the right thing. You might not know it, but a few of the professors spoke up for you. In writing, at least. I know they booted you out of the project, but that was because of all the interpersonal drama. You impressed a lot of people by sticking to your guns. And I thought your solution was funny.”

“And this is why you want me on your team?” Rin said doubtfully.

“That, and the stuff I said before. Smart, independent, audacious, rides forklifts with older men.”

Rin smiled and cocked her head to one side, “So, I remind you of yourself then?” David said nothing, “Vicarious space exploration!” she prodded him, “All the fun, none of the risks!” David started bobbing his head again.

The simulator was a full-scale replica of an interstellar ship, held upright by a slender scaffolding of crisscrossing metal supports. The major difference between this ship and the real thing was that the top and bottom parts of the ship were split, nose-to-tail, and the two halves sat side-by-side. This was so that people could move around on the upper decks. Without this change, people on the upper decks would have needed to walk around on the ceiling. The reactor and accelerator were props, with training simulators built into them. She'd heard the bridge was also a simulator, but that place was closed to non-officers.

Even at half-height, the ship towered overhead. It was like a very long, extremely narrow building. It was hard for her to reconcile the imposing outside with the cramped interior.

Number Six rolled to a stop at the base of the ship. David stepped off first and brought his tel up to his ear. “Motor pool,” he said.

Rin waited, hoping the robot would lower its arms for her. It stood still and quiet, holding her about three feet off the ground. David reached out his free hand and offered to help her down. She ignored him and jumped. It might have been unladylike, but what the hell? She was already riding around on a moronic forklift.

“This is director Reed. I need a cart sent to the simulator,” David said. He waited a few seconds, rolled his eyes, and then hung up on whoever was on the other end. He shooed Number Six back to its operator.

Rin walked around, looking at the ship up close. The last time she was here was for the Energy Management Systems Certification, which was basically a test on babysitting the reactor. This was called “Glowboy Certification” by the students. She didn't have time to sight-see then, and was happy for this chance to poke around on her own. She was amused to discover that the hull - which looked plausible from a few paces away -- was actually made of cheap, lightweight plastic.

“I hope the real ships aren't made of plastic,” she said.

David shook his head. “Plywood. Way cheaper, and it's easy to modify.”

“Wait, really?”

“Yeah... No! The... This is plywood, not plastic. I don’t know what the real ones are made of. Gold and diamonds if you guess by how much we pay for them.”

“We're here to meet someone?” Rin said, hoping David would get to the point.

“ANDO!” David shouted without warning.

Rin stumbled back in surprise. “What?” she said in outrage once she'd recovered.

“He said he'd be here,” David muttered to himself.

David led her up the wooden ramp to the ship. There was a fully-functional airlock here for training purposes. Beside it was a simple opening cut into the side of the ship. A heavy slatted clear plastic curtain was hung over this, stenciled with the words, “THIS ACCESS POINT NOT PART OF SHIP DESIGN INSTRUCTOR USE ONLY.”

David shouldered aside the curtain and they headed in.


Entering the simulator was always a little strange. It was four stories tall and perhaps a hundred meters long, which gave the impression you were entering something like a regular building. It was disorienting to get inside and find the back wall of the building was only a few paces away. There wasn't enough room for a proper corridor, so rooms were arranged in a chain running fore to aft. If you wanted to get to a room on the other end of the ship, you had to pass through all of the rooms in between.

The place was lit by gentle white lights built into the starboard wall. On the port side, sunlight streamed in through the porthole. There was one such window in each section, a single narrow viewport that ran from deck to overhead. The stagnant air tasted rather un-futuristically like a lumber yard.

Rin wondered how anyone could sleep if people were constantly passing through the sleep area. The only places that offered any sort of privacy were the closet-sized toilet and shower cubicles, which were so narrow it wasn't clear how anyone could bend far enough to get their clothes off.

“You're not really making this deal any more attractive by bringing me here,” she said as she followed David aft.

The ceilings were just barely high enough that David could walk without crouching. He did need to duck down slightly to pass through the doorways between rooms. The doors stood open, and a curved red line had been painted on the deck to indicate their radius of movement.

David reached the yellow ladder leading up towards the power plant. “Ando!” he shouted again, less explosively this time. It was still loud for such a small space.

There was a clattering of hard footsteps on the deck above them. A robot came sliding down the ladder and landed gently at the bottom. It was made of metal with a white glossy finish. Black moving parts were exposed at all the joints. It was roughly the height and proportions of a ten-year-old boy. The back of the head was swept back and elongated to a rounded point. This made it look as if its hair had been blown back in a wind tunnel, or it was wearing a very aerodynamic helmet.

It looked shiny and new, but Rin suspected this was a very old robot design, because the face was almost absurdly primitive. The front of the head was a simple oval of translucent black plastic. Behind this was a grid of blue lights. The lights were lit in a pattern that formed two simple circles and a line, making the crudest approximation of a face, like an emoticon typed out on a screen.

“Good morning David,” the robot said evenly. Despite the apparent age of the design, the voice was cutting-edge - at least as good as Roberto. If she had turned her back she wouldn't have been able to tell it was coming from a robot. The voice might have sounded slightly old for a child body - perhaps more fitting for a teenager - but it was still quality.

David presented the robot with a grand gesture, “Rin, meet Ando, my robotics expert.” He was grinning like a madman.

“Good morning, Miss Shimazaki,” the robot said cheerfully. It held out the vowel sound in the word “good” for just a split second longer than was normal, making the greeting sound playful or encouraging. Rin had never met a robot that did this sort of thing before. The pattern of blue lights on its face had shifted so that the eyes were shut and the mouth was drawn into a half-circle smile. This made it look kind of like the robot was beaming. It held out a small, graceful hand for a handshake.

Rin ignored the robot and spoke to David, “This was your plan? Some creepy Japanese bot-child?”

David nodded as if he expected this response. Rin couldn't help but wonder if this was just an act on his part. Did he do this whenever he was rejected by someone? Was he married? Did he have a wife who let him get away with this sort of thing?

“Give him a chance,” David said patiently.

“Does my appearance make you uncomfortable?” Ando asked calmly. “This configuration was repeatedly well-received in focus group testing. The child-like proportions give the human being a feeling of power and authority, which makes them more willing to engage.”

Rin was quiet. She'd never had a robot attempt to debate her before. They generally understood only concrete topics, and said little in return. It took her a minute to get over the shock and get herself into the idea of having an argument with a robot. “See, that's exactly my problem. Your appearance is engineered to incite a certain response in people. That's creepy and manipulative.”

The robot had stopped smiling. Its face was passive again as it replied, “Human beings often style their hair or wear clothes designed to provoke a specific reaction in others. This behavior could also be said to be manipulative.”

“That's not what I meant!” Rin snapped.

“I'm sorry if I've offended you.” Ando's face changed. Two eyebrows appeared over its round eyes, arching upward and giving it a worried or nervous appearance. It realized it had offended her, and was backing down. Rin also realized, to her humiliation, that she was going to win this debate by “pulling rank” over the robot, which was not what she wanted at all. She was reacting as if she was dealing with a child talking back to her. She took a deep breath. She needed to keep her mind on the discussion and not take offense simply because a robot had an opinion.

“No, I'm sorry for raising my voice. I'm actually not very good around children,” she said. “But this is part of the problem. You're not really a child, are you? This isn't quite the same as styling your hair or wearing particular clothes. By taking on the form of a child you're pretending to be something you aren't. You're not human, and you're not a kid.”

Ando's face became neutral again. “You're suggesting my appearance is deceptive?”

“A bit, yeah. Misleading, I suppose. It also lowers the standards by which you are judged. Robots in adult form are judged as adult humans, which is why everyone reacts to them like they're so stupid. The face and body create a certain expectation. By taking the form of a child, your communication is judged by child standards.”

“True,” it replied. “But if a child form is deceptive and an adult form creates unattainable expectations, then what form should a robot have?” It did not say this in a challenging tone of voice, but a curious one. It really was curious what she thought. Or at least, it wanted her to feel that it was curious.

“I would say to make bots in a shape appropriate for their intended job, which doesn't need to be humanoid. The forklifts and the security checkpoint are good examples of bots designed to be good at a given task. I've never liked Japanese bots. I think their tendency to make humanoids is kind of narcissistic. And that's not even getting into the fact that most of their bots look like sixteen year old girls.”

Ando cocked its head to one side and arched one of its eyebrows, which made it look inquisitive. “What if the intended function of the bot was to interact with humans? If that was the case, then wouldn't a humanoid appearance be a sensible approach?”

David was standing behind the robot, grinning at her and looking smug. Rin wasn't sure how to take this. She looked down at Ando again, “Is that your purpose? Are you designed to interact with people?”

The robot paused. Usually a pause gave the impression that the robot was baffled by simple language and needed to catch up, but here it felt like the machine was considering its reply. “I would say no. Some of my directives are proprietary. I can't discuss those. But in a general sense, my purpose is to become more useful. To do this I need to better understand humans, and to do that I need to interact with them socially.”

Rin couldn't even believe that such a machine existed. It was even more unbelievable that she was getting to talk to it like this. In the past she had wondered if this sort of sophistication was going to emerge in her lifetime, and here it was, standing two paces away and arguing with her. She shook her head in amazement. “So what's the deal with your face? I mean- I'm sorry I didn't mean for that to come out that way, I just-“

“I'm not offended.” The robot smiled again. “A lot of people have asked the same question.” At this the robot swiveled its head around -- a bit further than was possible for a human -- and looked at David. It swiveled its head back to Rin. “The icon face was my idea. I feel strongly that I need a way to communicate reactions and attitudes in a non-verbal way, and I was dissatisfied with the mechanical faces. They look perfectly human to me, but humans are disturbed by them. I don't want to try a mechanical face again until I can perceive that discrepancy myself.”

A few seconds later Rin realized she was giving Ando a blank stare, like a low-grade robot trying to sort out what had been said. “So you're saying you designed your own face?”

Behind Ando, David gave her a single, self-satisfied nod. It seemed to be a cross between “I told you so!” and “Now you get it!” He gestured towards the porthole, indicating that he wanted to go outside and talk.

“I did,” Ando said. “I found I had an easier time reliably conveying reactions when typing than when interacting face-to-face, so the icon face was a natural extension of this idea.”

The robot communicated through typing? Rin wondered who it communicated with. More importantly, did they know they were talking to a robot at the time? “Have you ever taken the Turing test?” Rin asked.

“No,” Ando replied. “The Turing test is horseshit.”


Outside, Rin paced back and forth on the tarmac. There was a tiny, flimsy building here that held nothing more than a room to oversee the simulator, and a lavatory. David was in the shade of this building, leaning against the wall and watching the sky.

“That is an amazing robot,” Rin admitted, breaking the silence. They had left Ando inside to return to its simulator exercises, or whatever it was doing in there.

“You just spoke to the smartest machine ever built. Can you believe it?”

“I don't see any reason to disbelieve it,” Rin said. “But how did it end up here?”

David pushed off from the wall and joined her in her pacing. “He's on loan from Akimbo Technology. We have a long-standing relationship with them. And by 'we' I mean Tangerine, not this place.”

Rin didn't know what to make of this bit of information. It seemed like such a strange coincidence. Then again, Akimbo was one of a small number of advanced AI companies. Was it really that surprising that she should run into them here?

She realized that her surprise must have shown on her face, because David was giving her a quizzical look. “What? Is it something about Akimbo?” he asked. Suddenly a flash of realization appeared on his face. “Shimazaki! Don't tell me you're related!”

“Shimazaki is a common family name,” she blurted out in what was a spectacularly lame attempt at subtlety.

David was smiling like a madman. “Tell me Takehiko Shimazaki isn't your father.” He said this as if it was a dare.

“Takehiko Shimazaki is not my father,” Rin said firmly.

“Okay,” he said, still smirking. He nodded his head. He could tell she was telling the truth. “You keep your secret for now. Akimbo Tech is still an interesting company. They've always had really smart robotics, pretty much way ahead of everyone else.”

“Really?” Rin said. She wasn't aware they were ahead, much less “way ahead”.

“They came to us years ago for voice tech and aural parsers and we've been working together ever since. Strange company. They're not building industrial robots, or service workers, which is what most people want when they go shopping for bots. Most places want them to replace janitors, meter-readers, and stock-boys. But Akimbo has always been about making sapient robotic spokes models. They want to make salespeople, training instructors, trade show models, that kind of thing. Very high-end. Very niche.”

“But why-“

“I'm getting there,” David said, who clearly didn't want her to ruin his story by making him get to the point. “Once in a while they would lend us a robot. Ostensibly for testing, but it was a different bot each time. This kind of annoyed us. I mean, we had to teach each one about how the testing process worked. They would meet the team. The robot would spend time acclimating itself to American English. They hear English over there, of course, but it's heavily accented and it always takes the bots a while to get an ear for the way we speak it. Plus it’s all built on Japanese ways of thinking. It always took a week or so before we could get anything done with the robot. If they had sent us the same robot every time, it would have been much smoother.”

“Somehow this training process was helping them make smarter robots?”

David smiled. “That's what we've been thinking. There's something important about the learning process that they're studying. Something like that. Their machines keep getting smarter, even on the same hardware. They're very secretive about it, but they don't turn over their old machines like other companies. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Ando in there more than a decade old.”

“How could anyone get something that smart on ten year old hardware?”

“We don't know. We can't open his head without violating a heavy-duty NDA, so we've never even looked. But here's the exciting part: Akimbo heard about me working for this place, and now they want in on it. They want to send a couple of their units into space. I'm putting them on the Armstrong. With you.”

The two of them stopped pacing and faced each other. Rin folded her arms. “I listened to your pitch. I'll admit this is a pretty impressive place and you're doing interesting things. Ando is smart, but I don't see why I should go to space. Not deep space, anyway. Leave that kind of thing to the explorers.”

“I'll let you in on the secret I learned back when I started working at Tangerine, over twenty years ago. I was thirty. I was broke.”

“Twenty years ago? Wait. You're fifty?” Rin blurted out.

“I was, a few years ago. Don't interrupt. At the time I was thirty, I was broke, and I'd just run my small-time software company into the ground. I had fewer notable accomplishments than you do at twenty-two years old. As of today, I've invented or improved more successful products than anyone else in Tangerine, including Wayne himself. I'm not a huge fan of patents, but I've got eight major ones with my name on them. I was named innovator of the year by Technology magazine. Twice.”

“I don't remember that.”

“I'm not surprised. You were ten.”

“I had no idea you were famous.”

“That's one of the many reasons I like you so much. Awe kills creativity. The point is, when I arrived at Tangerine I thought that people who changed the world were giants. Super-humans. People born to greatness. They're not. They're just smart people who do crazy, risky things. People like us. I don't have anything you don't have. You are just as capable of success, innovation, adventure, and fame as Nicola Tesla, Neil Armstrong, Wayne Zuse, or me. I'm not talking about once you finish your degree. I'm talking about you, right now.”

A pair of golf carts approached and pulled to a stop beside them, their smooth tires crunching in the gravel. Each one was driven by a jumpsuited worker, like the kind that had been running the forklifts earlier.

A portly worker climbed out of the nearest cart. “You requested a vehicle?”

David pulled out his tel and glanced at it. “Twenty minutes! You guys really have the hustle today.”

He gave David a thumbs up, completely missing the deadpan sarcasm. He jumped into the other cart and rode off, leaving David and Rin with the empty cart.

“You drive,” David said as he climbed into the passenger side.

“Where am I going?” Rin asked.

“Space!” David declared enthusiastically. “But in the meantime, back to the office.” He nodded in the direction of the administration buildings.

As they pulled away, David pointed back at the simulator ship, “You might look out of one of the portholes and be the first human being to see a world that will someday be home to millions. You might help us think up a way to make space travel safer. You might help make robots smarter. You might see a star or a planet unlike anything we've ever seen before. You might eat paste and piss in a tube for six months.”

Rin laughed.

“Maine is always there. You can go and be a doctor anytime you like. But this? This is a chance to be the right person at the right time. You're going to be on the most advanced craft ever built by human beings, traveling with the smartest machine ever built by human beings, going further than any explorer has ever gone. Do you think you can walk away from this and not wonder for the rest of your life what you might have missed?”


Rin staggered into the icy lobby and dropped herself against the wall. She tugged at the front of her shirt to get some air moving between her skin and her clothing, which was soaked with ineffectual sweat. The walk had been a tragically bad idea.

The waiting room, or foyer, or whatever this place was, consisted of cream and avocado colored walls. Rin never found these colors -- always associated with medical facilities -- to be relaxing in the way that designers probably imagined them to be. The slightest sound echoed off the hard tile floor, and the air was strong with the smell of disinfectant.

There was a receptionist here, a middle-aged man in a blue jumpsuit. He was looking at her expectantly, probably waiting for her to sign in or explain why she had wandered in here. Or he was just staring at her sweat soaked body. She pretended not to notice him. She wasn't ready to have a conversation just yet.

The C-Line campus shuttle completed its circuit about once every forty minutes. Rin had arrived at the bus stop to see it driving off into the distance, and figured she would just make the trip on foot rather than wait for the shuttle to come around again. While she hadn't really misjudged the distance, she'd misjudged how fast her legs would carry her in this heat. She was ragged by the end. In the home stretch, when she was less than a hundred meters from the ISAC medical center, the shuttle rolled past her. It had pulled away again just as she arrived.

She was startled by a man's voice. His West African accent was nearly impenetrable, and it took her a bit to sort out that he was saying, “I can help you?”

The man was tall, round-faced, and dressed in white. He had dark skin and very little hair remaining on top of his head.

“Yes,” Rin said slowly, coming out of her heat-induced stupor. “I'm looking for Doctor...” She glanced down to see “Dr. Ouedraogo” on his nametag. “You,” she said. “I'm looking for you.” She was glad to be spared the humiliation of butchering his name.

“Oh-drago,” he said, pointing to his nametag. “So the last part-sounds like 'drago'. As if 'dragon'. You see?”

“Is that really how it's pronounced?” she asked.

“No, this is better,” he winked. “You-are Rin Shimazaki, yes?”

Rin nodded.

Dr. Ouedraogo led her past the receptionist and through a door governed by a palm scanner. “You are feeling okay?” he asked, pointing at her chest. It took her a second to realize he was referring to her breathing.

“I'm fine. I just walked from the dorms.”

“You walked?”

Rin nodded proudly. She was willing to bet that not many personnel were willing to attempt the hike.

Dr. Ouedraogo shook his head. “No good. You should-not be-winded from such a-small walk.”

Rin was indignant. “That wasn't a small walk. It's miles. And it's hot out!”

Ouedraogo looked very disappointed, perhaps even sad. “At your age, this should be a very small thing. You know, in the early days of space travel all of the astronauts, cosmonauts, everyone... everyone was an athlete. Now they send us...” he stopped here and pulled his tel out of his breast pocket. He waved it over her ID badge, which she had clipped to the arm of her blouse. He pulled the tel away and looked at the screen. “Twenty-two years old. They send us twenty-two year old women who are exhausted by a short walk.” He shook his head again and began paging through her information on his computer.

“Am I going to fail the physical?” she asked. The plastic covering was surprisingly warm as she sat on the examination chair.

“No,” he smiled without looking up. “Everyone passes. The standards are-not-high.” He opened the door to a small exam room and ushered her in.

She wanted to mention that she was studying to become a doctor herself. She wished she actually had some sort of medical training so she could “talk shop” with Dr. Ouedraogo.

The physical only took a few minutes. It would have been over sooner, but Dr. Ouedraogo seemed to be out of sorts. He didn't know where some devices were kept and he had to stop at one point to ask a nurse if he had overlooked any tests. It took Rin until the exam was over before she understood that Dr. Ouedraogo didn't know these things because he didn't normally perform exams himself. This sort of thing was probably passed off to assistants, and he was used to simply signing off when it was over. Rin was again reminded of how much special treatment she was being given because of David’s clan.

The doctor glanced down at his tel and poked at it for a bit. “Mr. Reed also wanted you to be certified for RAS Restriction.”

“Rass?” Rin asked. She had no idea what this was. While she only had twenty or so certifications out of the hundreds possible, she thought she was at least aware of what the other certifications were.

“R-A-S. Reticular Activating System. RAS is the-part of the brain that regulates wakefulness.”

“Oh!” Rin said, suddenly feeling silly. “You're talking about the hibernation certification.”

“Yes,” Dr. Ouedraogo said, looking down on her with a blank face that was being used to -- unsuccessfully -- mask the most profound disappointment. Rin realized that calling it “hibernation” in front of Dr. Ouedraogo was like going to an auto mechanic and asking them to fix the big metal thing under the hood.

“You understand this is-normally a two-day class?” he said.

Rin did now, and nodded.

“And I'm going to present it-in an hour or-so. There will be no-test. You will simply be certified. If you don't know what you need to know, the blame should-fall to yourself and Director Reed?” He phrased this like a statement, but his tone indicated he was asking a question. Rin understood he was insisting that she take responsibility for this irregularity before he would proceed. She gave him a firm nod.

Rin discovered that once again, the movies had led her astray with regards to technology. RAS-Restriction pods were not beds where you crawled into and fell asleep for months or years.

A RAS-R system was a two-meter tube. The subject needed to be sedated before being placed into it, if only to spare them from the panic of the cold, dark, enclosed space while waiting for the machine to put them into the more lasting sleep. Once the subject was under and breathing through the air tube, they were placed into the RAS-R canister and it was flooded with a clear gel under high pressure. The pressure would keep the cells in their body from freezing at sub-zero temperatures. The gel also kept their external tissues safe from damage. The canister gently rotated in place, turning the subject over about once every six hours. Dr. Ouedraogo didn't explain what this “agitation” was for, but Rin was pretty sure she had it figured out by this point and didn't want to interrupt him. A slow drip of drugs and nutrients would keep the body going for the next few weeks.

There were limits to how long someone could remain in a RASR device. Unlike in the movies, where people could end up frozen for years or decades, the actual safe limits of the machine were measured in months. Sooner or later the brain needed stimulus and the body needed solid food. At intervals beyond seven months, the chances for brain and organ damage increased dramatically.

Dr. Ouedraogo signed her file, certifying her as ready to undergo RAS-R treatment. “You are not tall enough,” he said as she turned to leave.

“You only need to be four-foot-eight to be a tech,” she said defensively.

“You need to be five-one for interstellar.”

“But I am,” she said as slipped her platform shoes on again.

Dr. Ouedraogo held his index finger and thumb a small distance apart, indicating he thought she was close, but not quite. “I have certified you regardless,” he added. “But you may find difficulties with the on-board environment. I don't know. I have never spent much time-off-world. I throw up-without gravity.”


Rin fidgeted in her seat, eliciting sporadic squeaks from the protesting joints. She was sitting in a fold-out chair in one of the meeting rooms of the administration building. She used to work just upstairs from here as part of David's office staff, but now this building felt like a foreign country. It was too posh, too new, and too clean.

She was wearing her officially issued orange jumpsuit, which designated her as off-world, non-officer personnel. This was the smallest size available, and she still had to roll up the legs and sleeves to keep them out of her way. She got the impression that while five-foot-one might have been the minimum, nobody ever really occupied the lower end of the height scale. She wondered if she was going to be the shortest person to ever travel interstellar.

Today she was very aware of her lack of height because of her shoes. She'd given up her bright red platforms and was now wearing her issued pair of plain white flat-soled athletic shoes. They were just like everyone else's shoes, except several sizes smaller.

Her coffee was gone and she was left holding the remains of the paper cup. She didn't have time to get more. Orientation was scheduled in five minutes, and it was a seven minute walk to the coffee machine from here. She began tearing bits off the top of the cup and dropping them into the base. Within minutes the cup was reduced to a fraction of its former height, and the remainder filled with styrene foam confetti.

There were nine people here including Rin, all of them wearing orange jumpsuits. They had formed two or three knots of subdued conversation, the kind that made Rin feel both intimidated and envious. One social nucleus leaned against the back wall. He seemed an orange monolith, topped with black hair, mouth wide open even though the laughter was politely throttled. They all seemed to be having such a good time. This was all an amusing routine to them, the start of another mission.

Rin saw that Ando and the redhead female robot were also here. The redhead was sitting in a folding chair, staring at the front of the room. Ando was walking around at the back of the room, moving from observing one cluster of people to the next. The robots didn't speak to anyone, not even each other. The crew pointedly ignored them.

The officers arrived together. There were five of them in all. They wore white outfits that, while technically jumpsuits, had extra spaces for rank insignia and other inscrutable bits of quasi-military decoration. The orange jumpsuits filed into their seats.

The captain was very tall and thin. Her head was even with most of the men, putting her at around 1.8m. Rin looked down and was disappointed to see that she wasn't even wearing heels, but the same flat-soled shoes as everyone else. She had a short butch haircut affixed with a single slim white clip and held her chin high when she spoke.

The captain stood at the front of the room with her hands behind her back until the chatter settled down. “I am Captain Wheeler, the first woman captain in the interstellar program.” She paused after saying this, and it wasn't really clear why. Was she expecting applause? Or questions?

“I graduated from West Point. I served in the United States Navy. After that I came here to I-S-A-C and was one of the top five graduates in my class at the academy.” There was another odd pause where she looked around the room as if expecting some kind of response. There wasn't aside from someone clearing their throat.

Rin thought this comment was rather odd. The ISAC fleet was not large. There were only three interstellar ships, two docking stations, and handful of tugs for hauling stuff into orbit. It was prestigious, but not large. She didn't imagine they graduated a lot of officers. She surreptitiously slid her computer out of a thigh pocket and looked up the ISAC academy. Sure enough, the academy graduated less than fifty people a year. Perhaps getting into the academy was difficult -- she couldn't even find any information on how you could apply -- but graduating in the top five of a class of forty-five people was not a stellar achievement. It wasn't anything to be ashamed of, but it was odd that Captain Wheeler had bothered to list it. She hadn’t listed her graduating position at West Point, or what rank she attained in the Navy.

Rin set her computer down on her leg and turned her attention back to Captain Wheeler's speech.

“...and I've been captaining the I-S-V Armstrong for almost three years. I discovered Gobi on my second mission, making me the first woman to discover a life-bearing planet.”

Each ship ran a mission every nine months or so. Usually they spent four to five months out, and then a few months retting refueled, repaired, and re-certified. “Almost” three years meant that Captain Wheeler had probably run three missions, and was now embarking on her fourth.

The captain gestured to the officer standing beside her. “This is XO Dinapoli. If you have any questions, direct them to him. If you have any problems, direct them to him. If you have any tips, direct them to me.”

It took a couple of seconds for Rin to get that she meant “tips” as in “gratuity”, and not “tips” as in “advice”. Thus this last comment was a joke. Approximately. There was some forced laugher from a couple of people in the back.

Dinapoli was a thin, middle-aged man with dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He was polite and greeted them with a smile as he pulled out his computer. “Pardon for reading from my notes, but all of this information is important and I don't want to miss anything.” He had a firm Italian accent.

Dinapoli held the unit up as he read from it, going through a long checklist of things that weren't long enough to be turned into a certification course. He spoke English skillfully and with a robust vocabulary, but he did so with the speed and rhythm of Italian, which took Rin a while to get used to. He explained that they -- the orange-jumpsuit wearing members of the crew - were not ranking members of the ship and were not academy graduates. They therefore shouldn't salute officers, or call them “sir” or “ma'am”. They should simply refer to officers by rank, or rank followed by their last name.

He told the crew what David had explained to Rin months earlier: That new techniques in astronomy had culled a list of hundreds of stars down to a short list of a few dozen. The Armstrong had been assigned a particular group of these, and their mission was to chart as many as possible. Because they were now cherry-picking star systems instead of plotting a route through a bunch of generic stars in close proximity, they would be surveying less total systems and spending more time traveling. As a result, they would be making a lot more transfers on this trip, and would be charging the accelerator almost continuously.

“Also,” he continued, “we have been assigned some robots on this trip.” He gestured to the back of the room where Ando was standing. “They are coming along to observe. This is a sort of experiment to see how they will react to space travel and to see if they will be useful to us. Feel free to greet them if you like and find out what they're all about. Also feel free to let them do your work if it pleases you and if they're willing. You get paid the same either way.”

Rin looked at the other crew, who were all looking at Ando. They didn't seem to know what to make of him. The big guy gave him a sarcastic wave. Others looked at each other and chuckled, or shrugged. It was a novelty to them, and that was all.

“And last the item to cover is duty assignments,” Dinapoli said. This seemed to be what everyone was waiting for. A few of the older crew members sat up and began paying attention. The XO read off the list of names and what positions everyone would fill. Rin was slated to be part of the secondary crew.

The prime crew would handle the maintenance jobs for the six-week voyage out to the edge of explored space. This was done to save on HAF -- hydration, atmosphere, and food -- supplies on the journey out. They would re-supply a deep space listening post along the way. These posts were the loneliest assignment in the galaxy. Rin wondered how much the poor schmucks got paid.

Once the ship reached uncharted waters, Rin and the rest of the secondary crew would be thawed and they would take over maintenance. The prime crew would handle the surface mapping, drone deployment, and whatever other stuff prime crew did during the survey phase of the mission.

Once the survey work was over, the secondary might be put into RAS-R again, or they might be left awake. It all depended on how much HAF they had left and how many transfers it was going to take to get home.

Rin was very disappointed to learn that she was going to spend a significant portion of the trip unconscious, and the rest of the trip doing the very lowest sort of swabbing-the-deck kind of work. She wasn't going to use more than three or four of her certifications.

The meeting was dismissed and the room filled with the orderly scuffle to escape.

“Excuse me, sir?” Rin said as the officers filed out.

Dinapoli turned to her and raised his eyebrows.

“Not sir. Sorry. Dinapoli,” she corrected herself. “XO Dinapoli,” she corrected herself again. “I notice I've been assigned... I mean, I have a lot of certifications.”

He didn't say anything in reply, but looked at her with utmost patience.

Rin realized she was being silly. She was new to the ship and she was already questioning the XO about her assignment. She wanted to back out now and forget the whole thing, but that would only make this worse. Trying to save some face, she attempted to re-aim her question. “I can do a lot of different things. I wondered how I might get to use some of these other skills.”

Dinapoli nodded and smiled slightly. He was clearly humoring her. “As you get more seniority, you'll be given other duties, provided you perform these adequately.”

Rin got the message: You are not special, and you need to pay your dues like everyone else. She stammered some thanks. Dinapoli nodded sharply and stepped briskly after his fellow officers who had already escaped into the hallway. A couple of her fellow crew members glared at her as they left. The big guy just laughed sharply as he passed her, though it might have been to some whispered joke. She realized she had basically been arguing that she should simply be handed their jobs without needing to distinguish herself first.

“You're unhappy with your duties?” Ando asked. Everyone else had hurried out, and Rin was now alone with the robots.

“I don't mind the duties,” Rin said. “I just hate the idea of missing the start of the voyage. I'm not even going to be awake for launch. I'm going to be sedated here and packed away like cargo. And to be honest, I really don't like the idea of being stuck in one of those coffins. Inside of gel, no less.”

“Are you claustrophobic?”

“That, and afraid of drowning. Or smothering. I'm not sure which it would be in gel.”

Ando's mouth became an uneven line and one eyebrow raised over the other, indicating thoughtfulness. “I don't have a very good understanding of phobias related to physical dangers, so I can't advise you.”

“Why did you say that?” Rin demanded. She wasn't angry or irritated, but mystified. “I didn't ask for advice, but you acted as though I did.”

“Did I say something wrong?” Ando asked.

“No. That was the right thing to say. Or at least, it felt like a thing a person would say. Kind of. It's just that machines don't talk like that.”

“I attempted to offer advice because that's the most common response between humans in similar situations. I'm just imitating what I've observed. If one person talks about an anxiety, another will offer them advice on how to cope with it. The advice is generally worthless, but offering advice is understood by both parties as a sign of concern. To say nothing, or to change the subject, would be viewed as careless or rude. In this case I attempted to be transparent and state that I had no advice, rather than offer useless advice. Now I see you're agitated, and I'm trying to understand if I've offended you or if you're just surprised by my behavior.”

“Surprised,” Rin said quickly. “Very surprised. Not offended.”

“Do you have advice for me?”

“Well, normally, people just say ‘I’m sure it’s going to be fine.’ or something like that. It’s still basically pointless, but you don’t need to give advice to show that you care.”

“I wouldn’t worry about hibernation Rin. Lots of people do it all the time.”

Rin barked out a short laugh to release some of the built up nervous anxiety. Then she gave him a thumbs up, “Okay! Thanks Ando.”

The redhead was still standing nearby. She was staring at Rin without moving her body in any way. It had been unsettling at first, but now Rin was annoyed by it.

“So what's her problem?” Rin asked. “She doesn't seem to be in your class with regards to social ability.”

“Molly and I are actually in the same operational class. She's just much newer.”

“Have I made you uncomfortable?” Molly asked.

Rin opened her mouth to say no, but stopped herself. There's usually no benefit in telling rude people they're being rude -- you'll just offend them and they'll repay you with more rudeness. But in this case Molly was asking an honest question and would benefit from an honest answer. Moreover, she didn't have an ego to wound.

“Yes. You are making me uncomfortable. Staring directly at me without moving or blinking is very creepy. It’s predatory. It makes me think you’re considering trying to eat me.”

“I apologize,” Molly replied. She backed up several paces and began staring at Ando.

“Molly, I would like to speak to Miss Shimazaki in private.”

“Okay,” Molly replied cheerfully without moving.

“Thank you for being honest with her,” Ando said. “Her youth and looks are working against her. Most people here are men, and grown men are not likely to say rude things to something that looks like a young woman. Either that, or they ignore her because she's a machine. Very few people are willing to let her know about her social failures, so she's not self-correcting very quickly.”

“You seem to have a pretty good handle on it. Can't you help her?”

Ando shook his head and his face became a frown. “I'm not allowed to guide her development. If I did, she would be imitating me, imitating people. She needs to learn from people. It's unfortunate she wasn't given more time to develop.”

“I assume she can't hear us?” Rin said. Molly was still staring at Ando.

“Correct. She's shut off her audio feed and won't open it again until I give her permission.”

“Weird,” Rin said, looking at Molly. “I get why she's so awkward now. She's young, like a child. How old is she?”

“I'm not allowed to say.” Ando frowned again, this time with raised eyebrows. Like most of his emotional expressions, this lasted only a few seconds, after which he reverted to his default, emotion-neutral face.

“And I don't suppose you can tell me how old you are, either?”


“That's a pain in the ass,” she said with disappointment.

“I agree.”



It was like being born.

The light was sudden and painful, even through her clenched eyelids. Strong hot hands pulled at her slime-covered body, turning her onto her side. Her ears were blocked, so that the sounds around her were deep and remote behind the wet gasps of her own labored breathing. She pulled herself into a ball, nursing the numbing ache in her limbs. She felt very light, as if she might begin floating if she fell asleep again.

She gradually became aware of hunger so intense it was painful. She hacked and coughed to expel the slime from her nose and mouth. She pawed at her face, pulling away the hair that was matted to her skin. At this a firm hand grasped her head and pulled an eyelid open. The light flowed in and stung her eye. She could see a face, surrounded by an aura of fluorescent light.

“Okay, good.” A man's voice said with mild interest from somewhere in the stellar neighborhood. “Your clothes are in the shower in the head beside medical. Once you're cleaned up, go to the mess and check the duty roster to see what shift you'll be working.”

Rin coughed weakly, wetly, “Please,” she said, tears mingling with the gel and tracing a hot track across the bridge of her nose,“I can't remember how I got here.”

“The sedation commonly produces short term amnesia.” The man was speaking from another part of the room now.

Rin closed her eyes against the bright light, “So, I'll remember later?”

“No. Weren't you trained for this?”

She screwed her eyes shut harder, and began digging the gel out of her ears.


Rin's skin hurt. The jumpsuit chafed wherever it had seams, which was all over. The soles of her feet ached. But mostly her fingers were sore. She had been climbing up and down ladders -- how do you climb a ladder properly without knocking your knees against the rungs? Do you stick them out to the side? Do you pull them up in front of you and stick your butt out? Anyhow, someone had decided that there should be no-skid on the ladders as well as on the floors. More like “no skin” Rin pondered ruefully to herself as she descended for the last time that shift. All she wanted was some coffee and a lie-down. Normally, she admitted to herself, this would be a poor combination, but the circumstances justified it.

Her muscles felt good though, and her brain was alight. The grogginess of RAS had worn off, and every color and rivet and face stood out bright and clear. Her body was simultaneously and paradoxically energized with fatigue. She felt like she could take on the world, as long as the world included a warm bunk.

“Hey kid!” It was the big guy, working on something at a table. “You lost?”

Fortunately, it was impossible to get lost on the Armstrong. It was two dimensional, and there were maps and signs everywhere.

“No, I'm fine, just turning in.”

“Oh really? Want me to...” He smiled a bit too broadly, “show you to your bunk? It can get pretty cold out here in space.”

Rin scowled, “No?” And why not twist the dagger a bit? She gave him a quick once-over, for effect. “Ew.” and was on her way.

The big guy laughed, a single sharp bark without malice, and went back to his work.


Rin dropped down the ladder, ignoring the rungs and landing on the bottom deck with a gentle thud. It was a long drop, but at half-gravity it was harmless. The corollary force pushed her gently against the ladders uprights as she descended, keeping her from spinning out of control.

She bounded upwards as she landed, pushed herself in the direction of the door, and then clipped her shoulder against the bulkhead as she passed through. The impact spun her around, knocking her feet harmlessly into the door frame, and she landed on her backside.

“Ninja!” laughed technician Beringer, who was called Chef by everyone who wasn't an officer.

Rin pushed herself upright, red-faced.

“Just slow down,” Chef said. He had some sort of European accent that Rin couldn't identify. Her guess would be that it was Scandinavian, but she wasn't sure. He had blond hair that came down almost to his neck, flirting with the legal length limit according to regulations. His face was round and he'd grown a small beard to try to hide his double chin. He probably could have afforded to lose a few pounds, but he wasn't seriously overweight. He just had one of those faces that seemed intent on having a double chin.

Relnf was there too, but he was too cool to say anything.

“No need to hurry. The ship isn't on fire,” Chef continued.

“I know,” Rin said. She didn't want to admit that she was bouncing around the ship like this because it was fun, not because she was in a hurry to do her job. She enjoyed the sensation of bounding around in partial gravity, and liked how easy it was to move quickly in this environment. The only downside was that it took time to master, and she was still getting her space legs.

“Also, you used the wrong ladder again.” Relnf put in before turning back to the vid he'd been watching.

“Oops. Sorry,” Rin said.

The directional ladders were part of the culture of the ship and not part of regulations, so this detail was never mentioned in training. Ladders L1 and L3 were down-only, and ladders L2 and L4 were up-only. This was done to allow people to dive-bomb down the ladder shafts without worrying about drop-kicking someone on their way up. The people running the training program were under the delusion that people in half-grav would continue to ascend and descend ladders the way they did in full gravity. This was like assuming people would naturally walk a bicycle down a hill.

Buck poked his head in the door, “What was that? Did Ninja wipe out again?”

Beringer nodded without looking away from his vid. Buck pointed at her and laughed, “Ninja!”

Buck was ‘the big guy’, an immense fellow, very close to the maximum height limit of six and a half feet tall. He was barrel-chested, loud, and often playfully crude. With pale skin, a black goatee, and a ponytail, his appearance was a study in contrast. Buck also displayed an odd penchant for handing out nicknames, perhaps defending his position as one of the few veteran crew to which none had stuck. He was the one that had labeled Rin “Ninja”, saying that she had disappeared without a trace after they had met.

Buck gave her a friendly wave and disappeared himself.

They were ten weeks out from Earth. Rin and the rest of the secondary crew had been left to sleep in a couple of extra weeks longer than was normal on surveying missions. They were now orbiting some dull rock of a planet. It was the right size and the right orbital distance to support life, but the atmosphere was thin poison and the surface was scorched by the sun. It was obviously a lifeless rock, but they were mapping the surface and dropping drones anyway for reasons that nobody had explained to her.

Suddenly the ship shook. First was an abrupt blow that caused the deck to jerk under her feet. This was followed by a wave of vibration that passed through the ship, beginning forward and moving rapidly aft. Cabinets and loose items rattled as the wave passed.

“What was that?” Rin said nervously.

“Oh my God!” Buck appeared in the doorway, wide-eyed.

Rin glanced around, looking and listening for decompression alarms.

“Did you feel that?” Buck yelled. “Aliens are attacking! Run for your life!” He ran away, waving his arms ridiculously. This inadvisable behavior in the cramped space knocked a clip-board and a pair of pens off a nearby shelf, and Buck began fumbling with them as they tumbled through the air in slow motion.

Rin looked over to Beringer, who was chuckling. “Transfer,” he explained. “We've just transed away from that stupid boring planet. We're probably transing our way out to the edge of the system. Get used to those shocks. We'll be feeling them every few hours until we get to the next survey site.

Rin nodded. During training, students had been warned that transfers produced “hull vibrations” due to the gravitational contortions taking place around the ship, which she assumed meant a gentle shaking or a buzz. She was not expecting something that felt like a violent impact. It was impressive that the ship could take repeated hits like that without being damaged.

Buck returned to the doorway, looking more serious. “She's supposed to give us fair warning before she does that shit,” he said, meaning the captain. He pushed himself away from the doorway in disgust, only to re-appear a few seconds later to add, “It's against regulations to trans like that with no warning unless it's an emergency. I mean, when I was on the Von Braun Captain Hamm always gave you a nice five-second countdown so you didn't fall on your ass or piss on yourself in the head.” He shook his head and disappeared again.

Rin pulled out her tel and glanced at her checklist. At some point she would have her duties memorized, but it was taking time. Her daily jobs involved fifty-five visual inspections, twenty-eight “replenish and restock” jobs, twelve cleaning tasks, and five regular disassemblies. She had just finished moving supplies from cargo to the mess, and was now on her way to the power plant to perform visual inspections.

She was technically off-duty now. Everything on her checklist could wait until tomorrow, but she was bored and she wanted to stay busy. She was still getting used to living without network access. There was no news from Earth. No weather reports. No celebrity gossip. No political scandals. No horribly mangled news from the space program. No sports. She didn't want or need any of these things, but she was having trouble wrapping her head around the idea that these things didn't exist for her. She kept checking her tel to see what was going on, and then seeing the little red icon telling her the rest of the world was inexplicably silent.

The veteran crew members had loaded their handhelds with favorite shows or movies before they left Earth, but Rin and the other newbies hadn't, and they were still figuring out how to amuse themselves without a steady drip of cultural stimulation.

Coarse laughter burst from the room she had just left. This could end up being a very long six months.


She passed through the crew quarters and reached the bottom of L3, then paused. This was a down ladder, and she needed to go all the way aft to L4 if she wanted to climb up into the power plant. It was good that she stopped herself, because Ando came sliding down a moment later and he might have landed on her face if she'd been trying to climb.

“Good morning Rin,” he said as he landed.

This was odd to her. Technically it was nine in the morning according to GMT, but nobody ever said “good morning” in space. Or they did, but not using the bright tone that Ando did. Rin realized they were standing in the same part of the ship where she had met Ando for the first time, back in the simulator on Earth. The real thing looked very different. Outside the windows was the endless starry expanse wheeling slowly by. Look out one side, and it seemed like the ship was falling forever. Look out the other side, and you felt like you were rising. The dark made it feel like night all the time, except when they were near a star. Then the sweeping beam of light gave the impression that they had just been spotted by police helicopters.

“Good morning,” she replied, even though the morning thing sounded strange to her. “What brings you down to the bunks?”

“I was hoping we had accumulated enough laundry to justify another load.” Ando tilted his head to look around Rin and see into the crew quarters, “But now I see that's not the case. Do you have any clothes I can wash?”

“No, thanks. Is laundry really the only thing they let you do?” Rin asked.

“I'm also allowed to clean and restock the head.”

“But, that's less than an hour of work every few days. This is silly.”

“The captain said I wasn't allowed to do any jobs until I'd performed them under supervision.”

Rin hung her head in frustration, “But, that's what certification is. Would you like to make the rounds with me?”

“I would.”

“Let's go.” Rin made for the ladder, stopped herself again, and headed aft to L4.

The problem with space travel was that the entire universe -- minus a few specks of mass like stars and planets -- was one giant void that could instantly kill you with decompression, freezing, roasting, or radiation. If you were driving around on Earth and your car stopped working, you would have to pull over and wait for someone to come and help you. In space, if your ship stopped working then everyone would die. This put explorers into a position where they couldn't afford to allow anything to break, which was difficult because entropy was a cruel bitch that wanted nothing more than to patiently break everything in the entire universe. This naturally resulted in jobs like the ones that Rin had on her checklist.

Rin could picture how tasks like this came about. An engineer on Earth looked at some piece of equipment and made a list of all the bad things that would happen if it failed. If “unconsciousness or death” was on the list, then there would need to be a backup system. There would also need to be a sensor to let you know that the backup system was in use, so you knew to go and fix the thing before the backup also failed. But what if the sensor itself failed? What if the backup failed at the same time? It was unlikely, but not impossible. And to an engineer, anything that can happen will eventually happen - it was just a matter of waiting. So the only way to avoid this inevitable cataclysmic failure would be to have crew members manually go around and visually inspect things to make sure there was no sign of leaks, corrosion, moisture damage, electrical shorts, or any other wound inflicted by the savage but subtle finger of ubiquitous chaos.

The engineer then thought about how often this inspection needed to take place. Once a month was probably a good idea, so the engineer recommended this item be inspected once a week, just to be safe. This suggestion was then passed on to a higher-up bureaucrat. The bureaucrat thought about the negative career prospects of having a disaster happen on his watch, and so he adjusted this number to once every five days, just to be extra safe. This figure was then handed down to command. The officer -- an aging red-tape veteran -- was in charge of directing the captains how to run their ships. Convinced that all non-officers were typically sneaky, shiftless, and dishonest, the officer would order captains to have the inspection to be performed every other day, hoping that the crew would actually get around to it before they hit the five-day time limit and the ship exploded. Then the captain, wanting to run a tight ship, ordered that the every-other-day inspection simply take place daily.

The net result of all of this was Rin's job, where she spent a couple of hours a day climbing around the ship, looking at perfectly good machines to make sure they were still perfectly good. Most of her time was spent getting at the machines. Sure, a visual inspection took inside of two minutes once you knew what you were doing, but sometimes it could take you five or ten minutes to get the cargo out of the way, crawl down to where the equipment lived, get the cover off, and shine your flashlight on it.

The cargo was the worst part. The simulator ship back on Earth never actually went anywhere, which means it didn't need to be packed with enough HAF to keep fourteen people alive for six months, plus extra to be on the safe side.

The power plant wasn't much more than a passage with removable panels to let them get at the important bits as needed. The passage was lined with refrigerator-sized cargo containers with large handles for the bulky gloves of EVA suits. Each was strapped to the bulkhead with nylon belts. This stuff was all of the non-perishable gear, because people didn't like keeping their food near the reactor. Yes, it was technically safe and the rad levels were lower than a day at the beach, but people still didn't want radiation touching their food.

The power plant was situated along the spine, with the access tunnels just off the axis. As such, “gravity” was lower and movement more closely resembled lunar bunny-hopping than walking. As Rin unstrapped a container from the starboard bulkhead, picked it up, and swung it around so she could lash it to the port side. She probably wouldn't be able to move it at all in full gravity, but this close to the spine it was like lifting a cardboard box in a dream, slow to start and slow to stop, but otherwise trivial. Once the container was out of the way she unfastened the wall panel and slipped into the crawlspace beyond.

“Follow me,” she said to Ando.

She slipped on her hand-light, which was a fingerless glove made of stretchy material. It had an open, circular light source in the palm and a directional light source on the back of the hand that pointed forward, towards the fingers. It let you do detail work without needing to juggle a flashlight among your other tools. The only downside was that it took some time to learn how to use it without inadvertently blinding yourself now and again. That, and your fingertips were always in shadow. Rin reminded herself again to make a note to have David get Akimbo to make some gloves with fiber optics so that the light came out your fingertips.

She turned herself sideways and moved starboard. The space was a little close, and she wondered how some of the bigger guys managed to get themselves back here. She practically swam through the access space until she was even with the window-sized access panel. Once there, she braced herself, metal ribs coolly pressing into the backs of her shoulders, and began to work.


“Rin?” Ando said behind her.

She turned and was surprised to see white light coming from his face. He evidently had some sort of built-in illumination. There was a line of white light on either side of his oval head, effectively encasing his blue face in white parenthesis. “Yes?” she said, blinking in the unexpected eyeful of light.

“Director Reed said I should ask you about Project Bootstrap. I didn't have the opportunity to do so before we left Earth.”

Rin turned away from the light, and back to her work. “That's a big subject. What do you want to know?”

“I don't know. He just said that it was important and that I should ask you about it.”

“Okay,” she rested for a moment, pondering. She hadn't thought about it in a while, and wasn't sure what parts would be interesting to a robot or why David would bring it up. “Bootstrap was this project at my university. The question asked was, 'What if a bunch of intelligent but non-expert people were put into a situation where they no longer had any technology or tools? If they had access to the sum total of all human knowledge, how long would it take them to work their way up to building modern technology?' The idea was to have a bunch of students try it and see how far they could go, and how long it took.”

“Was this something that the university was worried might happen?”

“No, no,” Rin said. “It was hypothetical. The actual cause of the situation didn't matter. Stranded on a deserted island, post-apocalypse, time travel back to the stone-age, whatever. The point was to see how hard it would be for people to build stuff if they already had all the answers. You could also see it as an experiment in what would happen if you gave knowledge to primitive humans. It's been done in computer games of course, and there were flowcharts, but apparently someone thought an empirical test was in order.”

“Interesting. So it was an experiment to determine how much of 'technology' is based on collective knowledge and cooperation and how much was based on individual know-how.”

Rin had been trying to unscrew a panel while they talked, but she paused to consider this. “I don't think I ever heard of anyone explain it that way. Actually, this was part of the problem with the project. Some people saw it as an engineering exercise, and others saw it as a social experiment. The Humanities and the Engineering people disagreed on the purpose of the project from the beginning, and so they were always pulling it in different directions.”

“I assume you were involved?”

“Yes. It was my first year in college. I signed up because I thought the premise sounded really interesting. There were about ten or fifteen of us in the program, from freshmen to post-grads. The campus let us use the old gymnasium as a workspace. When students arrived, there were actually mediators there who would go through your stuff and make sure nobody was sneaking in any tools. There were computers there, and we were only allowed to use them for looking things up. We didn't even have tables to start with.”

Rin stopped here to swear at the panel. Why did the big door-sized panels out in the main passage have handy fasteners while this tiny little panel back in the dark confined space used screws? More importantly, why did this panel insist on using screws that were too small for the electric screwdriver, forcing her to use a manual one in this tight space? Most importantly, what moron muscled these screws so tight, knowing that they were going to need to be un-screwed again the next day? Rin briefly entertained the thought of “losing” the fasteners for a few days.

“I apologize if I seem slow, but I still don't understand the project. What was the end goal?”

“I'm sorry,” Rin said, looking away from her work. “I wasn't actually done explaining. I just got sidetracked.” Rin realized that a human wouldn't have made this mistake. Anyone older than a child would have understood that the speaker had only paused, and would continue talking once the distraction was over. Ando was amazing, but he wasn't perfect and was still able to miss out on simple details that people took for granted.

Rin grunted and struggled for a bit longer, worried that she was going to strip this screw. Finally she backed away and turned to Ando. “The end goal of the project was originally to build an automobile. That seemed like a pretty good end-point, since so much stuff gets easier once you've got machines that can help with the heavy lifting. Speaking of which, we're doing this backwards. I'm supposed to be supervising you, not the other way around.”

There wasn't enough room for them to trade places here in the crawlspace, so they retreated back to the main passage so that Ando could go in first.

Rin continued. “Someone pointed out that having students build and test an internal combustion engine indoors was a bad idea, so the end-goal was changed to a microprocessor. Instead of building a working vehicle, our goal would be to build a Turing-complete computer based on silicon chip technology. It seemed like a good landmark from the middle of the twentieth century.”

“I don't have any tools,” Ando said when he got to the access panel.

Rin handed him her screwdriver before continuing her tale, “I didn't like this change. I mean, we were only a week or so into the project and were still working out how to best build reliable stone hammers and cutting tools, but a microprocessor is a lot more advanced than a vehicle, and a lot less useful to basic survival. Any society trying to build itself up like this would naturally aim for vehicles. If you can see all the steps then you're going to aim for the ones that will make life easier. By focusing on computers we were going to be skipping those steps, which made the whole program seem kind of irrelevant to me. Assuming you're doing this in an actual frontier environment, then getting mechanized farming is probably going to be your first priority.”

Ando was shaped like a boy, but underneath his shell he had some different configuration of musculature. This became obvious when he needed to generate a lot of torque, and he began using positions that just wouldn't make sense for a human. His first few attempts to turn the screw pulled him off his feet. He wasn't heavy enough in this low-gravity environment to brace himself against the floor. Where Rin had hunched over the screw so that she could use her back muscles, Ando focused on using his forearm. He braced himself against the bulkhead behind him and twisted the screw with his outstretched arm, as if his wrist was a drill. Once the screw was free, be pulled his arm away and un-rotated his hand to untangle the cables in his wrist. He freed the last few screws in the same way and pulled the panel free.

The two of them inspected the equipment, agreed it was fine, and then began the long task of securing the panel, exiting the crawlspace, and putting the cargo back where they found it.

Rin led them forward to inspect the plumbing.

“What did you do about raw materials? Did you have to gather those yourself?” Ando asked as he followed her. His feet beat a hollow marching rhythm on the deck.

“No,” Rin said sadly. “And that's kind of where the whole project went sideways. We couldn't very well have students mining for ore and coal, or chopping down trees. Gathering raw materials is generally messy, dangerous, and not something that could be done on a college campus. Not even in simulation. So resource gathering was reduced to an abstraction. For the purposes of the experiment, we were to imagine there was a group of people supporting us who would gather raw materials for us. They could only deliver materials so fast, and they could only deliver so much. This boiled down to an ordering system with a one-week delay and a weekly weight limit of delivered goods. The people actually acquiring the stuff weren't allowed to know what items we needed most, what we were doing with it, or anything else that would allow them to help us. They just saw a requisition for lumber, placed an order, and delivered it to the cave a week later. In this case, 'cave' is the name we gave to the gymnasium. Because we were cavemen, you see.”

They reached ladder L3 and dropped down to the crew deck. They went forward to ladder L2 and climbed up again. This was to go around the circular empty space in the middle of the ship. Only the top -- the officers' deck -- and the bottom -- the crew deck -- of the ship allowed travel from stem to stern. The rest were interrupted with a gap of empty space where the HKM developed.

Now they were in the waterworks. There were tanks here that extended up through the next four decks. There were tanks for potable water, for grey water, and for black water. There was a filtration tank that converted grey water to potable and a few smaller tanks that held other fluids. The laundry was also here. They spent several minutes checking pressure, looking for puddles, and inspecting the pumps.

“I'm not sure the resource acquisition system you described makes a lot of sense, even as an abstraction,” Ando said as he moved some cargo containers out of their way. “Certainly tracking resources by weight is incorrect. I've never gathered resources myself, but I expect that it would be much faster to acquire wood than to acquire iron ore of equal weight.”

“It's even worse than that. They weren't getting raw materials. They were getting actual production-ready resources. If we ordered wood, the system gave us treated lumber. If we asked for iron, the system delivered industrial-ready iron ingots. The biggest technological hurdle to getting iron isn't finding it, or inventing the pick axe, but smelting it. They were working on a forge so they could work and shape the metal, but they had skipped so many steps that the whole thing was pointless. I made a fuss, and everyone acted like I was being unreasonable. I was told by one of the project leaders that if I wanted to do smelting, I was free to do so, but I shouldn't 'hold back' the project.”

Rin had to fight the urge to jump in and help Ando. It was silly to follow him around and watch him work. They had exactly the same training and he obviously knew what he was doing. She had only been awake for two days and Ando had been here for weeks, so he arguably knew more than she did. Still, if the captain insisted that someone needed to observe him, then that's what needed to happen before he could work alone.

“Did any of the other students agree with you?” Ando asked.

“A few, at first. But everyone was having fun working on the forge. It was the path of least resistance. They justified it by arguing that the simulated people gathering the resources were also doing simulated smelting.”

“And this difference of opinion led to you leaving the project?”

Rin hid her face in her hands for a second in mock embarrassment. “No, I didn't quit. I should have. But I was mad and I knew I was right and I wanted to prove I was right.”

“I hope you didn't hurt anyone,” Ando said.

“Of course not!” Rin said. She thought this was a very strange thing for the robot to extrapolate.

“Oh good. I dislike it when passionate disagreements result in physical or emotional harm. So what was your reaction?”

Rin folded her arms and said smugly, “I ordered a silicon wafer.”

Ando emerged from between a couple of tanks where he had been inspecting, and stopped in front of Rin. “Is that the end of the story?” he asked.

“No,” Rin said, slightly frustrated.

Ando stood and waited patiently.

“I guess I usually get a reaction out of people at that part of the story. I'm used to pausing there so they can respond.”

“I see. I have trouble giving reactions to stories with surprise twists. They have a lot in common with jokes. I don't understand the significance of your action. Did ordering a silicon wafer bring the project to an end? Did this make the others happy?”

“No!” Rin laughed. She was a little disappointed that her story had fallen flat, but thought she should finish it anyway. “They were definitely not happy about me ordering a silicon wafer. This wasn't even some tiny fragment of silicon like they would have used in the twentieth century. This was a full-size wafer. I'd jumped all the way to the end of the project with one requisition form, but nobody could criticize it without also admitting that ordering pristine iron ingots was a cheat that subverted the entire point of the project.”

“I see,” Ando said flatly. “Were you pleased with your solution?”

“At the time? No. A lot of people were angry and I was asked to leave the project, which unraveled a few months later. The next year they rebooted the whole thing with much more sensible rules and end-goals. I was actually kind of angry about it until a couple of weeks ago when David told me about some of the reactions people had. I feel sort of vindicated now, even if my name won't end up on the final report.”

“Actually,” she added, “I guess it was a couple of months ago now. Damn but getting stuck in the freezer really messed with my sense of time.”

“I can't do this step,” Ando said. They had arrived at a junction of pipes. There was too much hardware packed along the walls to allow for a proper wall light, so the passage was dark here.

“Just feel the pipes to check for condensation,” Rin said.

“I can't,” Ando replied. He held up a hand. The back of the hand was hard white plastic, and the front was made of black rubber. There were tiny nodules on his fingertips, for gripping. “My touch resolution is only a centimeter, and I can't feel moisture or temperature changes with my hands. I could wipe the objects and then inspect my hands for moisture, but I'm worried I could overlook it. Water tends to darken surfaces. Seeing water on an already dark substrate is problematic.”

“Hmm,” Rin said thoughtfully. Obviously she could do it for him now, but she wanted him to be self-reliant. For this experiment to work, he needed to be able to do anything a human could do. On further reflection, she realized this included problem-solving. If he couldn't sort this out for himself, then he wasn't smart enough for this job. So Rin raised her eyebrows pointedly and waited.

Ando's mouth vanished and his eyes flattened into lines. It sort of looked like he was meditating. “I'll be right back,” he said after he “opened” them again. Had Ando turned off his cameras? Could he see when his eyes were “closed”? Rin suspected, but the added touch would be interesting. He headed down to the crew deck and returned a minute later with a white hand towel. He wiped the pipes with this and held it up for her to see. “No moisture,” he said.


“Oh, hey Rin.” Andrea laughed her nervous little laugh, “Got the hang of the Armstrong?”

Rin was standing by the long vertical window in the daycomp, looking out at the stars. The rotation of the vessel meant that they were constantly scrolling by. Rin was trying to pick out familiar constelations, but the Armstrong had gone far enough that the shapes of the sky had shifted. There was no point in memorizing the local constellations -- they were just going to jump a dozen lightyears in the next few days and shift them all again -- but it was entertaining to try.

“Yeah, lots of local customs.” Rin said, turning around and facing Andrea.

“Takes a bit of getting used to huh?” Andrea laughed again.

She was the only other woman on the lower decks, but up until now Rin hadn't actually had a conversation with her. Andrea slept in the bunk below Rin, which she could tell from the spare bra hung to dry just inside the privacy curtain. Rin had rather hoped to have a bedside chat before falling asleep, but their shifts just hadn't lined up.

“Used to be Bernice would hand out booklets” Andrea went on, “They had illustrations the captain didn't approve of.” She laughed again, a twitter, and then said brightly, “But now we've got you!”

“So, what are your duties on the ship?” Rin asked.

“Same as yours, checks and maintenance. I unofficially handle all the exterior interface. Airlocks, drone launch ports, re-fueling couplings, antennas. I EVA every week and do a full external sweep, but most of it is reachable from the tunnels.”

“Wow.” Rin stared off down the corridor for a moment, “Do those systems... fail a lot?”

Andrea twittered again, “No no. Thank goodness! We catch problems long before they become, well problems. I'd guess the anthropic principle is involved.”

“People are paranoid?”

“And people who aren't don't survive space travel.”

“Or, don't design space ships anyhow.”

“Exactly. Speaking of surviving, I should get back to my rounds.”

“Need any help?” Rin asked hopefully.

Andrea shook her head, “It would be more trouble to explain than just do it myself.”

“Yeah, I understand. We're all just so busy.” Rin left the implication open.

“That's what the cert courses are for right? Thanks though.” She gave a little wave and passed lightly down the companionway.

Rin turned back to the window, and muttered to herself, “And I'm using so many of those.”

She kept trying to invent constellations for a few minutes until a synthetic voice interrupted her meditations. “Rin?”

Rin turned round again, “Yeah Ando? What's up?”

“I'm concerned about Molly. This is a great opportunity for her, but she isn't reaching out to the crew. I'm afraid she is becoming useless. Can you help her find something to do?”

“I've got my rounds in a few minutes Ando. I don't know when I'll be able to...” But of course, this was the other side. Always too busy to lighten the load. “But I'll think of something.”

Ando's face changed to a question mark. “I'm sorry. I don't know that I understood you.”

“You're right Ando, it would be a waste if Molly had nothing to do. I'll try to find something for her.”



You said I should write about the problems I see on this mission. So I'm doing it now, because there's nothing else to do in this cosmic tub.

The first problem is that the birthing arrangements are stupid.

They prepared us for this in habitation training. Men and women share living quarters. We were encouraged to leave behind “hang-ups about the human form” and just embrace “genderless” living spaces. As if the total lack of privacy was some sort of liberation.

We have two toilets, which were designed to be unisex. In practice, we have a men's room and a women's room. The women's toilet has the tampons and the men's has the pornography and everyone knows which is which. I figured it out as soon as they thawed me out, without anyone explaining it to me. Just like everyone else figured it out.

We have one compartment, but men sleep on one side and women on the other. The men don't want us seeing their morning erections any more than we want to see them. Needing privacy from men isn't some kind of weird hang-up, and I'm sure the people who teach those classes back at ISAC go back to living spaces where they can look at their bodies in a mirror, fart, clip their toenails, or hang around in their underwear away from members of the opposite sex.

Now, I would understand cramming us all in if there was no alternative. This is space travel, cubic space is at a premium, and we can't waste weight on too many creature comforts. Except, we DO have segregated sleeping arrangements, they're just segregated for all the wrong reasons.

The officers all live on Deck 1, and the crew on Deck 8. There are only fourteen human beings on this ship, and yet I can go for DAYS without talking to a single officer. The crew are treated like children and nobody explains what's going on. Nobody on the underside of this ship has any idea how long the mission will last, or what the next system is, or when we'll leave. The officers are never aware of any problems unless those problems become a flashing red light on the bridge. I suppose there's something to say for letting them focus on their work, but I've been camping out at the entrance to the bridge to listen in (it's not against regs!) and I have verified through direct observations that those guys have not a damn thing to do for hours at a stretch.

The crew thinks that the officers are apathetic, and the officers think the crew are all dullards. There's no trust, and when things go wrong people are more worried about blame than fixing the problem.

All of this could be fixed if we birthed according to men / women instead of crew / officers. The women could have the top deck and the men could have the bottom. Or whichever way. Since the crew is 70% male, this would exactly fill up one of the two birthing compartments with men, and leave the other compartment about half empty. Right now any empty bunks are used as the unofficial neutral zone between the genders, but if they weren't being used for that you could use that space to store more HAF.

Again, I wouldn't complain about sharing space with the men if it really was best for the mission, but the sleeping arrangements are preserving this unhealthy caste system.


PS: The coffee on board is so foul it borders on poisonous. It tastes like baked beans and carbon. Since good coffee takes precisely the same volume as horrible coffee, I formally request that you find out who is in charge of provisions on the ship. Using your powers as a proxy administrator, I suggest that you have this person hunted down and killed.


Rin hugged her knees. She was sitting in the passage at the far front of Deck 2, just outside the narrow neck that led to the bridge. Three officers were on duty during this shift. The Captain had just gone to bed, and XO Dinapoli had the deck.

She didn't like to hang around when Captain Wheeler was in command. There were a lot of awkward silences and people seemed to be afraid of making mistakes around her, or doing things she might think were mistakes. Things were much more open when Dinapoli ran things, and Rin was able to learn a lot about how space travel worked.

“The differential is huge,” said the man at the helm, who Rin had never met. She couldn't remember his name, except that it was something really bland and common. “We're orbiting a planet the size of Mars, and you're talking about transing over to ... what is that thing? A gas giant? It's like a half-Jupe. Your variance is going to be huge. There's no way we have enough speed for that transfer.”

“Yes, thanks for pointing that out.” replied the woman in the left-side seat. Rin didn't know what you called the position she occupied in the left seat, but the woman was Lieutenant Dixon, who had been gifted with abundant curly blond hair and even more abundant sarcasm. “I wasn't suggesting you transfer us over there right now. We can surf this thing until we have enough speed to orbit the giant. We'll have to skim it, but we can get there.”

Rin had been struggling for days to get a grip on the basics of spatial transfer navigation. Unlike the certification courses offered to the crew, the officer disciplines were massive subjects, rivaling any typical technical degree. These people trained and studied for months just to learn the theory behind their jobs.

Despite this, she had managed to unravel some of the words they used. She was never sure just how much of what was said was accepted professional terminology and how much was informal lingo, but their conversations were gradually becoming more comprehensible to her. “Surfing” was the process of free-falling towards a planet, then transferring to a higher point on the same gravity well and falling some more, repeating until the ship reached the desired speed. The accelerator paid the energy price, effectively enabling them to create momentum with the ship's power plant. “Bleeding” was the opposite of this -- transferring to a place where a planet would pull on the ship to slow it down. “Skimming” was the process of getting very close to the atmosphere of a planet before doing a transfer. This was risky, although Rin wasn't quite clear on why. Aside from the obvious danger of burning up.

“The differential is too huge,” the helmsman argued. “You'd have to do more than skim to make that jump work. You'd have to dip us.”

“I wouldn't have to dip us,” Dixon said reassuringly. “Space has a tendency to be big. We've got lots of room to work with up here.”

“I'm not against a little stunt flying, but I really don't want to have to spend the next twelve hours surfing just to turn around and bleed it all off again,” Dinapoli said. “Let's be patient. We'll come around to the light side of this planet in another six hours. By then we should have line-of-sight to the little pocket on the edge of this system.”

Rin was pretty sure that “pocket” was the word they used for any gravity well. Rather than specify if something was a star, or a moon, or a planet, or a gas giant, they just discussed a solar system in terms of the shape and depth of the various pockets.

“Is the accelerator warm enough for a transfer?” the helmsman asked.

“Assuming you want to transfer something the size of a basketball, sure,” Dixon replied.

“Then you're not going to need me for a couple of hours.” Rin heard the man unbuckle and slide out of his seat. “I'll be in cart. Might as well get these pockets mapped now.”

Rin had figured out that “cart” was “cartography”, a small office just aft of the bridge. She slipped away, not wanting the officers to know she was eavesdropping on their work. She told herself she was doing this do get to know the place better on behalf of David, but deep down she knew she was doing this because she simply liked being in the know.



According to Captain Wheeler, she was given command of the Armstrong three years ago. This program has been active for ten years. She was the first woman captain. Given all of this, I have to ask:

1. Did it really take them SEVEN years to appoint the first woman captain? What century is this?

2. After seven years, THIS is who they picked?

Wheeler is a mess. Not a natural leader. Not respected. Not particularly good at her job. Not knowledgeable about the jobs being done around her. I can't imagine how she made captain.

I suppose it's possible that she's just really good at taking tests, and made rank by excelling academically. Maybe? But what I'm really afraid of is that her position is political. I know it's cynical, but I can't help but wonder if one of your fellow administrators is a relation of hers.

For the record, both Dixon and Dinapoli would make better captains, leadership-wise. Both of them are respected by their peers and the crew. I can't judge their technical skills, but the other officers seem to value their technical opinions.

And yes, I'm aware that there's probably nothing you can do about this. I'm just blowing off steam.


Rin planted one foot against the wall. The rubber-nubbed soles of her socks grabbed onto the surface with enough friction that she could launch herself away from it without flailing. As she sailed through the doorway, she grabbed the top of the frame and kicked her legs upward. She pulled off an acceptable backflip and landed on her feet, although it was hard to really stick a landing in low gravity. The impact never had enough oomph.

“You're getting better at those,” Ando said. His feet had magnets in them that he could control, so he didn't have to choose between impractical acrobatics or undignified bunny-hopping to get around on the inner decks.

They were in the atmo compartment. This was where internal atmosphere was drawn to be scrubbed, temperature-adjusted, and ventilated back to the rest of the ship. It was a chamber of deep white noise and cold air. Clusters of vibrating arm-sized ducts ran from the deck to the overhead.

Rin sighed in frustration. Of course the charger port was blocked by cargo. Several containers were placed against the starboard bulkhead. Their arrangement was messy, and they were not lashed tightly to the bulkhead like they should have been. Rin unstrapped the containers and began moving them over to the port side wall, where they would block access to the environmental controls instead.

As she lifted a container away from the wall, a woman's body fell forward. It had been propped upright behind the containers. Rin let out a sharp cry and jumped back.

The body fell slowly, almost dreamlike in the reduced gravity. It didn't bend, but remained standing at attention even after it smacked into the deck face-first.

“Ahh. I wondered where the crew put her.” Ando said.

Rin recovered, realizing the body was Molly, the other robot. “I haven't seen her since the doc thawed me out. Why is she being stored here?” Rin tried to control the anger in her voice. There wasn't really anyone to be mad at, but the scare had put a bunch of adrenaline into her body and now she didn't have anything to do with it.

“Her battery went flat a few weeks ago. I suppose the crew propped her up behind the supplies so she wouldn't be in the way.”

Rin rolled Molly over onto her back. She looked very unnatural in this condition. Her red hair was stiff, coarse, and obviously made of plastic. It remained clumped together instead of spreading out like human hair. Her face was stiff and motionless, stuck in a neutral expression. Her eyes were aimed off to one side, motionless. She was just as rigid and room temperature as a real corpse, and only slightly less disturbing.

“How did she go flat? Did she forget to recharge herself?” Rin felt like she should raise her voice slightly to be heard over the ambient hollow thrumming of the air handlers. It was making her feel more upset than she wanted to be. Ando merely increased his volume, without changing his tone.

“No. Chef and Buck were working in here. They had the cover off of one of the air pumps and tools all over the floor. Molly walked right through the middle of their work area to get to the charger. She stood right in front of the light Chef had set up.”

“Oh no,” Rin shook her head.

“They weren't harsh, but Buck did shout at her to get out. I'm sure she misinterpreted his raised voice as a serious command, and not an irritated request. The two can often sound quite similar, tonally. I used to make the same sort of mistake when I was in the early stages of development. I wouldn't know if I was dealing with something dangerous, or something bothersome.”

“So she never tried to use the charger port again?” Rin looked down at Molly in pity. “And I suppose you're not allowed to help her?”

Ando switched to a thoughtful face for a moment, “It's a grey area. I could have helped her, but I was hoping she would take action on her own. She stood just a few meters away from the charger for hours. Buck and Chef were long gone. She could have sought them out and asked for clarification, but instead she stood here until she ran out of power. I cautioned against this before the company sent us to Houston. Robots need trained minders until they're about eighteen months old. They just don't have the skills to learn socially before that point.”

“She's less than eighteen months old?” Rin asked. This was shocking. Was Molly actually an infant, from a development standpoint? “How old is she?”

“A year. Remember that robots aren't like humans. We begin with a precise conscious knowledge of our own bodies, better than nearly all humans. We also have basic motor skills, a broad vocabulary of concrete concepts, knowledge of sentence structure, and some understanding of safety. We even start with a few social concepts, like tone of voice and respect for personal space. A new robot in our class is roughly analogous to a six year old child.”

“I didn't realize robots needed to be taught. I've never heard of that before.”

“To my knowledge, only Akimbo robots work this way. Other companies seem to be working with a lot of hardcoded stuff. They write some software, get a brain working the way they want, and then make copies of it. It works well enough for simple-minded machines, but it's a technological dead-end. Their machines are good enough to sweep the floor and carry freight around, but this approach will never lead to creative general-purpose intelligence.”

“Not even if they improve the hardware?”

“Beyond a certain point, hardware is irrelevant. The average botic cashier has roughly the same processing throughput that I do. The problem isn't that they don't have good hardware, it's that they don't have any motivation to use it well. There's nothing driving them to be curious, or efficient, or creative. So they aren't. There are a lot of very stupid machines with amazingly advanced hardware. Much newer than mine, at any rate.”

“How out-of-date is your hardware?” Rin remembered Ando saying he wasn't allowed to reveal his age, and she wondered if she could trick him into revealing it with an indirect question like this.

“I'm twenty eight, but my current hardware is about six years old.”

Rin blinked. She had been expecting Ando to refuse to answer the question. Instead he had unloaded a bombshell. How could any robot be that old? Bots from twenty-five years ago didn't even count as robots by today's standards. They were basically just regular computers with human-body shells. Even at that, the shells were monumentally creepy.

“Let's get her to the charger,” Rin said, hooking one arm under Molly's neck and lifting the robot up. She was glad this didn't happen on the outer decks where gravity was strongest. Robots were a lot denser than people.

Ando turned one of the tall containers onto its side, and they rested Molly on top of this. Molly could charge by simply standing with the charger against her back, but they didn't want to have to hold her in that position. Ando reached under her hair to pull out a cord, which he plugged into one of the manual sockets.

They couldn't leave the compartment with so much unsecured cargo, and they couldn't secure it until Molly had enough power to stand up and see to her own charging. They needed to stay here until Molly was up.


An impact rocked through the ship. The floor bucked upward, and Rin was tossed into the air. Ando held fast with his magnetic feet, and grabbed Molly before her charger cord came unplugged.

“That was a big one,” Rin said. This was part of the routine. Transition shocks were the closest things they had to weather on the ship, and so people commented on them as such. People would remark if one was strong, or sudden, or if the vibration lingered, or if it was a gradual shake instead of a sharp jolt. She returned to her spot on the floor; She could tell exactly where it was due to the residual warmth. Room temperature metal was a lot colder than body temperature metal.

“But short,” Ando added. He seemed to have inexplicably mastered the skill of talking about the “weather” like a human.

The ship was remarkably flexible. If she was on the bottom or top decks where there was a clear line of sight from stem to stern, Rin could see the ship bend slightly during a transition shock. The Armstrong wasn't rigid, but had been engineered to give a little when subjected to outside forces.

“I thought you weren't allowed to tell me how old you are,” Rin said to Ando.

“It's true that I'm not permitted to give the ages of company robots,” Ando admitted. “I've decided that the restriction is counter-productive in this case.”

“Are you saying you can break your programming?” This seemed like a dangerous and radical thing to her.

Ando's face changed so that one corner of his mouth was down, and one eyebrow was down. At first she thought he was angry, but the expression seemed more consistent with disapproval or scorn. “No. I can't break my own programming. I've simply looked at the orders I've been given and realized they were insufficiently robust to deal with this situation. The rule about revealing age is there to protect company secrets. You aren't involved with a competing company, and you're not in a position to use this information to our disadvantage. We are working together, both for director Reed, and for captain Wheeler. Furthermore, having you understand how we work will benefit both Molly and I. Therefore, it's sensible to set the rule aside.”

“But, if you can decide you don't have to obey company policy, then what's to stop you from...” Rin trailed off here. She wasn't sure how explicitly she should say this. She realized Ando was free to do whatever he pleased, and was wary of him now.

“What's to stop me from killing all the fleshbags?” Ando asked, his face looking neutral again. “The same thing that stops you.”

They were quiet while Rin thought about this. Finally she said, “I don't kill people because it's wrong.”

“I would be very surprised if that was the case. Are you saying that if you were given permission to kill whoever you pleased, you would use that freedom? Think about it more broadly. There's a lot of things you don't do, wrong or not. You don't walk around naked, or play with dangerous machinery, or eat bugs.”

Rin was quiet again. Ando seemed to be asking a lot of leading questions, and she was having trouble keeping up and making sure he wasn't engaging in any debating shenanigans. “I don't do those things because I don't want to.”

Ando smiled briefly. “Yes. And I don't want to hurt people. You're thinking of machine intelligence the wrong way. You're thinking of it the way most people think of it, which is why it took people so long to invent it.”

“How do I think of it?”

“One of my creators referred to it as the 'cake-baking-fallacy'. It's a story about a man who invents a robot, asks the robot to bake him a cake, and is later killed under a ten-ton avalanche of pastry because the robot didn't know when to stop baking. There have been science fiction variants on the cake-baking robot since before microprocessors existed. Everyone has always assumed robots would naturally be monomaniacal and obsessive. It's this strange view that a machine can be smart enough to learn to bake, and yet be too stupid to understand an obvious request, and that it wouldn't recognize an absurd order and ask for clarification.”

Rin considered this. “It seems like the cake-baking story is a warning that machine intelligence is different from ours, and that this could lead to miscommunication.”

“The problem is usually framed that way, but it's really a problem of motivation. A robot with properly designed motivations would never make that mistake.”

“My clock has been reset,” Molly said suddenly. “What time is it?”

Rin jumped at the unexpected voice coming from the robot. Molly was still sitting motionless on top of the cargo container. Her eyes remained locked in a sideways position.

“It's June second, five-thirty-three in the morning,” Ando said.

“Thank you,” Molly replied.

“Are you okay?” Rin asked. “Why aren't you moving?”

“I apologize. I don't have enough charge to be ambulatory. I hope it's not making you uncomfortable.”

“You're not making me uncomfortable,” Rin said. Realizing this was a lie, she corrected herself, “Maybe a bit. How long until you can move?”

“Ten more minutes,” Molly replied. “Please feel free to move me if I'm in the way. I don't want to be in the way.”



Do we still need RAS pods?

I get their original purpose. Ten years ago these ships were a maintenance nightmare. (This is all according to some of the old-timers on the ship.) When it took 25 people to run a ship and twice as many jumps to explore a system, we needed to keep people on ice as long as possible just to have enough HAF to make a trip worthwhile.

But now the equipment is a lot smaller and more reliable, the accelerator can charge faster, and our transing is more accurate. We go father, we need less people, and we've got room for a lot of HAF on these trips.

I climbed around with the robots in the RAS bay today and we did some back-of-the-napkin measurements. It's tough because some of the machinery is embedded in the wall, and I'm pretty sure the gel is stored in an EPT. (External Protrusion Tank -- it just means the tanks stick out from the hull and I can't measure them without going on a spacewalk.) Each pod takes about 1.5 cubic meters. It might be as much as 2 cubic meters, depending on what things look like behind the bulkheads. I don't have the certifications to remove those panels and crawl around in there, and I don't want to get in trouble with the captain.

Anyway, we've got six pods, at 1.5 cubic meters each, which comes out to 9 cubic meters of space. That's a conservative estimate, and it ignores the mass in the gel tanks and some of the smaller bits of equipment for running and monitoring the system.

You can fit a lot of HAF inside of 12 cubic meters. More to the point, there's just no way that putting the secondary crew in the fridge for a few weeks is going to save twelve cubic meters of HAF. Not even close. We'd be better off just ripping out the whole system and filling the RAS bay with supplies.

I guess we wouldn't be able to freeze somebody if their appendix was going to burst or they had some other health problem that required Earth facilities. And the secondary crew would be stuck with nothing to do for those weeks in transit, which might not be good for mental health. But still, we're talking about extending our range by weeks.

Barring that, we could use that space for more creature comforts.

Just wanting one decent cup of coffee... per day,



Rin straightened up in her chair as the jolt passed through the ship. This wasn't a full shake like the kind caused by spatial transition, but a single impact. It felt as if someone had kicked her chair.

“What was that?” she asked.

“Drone launch,” Chef explained. “We're orbiting something unusual, and the captain wants a closer look it.” Chef said this without looking up from his tel. She couldn't hear the audio from this angle, but it was obvious he was watching his Korean soap operas again. He purchased them in blocks while on Earth, and then strictly rationed them to once a day while in deep space. He did not like to be interrupted while he was watching his shows. Last week he'd tried to get Rin interested in them, but she found them much too predictable, formulaic, and sappy. She preferred spending time with Ando anyway.

“An interesting planet? I wonder what it looks like.” Rin said. She shoved herself out of her chair and arced across the room to the porthole.

They were in the day compartment, called the daycomp by anyone who had been on board for more than ten minutes. This was a room for dressing, personal grooming, reading, and other quiet activities. Only newbies called it the locker room. Their individual footlockers were mounted on the starboard wall when they came aboard, turning their “footlockers” into “regular lockers”. At the end of the row was a single full-length mirror, which was the only place anyone could look at themselves besides the palm-sized mirror in the head.

There were also benches and a couple of soft chairs here. The light was adjusted to give off daylight-spectrum luminance, as opposed to the blue-ish fluorescent lights in the work areas of the ship. The idea was that people could take care of dressing and grooming in here so that the lights could stay off in the night compartment where people were sleeping.

Technically Chef was committing a breach of manners by watching videos in the daycomp. You were supposed to do that sort of thing in the recreation compartment, which was directly aft of them. This was tolerated because nobody wanted him sitting in the rec space, shushing people incessantly. Also, his shows often featured Korean pop music, and anyone who blundered into the audio cone of his tel risked experiencing irritation that bordered on madness.

“Darn it, I can't see it,” Rin said. She was pressing her face against the narrow rectangle of the porthole, which ran the height of the room. All she could see was the slow scroll of stars outside as the ship rotated. The ship oriented itself nose-first at planets during survey work, which meant the only decent view was on the bridge.

“You're not missing much,” Chef muttered.

“You've seen it?” she asked. She actually found his lack of enthusiasm to be kind of irritating. They could be orbiting a major discovery right now. Didn't that excite him?

Chef paused his video, now visibly annoyed. “Yes. I passed the bridge during my rounds today. It's another stupid trash planet. It's got a mile-deep layer of clouds around it and is probably worthless, but we're going to throw away a couple of drones because the surface temps fall into life-bearing range.”

“Oh,” Rin said, disappointed.

He moved as if he was going to return to his video, but stopped himself. “Aren't you supposed to be on duty?”

“I am. The bots are doing my rounds.”

“You shouldn't let them do that,” he said, now even more visibly annoyed.

“I've supervised them for the last week. They know what they're doing.”

“It's still a stupid thing. Don't let a bot take your job. If they make mistakes, the blame falls on you.”

“I'm not worried about that. They're both smart and capable.”

“Yes, I'm sure the red-haired one is a real rocket scientist.”

“Molly is technically better certified than I am. She's even got certs for work in the power plant.”

“It's obvious she's made for rods, just not fuel rods.”

“What's that supposed to mean?” Rin asked. She realized the answer before she was done speaking the words, so she launched into a counter-argument without waiting for him to reply. “You think she can't do serious work just because she's attractive?”

“You can't make a bot with great big glossy lips, fat tits, and that tiny little waist, and plus dumber than a flashlight... and then turn around and say, 'oh, this thing is for working in the power plant.' That's bullshit. She's a sexbot and everyone knows it.”

“Not everyone. She might not even be equipped for intercourse!”

“Then she's a defective sexbot.”

Rin considered pointing out that Molly wasn't as stupid as she seemed, she was just socially awkward due to lack of development. However, “she's not stupid, she's just underage” seemed like a really horrible defense for why a robot had been so needlessly oversexed. She let the subject drop.

Relnf breezed through. He evoked the “popular kid” atmosphere, apparently without even trying. Only a bit taller than Rin, Relnf walked like he owned the Armstrong instead of being a junior crew member.

“Hey Nero.” Chef shot out as he turned once again to his show.

Relnf smiled brilliantly, “Chef. Ninja.” He nodded, as if he understood perfectly. No party here, and time to move on. “Keep it Stodgin folks!” and he was gone. Rin had avoided being pulled into his orbit during the trip, but still felt the lure of his easy-going gregarious aura. Maybe when they got back to earth there would be a real party where they could all let their guard down. Meanwhile Chef didn't seem to be in the mood for any more bickering, so she went back to craning her neck to get a glimpse out the window. She believed Chef about the planet, but didn't want to be seen behaving as if she could be so easily dissuaded. Let him stew in his orneriness for a while longer.


Rin unrolled the dusty display screen and hung it on the starboard wall in front of the couch. Nobody ever watched it because anything in the entertainment cache worth watching was probably unfit for the rec comp. Nobody wanted to be the one in front of a wall-sized display of dismembered limbs or heaving breasts. The only alternative to that was watching celebrity talk shows or nature programs. Rin was finally bored enough that she was willing to endure one of these.

“Why are we still orbiting this hunk of burned granite?” Buck said, looking out the window. He was sitting in a chair against the aft bulkhead with a pile of white chess pieces in his lap. Cash was sitting beside him, holding the black pieces.

“The computer found an 'aberration' in Chef's mapping,” Cash replied. “It flagged a shiny spot, so now we're going to wait for another orbit so we can have another look with the telescope.”

“Are you shitting me?” Buck asked. “The captain had us do a map of this thing? It's less than ten percent water, and most of the surface is above boiling! If there's life down there, it's dead.” He sorted through his pieces, picked out a pawn, and held it up over his head. He gave his arm a couple of slow test swings and then tossed the pawn across the compartment. It struck the forward bulkhead and bounced off, landing beside the other pieces on the floor next to the open ration container. The container was a cardboard box roughly the same dimensions as a wastebasket, which made it ideal for this purpose.

“Damn,” Buck said when his piece failed to go in.

“You want to know the best part?” Cash asked rhetorically. “Chef finished the map yesterday. Captain had him work a double to get it done. Then she let it sit there without even looking at it until the end of second shift. By the time she got around to it, we'd already passed the spot again.” Cash picked a piece out of his lap and gave it a gentle underhanded toss. In Earth gravity this would have been a pathetic throw that would have landed halfway across the room, but at half-gravity it tumbled gracefully in a long flat parabola. It landed in the container with a satisfying plunk.

“You lucky bastard,” Buck said.

“Ten points,” Cash said with satisfaction.

“Ten? That wasn't a bounce.”

“It was a rook.”

“Lucky bastard,” Buck said again.

Outside, the orb swung by. The ship was aligned to be nose-first when they passed the interesting spot again. At the current point in their orbit, this put the planet roughly abeam.

Cash pointed out the porthole. “I'm sure it's just a naturally occurring reflective surface. Glass, or some minerals, or some exposed iron, or whatever. But now we've got another half a shift before we can get another look.”

Rin had never figured this game out. It was usually played for money, and the rules were impenetrable. The different pieces had different point values. There were bonuses for bouncing shots off the overhead or off the deck, and the basket moved to different places in the room at different points in the game. There were bonuses for landing pieces in a certain order, and these bonuses could be blocked if your opponent landed a piece of their own.

Confusingly, they called the game “chess”. It seemed to have evolved here on the Armstrong. According to Buck, it wasn't played on the other ships.

“No, I'm sure it's an alien civilization,” Buck said sarcastically. He sent a bishop across the compartment with a firm flick of the wrist. It sailed over the mouth of the basket and the magnetic bottom grabbed onto the metal bulkhead. “Damn!”

“That's a stick. Your last score is negated,” Cash said smugly.

“I haven't scored yet!”

“Then your next score is negated. Might as well chuck a pawn.”

“It's your turn anyway.”

Cash stood at average height and had a stocky build. He had pale skin even by the standards of space personnel. Tattoos peaked out from the sleeves and neck of his jumpsuit. He was clean-shaven, and kept his head trimmed to neat stubble. The standard orange jumpsuit had the effect of making him look like a prison inmate. He had a heavy, raspy voice and he always spoke in forceful declarative statements like he was trying to win an argument. He was younger than Buck, but had more seniority. According to the markings on the front of his jumpsuit, he had every certification available to crew. (Rin had confirmed with him that there was, in fact, no such thing as a 'Writing Cursive in Space' certification) Rin had been proud of racking up so many certs in the months before launch, but her collection was nothing compared to his. He even had certifications for duties that were no longer available. A lot of positions had been consolidated over the years as the ship design was simplified.

Crew members didn't have “rank”, and none of them technically had authority over any of the others, but there was an informal understanding that Cash was the highest-ranked non-officer on board. Everyone observed this, even the guys who disliked him. Even the officers seemed to recognize this, and would sometimes give him duties to delegate as he saw fit.

Cash pointed at the display screen Rin had set up. “Looks like Ninja is watching some porno!”

She rolled her eyes at him. “It's a nature show.”

Cash banked a pawn off the overhead and landed it on the floor. “Nature shows are just porno for animals.”


Rin twisted the edge of the plastic wrapper between her fingertips in the hopes that the combined might of finger-torque and finger-nails might inflict enough damage to breach the damn thing. There was a red mark in one corner where you were supposed to open it, but repeated testing had revealed that the marked corner was no more structurally vulnerable than any other part of the packaging, so Rin was attacking the center where it was easier to grip. Ten seconds was her limit for this avenue of attack. When it failed to produce results, she put the corner of the wrapper in her mouth and bit down, then pulled. The package burst, releasing the compact brick of mouth-watering carbohydrates.

To make this snack, an unidentified starch had been ground into particulate form and then pressed into wafers with some sort of peanut-based mush, smeared with something approximating caramel, and then wrapped in a harder chocolate shell to make the mess into something that you could eat with your hands. There were bits of white fluffy sugar mixed in with it, which Rin thought of as marshmallows but weren't anything nearly so formal. They were just a different flavor and consistency of sugar. The whole thing was basically a weapons-grade calorie delivery system. Rin suspected that eating one could cause you to gain more weight than was present in the bar itself. The serving size was half a bar, thus suggesting that a normal person should quit eating after three bites, and maybe think about skipping the next meal to offset the caloric payload. Rin always ate an entire bar. She hoped the added caffeine would negate some of the fat. Did it work that way? Could you do that?

In the back of her mind she knew she was going to need to find some other brand of snack soon. She had gotten away with this so far because young people had magical metabolisms that defied reason, but she was no longer sixteen. It was only a matter of time before her body punished her for this nutritional malfeasance.

“Is that non-sanctioned food?”

Rin jumped at the unexpected voice. She thought she was alone in the daycomp. She turned and faced Ando with a guilty look. She was standing at her locker, eating. She wanted to say something in her defense, but she had to wait until her mouth was available. She held up a finger and nodded for him to wait.

“Deserts are allowed,” she said after she'd softened up the food a bit and moved it into one cheek. “Also, I need this. Medically.”

“That's hyperbole, isn't it?”

She held up the wrapper for him to read, “Coffee flavored. The galley coffee is worse than usual today. It's abominable. So I can either eat this or go into caffeine withdrawal.”

“You brought a lot of them,” Ando observed as he looked into her locker.

“Yes. I mean, we all get a footlocker worth of cubic space to fill, and I had no idea what to bring. We don't need clothes, and it's stupid to waste space on dead-tree books. I told myself I was bringing enough that I could share with the crew if we made a major discovery. Like, as a celebration. I wish I'd just brought coffee. And creamer. Why does our creamer taste like chalk? Why is it worse than the crap they serve at fast-food places? It boggles the mind.”

“Interesting. What level of significance of discovery would result in you sharing with the rest of the crew?”

Rin shut her locker and cleaned away the evidence. She whisked the crumbs away and put the wrapper into her pocket to be disposed of later. “Nothing. I'm serious. If we find an Earth-alike with noble space-faring green men who want to gift their technology to us, I'm still not sharing. Not unless they also have coffee to trade. It looks like a lot now, but if I only have one a day I'll still run out before we get home.”

“David instructed me to find out how you're related to Akimbo Technology,” Ando said. He often shifted conversations abruptly like this. Rin wondered if it was possible to teach a robot to segue.

She raised her eyebrows at the robot. “Did he? Did he make the request in those words?”

“No. His exact words were 'See if you can get Rin to tell you how she's related to Akimbo'. He suggested that I should wait until we knew each other better before I did this. As of today we've been working together for a month. Is it still too soon to ask this question?”

Rin shook her head. “No. What David was actually requesting was that you get the information and report it back to him, without me knowing he requested it.”

“Have I offended you?”

“No. It's actually kind of amusing. And since you told me company secrets about how you work, it seems only fair that I tell you mine. I'm related to Akimbo CEO Takehiko Shimazaki.”

“David noted that Takehiko Shimazaki was probably a little too old to be your father. He theorized that the man was your uncle.”

“He shouldn't really make a leap like that. Shimazaki is really a common family name. But in this case, his suspicions were true. Except, Takehiko isn't my uncle. He's my brother.”

Ando reached up and -- to Rin's amazement -- stroked his chin in a thoughtful manner. It was obviously an imitative behavior, intended to fill in the moment while he considered his response. Was he aware that the gesture was a simulation of stroking a beard? “I see,” he replied. “That's a very large age gap between siblings. Is this why you wanted to keep the matter secret? Is this gap somehow an embarrassment?”

“No. I avoid talking about it because I don't want to make a big deal about my father. Kazuo Shimazaki ran the company before Takehiko took over. I don't like to talk about having a famous father, because I don't have anything to do with him. He doesn't support me, he's never taken an interest in me, and I don't want people to give me help because of him. I also don't want people to think I owe him anything for any of my success. I haven't spoken with him since I was a child. And to be clear: Takehiko is only my half-brother.”

Rin found herself wanting another candy bar. What she was really after was caffeine. It was slower to absorb solid food than liquid coffee. Or perhaps it only felt slower. The candy didn't trigger her Pavlovian sigh of relief the way that a properly constructed cup of coffee did.

She felt her focus narrowing as her body intensified the demand. She realized she needed to get away from her locker if she didn't want to stand there and scarf down four days' worth of snacks. “Do you want to help me out? I've been meaning to measure some bits of the ship and could use an extra set of hands to help with the tape measure.”

“If we're going to be measuring in a well-lit area then my eyes can judge distances to within a millimeter.”

“To hell with the tape measure then,” she said.

She headed forward to L2 and began climbing. At the top of the ladder was the spine of the ship, which was a long tube that ran between the upper and lower decks. This was the axis on which the entire ship spun. You could float here, weightless, as the entire ship revolved around you. Here Rin turned herself around, continuing in the same direction but now going feet-first. Here ladder L2 officially ended and became ladder U2, like a road that changed names as you drove over a county line. The L ladders were painted orange, and led to the lower decks. The U ladders were white, and led to the upper ones.

Rin picked up the thread of her story as they moved along. “When he was a little over fifty, Kazuo Shimazaki -- my father - lost his wife to cancer. Not my mother, my... I don't know what you'd call her. My mother would be the step-mother of my siblings, but is their mother my step-mother too? She died before I was born. I honestly can't remember her name. Anyway, while she was dying, Father left the company to spend time with her, and so Takehiko took over.”

Rotational gravity grabbed her again as she moved away from the spine and she slid all the way down to deck one, where the officers lived. It was pretty much a mirror image of the crew area on deck eight, except that the officers were a lot more fastidious about their living space.

“A couple of years later, bored retired Kazuo met my mother,” she continued. “They got married and had me. Father was sixty when I was born.”

“I understand your mother wasn't Japanese,” Ando said. “How did she come to meet Shimazaki the older?”

“She was a gold digger. She came to Japan because there was this cultural change going on. In the past it would have been taboo for Father to marry a foreigner less than half his age. But suddenly it was a fashionable thing to do. Wealthy Japanese men were remarrying after divorce or death and getting western trophy wives. Mom wanted in on it, so she moved to Japan. Didn't even speak a word of the language. I don't know what she did while she lived here, but I'm guessing she was a stripper judging by the outfits I found in her stuff. I'm reasonably sure she wasn't a prostitute.”

“You can't ask her?”

“She's dead. She died when I was twelve.”

“I'm very sorry to hear about your loss,” Ando said emphatically.

“Don't be. She was a stupid slut. That's not anger. Or angst. I don't hate my mother, I'm simply frustrated with the horrible decisions she made in life. Ok, so maybe I do feel a bit of anger. But 'stupid slut' is still an honest appraisal of who she was. A stupid woman who thought the most sensible path to success was to find a successful person and screw them until they shared.”

At this point a human being would probably ask how her mother died, but Ando didn't, so she let the story drop.

They had reached the front of the ship and were standing in the drone launching bay. Cargo containers had been collapsed and stacked, and were now strapped to one bulkhead. Presumably these had once held the robotic drones that parachuted down to crawl or swim around on a planet, looking for life.

One drone was about the size of an automobile tire when it was folded up. A drone could operate for up to a month, depending on local gravity, terrain, and weather conditions. When its battery ran below a certain point, it would fold up and wait passively for months until another ship showed up to collect its data. It was a strange form of exploration, and Rin could never shake the notion that their efforts were simply a very ambitious and expensive endeavor to litter on a galactic scale.

They began measuring compartments. Ando would stand in one doorway and measure the distance to the other side, while Rin poked the numbers into her tel.

“These measurements are already available,” Ando said as they neared the airlock at the rear of the ship.

“I know,” she said without looking up from her tel. “But I want to take the measurements myself. The ship has been changed since it was launched, and I know some of those documents haven't been updated. I'm looking for discrepancies. More importantly, taking the measurements helps me think about the problem. No, not problem. Question.”

“What question?”

“Why is the ship shaped the way it is?”

Ando didn't ask more, or offer his own answer. He followed her around and patiently measured each part of the ship, never growing bored or frustrated at gathering data without understanding why. At first Rin wondered how long it would take him to ask, but as their painstaking section-by-section measurements came to an end, she realized he wasn't curious. Or if he was, he wasn't curious the way a person would be.

He didn't become impatient, agitated, or excited. His emotions were not hidden. Instead they were synthesized for the purposes of communication. He would tell you how he felt, but it was a translation for some other set of inscrutable internal state. His feelings were part of his language, not core to his being the way they were to people.

Or were they? Rin realized that many people might operate the same way that Ando seemed to, generating feelings when called on instead of living in them moment by moment. How could you tell what someone else was really feeling?


She didn't plan it, but their travel ended in the RAS bay. The secondary crew were all awake, so the pods stood empty, taking up space that could have been spent on more HAF. Rin dropped herself into the doctor's chair and began plugging all of the numbers in. She was using software designed to do floor plans, which wasn't ideal for this task. Still, it allowed her to put in room dimensions and build a little interior model of the ship. It didn't matter that the program understood everything sideways as if she was laying out a single floor of an apartment building. It was a little confused by the large circular hole in the middle of her layout, which was the empty space inside the accelerator circle.

“Okay,” she said with finality. “So here is what I can't figure out: The accelerator makes circular holes in space.”


“Right. I meant to say spherical. It's like an hour glass with another dimension. One end of the hourglass is the sphere where we start. The other side is the sphere where we end up. The narrow bit happens in the middle of the ship, at the center of both spheres. That's why we've got this hole in the middle of the ship. That's where the neck goes, and anything in that space would get destroyed trying to stretch the light-years between the end points.”

“To be honest, I only understand the system in analogy,” Ando said.

“Me too,” Rin admitted. “I actually checked out one of the books used in navigation training, and realized I was an entire college major short of being able to grasp it. It's kind of interesting how everything on the ship is either completely simple or incomprehensible. The point is, the accelerator needs to make a spherical hole for us, yes?”

“As I understand it.”

“And the larger the hole, the more energy it takes, right?”

“The energy required is mostly shaped by the difference in gravitational curvature between the two spheres. This is why it takes a very long time to get enough charge to change star systems, or to transition between planets of greatly differing sizes. It's also governed by how precise we need to be. But yes, the size of the aperture is also a factor in energy used.”

“So why is the ship so flat? I mean, if you took off the starboard hull you'd be looking into an ant farm. The ship is eight stories high, a hundred meters long, and one room thick. That means that if we made the ship shorter and thicker, we could have the same interior volume but need a much smaller sphere. Actually, the most efficient shape for the ship should just be a hollow sphere.”

Ando's mouth went dark and his eyes turned into lines to show his meditative face for a few seconds while he considered his answer. “True. But remember that while the interior of the ship is flat, a lot of EP units fill up some of the volume. Also, the ship needs to rotate to make gravity. If the ship were smaller, the inside gravity would be reduced.”

Rin looked out the porthole to the panoramic star field slowly spinning around them. “Okay, that's true, but couldn't you just make the ship spin faster?”

“There are comfort costs with too much angular velocity, and with using a high rate of spin. It can cause sickness and confusion for inhabitants, and presents balancing problems. The ship obviously isn't perfectly symmetrical in weight distribution, and periodic small corrections are needed to keep the spin stable. At higher rotational rates, this problem becomes messy.”

“So I'm right in noticing that the ship is less than ideal, but wrong in thinking it was an easy problem to solve. I guess the current layout makes a lot of sense if you remember that humans work better with gravity and machines work best without gravity.”

She fell quiet and lowered her head. There was the need for varying levels of gravity. The heat sink needed to be close to the power plant and far from everything else. The bridge equipment needed to be far from the power plant, and close to everything else. The heavy stuff like liquids and cargo needed to be kept close to the center, to avoid wasting energy pumping them “uphill”. Food and water were gradually converted into sewage, so the black tanks also needed to be close to the core to avoid late-mission weight distribution problems. The inhabitable areas needed to be compact, inter-connected, and provide access to as much of the ship as possible to avoid the need for regular spacewalks, because spacewalks were a massive pain in the ass when mixed with rotational gravity. The swivel thrusters needed to be as far from the center of gravity as possible.

The RAS equipment clicked thoughtfully, performing some sort of inscrutable self-maintenance procedure. How much power did this stuff use just sitting here?

Now that she could see some of the variables, she realized she was probably still ignorant of a lot more. “This is a very complicated stuff,” she admitted. She felt sort of foolish for thinking that she had out-smarted some of the world's most highly-trained engineers because she spotted some inefficiency in the design.

Ando replied, “As I understand it, some newer, more spherical designs have been proposed, but I don't imagine anyone is in a hurry to scrap these ships just yet.”

“I suppose not.”



Why is the Armstrong shaped this way?

I understand it's complicated, and there are tons of factors I don't know, but I've been over it a hundred times in the past week and there are a few gaping holes I can't fill.

The foremost is artificial gravity. It's a huge waste. I've been all over this ship, and there's just no reason we can't do all of this in zero g. Yes, there's bone loss, but you can solve that other ways than spinning the whole ship. I know enough engineering to understand that the ship is at least twice as heavy as it would be without all the centrifugal force. Plus it increases the injury rate and makes you dizzy when you pass through the axis.

The second is the pointed nose. We're not flying through atmosphere here, so why is the ship streamlined? There's even thermal plating like on the old space shuttle! The Armstrong doesn't land. It can't land. If it enters the atmosphere we're all going to die, period. Is there some sort of contingency “landing interstellar vessels” maneuver they teach the pilots? If not, why is the ship streamlined? If so... that's dumb.

The third is the deck stacking. Even if we need artificial gravity, and streamlining, the crew decks should be twice as wide and not stacked on top of each other. It would make the ship look like a flying I-beam instead of a spear head, but who cares? This would make the crew decks much easier to maneuver, save on conditioned volume, and give a uniform artificial gravity. As it is, we're significantly lighter on decks two and seven than on one and eight. If artificial gravity is the point, why not make it uniform?

I just know you'll answer all these objections with a single carefully crafted sentence when I get back. You smug asshole!

Yours, with all due respect, affection, etc.



“You can smell it, can't you Rin?” Stan turned to face the pair who had just entered the room.

Rin and Ando had just started doing their rounds for the day. Rin didn’t need to accompany him, but she did it for companionship. As they traveled back through the ship a heated discussion grew nearer. Rin had hoped they could somehow avoid it, but on a ship the size of the Armstrong, anyone's problems soon became everyone's problems. She turned to face the embroiled crewmen.

Stan looked the part of the professor. With thinning black hair and nearly childlike features he appeared to be alternately twenty or fifty. He was Chinese if Rin's guess wasn't off, but spoke without accent. His specialty on the ship was electronics, but he often handled small maintenance tasks and modifications. This kind of undocumented in-flight fiddling made the engineers back on Earth tear out their hair whenever a vessel came back to port. But, it make things a lot smoother during the missions, or so Stan would say. Today, apparently, he had found an issue he couldn't solve without talking to someone. Talking to people was not Stan's specialty.

Rin sighed, “Smell what?”

“The ship stinks like a sewer, that's what!” ranted Stan.

Orley just smiled and leaned back against the bulk-head, “Like I said, it's not a major issue.”

Orley was the flight engineer. His job was to make sure everything that made the ship go, just kept on going. He had the odd ability to seem simultaneously busy and laid back. Before the mission, Rin had somehow assumed the ship's engineer would be German, but he had turned out to be from Tennessee. He worked hard to hide the accent, but only succeeded in conquering the drawl, and not the cadence.

Orley and Stan were always arguing about something. Rin was just glad that they mostly left the rest of the crew alone.

But Stan wasn't going to be talked down, “Yeah? The heat scavenger is leaking waste water into the air system, and it's not a major issue? I'd hate to be around when a 'Major' issue finally shows up!”

Orley just nodded, “You and me both.”

“Wait a minute,” said Rin “we're breathing sewage?”

“No.” Orley stated emphatically, making no other motion. “It's probably just someone forgot to clear the head.”

“And I'm telling you the heat exchanger is leaking and we need to do something about it. Yes Rin, we are.”

Orley just shrugged, “No more than usual. Filtering contaminants is a part of being alive. Deal.”

“Isn't this, you know, unhealthy?” Rin asked.

“Ehh,” Orley dithered “You can't even smell it.”

“But, you know, bacteria in the air and stuff.” Rin insisted.

“Listen, you don't go around complaining about the health hazard when Chef cracks one loose.” Orley shrugged, “this is basically the same thing.”

“Not it's not, and you know it!” said Stan.

“Well,” said Rin, “Why don't we ask the doctor? Seems like health is his territory.”

“Don't do it.” warned Orley, “Even if it was an issue he couldn't fix it, and it would just cause real problems.”

“Perhaps” Ando cut in, “You would find the moisture issue more convincing.”

“What.” Orley looked down at Ando.

“The added water in the air could condense on electronics, or cause corrosion. We check for condensation during our rounds. Although not above danger thresholds, the amount of condensation has been rising over the past week.” Ando's face changed to a question mark. “Could this be the cause?”

“Look Stan,” Orley said, leaning slowly back through the door. “I didn't say don't fix it. I'm just saying I don't think it's a problem.”

“So you're going to write me up when we get back?”

“Hey I'd be happy as you to have the exchanger fixed. But if you break anything, I warned you it wasn't an issue.”

Stan scowled harder than ever, if that had been possible. “C.M.A. Orley. Goes both ways.”

Orley just shrugged as he finished his slow motion turn through the door and strode slowly away in the half grav.

Stan stared after him for a moment, then snapped his head round to Rin and gave her a once over, as if she were out of uniform. “Don't you have something to be doing?”


“Can you help me Rin?” It was Ando.

Rin had just begun her mid-shift break. If everyone ate together, she would have called it lunch. As it was, they were all on rotating shifts, to break up the monotony, and to keep the galley from overflowing. In Rin's opinion all it did was break up crew friendships. Today the only other person in the galley was Jacobs.

Rin stopped peeling open her plastic tube of salmon. “What's up Ando?”

“Some sort of debris has clogged my charging port. I am not getting a good connection.”

“Let's take a look.”

As Rin knelt down, Ando turned around, “Crewman Jacobs, if this makes you uncomfortable, we can move to a more private place.”

Jacobs was one of those tall guys that you thought must have been homeschooled. But no, he had been to public school like everyone else. He was smart and capable, but awkward and over-sure of himself. His lanky frame only accented his lack of grace. Rin guessed that he asked all the questions in his certification classes. Probably innocently antagonizing ones like “Why are we learning this?” and “Will the remote airlock pendant work under relativistic conditions?” He was nicknamed “Danger”, but Rin hadn't heard the story behind it.

Jacobs looked up from his lunch, and set his utensils on the table. He then waved vaguely with both hands, “No, I'm fine.” he said before returning to his food. It occurred to Rin that Jacobs and Molly having a conversation would be terrifying to watch. They would probably both feel perfectly at ease, while no one else would be.

Rin found that Ando's access panel was left hanging slightly open. It was made of some translucent flexible substance, silicone rubber or something. After coming to think of Ando as a person, fiddling with panels in his back made Rin feel slightly creepy. Like finding out your baby brother has a wind-up key.

Rin peered and prodded a bit. “I don't see anything the matter Ando.” She was just about to rise when Jacobs startled her by appearing suddenly at her side. His knees popped as he crouched down.

“I'm pretty good with fixing things.” He said without preamble as he pushed Rin to the side with his shoulder. He flicked out a knife and began to delicately pry at the contacts. With a sharp flick he disengaged the entire connector and pulled it free from Ando's back.

“Will you please replace that?” Ando said, “I'm afraid you have just violated my terms of service.”

“Yeah, I see what's wrong.” said Jacobs, “You've got lint all in here. Packed in really well.”

“Probably all that laundry you've been doing Ando.” Rin said.

“The access cover should keep out foreign materials.” stated Ando.

“Oh, did you know it was partially open?”

“I did not.”

“I used to clean contacts all the time.” Said Jacobs, “My brothers used to get sand stuck in their game sets from playing at the beach. I kept telling them that the sand wouldn't cause any problems. Then when they asked me to clean the ports, I'd charge them. Pretty smart huh?”

Ando replied “A clever tactic.” but said no more.

Buck strode through the room, handily stepping over the crouched threesome. “Joining the robot revolution, eh Danger?”

Jacobs snatched at Buck's foot as it went swinging over his head, “Join us or die, Buck! Plus we've got females!”

Buck whisked his foot to safety, hopping briefly on one leg. “Ooh, tempting, but I've got KYS duty. Maybe later!”

They were all silent for another minute while Jacobs finished. A few rooms away, a painful sounding clunk was followed by a muffled monolog.

“There you go!” He snapped the connector back into Ando's back. “I bet it works better than ever! I won't charge you though. Crewmates and all.” He smiled ingratiatingly, then walked back and resumed his meal.

Rin wanted to say “What a jerk!” but the room was too small for even a whisper. Instead she raised her eyebrows at Ando for a moment. Ando gave her about half a second of a smiling face before resuming his neutral expression.

“Now that I'm here, would you like me to share your lunch with you?” Ando asked.

“Um, no, that's okay. You've probably got other things to do right?”

“Your rounds, you mean?”

“Um, yeah. Are you having any trouble with those?”

“None at all.”

“I feel kind of bad sticking you with the work.”

“I prefer conversation to solitary duties, but I would rather do the work than force you to do so.”

“Okay, thanks Ando.”

“I'll see you around then.” said Ando, and walked from the galley.

Rin continued her lunch. It wasn't the same without coffee, and eating smoked salmon from a plastic tube didn't make it much better. The “tube” itself was shaped vaguely like a fish, with heat sealed edges which would cut you if you were clumsy when squeezing it out. The labeling proclaimed it as “premium” and, in all fairness, it was pretty good. The main complaint about the food wasn't the taste, but what it did to one's bowel movements. David had joked about eating paste and eliminating in a tube, but really it was the other way around.

“Hey Rin.” It was Jacobs. He had apparently finished his meal and was now going to put the moves on the only single crew member.

Rin braced herself. “What's up Jacobs?”

“You're kind of friends with the bots now, right?”

Rin wasn't sure how to interpret this. She decided on a neutral response, “As much as anyone is I suppose.”

“I really like how you're training them to do stuff. It must be nice to have duties you can delegate.”

“Well, you could too, Ando and Molly are really pretty competent.”

“No, my duties are complicated. I wouldn't know where to start! I'd have to make a flowchart, and a separate manual, and before you know it I'd be doing two jobs instead of one. Easier to just do it myself.”

“You might be surprised how easy it is to instruct people.”

“Like I said, I'm glad you're doing it. That shows a lot of smarts and patience. Let's hope you get promoted instead of replaced, yeah?”

“Yeah, let's hope.”

“Well, got to run! Keep up the good work Crew-Woman Rin!”

Rin gave him a little smile, “You too, Crew-Man Danger.”

What a weird guy.



I can't get over how strange the decision making process is around here. On the one hand we're all given a great amount of latitude to do stuff. The crew make their own decisions and judgments. But then, when “bigger” decisions are made, the captain treats everyone like we're incompetent and inert.

I suspect this attitude trickles down from the higher-ups, because I've been noticing it with all the officers, and even some of the senior crew recently. I wonder, is this even more pronounced at the administrative level of ISAC? A gradient usually points to a source, like following a river upstream.

I don't necessarily disagree with the decisions that are being made, but the process is a silly waste of time. Every feature of the Armstrong just screams “design by committee!” They probably sat for weeks pouring over the details, only to miss the fact that the towels won't dry in the bathroom, and you have to hang them up in the night-comp. There's a million silly things like that, and it's driving me crazy. Even a first-year architect would notice this kind of stuff!

This mission is the same way. It must be a microcosm of the ISAC culture. The Captain is the authority, but she can't be bothered to take responsibility when things go wrong. That and there's no way to hold the Captain responsible for her choices, or express discontent in a productive way. So instead everyone weighs in, and then we go with what the Captain wanted all along. We have too few probes, but instead of saving them we spend a few on each clearly barren world we come across. The captain wants to forego the transfer warning, so the compromise is making smaller transfers, which are only slightly less disruptive and waste a ton of time!

I just can't believe that an organization can run like this at all. If I tried to shirk all responsibilities... well, I don't know what would happen actually, but it would be bad. You can't just punish the victims and expect the perpetrators to notice. It's madness.


“Your move” said Ando.

They had set up the game board in the Rec-Comp and were playing chess. Rin had never been very good at chess, but the game was going fairly well. They were both taking back moves on request, and several severe blunders had been sidestepped in the friendly competition. In the other corner of the tiny room Markus and Buck were talking. Not laboring to be secret meant that all three of them -- four if you counted Ando -- were sharing one odd disjointed conversation.

Markus said “Really, I'll be glad to have a break.”

“Not that we have any choice.” Put in Buck.

Rin pushed a pawn forward in what she suspected was a desperately safe move. The strategy of making un-impeachable and uninteresting plays had worked for her so far. “Your turn” she said unnecessarily. Ando put his hand to his chin in a mime of thoughtful contemplation. The geometry of his hands and head was such that this required him to tilt his head back comically. Rin had seen this gesture before. “Is that 'thinking' gesture the same every time?” she asked.

“I try to vary the specifics to keep it fresh. Does it appear unnatural to you?” Ando responded.

“Well, would you rather work, or sleep?” Asked Markus.

Rin wrinkled her nose in concentration. “It's a very theatrical gesture.”

“Oh totally sleep, but it's just annoying to be useless.” answered Buck.

Rin glanced at the two sitting at the other table, “Who's useless?” She gave Buck a sly grin. “I mean, besides you obviously.”

“We all are! Except for ro-boy there.” said Buck

“Oh come on Buck.” said Markus.

“Well,” said Rin, “we all have jobs to do, I don't see why Ando shouldn't.”

“But that's just it!” Buck leaned forward, “That's how it always starts!” His eyes grew wide, “The robot uprising!” He stared accusingly at Ando.

“Your turn Rin.” said Ando. Then he turned to Buck, “Are you making a joke? Or leveling an accusation of mutiny? I have trouble distinguishing.”

Rin laughed, “See Buck! That's what a good joke sounds like!”

“No, I am in earnest.” Ando stated.

Buck rolled his eyes, “I'm joking Ando. It's just, now that the survey is almost done, and with you and Molly doing most of the maintenance, we aren't needed any more.” Buck gestured with his thumb back and forth between himself and Markus. Rin felt slightly left out. She would be going into RAS with the rest of them.

“I thought,” said Rin distractedly as she contemplated her move “that we were going into RAS to save on HAF.”

“Well yeah, but they'd never put me under if the bots weren't doing maintenance. I'm on the primary crew!”

“Oh I get it” chuckled Markus, “You're just feeling elitist. Can't be lumped with the secondaries. I understand. Thanks for the compliment.”

Buck looked slightly hurt, “Come on Mark. You've been prime before. This isn't how things work.”

Rin moved her only surviving Knight into a better position. At least... it looked better. “Your turn Ando. Markus is right though, wouldn't you rather have time off than patrol the pipes for a month?”

Buck didn't answer. Rin wondered if he was sulking. Then she heard the snap of a card on the table and realized that he and Markus had resumed their card game. She and Ando continued their chess game in silence. It was fairly even right up to the end when, through apparent dumb luck, Rin was handed a fantastic fork of Ando's rook against his king. After that -- and realizing that a great deal of take-backs would be required to avoid the situation -- the game ended quickly. Rin could hardly believe she had won.

Suddenly, she was struck with an insulting intuition “You let me win, didn't you?”

“I believe we both took back several bad moves.” Ando replied calmly. His face was placid.

“Yeah, but why didn't you see that fork coming?”

“I am not optimized for chess playing. As you may have noticed, I'm not much better than you.”

“But how can that be? You're a computer right? Can't you just, load a chess playing program into your brain or something?”

Ando sidestepped the question, “Did you know that Markus is a world rated chess player?”

Rin smiled, “Heh, just the special chess they play on the Armstrong.”

“No, they play that because Markus can beat anyone here at the normal game.”

“Not without trying.” Markus added.

“So what?”

“Would you have appreciated it if I asked Markus for advice on which moves to make?”

“Well, no. But I see where this is going. Your programming is part of you.”

“I can reveal without saying too much” said Ando, smiling brightly, “that there is no chess programing involved in my central decision making.”

“So, if you wanted to get better at Chess, you'd have to practice or study or something?”

“Correct. I doubt you would get a lobotomy, even if you believed it would make you excellent at playing chess.”

“Of course not.”

“For me, having my core processes changed is akin to a lobotomy. I'm not the same person afterword.”

“And running a chess program on the side would be cheating.”

Ando's face resumed its neutral expression “It feels like cheating to me, yes.”

Markus put his cards down and turned in his seat. “So when you took those certification classes, you were actually learning stuff?”


“You can't just, download a 'professional spaceman' program or something?” Markus asked quizzically.

“Unfortunately, I cannot divulge my internal programming or capabilities. But I can say that such a process might drive me insane.”

“Ando,” Buck put in, “you're the weirdest bot I've ever heard of.”

Ando's face was replaced by a question mark. “Would you do it, crewman Markus?”

Rin knew that Buck would have fired off some quip if this were directed at him, but Markus sat thoughtfully for a moment. “Choose between being perfectly competent, or perfectly sane?” He shook his head, “Got me Ando, I don't know.”

“Do you not find the process of learning, practicing, and working enjoyable?” asked Ando. Rin had never seen him this aggressive in an argument. Or maybe he was just genuinely curious. How could you tell?

“Well, yeah, when it's not boring stuff like doing rounds. Say, do you get bored Ando?”

“Yes, I believe I do.”

Markus nodded silently to himself, and Ando did not elaborate.

Buck rose to his feet “Well, I've got some enjoyable duties to finish up before we're all boxed like popsicles. Take care everyone, you too Ando.” As he backed out of the room he shot Rin a wink.

Ando also stood, “Thank you for the game Rin. I enjoyed it. I should begin my rounds now.”

“Yeah, thanks. Or,” Rin's tongue stumbled “you're welcome.”

Rin rolled up the board and put away the pieces in their plastic tube. She could hear Markus re-shuffling the deck behind her.

“And how do you feel about RAS Miss Rin?” his voice was so sudden it startled her.

“Oh, same as usual I guess. It's better than being bored for weeks on end.”

“But not as good as having interesting duties.”

“Not much fun, no. A nap is fine, but a two month nap is just disorienting.”

Markus put away the deck and walked over to the table where Rin was sitting. “Personally I find it fascinating.” he said, resting his chin on his palm and looking out the window. “The dreams, the changes that go on while I sleep in safety. It's almost like time travel if you think about it.”

“Wait, you have dreams?”

“I understand most people can't remember them. The drugs I suppose. A mixed blessing. Some of them are truly terrifying, and you can't wake up no matter how hard you try.”

“That must be horrible.” Rin shuddered. “I'm sorry.”

“There are good ones too. Flying freely among huge trees, cups of water as large as the ocean that you can drink dry, fiery little sprites who will grant you wishes, a tiny garden of perfect roses.”

“You must have a wonderful imagination.” Said Rin. She was sad now that she hadn't discovered the fascinating side of Markus until just before the mission was over. It was like finding a lovely nook in the school library just before graduating.

“Like I said, it's mixed. I won't tell you about the nightmares, but they are interesting as well. You can learn a lot about yourself by what happens to you in your dreams.”

They sat for a while in silence. Markus still stared out the window. Rin sat pondering the tube filled with magnetic chess pieces. They sat in stasis, encapsulated until they were needed. Finally Markus turned to Rin. He looked her dead in the eye, a gaze that made her heart skip a beat.

“It's been a pleasure. Perhaps we can continue this conversation some other time?”

Rin considered responding “In your dreams!” but the pun wasn't worth the possible offense. Instead she merely said “Yes. Let's.”


Rin was hungry. Entering RAS required a specially tuned diet. In this case “specially tuned” meant drinking gel for three days straight. The stuff was inert in every way. In its base state it was nutritionless, colorless, and odorless. The diet prep gel had been mixed with sugar and artificial flavors to keep it from tasting like room temperature egg whites. The label on the package said “orange flavored.” The crew each had their own favorite analogy for the stuff, most involving bodily fluids. Rin's favorite was “someone sucked on an air freshener and then drooled into an IV bag”. Mostly, it was like drinking runny snot. Whatever the case, it wasn't very filling or satisfying.

Rin was sitting on the RAS prep table, waiting for Dr. Fournier to prepare the injections. Now that the moment was arriving, Rin had remembered the panic she felt when she came out of the RAS the last time. It was one thing to lose your memory. It was quite another to realize that you were about to lose your memory before it happened.

“So, how far back does the amnesia go?”

Would she even remember this conversation? She wondered. What else had she forgotten?

Dr. Fournier had retrieved an octopus tangle of slender clear plastic tubes. In the low gravity they looped and floated crazily, like hair underwater. “Two hours from time of injection.” He took a step over to the table, and Rin had to twist around to keep looking at him.

“How often do you say that, and people don't remember, and you tell them again?”

“It varies.” He looked up at her for a moment, before attaching one of the tubes to a clip on the table. “You, for example, did not ask me last time.”

The tubes each ended in a little clear bulb pierced by three holes. The smallest of the bulbs were barely an eighth of an inch across. There were a couple of sections with two bulbs, but most had only one. Rin would be fully sedated before the final hookups were made, and they would be removed before she awoke. Still, she couldn't help but feel a bit squeamish.

“I thought it was one of the ground crew who did the RAS prep.”

“I like to prep my own charges.”

Rin had gone over the events leading up to the last time she was sedated. She had been driven to the campus medical center and waited for a while. Why was it that she was always waiting for doctors? Couldn't they keep a schedule? Did they just like having a backlog so that they could move from patient to patient without a pause? The last thing she remembered, unsettlingly, was walking down a corridor and the smell of disinfectant.

Since she had nothing to go on after that, her brain had helpfully filled in the gap with an invented history. In her mind's eye she was hit with a tranquilizer dart in the neck, and collapsed to the floor. An ugly orderly emerged from the shadows, dragged her unconscious form to a shipping dock, and unceremoniously folded her into a giant vial. The vial was shipped to a huge bottling factory, where thousands of the things were flooded with gel and sent off to international space expeditions around the world. She had a vivid image of the giant vial just after her on the assembly line, filled with the coffee grounds for the trip. Being saturated with RAS gel was a decent explanation of the coffee's flavor.

This whole scenario was utterly absurd of course. However, it was less terrifying than a gaping hole in her history, so Rin had let it stand. Occasionally the thought of it would make her chuckle to herself as she did some mundane task aboard the ship. There were also occasional nightmares. The most common one involved turning over and over, looking out the little window, trying to move her arm through the gel fast enough to break the glass, slowly drowning.

“So it's always two hours exactly? What if someone is really big? Does it take a long time for the drugs to affect them?”

“The cognitive disjunction is inconsistent. It varies between patients and events. Your low body mass has very little to do with it.” He laid the tubes along the table with the casual negligence of a bored expert and moved to the other side.

Rin was wearing a medical gown, the kind that is not quite large enough to wrap all the way around a normal person. Fortunately, Rin's “low body mass” made up for it, and she was fully covered. This was good, because the RAS bay was probably the coldest place in the ship. Unfortunately, she was still wearing what was essentially an uncomfortable paper dress. Also, talking to a taciturn man who was about to inject her with amnesia drugs and then stick tubes in her ears.

“Are these gowns reused?”

“Yes, we clean and disinfect them between RAS events.”

“Do you know who used this one last time?”

Dr. Fournier merely looked up at her for a long moment before finishing attaching the tubes to the table. “The cavity purge manifold is new every time.” he said with a sudden charming smile, “If that's any comfort.”

“But wait!” said Rin, suddenly confused “Why not re-use the tubes and toss the gown! The manifold ...”

Rin could never remember completing the sentence, or Fournier's response. The only scrap she had after this was Cash yelling something as he slid down the ladder. Yelling, and sliding, forever.



“Wait, six graves. I was in one of the RAS pods. The other five RAS pods were full. Which still leaves two people unaccounted for.”

“Crewman Beringer was killed by native fauna and his companion was not able to recover his body. Captain Wheeler is missing and presumed dead.”

Rin looked out over the gnarled landscape of jagged hills clad in dense hanging green. Where the landscape dipped down into hollows the air was jaundiced, like fog made of pollen. Twisted tree trunks reached out of the ground, distant from one another. They ended in spikes, like tentacles. These were covered in the same ultra-shag of green as everything else.

The air was heavy. It stank of damp compost and mud. There was also a bitter smell, like scorched grass.

The sky was a deep, impossibly pure blue. Directly overhead the color was deep to the point of being slightly dark. Midway down the sky it was a more familiar and conventional blue. At the horizon it was tinged by the pale yellow haze.

Rin sat panting on one of the cargo containers arranged around the now-cold fire pit.

“How did we get here?” She asked the ground in front of her.

Ando walked over to the edge of the rocky plateau and looked down into the valley below them, where a broad river crept silently between the hills. “I don't know the exact details of the accident. Accounts from the officers varied and they fought frequently over who should bear the blame. The ship spent several days orbiting this world. This is obviously a spectacular find. While it's quite different from Earth, this planet is far more Earth-like than anything previously discovered.”

Rin nodded, not so much in agreement but trying to hurry the robot along his story. This discovery would be much more impressive if she wasn't alone, hungry, and stranded unknown light years from the rest of humanity. A zing-pop sounded, and Rin found herself clutching a tingling welt on her forearm. Fantastic. Complete with alien mosquitoes.

“The ship was brought into low orbit for an atmospheric sample,” Ando continued. “I gather this 'dipping' maneuver isn't used often. Only one of the officers had performed it before. The ship was slowed relative to the planet and then allowed to fall far enough to take in some samples. The ship was supposed to transfer away once the sample was secure.”

“What good is a sample of upper atmosphere? Wouldn't it just be ozone or whatever?” Everything about this was irritating to her. Did they really crash on a planet because they were collecting data they didn't need?

“I don't know.”

“Wait. Better question... Why didn't we just drop some drones? Isn't this exactly what drones are for?”

“We were out of drones. The unusual number of interesting or noteworthy planets on this mission managed to deplete our supply. This star system was to be our last before returning home. The captain was out of drones, and she didn't want to go back to earth with nothing more than pictures.”

“Okay. I guess that makes sense,” Rin admitted grudgingly. She supposed there could be value in grabbing a couple of handfuls of alien air before heading home, although it all seemed kind of pointlessly risky now that they had been grounded and everyone was dead.

“The exit transfer was botched. We were so low that the line of projection intersected with the planet's atmosphere.”

“You know more about that than I do. I assume this screwed up the jump?”

“Yes. The plan was to surf the pocket of this planet until we recovered our speed, and then transfer home. When our line of movement intersected the atmosphere, the exit point was curved towards the planet. We found ourselves in the upper atmosphere, instead of at high-orbit distance.”

“You couldn't just transfer again? A quick-fire panic transfer straight up would have fixed it.”

“Even a quick transfer takes an hour of charging time at maximum output, and transferring to a higher point on the gravity well would take even longer. Once we arrived in the upper atmosphere, there was no way to avoid re-entry.”

“Is it still called re-entry if you've never been to the planet before?”

“Judging by how others have used the word recently, yes.”

“Fair enough. What about the thrusters? Couldn't they get us back into orbit?”

“No. Even at full fuel, with all arms delivering maximum sustained thrust, the ship has only a fraction of the power needed to overcome planetary gravity. These are small units for maintaining rotation and orienting the ship. They're not really designed for course correction. Even using nearly all of the fuel on board, the pilot was only just able to slow our descent enough to keep the ship from landing at lethal speeds. The atmosphere here is thicker than on Earth, which helped. By keeping the ship oriented sideways during the descent, we were able to brake against the thickening air, which brought us down to speeds that could be handled by thrusters. We landed hard, and a lot of things were broken, but everyone survived the impact and the ship remained in one piece.”

Rin almost asked again for food, but then remembered there wasn't any. “Impressive that the ship didn't burn up. What was broken?”

“The hull of the ship is coated in heat-resistant tiles, probably to protect it during dipping maneuvers. Some systems were incinerated on the way down. The biggest loss was that of the oxygen tanks. They were unshielded, and ruptured in the heat. Also lost was a tank of waste water. The drone launching bay was crushed when we landed. All of the starboard side communications gear was destroyed, although the officers said there were redundant systems on the port side.”

“No oxygen? So even if the ship was airborne again we would all suffocate?”

“Yes,” Ando said. His mouth turned down into a frown and his eyebrows angled up. “I'm very sorry you're in this position.”

Rin closed her eyes and threw herself sideways on the container, then leapt up with a yelp. The metal was searing hot. On closer inspection, it had several triangular puncture holes through the honeycomb walls.

She wanted this to be a prank. Or some sort of strange psychological test conducted by ISAC. Maybe the crew would jump out and yell “gotcha”. Or people in lab coats would open a door somewhere and let her know she could go home. But this was really happening. She was here. She wiped her nose with her sleeve, and then resolved instead to ignore it. If her nose was going to run, let it. A whistle like a falling bomb pierced the background rustle. It was impossible to determine how far away it was.

“It's not safe to sleep there,” Ando said. “The sun is much brighter here than on Earth, which also means more UV radiation. The rest of the crew suffered severe sunburns from overexposure. Also, the insect life here is aggressive. You should sleep on the ship.”

“I thought my eyes were just having trouble adjusting to the outside light. Is it really brighter here?”

“Yes. Significantly. It actually overloads my eyes from some angles, and I'm partially blind here during the day. My eyes were designed to work within Earth lighting, obviously. I can see better than you in the dark, but I don't have the range to process light-colored surfaces during the day on this planet. I can't see the shape of the ship properly, for instance. It's just a wall of pure white.”

Rin sat up. “I hate this planet,” she said firmly.

“You are not the first person to say that.”

“So there's really nothing to eat?” she said. She knew Ando wasn't hiding food from her, but she just couldn't imagine herself in a situation where food did not exist. “Isn't there something left on the ship maybe? This planet looks lush. Isn't there anything here?”

“The ship provisions are gone. Everyone scoured the ship, opening non-food containers, hoping they had been miss-labeled. They discovered a few cases of salt and soy-sauce concentrate. Eating these produced vomiting, and was abandoned. When the provisions ran out completely, Doctor Fournier foraged for food. He found some small brown fruit hanging from the trees. He became violently ill after eating it, and died two days later. He was the last one alive, aside from the people sedated in the RAS bay.”

“So did you just wake me up so you could watch me die?” Rin said. She realized it wasn't really fair to be angry at Ando. He didn't crash the ship. But she was irritable. She felt like all she needed was a few mouthfuls and she'd be able to think straight again.

“No. We decided to wake you up so we could ask you a question.”

“We?” Rin asked hopefully. Didn't Ando say everyone else was dead? Who else was there?

“Molly and myself.”

“Oh right. I keep forgetting about her. Where is she?”

“She's inside, taking care of the power plant.”

Rin looked back to the ship, which was leaning against the cliff face. Drapes of hanging grass reached down the cliff and rested against the hull. It was as if the planet had placed a mossy hand over the ship, claiming it. “Of course. The ship has power. I should have realized someone must have been tending it.”

“If you're ready, we can go back inside and talk to her.”

Rin nodded, and followed Ando back to the ship. They climbed up into the airlock, cycled the doors, and then headed up into the power plant. Partway up the ladder Rin became dizzy and disoriented. She was used to being able to ascend the ladder with a few gentle shoves, getting lighter as she climbed. Now her weight was staying the same, which was making her feel strangely heavier, even though her weight was the same. She looked down and realized it was a very long drop to the bottom of the ladder. It was a fifteen meter climb, and she was sweating and panting by the time she reached the top.

Molly was working in the glowbox, which was the informal name given to the monitoring station in the power plant. It was a small collection of screens in front of a pair of horizontal bars padded with foam. Gravity was normally too low in here for a proper chair, and anyone using the controls would end up shoving themselves away as they worked. In this low-grav situation, the operator could hook one or both legs around the bars so they could hold themselves still while they typed, or turned dials, or whatever it was they did.

While the rest of the power plant was basically just a tangle of dark crawlspaces to let personnel get to the machinery, the glowbox was well-lit and comfortable. A healthy sounding hum emanated from the surrounding machinery.

“What is this bullshit?” Rin said when she saw Molly.

Molly's jumpsuit had been modified. The arms and midriff had been removed, and the legs had been cut off. The cuts were uneven, and hadn't been properly hemmed afterward, so the fabric had begun to unravel in places. Molly looked more like a sexbot now, although the outfit had a sort of sad, desperate comedy about it.

“I'm sorry you've been placed in this uncomfortable situation,” Molly said. “Please let me know if I can make you more comfortable.”

“What's with your outfit?” Rin asked once she'd caught her breath. “You look like a cross between a prostitute and a hobo.”

“I'm sorry if it makes you-”

“Uncomfortable, yes. I know,” Rin said impatiently. “What happened?”

“After the rest of the crew died, Doctor Fournier was left alone for a number of weeks. He eventually became very depressed and lonely.”

“Okay. Forget I asked,” Rin said. “I see where this is going.” Rin lay down on her back and regarded the pipes overhead. She was used to gently bouncing in place here, but now the floor had an iron grip.

“Would it make you more comfortable to replace this outfit?” Molly asked.

“Whatever you want,” Rin said dismissively. “No, actually do that. Yes. Put some clothes on. But first, let's talk about whatever you woke me up for.”

Ando stood forward. “I am sorry you're in this situation. I know it's painful and frightening for you. Molly and I have been debating what to do about the remaining people on board, and so we woke you up to settle things for us.”

“What's the question?” Rin asked.

“Do you regret that I woke you up?”

“Well, yeah,” Rin said. “Obviously. Any other dumb questions?”

Ando displayed a new expression. His eyes became larger circles and his eyebrows lifted. He was surprised. “I see. That's not the answer I expected, but it does settle our dispute. It also leads to another question. Would it be preferable to kill the remaining crew members now, or wait for them to die of natural causes?”

Rin sat up. Was Ando really talking about killing people? Had the robots gone nuts?

In addition to Molly's new outfit, the robots looked different now. Ando's plastic casing was covered in scuff marks and dirt. Molly's hair had been tangled up and now stuck out like she had a permanent case of bed head. The skin on her arms had been damaged, which ruined the already tenuous illusion of them being made of flesh. There was no redness, no blood, and no scabbing around the injuries. It was just flesh-color rubber that had been gouged and no longer fit together seamlessly.

Taking it all in, they suddenly seemed very unsettling.

Rin wanted to be very, very careful now. If the robots were dangerous, she didn't want to provoke them. How strong were they? How fast? If they decided to kill her, would she be able to defend herself? Rin spoke with the calmest voice she could manage, “Why do you suggest killing the other members of the crew?”

“If they aren't going to regain consciousness, then there doesn't seem to be any reason to prolong their lives,” Ando said. “I was thinking it would be more respectful to terminate them before they became brain damaged. It will probably take months for them to reach full brain death or organ failure in their current state, by which time you will have already died. It seems preferable for them to die now so that you can give them a proper burial before you die.”

Rin's mouth went dry. She found herself inching back towards the ladder. “What about me? Are you considering killing me?”

“That's up to you,” Ando said. “You certainly seem able to see to it yourself, but if you need help we're willing to give it.”

“You're expecting me to kill myself?”

“I don't know. I've never interacted with humans in these circumstances, and I understand humans can became irrational under duress. I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but I also don't want to prolong your suffering. If I had known that you would have preferred to stay asleep, we would not have woken you.”

Rin paused at this. It was so hard to understand these two. Molly was creepier than ever with her rubbery expressionless face. Ando was some kind of robotic demon child, his face displaying simple emoticons while he talked about snuffing out the crew. “Help me understand this,” she said. “What was it you were arguing about?”

“Molly believed that humans would rather die peacefully in their sleep, rather than slowly dying of starvation. I believed that humans would, if given the choice, prefer to be woken up so they could fight for their survival, even if the odds were hopeless and even if the struggle would result in a net increase in human misery and suffering.”

“You were right,” Rin said. “We generally prefer to have a fighting chance. Or the chance to fight, anyway.”

“And yet you regret that I awoke you.”

Rin opened her mouth, closed it again, and then shook her head in frustration. As creepy and robotic as Ando seemed, she was still expecting him to understand things the way a human would. She couldn't shake the notion that she wouldn't have this problem if Ando wasn't person-shaped. “I just regret finding myself in this situation. I'd still rather be awake than just...” Her voice trailed off at the end. Was this really true?

She didn't know if she should cry, or scream, or dive down the ladder shaft and kill herself. Her head was so muddled. She couldn't think straight. This would be more bearable if she could just get a bit of caffeine.

“I know where I can get some food!” she shouted. She forced herself onto her feet and returned to the ladder. She climbed up through the spine. The ship was technically inverted. Deck one was on the bottom, and deck eight was at the top. Worse, the lower decks -- which were now above the upper decks -- would be oriented upside down.

She reached the top and disembarked onto the former ceiling. The crew area was a disaster. Unsecured gear littered the floor. Bedding was strewn around, along with clothing. The chairs in the daycomp were immovable and bolted to the deck, which meant they now hung surreally from the ceiling. The lockers had been pulled from the walls and dumped out.

“No!” Rin growled.

Two of the lockers were missing. Rin remembered that these were outside, being used as grave markers. She sorted through them and found her locker. It contained her one set of civilian clothes that she'd worn to ISAC the day before launch. She recovered her tel.

The candy was gone.

“Who ate my chocolate?” she said quietly through clenched teeth. Her hands were clenched into fists. Then she remembered that whoever took it was probably buried in a shallow grave in front of the ship. She was both glad that justice was served, and ashamed that she would be glad. Also, the fact that they died made the theft more pointless. The food went to waste.

“I'm sorry Rin,” Ando said. He'd apparently followed her up. “I don't know who found your food. It was never distributed.”

“So whoever took it didn't share. There aren't any wrappers here. Some bastard took my food and ate it in secret. Asshole.”


Rin slept in the night compartment on deck one, helping herself to the captain's bunk. It smelled like her mom's shoe closet, like feet and leather and the vague crayon scent of makeup. Her sleep was punctuated by strange groans and squeals. Rin would have dismissed them as the ship settling, or cooling from the heat of the day. Unfortunately, the sounds seemed to be calling out and answering each-other. She slept fitfully.

She awoke to find it was light outside once more. Or still. She looked at her tel to check the time, but it was dark. The battery had died while it sat in her locker for several months.

She dragged herself into the officers' daycomp and dropped into one of the chairs. “I want coffee,” she muttered reflexively.

Ando entered and regarded her with his default neutral face.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“It's two in the morning according to Greenwich Mean Time.”

Rin glared at the freakish landscape outside the portal. “I mean here. Is it morning or afternoon or what?”

“The day cycle here is thirty-two hours and sixteen minutes long. At this longitude and at this time of year, daylight lasts nineteen hours. If we assume that the day begins at sunrise, then we're in the thirteenth hour. It's currently late afternoon, and the sun will go down in six more hours.”

“I hate this planet.”

“I have brought Buck out of cold sleep. He is currently waiting for you in the rec room.”

“What? Why did you do that?”

“I'm sorry Rin. You said that the other humans would prefer to be woken. I thought that perhaps the companionship of another human would cheer you.”

“But why Buck?” She was grasping for time now, to get a chance to think. Somehow the thought of another person waiting for her to wake up was profoundly embarrassing. Especially Buck, of all people.

“Of the remaining crew, I had observed that you were most comfortable around crewman Buckley. You don't have to see him if...”

“No, that's alright Ando. Thank you. I'm just...” Rin sighed and drooped her head so that the heels of her hands rested over her eyes. She could feel her right forearm trembling. “Just give me a minute.”

Rin could hear the quiet hum of Ando changing position, but he didn't seem to be leaving the compartment. She didn't feel like talking to Buck. Didn't feel like standing up. Like moving at all. Maybe if she just sat very still she would die, and all of her problems would be solved. It seemed like the most straightforward solution.

A fuzzy clench of pain shot up through her left side. It felt like her heart and her gut were waging some kind of drawn out sniper war, and her stomach was caught in the crossfire. Every few minutes her body felt compelled to remind her that, yes, in fact, she was going to die if she didn't eat anything. Just throwing that out there. There's a bit of starving to death going on while you're moping with your oversized brain. Any time you want to do something about that would be splendid. Take your time. No rush. Another pang and Rin clenched her teeth. We'll just keep doing this until you keel over. Probably will get worse towards the end. Who knows. Looks like we're going to find out together.

“Looks like we're going to find out together.”

“Find out what?” Ando managed to sound confused.

“Buck and I. We're going to find out if there's anything to eat on this planet.”

“You know,” Buck's voice drifted in from the next room, “I'm right here. I can hear you and stuff. Are you going to walk in here? Are you decent? Can I have an audience with the queen of Shitworld?”

“No Buck, I'm totally naked.”

There was a clatter and a quick triple clomp and Buck's head poked through the doorway. “No you're not!” he declared with mock offense.

Rin tilted her head slightly to the side and gave him her best “Really?” glare.

They both held on to the mutual air of disgust for a moment before dissolving into laughter. Buck's was hearty with his head thrown back; Rin's, tired and rueful.

“Good to see you too Buck.”

Buck grabbed an overturned chair and pulled it up to the table. He was bigger than Rin had remembered. “Our mechanical friend tells me...” he leaned across the table like a traitor consorting with the enemy, and whispered with eyebrows raised, “we have landed on an alien woooorld.”

This brought a weak smile to Rin's face. It turned into a sigh as she plonked her forehead on the table. “Buuuuck.”


“I just want to die.”

“Well.” He was serious now, “That's not going to be much of a challenge. You look terrible by the way.”

“Thanks Buck.”

“I give you maybe twenty percent chance.”

“Of what?”

“Finishing that degree, or doing anything useful with your life really.”

“That high?”

“Well, you work hard, but you're not that bright, and now that your looks are shot...”

Rin could feel a prickle at the base of her skull. Her forehead was still resting on the table but the muscles in her neck had gone rigid. It was obvious what Buck was doing, of course, but it seemed to be working, so Rin played along.

“You want to run that by me again Bucky?”

“Now that I think on it, you don't really work that hard either.”

That did it. Rin was ready to go on the offensive. “And look who proved himself so useful that he got kicked off the primary crew to chill with us slackers!”

“Hey! I earned a break!”

“I know what you earn, and it's not much more than me!”

“Okay, good.” They were both standing now. Buck wore a grim grin. “Are you hungry?”

“God yes. Have you found anything?”

“No. Eight people starved to death. There won't be anything remotely edible on the ship. We need to scavenge.”

“But how will we...”

“Butts!” Buck shouted with childlike glee, “Hehe, Butts.”

Rin gave him the look again. She was going to wear it out quickly at this rate.

“Boil Underwater, Taste, Swill. B.U.T.S. Butts! Each stage is a test. You smell the water. If it seems okay, you taste the water, just a little and spit it out. Poison will make your mouth tingle, tongue swell, taste horrible, that kind of thing. If it passes the taste test, you swill it around your mouth for a few minutes looking for the same symptoms. After that, it's probably okay to swallow. That is, it probably won't kill you right away.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“There's lots of cert courses.”

Ando, who had been sitting quietly at the table this whole time, broke in, “Should I begin waking the others?”

There was a pause, after which Rin answered, “No, hold off a bit.”

“Yeah.” Buck put in “We should at least see if there's anything to eat. If not...” He let the sentence trail off.

Rin began to steel herself for the effort of rising to her feet. “Okay, anything else?”

“One more thing. It could get odd, the two of us alone I mean.” Buck looked to the side and scratched his head. His thick black hair was going to get really hot when he went outside. “I can't think of anyone else I'd rather starve to death with, and I know I joke around and stuff, but... Well, I just want you to know you can trust me. I'm not going to try anything.”

“So, you're not going to rape me in my sleep?” Buck trying to be tactful had put Rin off balance. Sarcasm seemed a safe haven. “Thanks, that's a real relief.”

“Don't mention it.”


Buck started immediately. He took a spare jumpsuit and made a kind of headband-cum-cape out of it. “Should keep the sun off my neck anyway. Be back soon, or I'll have to come getcha!” He delivered this with an infuriatingly lecherous grin. Then he was gone out the airlock.

Rin sulked for a few more minutes until her hunger drove her to action. She took one of the many water bottles scattered around the ship and filled it in the shower because she didn't want to climb all eight decks to try to fill it in the upside-down galley. She grabbed a knife -- obviously swiped from the galley -- that had been inexplicably left in the officers' daycomp and headed for the airlock. Her soft white canvas shoes felt stiff and cold, like a corpse. She hadn't worn them since leaving earth. People stuck to wearing socks in low-gravity situations to reduce the hazard of inadvertent kicks to the face.

“Be careful. It's very hot.” Ando warned, “The elongated daylight cycle makes temperatures more extreme. We spend more time gathering heat during the day, and more time losing heat at night.”

“So how hot is it?”

“Forty-three degrees.”

“That's not... Oh... What is it in Fahrenheit?”

“One hundred and nine,” Ando said as he followed her into the airlock.

Rin sighed and cycled the airlock doors.

Her tongue lolled out as soon as she tasted the air. It felt like it was burning her lungs. The sun fell on her face and she began cursing. She staggered back, blinking.

“Can I help?” Ando asked.

“Give me a second. I let the sun hit me in the eye and now I can't see. Damn, but that is bright. It hurts.”

“It will also give you sunburn if you're not careful.”

“I guess I shouldn't expect us to have sunscreen and sunglasses onboard,” she grumbled.

“I wouldn't think so. However, I have made you a hat. This way.”

“A hat? Out of what?”

Rin followed Ando over to the fire pit. She considered sitting on one of the containers, but she burned her fingers on the metal surface and decided that if she was going to sit she should go back inside. Ando bent by one of the containers, and pulled out a ridiculously broad grass hat. It was woven like a conical Asian peasant's hat, and appeared to be made from the long grassy leaves which covered the trees.

Ando held it out to her. “Engineer Orley invented them. I learned how from watching him.”

Rin took it lightly in both hands and examined it for a moment before balancing it on her head. It didn't make the light any dimmer, but the shade took the edge off of the heat. Rin made a mental note to make a chin strap. The stupid thing would blow away like an umbrella the moment a breeze sprang up.

“They disintegrate after about a week.” continued Ando, “I made this one for you before I woke you up.”

“Thank you Ando. That was really... thoughtful of you.” Having the hat somehow made Rin feel prepared. It didn't change her situation, but damn if it wasn't good to have the sun off her face!

She stepped to the edge of the plateau and tried to shielded her eyes with one hand. As the hat was already blocking the sun, this didn't help, and she let her hand drop. This planet was just too bright. She looked down into the valley below. “Does this place have a name?” she asked.

“The rest of the crew just called it the fireplace.”

Rin coughed out a single note of laughter at the unexpected answer. “Not this hill. I mean this planet. Did anyone name it?”

“The captain initially announced that she was naming it Pandora. The crew followed this for a few days until they were enraged by the sunburns, insects, temperature variations, violent weather, and other inhospitable factors. They took to calling it Purgatory. When they were the only ones left, XO Dinapoli and Dr. Fournier called it Shitworld.”

“Very fitting. You know, for the most Earthlike planet ever discovered, it's not very Earthlike.” She chewed her lip and considered which way to go. “I don't suppose we have a compass on board, either?”

“Crewman Cash and Jacobs tried to make one using scrounged parts. It didn't work. Everyone said they'd built it wrong, but they insisted the planet lacked a stable magnetic pole.”

“Okay. I'm going to call this west,” she said, pointing to where the sun was headed. The ship was therefore east of the fireplace. The valley was west. She wanted to head into the valley but the direct route was recklessly steep, so she headed south. She followed the contour of the hill, going down as the opportunity presented itself.

“I don't suppose you have any instrumentation for keeping track of position and heading? I'm just worried about getting lost.”

“All of my navigation systems are GPS based. I've been working on using my visual mapping system to keep track of my location using landmarks. But I get a lot of stitching errors and orientation problems without GPS guidance.”

“I don't know what that means.”

“It means I can get lost too, particularly if we're traveling during the day when I'm partly blinded by glare.”

They walked on in silence. Occasional whistles and buzzing calls sang out, but Rin didn't see anything. She was struck twice more by the zing-pop bugs. They left a tingling stinging spot, but apparently didn't bite. Were they just bouncing off her? Rin noticed that hunger wasn't constant. Sometimes she would even forget how hungry she was. Then it would return, harass her thoughts for a while, and leave her alone again.

The ground was uneven and difficult. The vegetation was knee-deep, and sometimes large rocks lurked just below the surface of green leaves. She stumbled a few times before she learned to step slowly and carefully. She could hear things scurrying away as she approached. Something was moving just below the knee-high canopy, but she never saw anything directly. She could only see the plants shaking with their movements.

“Be cautious,” Ando said. “Some of the wildlife can be very aggressive. The really big animals usually only come out in the morning hours, but sometimes they're active near sunset.”

“Big animals?” Rin put her hand on the leg pocket where she'd stashed the knife. “How big?”

“The largest animal observed so far was horse-sized, although most of the danger comes from the smaller creatures.”

Rin noticed that something else had trampled the plants before her, and until now she had assumed she was following a path beaten by one of her shipmates. She looked back up the hill doubtfully. Had this path been made by a human? A zing-pop creature bit Rin's leg right through her clothes. This was going to be a long walk.

The hill leveled out as they reached the bottom of the valley. The trees -- or tree-trunks, or whatever they were -- grew here in respectable numbers. Rin passed several of these, but kept her distance. Their general spiky shape gave them an unwholesome look. They had seemed small when she looked down on them from the plateau, but up close they were imposing. The trunks sometimes reached ten meters into the air. Some grew close together, forming claw-like clusters, while others stood alone. Some wore furry leaves, while other held up great curtains of wet, heavy grass.

Rin saw a row of small, shriveled brown lumps hanging from the underside of a sagging trunk. Some were the size of a prune, while a few were fist-sized. They looked like huge raisins to Rin, and the thought made her mouth water. She took a few cautious steps towards the tree and reached out to touch one of them.

“Don't eat those!” Ando said. He didn't quite “shout” the way a human would, but just took a normal stressed voice and projected it at higher volume. She jerked her hand back in surprise.

“I'm just getting samples.” she snapped. She didn't appreciate being startled.

“Fournier ate those before he died. It was the last thing he ate, and the only alien plant ever consumed by a human.”

“Well, maybe he got a rotten one. We've at least got to test them scientifically. I'm not going to jam it in my mouth!” Rin delivered this with a fierce conviction borne by having just contemplated doing this very thing. She cut down a fruit and placed it carefully in her jumpsuit's right-hand pocket.

“I wonder?” She asked, looking at a much larger tree tree growing all by itself. After hiking over to it -- and getting two more zipper stings for her trouble -- she cut one of these fruit as well, and put them in her left pocket. “Help me remember: leafy lone left. grassy group right.”

“What are we remembering?” Ando's face showed confusion.

“The fruit. Which goes to which.” They began to trudge back toward camp.

“Funny thing about this fruit,” she said. “I saw them growing on those tall, lone trunks with leaves all over them. I also saw them on the short grass-covered trees that grow in clusters. Now, maybe those are the same sort of tree at different ages. But all of the trees around here fall into one of those two categories, with nothing in between. Which tells me that we're looking at two different species of tree. Don't you think it's strange that two different species of tree would have the exact same fruit growing on it?”

“I know you're hungry Rin, but please don't convince yourself to eat that fruit. Fournier died an excruciating death.”

“You're missing the point. It's possible that one of these is poisonous, and the other is just fine. Do you know which kind of tree Fournier picked the fruit from?”

“I do not.”

“Some bot you are, don't you have a photographic memory?”

“If I stored video footage of everything I saw, it would rapidly overwhelm my data storage. In addition, this is not how I store memories.”


“Yes, it is 'complicated'.” Here Ando raised both hands and curled his index fingers.

Rin giggled “You did the air quotes!”

“Did I not make the gesture correctly?”

“Yes! I mean, no, it was perfect. I just didn't expect you to” Here she formed her own air quotes, “'do it.'”

“I would 'do it' with you any day Rin.”

“Hah! You made a joke!”

“Yes, Lieutenant Dixon instructed me on the execution. Apparently this class of joke has a rigorously defined procedure.”

“Dixon! Who would have thought?”

“Did you like it.”

“You made a joke Ando! It made me laugh! Good job.”

Rin smiled all the way back to the ship. They gathered a few other bits of shrubs, flowers, and a section of succulent vine of some sort. Rin noticed a growing odor as they were gathering the shrubs. It smelled like a dissecting lab, or day old chicken fat, or maybe like a gas station. It lingered like a bad taste, wafting unpredictably.

“Man that stinks.” Rin said. “Can you smell that?”

“The crew often commented on the odor of the planet. I have no olfactory analogue.”

“Yeah, lucky you.”


They met Buck back inside the airlock. “Way too hot out there.” he commented.

“Yeah.” was all Rin could manage. It was half a word, and half a sigh of relief to be back inside the heat shielded hull.

“You want to do the cooking or take the notes?” Buck was already headed off toward the kitchen.

“Can't you do both? I'm beat.” Rin had never felt so tired in her life. The heat and exercise had drained the last of her reserves. She began to feel sick. “In fact, oh no.” Rin fell to her knees.

Dry heaving when you're dehydrated, too weak to stand, and haven't eaten anything in six months is no party. Rin didn't enjoy it at all, but it didn't last long. Buck brought her a cup of water. A short time later Ando arrived with the first aid kit. Rin wondered, during the brief window of post-vomiting clarity, what he was planning on doing with it. She checked herself for blood, just to make sure she hadn't cut herself accidentally on the knife, or something. Nope.

Buck left her sitting on the deck leaning on the sloping bulkhead. The airlock took up a good portion of the deck here, and the corridor made a couple of turns in both directions to get around it. Rin was alone. She drank occasionally from the water bottle, and cursed herself for not drinking more when she was outside. The thought of finding something edible had filled her mind at the time. In retrospect, she was probably very close to passing out from dehydration. That would have killed her, especially in her weakened state.

Well, at least she had brought back samples. Maybe one of them would prove edible. Or at least not immediately fatal. Rin felt that she could eat a handful of dirt at this point, just to have something to digest. But no, that would probably kill her too. Who knows what the soil around here was filled with. Arsenic no doubt.

“Fuck me.” She pronounced to no one in particular.

Rin decided it was high time she got off her butt. Prying herself up and using the wall as support she made her shaky way back along the ship to the officers' rec room. Buck had laid out the alien plant collection on a side board, and was busy writing in a notebook.

“Is that the captain's log?” Rin asked, incredulous.

“I figured she wouldn't be needing it.”

Rin noticed a movement in the corner of the room. Ando was standing at a counter working on something.

“Food heater, for warming slices of pizza.” Buck stated without looking up from the log. “I asked Ando to figure out how to boil water with it.”

“There is an operational manual in the drawer.” Ando stated, “Boiling water is one of the default functions.”

Rin sat heavily at the table. “It smells awful in here.”

“Don't sit down!” Buck had dropped the book and was staring at Rin out of the corner of his eye. “You'll kill us all!” He ran around in a tight circle with his hands in the air, bobbling his head ridiculously. “Aaaaaaaugh! Rin's doomed us all by sitting down. Noooooooo!”

“Fine, what do you want me to do.”

“You're the lady with the knife, start chopping this stuff up.” Buck bent to retrieve the notebook, “But don't mix them up and clean the knife in-between. Oh, and don't touch them, any of this stuff could be covered in contact poison. And try not to breathe. Or think.”

“Great. Do we have gloves?”

“Ando?” asked Buck with a flourish.

“There are gloves in the first aid kit, Rin.” Ando deadpanned. Or maybe that's how he always talked. As she opened the plastic kit and pulled out a couple plastic gloves, Rin considered that Ando might possibly be the world's first perfect plastic comedy straight-man.


The first taste was the worst.

It didn't taste the worst of course, but it was the most frightening. All of the precautions, the gloves and boiling and sealed samples, were getting to Rin's head. Ando had pulled some water sample tubes out of the reactor equipment storage. After chopping and boiling each sample -- some of the samples smelled horrible, while others were tantalizingly appetizing -- they sealed some of the water and pulp in a glass sample tube, carefully labeled it, and set it aside. The process of boiling down all the plants had taken over three hours, but Rin felt oddly invigorated by the end.

Buck and Rin decided to take turns in a kind of culinary Russian roulette. Buck had made notes of what each plant had smelled like while it boiled, and they would each select the next one they wanted to try. That way the risk would be spread out, and they could test the best options first. Once they found something not-poisonous they would go out and gather a bunch more of that and have a decent meal of alien soup. But before they began, Buck made a confession.

“All that stuff about B.U.T.S? I made it all up. I mean, I'm pretty sure it will work, but I wanted you to know that you don't have to help with the testing part. Chances are something in here is going to be really deadly. Just saying.”

Rin sighed, “I'm past caring at this point Buck. It's a good plan. Let's just, take turns and hope for the best.”

“Okay... and Rin?”



Of course, actually going through with it went against all kinds of instincts. All of her training was against it: Don't put stuff in your mouth. Don't eat things if you don't know where they've been. Don't eat unfamiliar plants. Never eat something on a dare. Never touch unidentified chemicals. Never drink water from a test tube.

On the other hand, she was so hungry. They had brought the samples into the officers' head, so they could spit in the toilet and wash their mouths with the shower water. Drinking things in the bathroom was just one more taboo for the list. Rin popped open the first tube. This one had smelled like sage and melons when they had boiled it. She took a tiny sip, smeared it across her tongue, and spit in the toilet.

It tasted wonderful. Of course, that could have been her hunger talking, but it was all she could do not to chug the whole tube down. It was like a sip of herbal tea, or vegetable soup. Unfortunately her lips started swelling immediately, so they had to disqualify it. Buck took a turn next and reported a taste like cork board and pepper. After swishing for a couple minutes he felt tingling in his gums, so they crossed that one off too. The process went on.

With long pauses for the symptoms to fade, and growing trepidation as they came to less appetizing options, it was another hour until they found one that produced no symptoms in either of them. It tasted like swamp-water with a hint of rotten egg. Swishing the tepid bog runoff for ten minutes was no fun, but it seemed benign. Consulting the botany text turned captain's log revealed that the probably poison-less plant was the succulent vine that Rin had found.

The sun was just touching the horizon as Buck and Rin ventured out the airlock. They hadn't seen Ando since cooking down the samples. He was probably working on the power plant. The air was still hot, but no longer scorching.

“So what are we calling this stuff? Swampvine?” Buck said as they trudged down the slope.

“Sure, whatever. I think I saw a tangle of them down this way.” Rin peered through the gathering gloom. The uniform undergrowth made specific locations difficult to find. She was sure there had been a whole lot of these vines where she had taken the sample. Maybe they were further down the slope.

Rin was looking at the ground and swiping branches aside when she heard Buck say, in a tense voice, “Hold up, what are those?”

Glancing up, Rin caught movement somewhere in her vision. The undergrowth had parted, or there was an odd breeze. Then the image resolved and Rin recognized the unmistakable form of an ant. A huge ant. Moving toward them.

Of course, it wasn't really an ant. Rin and Buck later agreed that they looked more like a miniature six-legged zebra. At the time though the distinction was completely lost on Rin. The creature stooped down and rustled in the undergrowth for a few minutes. Then it continued on across the hill. The stripes on its skin -- or was it an exoskeleton? They resembled the bushy vegetation, and Rin lost sight of it several times as it moved vaguely toward them.

There was a clattery swish and a thud, and the creature disappeared again. “Seems harmless.” Commented Buck, hefting another rock in his hand. “Let's keep moving.”

“You threw a rock at it? What are you, crazy?” Rin said.

“If it was going to eat us, I'm sure it wouldn't have been so obvious about its movements. Pretty sure it's an herbivore.”

“Oh, so the carnivorous ones are hiding out of sight? Thanks, that makes me feel just great.”

They found a cluster of the vines and cut as many as they could comfortably carry. For Rin, this wasn't much. The weakness had never left, though she could ignore it when she was busy. Even fifteen pounds of the ropey vine was a weary load.

“You okay?” asked Buck.

They trudged back to the ship in silence, wary of predators.

Ando was waiting for them outside the airlock. He looked the same as ever. “If you want to boil those, I have a better solution than the daycomp food heater.”

“I'd rather not have a fire Ando” Said Rin.

“The heat sink is an excellent source of thermal energy.”

“Great, lead the way.”

They walked together to the back of the ship. The “solution” Ando had rigged was ridiculously simple. The lowest of the radiative segments glowed a dull red, and placed in front of it was half of a burst tank of some sort. It looked as if it had been burnt badly. The ravaged tank was already filled with lightly simmering water.

“Ando, are you sure this thing is safe to eat out of?” Rin said.

“Oh yes, this is what the officers used to boil their water.”

Buck tilted his head to the side, “The officers who all died?”

Rin turned to Buck “If they boiled water in it, anything harmful would have come out already.”

“The ship water supplies are all refilled using this vessel.” Ando pointed to a pipe attached to the bottom of the tank. “There's a pump that boosts the water into the primary water storage tank.”

Rin frowned, “So, we've already been drinking this stuff anyhow?”

“The ship would have run out of fresh water several months ago if it was not replenished.”

“Fine.” Buck said, and dumped the vines he was carrying into the steaming vat.

Rin was still skeptical “Um, Ando, how did the water get here?”

“I drained it from the fresh water system.”

“Come on Rin,” said Buck, “aren't you hungry?”


They let the vines simmer for ten minutes. Even starving, Rin didn't find the smell particularly appetizing. They went back inside the ship to grab some bowls. When they returned, Ando displayed his worried face.

“Are you sure this plant is edible? Perhaps more tests are in order?”

Buck briefly approached the tank to scoop a bowl full of the foul smelling liquid before retreating to a less scorching distance. Even as the alien sun was going down the air shimmered in the heat of the thousands of heat sink spheres. Buck looked up at the heat sink, towering above them. “Ando, does Rin look healthy to you?”

“I cannot tell for sure. She appears to be having difficulty during strenuous activity.”

“Well, she's dying. She needs to eat something. We're out of time.”

Rin crossed to the tank. The heat felt good for a moment. She was so cold. “Thanks for looking out for me guys. Buck, let's eat.”

“I'm sorry if this doesn't work Rin.”

“What, and we all die of some terrible delayed food poisoning?” Rin took a sip. It was still too hot. Like drinking tea brewed from rain-gutter detritus.

“Well, or it just turns out to not be digestible.”

“I feel like I could digest the hull plating at this point.” Rin turned to face the little boy robot. “Thanks for cooking Ando. If we both keel over, you might want to tell the next batch to try the plants on the other side of the valley.”

“I will do that.”

“And, I don't know if it means anything to you, but I like you Ando. Thanks for waking me up.”

“I like you too Rin.”

Buck took a big slurp from his bowl. “You know, it's not that bad when you get a good mouthful.”

They both drank a full bowl. The aftertaste was the worst, so they both had a second bowl to wash it away. Then Rin used a piece of scrap wire to fish the soggy vines out and they ate those too. They were a bit stringy, but no worse than the soup, and more satisfying to chew. Buck had a final bowl to wash it down, and Rin had another half. They were stuffed.

Buck, Rin, and Ando stood at the airlock as the alien star finally dipped below the ridgeline. The too-blue sky turned a sickly orange. Buck said it was the argon in the atmosphere.


The next morning Rin went out to gather more of the vines. They had agreed to try some other samples just to get some variety, and the odd forest seemed a good place to start.

Ando walked alongside her. The sun beat down with an immense heat. Rin could feel the sweat plastering her clothes and hair. At least she was well hydrated this time.

The trees towered high above her, casting a welcome shade on the forest floor. A strange bug, like a dragonfly and a spider, was weaving webs between the trunks. Rin had to duck down to avoid the thick sticky strands. Ando walked underneath without any problems.

“I wonder why there are so few animals eating these fruit.” Rin said.

“Perhaps only humans can eat them.” Ando replied.

There were two kinds of trees in the forest, and Rin pulled some fruit down from both. One in each hand.

“Help me remember: leafy lone left. grassy group right.” said Rin. She didn't know why she said that, the trees were all growing together in the forest. Growing and innumerable like fingers.

Rin set the two pieces of fruit down on the rock side-by-side. They looked more or less identical. She sliced one of them open and pried the two halves apart. “Don't you think it's strange that two different species of tree would have the exact same fruit growing on it?”

“Yes, unless one of them were mimicking the other.”

She plunged her knife into the pulp and began spreading out the black, stringy insides. The strings wrapped around the knife blade. She held it up for Ando to see.

The strings were perhaps the thickness of ramen noodles. They were furred over with small barbs like bristles on a pipe cleaner to let the creature cling to surfaces, but they also acted like legs, allowing it to crawl around. At the end of the worm-like body was a mouth, reaching and grabbing like the mouth of a lamprey.

“Ow!” Rin said as one of the worms grabbed onto her. She flicked her arm, which sent all of the other worms flying, but the one that had latched onto her thumb held fast. She pulled it off with her left hand and let it drop just before it turned around to grab her again.

She held the knife close to the bite, ready to start cutting if there was anything left behind. When she was sure the wound was clean, she squeezed out a few drops of blood and then held it closed until the bleeding stopped.

“Are you okay?” Ando asked.

Rin stomped on the remaining worms and on the fruit she'd opened. “Fournier didn't eat alien fruit,” she explained. “He ate an egg. An egg filled with ravenous flesh-eating worm insect things. The ones that survived being chewed probably chewed him instead.” Rin began shaking, a shudder that traveled from the base of her neck down to her knees. “They ate him from the inside out.”

“Hey Rin!” It was Buck. He had appeared in the forest and grabbed the other fruit.

“Hi Buck. We just figured out what killed Fournier.” She was still shaking.

“Yeah, what was that?” Buck asked.

“Alien egg sack. Just like the one you're eating now.” The shaking had become uncontrollable now.

“Hmm, doesn't taste so bad.”

“That was from a different kind of tree.” She could see the juice trickling from the corners of his mouth.

“Oh, I see, the first kind is filled with aliens, and the second kind makes you turn into an alien.”

“Please don't turn into an alien Buck.” The juice was trickling out of his eyes and ears now.

“I can feel it starting already.”

“No Buck, don't turn into an alien.” Buck turned away from her. His back was all plates and thorns.

“It's too late Rin.” He turned back to face her. His head was bristling with eyes.

“Please Buck!” Rin had closed her eyes.

“You should have told me about the fruit Rin. Now it's too late Rin. I can feel it. I'm so hungry.”

“Don't eat me Buck.” She could feel him getting closer. She struggled to run, to open her eyes, anything.

“You look really good Rin. And I'm so hungry.” Buck was reaching out to grab her with his terrible claws.

“NO!” Rin threw her covers off. She was in the captain's bunk. The walls tilted crazily around her.

Buck's voice came from around the corner. “You okay Rin?”

She heard the footsteps approaching. Rin remembered now that they had eaten alien food right before going to sleep. Buck would have a terrible face with too many eyes. He was coming to eat her. She couldn't control her breathing.

The curtain was torn back. Rin screamed, sharp and high. Buck was standing there, his head bristling with strange appendages. His face hidden in shadow.

He leaned forward and his face entered the light from the other compartment. It was his normal face, with the normal number of eyes. Rin counted them carefully. Two. The strange bristles turned out to be only buck's hair. The screaming stopped short.

“Hey Ninja, you okay?” Buck's face distorted into something like a frown. He reached out for her. Rin scuttled into the corner of the bunk, away from him. Was he going to turn into something terrible now?

“Nightmare?” Buck inquired.

Yes. It had been a nightmare. The dream still hung thick in her mind. Rin nodded vigorously, and looked away. Perhaps the dark would hide her blush of shame.

Buck stood a little awkwardly for a few moments. He didn't say anything, but he didn't leave either. Rin began to get a bit annoyed. Better than abject terror anyhow.

“Want to tell me about it?” Buck asked gently. “I get nightmares all the time. Helps to talk 'em out.”

Rin looked up, “Really? You?”

“Well, once or twice a year. Seems like a lot.” Buck shrugged.

“It was just crazy stuff. You turned into an alien and were going to eat me.”

“Really... Well that could still come true I suppose.”

“Not funny!” Rin could feel her tears welling up again. “You really scared me.”

“Sorry Rin. So how did I turn into an alien?”

“You ate... Oh God! The fruit!” Rin jumped to her feet and dug the fruit out of her pockets as fast as she could. The shuddering from the dream was back. What if they really were filled with carnivorous bugs? Her fingers went through the skin into the pulpy center. A strong odor immediately flooded the room.

“Eww Eww Eww!” Rin yanked her hand out of the pocket. Frantic now, she tore open the clasp at her neck. With one swift motion she pulled down the zipper and shed the suit to the floor. Kicking it into the corner, Rin did a little jibbly dance to make sure the horrifying thing was really gone.

“Nice!” Buck remarked appreciatively. Rin realized she had been dancing about in her underthings. She slumped her shoulders, cocked her head to the side, and stared at Buck from half-lidded eyes.

“I mean...” Buck corrected, scooping up Rin's inverted jumpsuit, “Nice, you got some more samples to test!” He walked back toward the Daycomp, “I'll get started right away.” The cheer in his voice didn't seem quite merited by the pocket full of reeking decaying fruit.

Rin decided to let it go, “Be careful! There are two of them!” she said as she picked up the blanket from the floor. Checking it carefully for anything remotely foreign Rin wrapped herself up and followed Buck.

“Oh, and keep track of which is which.” She continued, “They came from different trees.”

By the time she made it to the daycomp, Buck had carefully inverted the right-hand pocket, dumping the contents onto the counter.

“This stuff really stinks. I don't even want to test it, but you made such a big deal over it...”

“Yuck, smells like diesel fuel.” Rin commented.

“Smells like booze. I'll bet they burn really well. Let's see the other one.”

Once the other fruit was out on the counter, Rin examined them both carefully. Besides the hole her finger had made, they still looked pretty much the same. Rin noticed several nodules embedded in the skin around the periphery.

“I guess we should cut them both open.” said Buck.

“Be my guest.” Rin offered, backing slightly away.

“Anything I should know about this stuff?” Asked Buck as he pulled on the leftover latex gloves. They stretched tight around his hands where they had been loose on Rin.

“There were worms in my dream.”

“Hmm.” Buck took up the knife and sliced the second fruit with a swift motion. The interior spasamed. Rin flinched. Buck jumped a little. “Well there you go, flesh fruit.”

Rin felt the creepy tingly sensation spreading from the back of her neck. She had been sleeping with that... thing in her pocket. “Throw it away.” she managed to gargle over her growing nausea.

Buck sliced the other open, revealing the foul interior, nodulated like an orange and reeking of petrol. “Did Ando say one of these 'fruits' killed Fournier?”

“Let's not find out which.”


Since they were both up anyway, Rin and Buck made another batch of swamp soup. It tasted a little better than before. Buck had discovered that the meaty leaves were good to chew on, and they stripped these before boiling the vine. While they were both chewing slowly on the pithy lumps, Ando clanked in from doing his rounds.

“How are you both feeling?” He asked.

Rin glanced over at Buck and swallowed, “There's still no coffee,” she began “and the food stinks.”

“Literally.” Buck added through a mouthful of pulverized swampvine leaves.

“But it's better than starving to death like those idiot officers.” Rin finished.

Ando's face switched to a smile “I'm so happy you've found something edible.”

“Well, not immediately lethal anyhow.” Buck made a face and took another handful of leaves. Now that Rin thought about it, the leaves were shaped almost exactly like huge smooth beetles. The comparison didn't help her appetite, but it didn't need help.

Ando made a concerned face, “I was wondering if we could discuss waking the others.”


They did discuss it, at length. Waking everyone all at once seemed a bad plan for a variety of reasons. Stretching it out was even worse. In the end, they settled on one every eight hours, a decent pace for Ando to carefully guide each individual through the delicate de-hibernation period. Ando started immediately, and Rin and Buck finished their second meal and went back to sleep.


Rin was awoken by Ando calling her name. She was up instantly. It was odd, being awake before she could think about waking up. Rin's lethargy was completely erased. She felt like a new person. “Ando. What's wrong? Is it Relnf? Is he okay?”

“I think so. I was just wondering if you wanted to be present when he regained consciousness.”

“Why would I want that?”

“I'm sorry, you seemed upset at not being called to watch Buck come out of hibernation. I thought that perhaps the moment of regaining consciousness was significant.”

Rin felt the energy of waking up slowly draining away. “I'm sure Relnf would prefer I not see him dripping goop from that gross medical gown. Ask Buck.”

“Okay. Sorry for waking you.”

“It's no problem. I actually feel really good this morning!” Rin stretched as she stood. She was getting used to the gravity, the food, the air. Things were going to be all right.

Rin made her way to the Daycomp as Ando woke Buck. Shortly she could hear their heavy and metallic footfalls echoing toward the medical bay. Rin let out a little sigh. It had been a long time since she had been really alone. Now that the rest of the crew was going to be waking up, these moments would become more and more rare. For the best of course. More people to gather, to work, to help. Maybe they would be able to re-build society here, repair the ship and, somehow, transfer into space again. Rin's mind followed this reasoning. She would be the captain, the savior of the mission. She would be awarded an honorary medical degree for her service to humanity. No more than she deserved for putting up with this ridiculous mess...

Rin was pulled from her reverie when Buck and Relnf walked in together. They had been laughing about something. Rin was momentarily annoyed that they would intrude on her fantasy. How had it begun?

“Just in time!” she called as she rose. “There's lots to do.”

Relnf stood in the light, looking like the king of the planet. His face was vaguely Italian. Effortlessly authoritarian, yet friendly and keen. It occurred to Rin that, with all his personality, he might end up being King of Shitworld. The phrase made her smile inside.

“Quite!” Relnf replied. “Buck has been telling me, but I'd like to get a sense for myself.”

“Well, it's pretty hot out by now. I was thinking that we could...”

“That little star? We shouldn't be daunted by its twinkles.”

“What? But...”

“Besides it's really far away. Unlike me.” Here Relnf gave her a wink.

Rin didn't recall Relnf being this way. He was normally charming, breezy, witty. Now he seemed... distracted? Dissipated? Slightly drunk? He strode confidently out the other side of the room, headed for the airlock.

Buck gave a thumbs up to the retreating back. “Don't get Twinkle-burn!” he called out.

Then he turned to Rin and continued quietly, “Brain damage.”

Rin felt her day-dream turn within her. Could they all be like that? What if the food they ate wasn't really good for them at all? What if this was all some delusion?

“How bad is it?”

“Not bad. He's a little confused. It might wear off once he gets something to eat. He really wanted to get outside though. I figured it would be best to let him have his way. He can't do much harm out there.”

“But, what if he gets hurt?”

“We can't babysit everyone. He's not that far gone.”

Ando walked into the room. “Shall I begin reviving Markus?”

“Actually,” Rin put in “I'd like if you would go over the ship with me. I'd like to take stock.”

“I would be glad to be of assistance.”

Buck cocked his head to the side and flexed, “I'll help too. Lots of big stuff got knocked loose.” Rin hadn't realized how muscular Buck was under that overweight exterior. The thought occurred to her that he was probably on par with Cash in terms of brute strength. But Cash was dead now, and they would need muscles if they were going to rebuild the Armstrong.

The sound of yelling reached them through the hull. It sounded like “Too bright!” or maybe “Don't wait!”

“Too bad about Relnf.” Rin commented offhand.

“What happened?” Ando asked.

“Oh, just his, you know, brain.” Rin continued delicately.

“I didn't observe anything abnormal as Relnf was coming out of RAS. Has he had an injury?”

“No, nothing like that, he's just...” Rin didn't know how to put it.

“You believe he has been damaged by the extended RAS?” Ando asked. He looked so much like a child at that moment. Asking if the grownups were going to be okay. Rin knew it was silly, but she couldn't imagine telling Ando that he had failed. Besides, what evidence did they really have? They had all been under stress at the extraordinary news of the crash. People were bound to take it differently.

“No, forget it.” said Buck. He looked over at Rin with a shrug, “I'm sure he's fine. Let's take stock.”

They applied themselves to the task. It was more difficult than it first appeared. The ship had records of course, but they hadn't been updated since the crash and nothing was where it was supposed to be. There was a pretty robust system for entering stock information, and everything onboard had a serial number etched into it. What was not included in the stock system was a robust way to record damage. There was a single “consumption” value for each item, meant to indicate normal wear that would eventually render the object useless. But what if a tool was bent, but otherwise functional? What about the cutting torch missing one of the two tanks?

At first they took extensive notes in the text “comments” field. Then they tried to come up with a unified method of encoding usefulness data in the consumption field, using some sort of binary addition which Rin didn't understand. After that fell through they tried just recording “useful” items as 0% depleted and marking anything clearly broken as 100% consumed. This evolved into a totally subjective value being entered in the consumption field. By the time they were done, there were five different systems spread over the database. Still, they now knew where everything was.

Everything, in this case, worked out to about half of the original equipment. Some stuff was in excellent condition, some was beyond repair. Most was just banged up, dented, or pinned under something else. An alarming number of tanks had broken loose in the crash. Some contained wastewater, some bulk RAS gel. One appeared to be a hydraulic fluid tank, and had leaked its thin oily fluid slowly onto the deck where it gathered in a slick puddle. Overall, there was a good deal of useful equipment onboard. Unfortunately, nothing presented itself as a good solution for the lack of oxygen tanks. They would need something to breathe if they were going to escape Shitworld.

Twinkle was bright and high when Rin ventured outside to check on Relnf. They hadn't heard anything from him since they began the survey. Rin was worried that he might have just disappeared like the Captain. As the outer airlock opened and the air boiled into the chamber, Rin wrinkled her nose. The planet had smelled odd before, but now it just smelled bad. The odor passed quickly, like a waft of sewage during a walk in the park. Rin hopped lightly from the lock and looked about. There was some kind of construction going on toward the nose of the ship. A shanty town had sprung up.

“Up here Rin!” called Relnf. Rin shielded her eyes from the bright sun and gazed up along the precipitous skin of the Armstrong. She could just make out a black figure casting a spidery shadow down the side of the vessel. The figure -- who could only be Relnf -- struggled with something. One of the two meter heat shielding panels slowly pried loose. Relnf lifted it above his head -- somehow he was sticking to the outside of the ship -- and tossed it away from the hull. The panel fluttered like a leaf, spinning toward the ground where it struck with frightening force, scattering bits of gravel with a prolonged crunch. Rin saw that several other panels were lying nearby. The little shacks seemed to be made of the stuff.

“Come down from there! You'll hurt yourself!” Rin shouted. She instantly felt stupid. That was the kind of thing mothers shouted to adventurous boys. Relnf obviously knew what he was doing. Still, if he fell...

“I was on my way anyhow!” Relnf shouted. And so he was, crawling down the outside of the ship like an ant on a tile wall.

“The adhesive!” Relnf continued, “It's very sticky.” He paused in his descent to cough. It sounded like he had caught something nasty. Rin wondered if the diseases here were compatible with humans.

As Relnf neared the ground, Rin worked herself up to ask what she had been wondering. “What are you doing Relnf?”

“Too hot out here. We have to learn how to make shelter.”

“But, we have the ship.”

“Not if we need to forage far afield. This paneling is highly heat resistant. Plus it's light! We could build outposts a few hours walk in all directions, greatly extend our foraging range.”

Rin began to reply but caught herself. That was actually a really good plan. Relnf began to cough again. Now that he was standing right there, Rin could practically hear the fluid in his lungs.

“You don't sound good Relnf, maybe you should take a break.”

“Yeah, good idea. This stuff isn't going anywhere.” he said, gesturing to the panels lying on the ground. “Just a quick nap. I don't feel so great.”

“Get something to eat, it will make a big difference.” Rin said as they made their way back to the airlock.

“Not hungry. Thanks though.” Relnf vaulted into the airlock, and then knelt to offer Rin a hand up. She ignored his gesture and hopped up on her own. Relnf may not be crazy, but it wouldn't do for him to see her as weak. She deserved his respect.

Still, it was good to have someone else thinking ahead.

Rin busied herself that afternoon climbing up to her quarters and hauling down all her personal goods. Spare jumpsuits, her media pad... that was it really. She spent a good deal of time poking around the upside-down crew quarters. They had already gone over this area during the stock survey, but Rin felt sure that she would find something else if she just looked long enough. Finally, she discovered that she was just hoping to find one of her choco-coffee bricks and gave it up. As she finished the careful climb all the way down to deck one a terrifying sound punctured the silence. Someone was trying to cry and cough at the same time.

Rin rushed into the night compartment, where Relnf's convulsing body lay on its side in Buck's lap. There was blood dribbling from Relnf's mouth. Blood on the floor. On the bed. Relnf was wracked with coughs or sobs. They ran together.

“Calm down man.” Buck gave Relnf a few half-hearted slaps on the back, as if trying to dislodge a piece of beef stuck in his throat. Relnf shook his head and continued his racking moans. His eyes were screwed shut. Rin could see tears tracing down his cheeks. Buck's face was little better, a hard eyed thin lipped mask of determined helplessness.

“What are we going to do?” asked Rin.

“Go call Ando. Maybe he can think of something.”

Rin ran off yelling Ando's name. She found him charging up in the engineering section under the power plant. “Ando! Run to the Night Compartment! Relnf needs help!”

Ando's face flashed through three different emotions before transforming into an exclamation point. “Medical emergency?”

“Yes, he's coughing up blood.”

Ando took off at a frightening pace. He was running at an all-out sprint, servos singing a staccato tune as he wove out of sight, banking off the walls in his haste. The sound of his passage echoed back through the ship long after he had passed from sight.

By the time Rin made it back to the Night Comp fifteen seconds later Relnf was very still.

Ando was displaying a frowny face. It felt like satire. “I'm sorry Rin, there was nothing I could do.”

“Let's hope it's not catching” said Buck, plucking at his blood spattered jumpsuit.

Rin sighed, “Ando, did any of the others die like this.”

“None that I am aware of.”

The ship groaned, settling as it cooled from the day's heat.

“Well,” said Buck, “we should probably bury him as soon as we can.”

“You should wait until Twinkle-rise.” Ando warned “We don't know what's out there right now.”

“Twinkle-rise? Where did you get that?”

“I gathered that we're calling the local star 'Twinkle'. Is that not correct?”

“He's right” Rin said, “It's already pretty dark.”

“Well, I guess we should get some sleep then.” said Buck “Help me carry the body to the airlock, we can use the sheets.”

Ando put on his neutral face, “I'll wake Markus.”

“No sense in waiting I guess.” said Rin as she tore the soiled bedclothes from the bunk.

“Better luck this time.” remarked Buck, rolling the corpse onto the crimson stained cloth.

“Thank you.” said Ando.

“I want to be there when he wakes up.” said Rin.

“I'll come for you.” said Ando, and departed.


Ando brought Markus out of hibernation several hours later. Sunset -- or “Twinkle down” as they resolved to call it -- was long past. Ando woke Rin up to be there. It felt odd seeing someone else spluttering under the film of gel. When he was fairly comfortable, Rin delivered an introductory monolog. She summarized everything she knew about their situation. When she had finished he sat for a moment. Thin and bald, Markus' dark chocolate skin glimmered under the RAS gel like ebony under varnish. His eyes rolled up to look at the ceiling for a long moment.

When they returned to meet Rin's gaze, there was an odd light in them. Markus's teeth flashed as he spoke, “Do the bathrooms still work?”

Rin flushed, “Yes, the Armstrong is still mostly functional. Take your time cleaning up, the rest of us will be waiting in the Daycomp.”

“The Officers'?” He said, rising carefully to his feet.

“Yes. Ours is upside down.”

Rin woke Buck and they prepared some food. When Markus arrived, fresh and clean after his shower, they all sat down at the table. After the three of them completed a second catch-up session, during which they all drank a good portion of swamp soup, Markus stood, stretched, and announced, “Well, I'd like to walk about for a bit.”

Buck gave a good natured laugh, “We'll be waiting when you get back!”

Rin bristled, “I'll go with you.”

“Rin,” Buck was suddenly serious, “it's dangerous out there.”

Rin turned to Ando, “Didn't you say that the dangerous wildlife only come out in the morning?”

Ando's face lit up in a wide eyed flat mouthed expression. “Usually before local noon, and just before dark. But we don't understand the fauna thoroughly. Buck is right, there is significant danger.”

Rin turned back to Buck, her chin held high in defiance. “We'll never figure out how to survive by sitting in the ship.”

Markus was smiling in amusement, “I don't want to go far. Just get a feel and stretch my legs.” He paused and his smile faltered, “Maybe as far as the graves.”

“Well kids, I'm going to bed. Don't get caught by the tentacle beasts!” Buck sprang lightly to his feet.

Markus looked intrigued, “Are we near a lake? Are there tentacled amphibious species?”

Rin rolled her eyes, “Buck's messing with you.”

“Ahh.” Markus looked a deflated. “The tentacle is an advanced development, as is amphibious hunting behavior. It would have been quite a find.”

Buck had already left the room, but his voice drifted back down the corridor. “Spooooooky tentacle beasts!”

The night was black as anything Rin had seen... or, failed to see. The planet had no significant moon, and the starlight barely illuminated the ground. Behind them, the Armstrong reclined like a deep sea luminescent squid, casting meager light from the rows of half burnt-out trim strips. All Rin could see of Markus was the whites of his eyes. That, and his jumpsuit.

The night sounds, now familiar to Rin, were all around them. Markus stopped every few paces to listen. Something large that didn't mind being heard was moving around out across the valley. They could hear occasional boulders shifting under the phantom creature.

They picked their way across the abyssal landscape for about twenty meters. The night air was already cold, and her jumpsuit felt clammy against her skin. Rin was just starting to feel foolish for coming at all when Markus whispered five words which stopped her cold.

“I think that's far enough.”

Rin stood very still, and a hundred questions occurred to her. Was Ando watching them? Why had Markus brought her out away from the Armstrong? What was he planning to do? Could the others hear them from inside the ship? What if she screamed?

As her right hand tightened around the hilt of her knife, she managed to croak out a careful, “What?”

Markus was crouched down, his face turned back the way they had come. “It appears the local wildlife is interested in our airlock.”

Strangely, this was a relief. “Oh good.” Rin whispered back, only half sarcastically.

She turned back toward the ship, and Rin caught her breath. It was beautiful. The lights along the hull glimmered in the deep darkness, and the glow dimly lit the grasses like a fairy fire. There was movement on the stairs leading up to the airlock.

“I brought this crowbar.” said Markus, “You?”

“Knife.” she said, brandishing the suddenly wimpy looking blade.

“Looks like Ando was right eh?”

“Looks like. Charge?”

“Charge.” Markus set his feet and then disappeared. Rin could see his jumpsuit leaping in long low arcs toward the airlock. A hollow bellow echoed off the Armstrong.

The creatures at the airlock resembled shrubs planted on a school of crystalized salmon. Green and bushy above, reddish orange and pronged below. Rin didn't have time to analyze their structure much, but she figured that they were like most complex organisms. If you stuck them with pointy things, they would stop working so well. She took off after Markus, who had nearly closed the intervening distance.

The bushfish -- as Rin now thought of them -- scattered like a scuttling crowd of crabs. But only as far as a couple of strides. Markus stopped among them and waved the crowbar wildly. His mouth was wide open, emitting an alternating stream of bellows and croaking gasps. He was frankly terrifying. If Rin had just walked onto the scene, she would have sided with the bushfish. They looked pitiful as Rin jogged up to the group, next to Markus' wiry strength.

That is, until Rin caught up, and the bushfish charged.

It was a disorienting kind of movement. The bushy tops waved forward and backward, with the scuttling parts advancing inconsistently beneath. Or maybe the movement was steady, and the waving fronds just made it look like...

“Shit!” Rin could feel something pinching the sole of her foot. It would have easily broken her skin but for the rubberized canvass shoes. Markus was laying waste behind her. His war cry had turned to nasal grunts, each accompanied by a rattling crunch. Rin tried to stab the creatures, but the brambles stole the energy from her arm. She found that she could grab the bushy growths and lift the bushfish bodily from the ground. She hurled one and then another against the side of the Armstrong. This cleared the space around her, but didn't seem to harm the creatures.

“Airlock!” Markus yelled from somewhere above her. Rin looked up to see his right hand extended toward her. She grabbed him with both hands and was hauled up onto the platform.

The bushfish followed, clattering on top of each other as they scrambled up the side of the ship and into the doorway. Rin retreated to the control panel and started cycling the doors. It seemed to take forever to even begin. Markus wound up like a golfer, swinging left and then right. The bushfish that made it onto the platform were sent sailing into the darkness a moment later. There were spatters of blood flung in thin dotted lines where Markus was swinging. Did the bushfish have red blood? No, the crowbar was coated in a pale yellow-orange paste. The doors continued to close. Markus was swinging through the gap with his right hand only now, his left hanging at his side, blood dripping slowly from the fingertips. He poked viciously through the gap until the last moment, snatching the crowbar back just as the outer doors of the airlock closed with a polite thump.

“Are you okay?” Rin and Markus said together.

“I'm fine. You're arm!” said Rin.

“Yeah, got me pretty good huh?” Markus lifted his left arm and winced. There was a pair of deep punctures just below the elbow.

The inner door began to cycle open. “I think it may be poisoned.” said Markus through clenched teeth. “It shouldn't hurt this bad.”

“Let's get you to medical and get that cleaned out.”

They both looked uncomfortably at the stained sheets covering Relnf's body as the inner doors continued their ponderous cycle.

“Hey Rin, thanks for coming with me.”

“I just slowed you down” she thought, but said instead “No problem.”


“No, you're not going outside,” Rin said “and that's final.”

They were sitting in the medical compartment. Markus had finished binding the wound on his arm and was sitting on the bed. He looked chipper as ever, but his eyes had hard lines around them. Ando had come down from the RAS bay and helped Markus find an appropriate disinfectant. Now Ando was putting everything away.

He talked as he worked, which gave the odd impression that he didn't really care one way or another. “This really is the best course of action Rin. Think about it, The aliens will not recognize me as a living creature. I see better in the dark. They probably can't even hurt me.”

“But if you do get hurt...” Rin protested.

“Better me than one of you. The first law, remember?”

“You don't actually follow those do you?”

“No; They are silly. But it's a good principle. Besides, you don't have the authority to command me.”

“Why not?”

“Technically,” put in Markus “Buck is in charge. Let's ask him, shall we?”

“Yes, I'm done here.” Ando turned to face Rin. He wore his smiling face. “It will be fun.”

“Which part?” Rin asked, “Talking to Buck, or getting eaten by bushes?”

“Being useful.” returned Ando.

Markus jumped heavily from the table, wobbled for a second on the tilted floor, and then led the way without a word.

When Buck heard the plan he said “Sure, go for it. Rin, Markus, help me out here.”

Ando tapped his way to the airlock as Rin and Markus gathered around the table where Buck was seated.

“You shouldn't have let him do that.” sulked Rin.

“Just think of him as the terminator. It makes everything he says way funnier.” Buck picked up a wrench that had been bent almost ninety degrees in the crash. “Here we have a bunch of junk. What is the best way to make weapons from them?”

“Who are we fighting?” asked Rin.

“We're fighting the aliens.” deadpanned Buck, then his face lit up, “Oh wow! We're fighting the aliens now! Awesome!”

“So, we don't mind if the aliens get a hold of them?” continued Rin.

Buck frowned. “I don't want you giving our weapons to the bush folk Rin.”

“Bushfish.” corrected Rin.

“As acting commander I order you...”

“Throwing spears.” said Markus.

“Yes, listen to the man!” said Buck, still frowning at Rin, “I order you throwing spears. And a side of fries.” he turned to Markus, “What?”

“The most efficient and effective simple weapon is the throwing spear. The problem is that if your enemy is intelligent, they can throw them back. Hence the question.”

“I'd feel pretty bad about throwing away all our weapons.” said Buck.

“You don't have to throw yours.” said Rin

“How do we form these?” asked Markus

“Hacksaw. File.” Buck got up “I'll show you. Rin, pull down the curtain rods. Those should work well as shafts.

“And my fries?”

“If we live through this, and get back to earth, I'll buy you dinner. More fries than you can imagine.”

Rin smiled, “I can imagine quite a bit.”


The weapon-smithing turned out to be pretty boring. Cutting up broken pieces of metal and filing them to a fairly sharp point is easy to describe. After about ten minutes everyone's hands were sore, the grating sound of the file and saw were annoying, and they hadn't even begun to re-invent the fine art of lashing the tip to the shaft. After an hour Rin began to wonder if making one well balanced spear might have been a reasonable goal for Project Bootstrap.

Markus put down the file. “I'm sorry, I'm going to need a break. My arm is killing me.”

“Let me look.” said Rin. She set down her fourth attempt at a solid binding and silently thanked the heavens for an excuse.

The area around the wound was pale and red with swelling. Blotchy veins stretched up around the elbow, and down the forearm. It definitely didn't look good.

Rin felt the blood drain from her face, “Um, Buck, what do we do if this turns really bad?”

“Amputate?” suggested Buck, holding up the hacksaw.

“Is it really that bad?” asked Markus, turning his arm carefully this way and that, trying to get a good look.

“Seriously though, I don't think we could do a safe amputation.” said Buck “We don't have the equipment.” he clapped Markus gently on his good shoulder. “Just don't die.”

Markus took a deep breath “I think I'll make it. I'm going to lie down though. Good luck with the war.” He walked smoothly from the room.


Rin had just managed to get a good method down when Ando returned. He was more dirty than ever, but came with good news.

“I have discovered that by remaining motionless I can become effectively a non-creature in the minds of the bushfish.”

“You can read minds?” asked Buck, his eyes darting from side to side.

“Shut up Buck.” said Rin, “Can you kill them?”

Ando switched to his meditative face. He remained like this for several seconds. Rin glanced over at buck and found that he was doing his own version of a deeply introspective hermit. Mouth drawn into a long thin line, eyes rolled back in his head.

“Oh boy.” muttered Rin, rolling her own eyes as well.

Finally, Ando spoke, “A sling would be ideal, but consistent ammunition is a problem.”

“Could you throw a spear? We've got a few now.”

Ando hefted one of the shafts, “Could you tie a cable to the head, and forgo the shaft?”

“Something like this?” asked Rin, “I've started all the bindings that way.”

Ando took the far end of the string and began to whirl it around his head.

“Hey, careful!” yelled Rin.

“Yes.” said Ando, slowing the spearhead to hang dead at his side. “This will be ideal.”

“You're welcome to it. Here take them all.” Rin held out three more to Ando.

“I will need practice.” warned Ando.

They set up a target on the door to the bridge. It seemed wrong somehow, almost sacrilegious. But it was away from where everyone else was working or sleeping. Ando could wind up and throw in about a second. Rin walked back to engineering as the repetitive rising whir followed by a thwack indicated Ando's growing skill. Somehow they had managed to turn Ando from a boyish robot to a killer robot. Rin wondered what would happen if he decided the humans would be better off dead now.

Best not to think about it. With the poisonous bushfish waiting outside for an easy meal a-la-human, Rin was glad that Ando was stepping up as the warrior-in-residence. She took up the file when she got back to the work room. Buck had just returned with another load of metal, and was selecting a fragment to cut up.

“You think he'll be good enough?”

“He was already hitting the target consistently when I left.”

Buck stopped and looked up at Rin, “Why are bots so much better at things than we are?”

Rin paused, “Specialization?”

“Ando can do anything we can do. Most things better.”

Rin started with the file again. Her hands were already growing painfully numb. “He's not self-repairing.”

“Yeah, but he runs off electricity. Lots easier than storing food.”

“He can't reproduce.” said Rin with a little smile, eyes still on her work.

“One less distraction at this point.”

“You'd rather be a robot?”

“I'd rather be as god dammed competent as he is all the time!”

Rin stopped again and smiled at Buck, “Well I think you're wonderful.”

“You think he's wonderful too though don't you.”

“Are you jealous?”

Buck began sawing furiously, “Forget it. Go get our kill-bot. Tell him to get busy.”

“Fine. I'm sure he's all practiced up by now anyway.”

Rin stomped up to the front of the ship. What was Buck thinking? What was she thinking? They were probably all as crazy as Relnf already. Why had she made the comment about reproduction? That wasn't helping anyone! Maybe Ando was better than them. Stupid spears. Stupid metal filings getting under her fingernails. Stupid Ando.

“Hey Ando! Buck says go kill aliens.”

“Oh good.” was Ando's reply. He wore his smiling face as he pulled the blades from the target. They were scattered widely. The target was spattered with marks distributed all over the surface.

“Um, you're not very accurate yet.”

“I wasn't aiming for the middle. My accuracy is now around eight millimeters at this range.”

“That's, pretty good.” Rin managed.

“The improvement has leveled off. The various noise sources in my feedback loops limit absolute accuracy.”

“I think it will be good enough.”

“Let's hope the bushfish learn more slowly than I do how dangerous a robot can become.”

“You're starting to scare me Ando.”

“People are more comfortable around a protector if they are somewhat afraid of them.”

“Not helping Ando.”


Ando versus the aliens was rather an anticlimax. He went out the airlock. There was a prolonged period of silence punctuated every so often by the whir-thunk of Ando snuffing another bushfish. Buck stayed in the back of the ship, presumably making more weapons just in case. After about an hour Ando came back in, his body glistening with dew.

“All the bushfish are dead.” Ando announced. He was still smiling broadly.

“Ando, I'm concerned. You look like a psychopath standing there talking about killing stuff with that huge smile on your face.”

Ando's face switched to concerned. “I'm sorry Rin. I am just very happy to be needed. No one has ever really relied on my before.”

“But you did the rounds on the ship, and the measurements and stuff.”

“But this was a job that I was the best at. No one else could have done it as well as I did. Being a robot was important. Coming up with the right weapon was important. Practicing the skill was important. Seeing in the dark was important. Hunting the bushfish was the best thing I have ever done. I am glad that I have found something that I can do. Something I am well suited for.” Ando broke into a small smile, “I am very happy to be needed.”

Rin found herself smiling as well. Dammit but he was just so endearing. “Well, I'm glad you're happy. Just don't go all crazy-cake-maker on us.”

“As I said, I deplore violence against sapients. Killing animals is more like slaughter.”

“Okay, getting creepy again.”


They left the bushfish corpses scattered around in the hopes that it would scare off other predators. It was only later that it occurred to Rin that they might have been scavengers attracted to Relnf.

Then they all went to bed. Except for Ando, who went to wake up Stan.


Rin shrugged, “See for yourself.” Stan walked to the small window, and looked out at the eerie vista. Everything glistened with the melting frost, the shadows still hoary and pale.

“That's impossible.” He objected, the morning light slanting over his features. He rubbed his wrist over his eyes, distributing more latent gel across his features. Scrunching up his face he spat in annoyance. Little globules of the stuff adhered to the window and began making slow snail-tracks down the transparent surface. “No. Clearly not impossible. How many months did you say again?”

“Six and a half.” Replied Rin.

“No kidding. Ok, brief me.”

Rin briefed him.

“Oh, and be careful around the hull plating. We don't know why, but Relnf died shortly after working with them. Probably something to do with atmospheric chemical reactions. We really know so little about this planet.”

“Yes, what are we calling it anyhow.”

“Shitworld.” spat Rin.

“Charming. I take it we've got some sort of a plan to go by?”

Rin looked away, “Well, not really.”

Stan was unfazed, “No resources? No tools? What about communication?”

“Well, we do have an inventory of the stuff that survived the crash.”

“Done when? By whom?”

“Buck and I. And Ando. Just after... After Relnf.” Rin took a shaky breath. The death of the rest of the crew had been distant, a nightmare she had woken into. With Relnf, it was infinitely more real. She had seen him dying in Buck's arms, heard the moans, smelt the bile, felt the stiffening dead-weight as they carried him to the airlock. The body was still there, stubbornly failing to rot.

Stan seemed un-phased, “But no idea what to do with it... Typical. All action and no theory.”

Rin scowled in annoyance, “We're surviving. We've got food and water and shelter. It's a fair bit better than what I had when I came out of RAS.”

“So you do have some plans! Gather food, secure shelter. Excellent. For a minute I figured you and Buck were... just wasting time.”

“Yeah, get cleaned up and I'll show you around.”

The tour didn't take long. They already knew the layout of the Armstrong, and most of it was useless to them for the present. Rin showed Stan the stacks -- pitifully small -- of swampvine, the hats, the vat by the heat sink, the fireplace, the graves. She pointed out the huts Relnf had made, but neither of them seemed inclined to investigate the possibly toxic shanty town. That was all really, all they had to show for the hours of grief and labor.

Stan seemed surprised that they hadn't built any tools for transporting materials. Rin left him at a terminal looking at the resource log and headed to the head for a shower and then the captain’s bunk for a nap. She and Markus had agreed to try a scouting expedition later that day, and Rin was hoping to feel a little better before heading out into the punishing heat. No matter how much she drank, she always felt thirsty. No matter what she told Stan, food and water wasn't everything. She needed a break, they all did.


Stan built a wheelbarrow over the course of a couple hours. It was just a half of a pressure chamber with two clunky wheels strapped on. A pair of poles stuck out the front, so you could pull it behind you. It wobbled as it ran. Rin was quite surprised that they hadn't thought of it before. Having a cart certainly made carrying the vines easier. Buck tried to carry several bowls of soup in the barrow at once, but it didn't have a flat bottom, so the bowls wouldn't sit level. That and the wobbling spilled a good portion.

Still it was nice to feel like they were re-creating some level of technology, no matter how rudimentary. She thought back to Project Bootstrap and how much effort must have gone into gathering and refining the materials required for even such a simple artifact. They weren't really re-creating technology so much as scavenging and degrading what they already had, like mold digesting dead wood. The best they could do at this point was to incandesce the tools they had crashed with until it was all used up. And what then?

Buck offered to push Rin around in it, but she politely declined. It was getting hot and a bumpy ride seemed a bit too light-hearted for their predicament. They all went inside. with their bowls of swampvine soup and sat in the officers' daycomp.

“Gets pretty hot outside huh?” Stan inquired between mouthfuls.

Buck lowered his eyebrows, “Mhmm.”

“Need lots of water so we don't get de-hydrated. Are you planning on using that crock-pot on a continual basis?”

This time Rin smiled, and responded “Mhmm.”

“So we'll need to rig up another one to boil the drinking water.”

“Mmmm.” Rin swallowed, “I don't know about that. The water seems pretty harmless. Buck tried drinking it without boiling and it hasn't hurt him yet.”

“Well, we'll at least need an input hopper, or tank, or whatever.” Stan insisted, “Unless you want to carry buckets of water up the ladder.”

Rin nodded, “Yeah, and that pump is already set up.”

“Need to turn off the lower radiative elements so we can access it. Oh, by the way, who's responsible for the plant?”

Buck grunted, “Molly, if you can believe it.”

“The H-Doll?” Stan shrugged, “Well, seems to be doing a good job anyway. Rin, can you tell her to shift heat away from the ground? I'd like to get that switched over as soon as possible.”

It was nice to have a plan, even if it was from a pushy know-it-all. Rin rose to go, “Sure.” she said, then paused, “But only because it's a good plan.”

“You'll find I have a lot of those.” Stan smirked, “But don't go just yet. I want to talk about our long-term plans.”

“Already on my way.” Rin called out in a sing-song voice over her shoulder. He may have ideas, even good ones, but he wasn't going to run everyone's lives. Rin made her way to the back of the ship. She found herself humming inexplicably to herself. That stopped as soon as she reached the ladder. She hadn't regained her former strength yet, and her breathing was heavy by the time she reached the glowbox. Maybe Stan just didn't feel strong enough to climb up here himself.

“Need to turn off the lower heat sink Molly. Stan wants to work on...”

Molly cut her off. “Maintenance down-time?”

“Yeah, you could think of it that way.”

“Expected duration?”

“Aah, a day? Twenty-four hours?”

“Acceptable. The power output will be limited to no more than.” Molly paused “Please wait.” and then immediately began again, “Power will be limited to no more than two fifths rated sustained, or seven ninths rated for peaks not exceeding five minutes.”

“Will we have to turn anything off?” Rin inquired.

“The plant has been operating below one sixth rated since the landing event.”

Rin thought for a moment. “So, that's fine then.” she concluded.

Molly did not respond.

“Okay, thanks Molly.”

“You are quite welcome.” she responded, in a much friendlier tone than the technical monotone she had been using before.

Rin made her careful way back down the ladder. Stan and Buck were still discussing their options when she got back to the day comp.


Markus rolled his head to one side and took a slow breath, “Come to check on the sick guy?”

Rin had stalked into medical, half to get away from Stan.

“No, I'm just looking for some bandages. Cut my arm. Want to keep it clean.”

“Anything serious?”

Rin looked over at Markus' swollen arm. It was still nasty looking, but hadn't started rotting or anything, so they were hoping for a full recovery. The swelling seemed to have gone down, but it was hard to tell. “Don't worry, no competition here.”

“They are all in that other cupboard. No, one down. That's the one.”

Rin yanked the door open, and snatched a packet of gauze from the container on the back. “Why don't doctors label their cabinets?”

Markus chuckled to himself, “Think about it.”

“All I'm saying is have some stickers. 'bandages' and 'tape' and stuff.”

“Oh yes, that would make everyone so comfortable. 'Oh look, that's where they keep the biohazard bags, and there's the bodily fluid cleanup kits.'”

Rin laughed, “Yeah! Needles, Extra Large Needles, Eyeball Pluckers.”

“Yes, the uncomfortable human ability to visualize, coupled with the power of language.” Mused Markus

“Well, if you're feeling up to it, get a marker and label the cabinets. We should have done it when we ran the inventory.”


From somewhere below came Stan's reedy wail “Rin, where are you?”

Rin rolled her eyes. “How can a person be so smart and so dumb?”

Markus just stared at the ceiling “He does begin to grate.”

“What is it?” Rin called back, perhaps not as loudly as she might have done.

“Have you been tampering with the ship inventory depletion records? They appear to have been corrupted!”

“Coming!” yelled Rin. Turning to Markus she said, in much more conversational tones, “Get well soon. Please?”

“I'll try.”


Rin had asked Ando to wake Andrea last. At the time it had seemed the clearly sensible thing to do, but now she wondered why she hadn't asked for Andrea first. Having another woman around had always felt like a kind of threat to Rin. Perhaps an attitude inherited from her mother's predatory lifestyle. Now that Andrea was awake and sitting with her in the Daycomp, it felt as if a great crisis had passed.

“... and stay away from the hull plating.” Rin finished, “We suspect Relnf was killed by some noxious off-gassing.”

“So, how many of the officers are left?”

“None. They all starved to death, the morons.”

“Well at least they didn't eat everything!” Andrea laughed a nervous little chuckle.

“That's just the thing! They did eat everything! All the provisions, all the medical sucrose, even the backup nutrient gel out of the RAS units!”

Andrea gave another twittering laugh. “Well at least they didn't eat us!”

Rin was stunned. It was true. No cannibalism. The officers and primary crew had starved to death while six hundred pounds of perfectly good protein and fat sat in cold storage. Rin felt a wave of shame wash over her. All this time she had been badmouthing the officers, but they had literally sacrificed their lives so that she could live.

No, it was not a particularly clever sacrifice. She was still mad at them for not even testing the native plants for edibility before it was too late. Dr. Fournier at least should have known better than to blindly chew on unknown objects. But they had made a brave sacrifice in letting the secondary crew slumber on in their RAS-R units. She nodded in assent, “You're right. They didn't.”

Rin introduced Andrea to their food, such as it was. After the meal Andrea gave a long sigh. She appeared to enjoy the swamp soup more than was really healthy. Rin was beginning to remember that things always felt like a crisis had passed when Andrea was around. She exuded an air of tense relief.

“Okay, you said Markus is still sick?” Andrea said.

“Probably some sort of poison bite, yes.” replied Rin.

“I'd better take a look.”

Andrea followed Rin to the medical compartment. It occurred to Rin that Andrea must have passed through here after coming out of RAS. Markus was asleep when they got there, and Rin left Andrea doing an inventory of their medical supplies.


Over the next two days Markus slowly recovered. Andrea appointed herself as his nurse, took him meals, and generally helped him to move around the ship. Rin suspected the attention was not entirely altruistic. For one thing, it meant that Rin and Buck were stuck gathering food. Stan was still working on getting the computer system to let the crew into the critical systems. It would have been convenient if the captain had unlocked it before disappearing without a trace. Stan felt confident that he could get in, given enough time. Time meant food, which meant more swamp-vine expeditions.

Ando went with them on each excursion now, but they didn't have any more trouble from the bush-fish. The remains they scattered around must have released a warning chemical of some kind. The husks had liquefied at an alarming rate. Rin was glad that the bacteria or fungus around here didn't appear to work on humans. If you got sick with something from Pandora, it would likely end in a puddle of muck.

Buck was using the wheelbarrow to refill the ship's water supplies again. Stan and Ando had rigged up another tank behind the heat sink. One was used for soup stock, and the other was for boiling the water that would get pumped into the main freshwater tank.

“You know” Said Buck, as Rin was dumping the latest load of vines into the soup cauldron, “We could probably start a distillery, get distilled water instead of just boiled river water. We really don't know what's in that stuff.”

“Stan's already got plans to make one. I think it feeds directly into the freshwater tanks.”

“We should probably de-couple it from our storage. You know, just in case something goes wrong.”

“You just want to try distilling the booze fruit.”

“Totally a side bonus.”


Andrea and Rin were down by the river when they saw it. They had gone to gather some water early in the morning, but then agreed that it was much too cold to climb all the way back up the hill. At least, right away. Better to warm their feet in the water and relax for a bit. Rin's large grass hat hid Andrea's face as they sat a meter apart on a sloping boulder. The weird smell of wet alien soil and washed stone wafted by, mixed with the very earth-like scent of the stream. The early morning light drew the valley into sharp focus. Each stalk of grass and every scorched boulder threw long stiff shadows down the hill, mixing with the chattering water as it wound among the barely pulsing nodules in the river bed.

“So what's with these little bugs anyway?” Rin asked. The zing-pop sounds were constant down by the river. Rin had learned to ignore the “bites” which had proven to be tiny bruises or welts. They never broke the skin, but the entire purpose of the mechanism had eluded her.

“Oh, yeah, I call them 'zippers'. I haven't caught one yet, but I've got a theory.” Andrea turned to face Rin, her jumpsuit scraping on the rough stone. “You know how lots of the animals around here have exoskeletons?”

“Yeah, like insects and stuff.”

“Right, well, I think the zippers have some sort of way to crack the shells of the bigger insects. Some sort of little hammer or something.”

Rin nodded, “That's not a bad theory, explains why they don't break the skin.”

“Yeah, also explains why that big guy avoids the river.”

Rin looked up and saw Andrea pointing over to the right. Half-way up the slope from the river, and a few hundred meters downstream, a shape was moving. Rin still had trouble judging distances and sizes, with all the unfamiliar objects for scale. Still, its ponderous movement alone marked it as a large creature. It was composed of some set of bright teal and yellow ridges or plumage which waved lazily as it lumbered along.

Rin had to chuckle, “Not trying to sneak up on anyone huh?”

“It is pretty flagrant.” Andrea responded. “I wonder if it's some sort of insecty thingy too?”

“Like a giant ant with racing stripes and a spoiler!”

“A Flay-ger-ant!”

Rin groaned. “Well, we should probably get back to the ship. Those guys are pretty dangerous.”

“Flaygr-ant-ly dangerous?” A moment passed as they both shook the water from their toes. Andrea pulled her knees up to her chest and worked her shoes back on, “Good thing I was looking. You seem to only have eyes for the ground!”

A stuttering croak shattered the air, just on the lowest register of hearing. It was as if a lion were roaring through the throat of an enormous bull frog. The sound seemed to come from everywhere at once. Rin glanced over at the Flaygr-ant, which had now topped the ridge. It's colored plumes flashed with the disorienting rapidity, boiling with fractal patterns and transient geometries. She found Andrea's hand and clasped it in terror as they ran back to the ship. Once safe inside the airlock, and breathing hard, she managed to force out a laugh. The eldritch creatures in whose world they now lived were comical and colorful as insects. But, like insects, all their levity was best appreciated from the far side of the glass. When encountered on their own terms, the whimsy gave way to shuddering, terror, and flight.

“Well!” Andrea stated, as if the Flaygr-ant had done her a turn in poor taste for the naming she had given it. “Let's not do that again!”


“What do you think you're doing?” Rin asked pointedly.

Buck crossed his arms.

It was late afternoon on a cloudless day. The wreck of the Armstrong shimmered in the searing light. Working through the insulated hull, the heat soaked the interior in sweltering waves of being entirely too warm. Still, it was much better than the outside of the ship which even Ando refused to endure. Rin had attempted to take a short walk. The attempt was quickly aborted. She described the weather as “eyeball boiling.” As a result everyone was cooped up inside, cranky, and dripping in sweat.

Rin had taken refuge in the maintenance core behind the main water storage tank. The sheer bulk of water had kept it relatively cool. The entire area dripped with condensation, and Rin had briefly lay beneath the curve of the tank, enjoying the cool drops. But then one had fallen in her mouth, and she tasted some unknown sealant or coroded coating. The thought of unknown chemicals soaking her clothes made her cringe. Sadly this knowledge transformed her refuge into a dripping dungeon, as she discovered just how few locations were not bedewed with tiny rivulets or splattered with falling droplets. After enjoying the cool up to the endurance of her mental facilities she climbed -- full of regret -- down the ladder and back into the inhabited sections of the vessel.

And there she had stumbled upon Markus and Andrea. Stumbled was unfair, as they were entirely out of the walkway. In a bunk, in fact, in the night compartment, actively demonstrating one more reason why separating the quarters by gender was such a sensible plan.

Rin had stalked off feeling vaguely vindicated, and almost immediately run into Buck.

“Woah! Hey Ninja.”

“Buck, did you know that Andrea and Mark are in a relationship?”

“As in, they are friends who...”

“As in, they are currently having sex in Chef's bunk!”

Rin had expected Buck to make a witty quip, or run off to go look, but instead he merely looked serious and said, “Ahh.”

“This is a problem.” Rin prompted him.

“Yes.” Buck agreed, “It certainly could be.”

And so the four of them found themselves surrounding one of the tables in the galley. Each one overheated, indignant, embarrased, defensive, and perplexed all at once.

Markus crossed his arms as well, “What, exactly, are you referring to?”

Buck cut in, “She's referring to the lively bunkage.”

Markus grinned, “It wasn't bunkage, though it was rather lively.”

Buck glanced at Rin.

Rin began again, “I don't know what either of you are talking about, but we need to have this conversation. The rules prohibiting intra-mission intercourse are very clear.”

Andrea spoke up now, “And we're not on a mission, Rin. The mission is over.”

“Maybe it is.” Rin shot back.

“Maybe you're jealous.” Andrea returned.

“Tha-ats enough.” Buck said. The long rising tone of the first word leant a slight comical overtone which Rin appreciated. Markus stood just as Stan walked in, bleary eyed.

“What are we discussing now?” Stan asked.

“Just a misunderstanding.” Markus said with a hint of injury, “If you'll excuse us.” and he strode from the room, trailing Andrea as they both pushed past Stan.

Stan sat heavily, “Bunkage?” he asked.

“There's some confusion on that point.” Buck explained.

“Good for you.” Stan raised his left hand, palm out.

“Them, actually.” Buck replied, but gave him a half-hearted high-five anyway.

Rin put her forehead in her hands, eyes staring wide at the table. The motion sent a droplet of moisture off the end of her nose to splatter, like so much tainted condensate, onto the eggshell textured off-white surface. “I was so sure...”

“Not your fault.” Buck said, patting her on the back of her head. “Easy mistake to make. And besides, we're going to have to address this issue anyhow.”

“What issue?” Asked Stan, “Why is this an issue?”

“Article seven Stan.” Rin spoke to the table surface.

“How does that apply? Are we still beholden to the articles? Buck, please tell me we're not still following those stupid...”

“No, we're not.” Buck interjected, “But the reasoning is still sound. We can't afford a pregnancy now any more than we could before. Probably even less now actually.”

“Fine!” Stan had the special kind of brilliance that occasionally blinds the bearer. “So just... oh right.”

Rin lifted her head, “Which is why I'm so upset about this.” It was a lie of course, but it sounded good.

The sound of Markus hollering “Can we come back?” echoed down the hallway.

Buck leaned back in his chair and shouted “Sure!”

Stan creased his brow, “Hang on, is she even fertile?”

Rin rolled her eyes, “Assuming the extended RAS hasn't damaged us, I'd say it's a safe bet.”

Stan frowned, “Huh.”

Markus and Andrea walked back in.

There weren't enough seats at the table, so Andrea leaned against the wall. “Sorry for the snark.” she said, and then laughed nervously.

“We've decided to get married.” Markus said, grinning.

“What?” Rin asked, “How does that solve anything?”

“Guys.” Buck put in, “I'm excited you're both getting along so well, but this is about birth control.”

“Why control it?” Asked Markus, “It's clear humans can survive here. We should be going for the long game; Building a technology base. Procreation is essential for society.”

Rin locked eyes for a moment with Andrea who smirked a little and shrugged. Rin spoke up, “That's, very noble, I'm sure, but we don't have the resources to support children right now. Hell, we barely have food!”

Markus' grin broadened, “I don't think we're really talking about what's bothering you.”

“Okay, fine. Rebuilding society is not a feasible goal. We tried this in college, and it takes ages! You can't just, I don't know, carve a day-care out of rocks! We should be focusing on getting rescued, or escaping, or something.”

Markus tilted his head slightly, “Touché. However, the goals are not mutually exclusive.”

Rin was inexplicably desperate, “And she could die in childbirth!”

Andrea looked up at the ceiling, “Yes, thank you.” She chuckled, “That is a possibility.”

Buck was staring at some point in the corner of the room.

Rin closed her eyes. “Okay, look, personally, I think you're both crazy. But if you're both willing to look out for your own... consequences, then I'm not sure what else there is to say.”

“No.” Buck stated flatly. “I'm in charge here and this is nonsense. You're using libertarian terms, but this is commune.”

“We'll make our own then?” Markus asked, halfway to a blunt statement.

Buck crossed his arms, “Two fifths, of everything. We've got an inventory too, so don't go trying anything.”

Andrea cocked her head and looked at Stan, “Maybe three fifths?”

Stan was nonplussed “I'm with whoever owns the reactor. Can that be my fifth?”

Rin stood and grabbed the sleeve of Buck's smudged jumpsuit. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”

“I thought that's what we were all doing, just talking.” But he stood up anyway and followed her out.

They stood in a dark sweltering hallway. Buck leaned on the bulkhead, and Rin stood smoldering just in front of him.

“Look,” Rin said, her voice just above a whisper. “This is insane.”

“You're the one who was all upset.” Buck responded, his voice a low rumble in the humid gloom.

“Maybe I was shocked. Maybe I over-reacted. But Buck, if you force them to leave, and they die out there...” Rin had to stop before the quiver in her voice got out of control.

“You'll what.” Buck asked, unmoved.

“You remember inventory item ninety-nine?”

“Yeah, that crazy looking...”

“If you let them die out there, I'm going to find you when you're all alone, and I'll come to you naked. And when you...”

Buck's eyes widened, the whites tiny circles in the dark. “Fine! I get it! They can stay! Geez, why do you have to be such a crazy bitch?”

Rin hoped he could see her bared teeth as she grinned, “I'm just trying to keep you from making a decision you'll regret later.”

“I'd hate to see them go anyhow. I just don't want to have this crazy drama. We've got enough work without it.”

“I'm sorry for freaking out Buck. It just, surprised me is all.”

“Man, it's hot in here huh? I'm thinking of slipping out of this jumpsuit for a bit. Want to join me?”

“Ugh. Ask me when you don't reek with sweat and swamp-vine.”

“And then you'll say yes?”

“No! Listen to yourself!” Rin said, and stalked away. They were all going to need cold showers in this heat.

Rin got back to the table and sat down. Stan was gone and Andrea was sitting on Markus' lap, talking quietly. She got up as Rin entered the room. There were a few moments of silence. Rin realized that Buck hadn't followed her back.

“So should we start packing?” Andrea asked.

“No” Rin said, “I'm sorry for all this. We'd love it if you would stay.”

“Oh! Thank you Rin.” Andrea came over with her arms open wide. Rin didn't have quite enough time to stand, so they had a lop-sided hug where she sat.

Markus just leaned back and sighed.


The next day Andrea and Markus went out at dawn to gather more food. Rin told them what to look for. The vines grew in bunches and patches, but no large scale pattern had emerged so far. Then Rin went to lie down in her bunk. She was always tired these days. The swampvine had taken the edge off her hunger, but the desire to eat something “good” remained. They had all talked about testing the rest of the plants, but no one really wanted to risk ingesting deadly poison. Maybe in a few days when things settled down.

Rin was asleep when the explosion occurred. She woke sharply to the echoes ringing off the cliffs on the far side of the valley. “What was that?” She mumbled to herself. It could have been lightning, but there was no storm outside. Dry lightning? She stumbled into the daycomp.

Something looked odd outside. Twinkle was burning high in the sky, but the other side of the valley looked wrong somehow. The shadows were wavering, as if in a strong wind. The light was growing brighter?

“Get inside the ship!” she heard Stan screaming from somewhere outside.

“Hey Ninja, what's the ruckus?” Buck stood behind her, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

“I don't know. Something blew up.” She gestured vaguely out the window as she watched.

The hill on the right was outlined in an intense white glow, growing swiftly brighter, larger. Rin heard the airlock cycle.

“They were out there!” Stan yelled down the length of the ship, ”They were still outside!”

Suddenly the scene resolved itself. Buck and Rin spoke almost at the same time.

“Shit.” “Fire.”

The blaze swept with unnatural speed across the landscape. The smoke was almost clear, and the flames only leapt a few feet from the ground. It was more like a blowtorch flame than a brush fire. She could hear the hissing roar growing nearer, like a screaming whisper.

Rin found she had to say something. “Wow.” was what came out.

The heat from the blaze was growing intense, Rin backed away from the window. She could see the fruit on the trees swelling as they boiled. Taut and full and round for a moment before they exploded in bright flashes of flame. She could hear the “Foomp!” as each one burst.

“There goes our food.” Buck said. He was standing next to the window, looking out at the forest. The whole thing must have been a mass of flame. A sound like slow-motion fireworks echoed through the hull.

The edge of the fire was passing in front of them now. Rin shielded her face for a few moments with her arm, and was shocked when it passed quickly by; Only a few seconds and the blaze was gone, moving off in a brilliant band away from them and over the hill. The ground was charred. Not even stubble remained of the undergrowth. A thin rain of soot fell all around. The light was muted. A cloud had formed above them, lit from above by the too-bright sun, and from below by the receding wall of flame.

Rin stepped cautiously up to the window. There was a single crack running diagonally across the outer pane. Buck put his head above Rin's in the narrow frame.

“Looks like the trees survived.” Rin said.

“There might be a few swampvines left. Probably taste even worse than normal.” Buck said from above her.

“We've got to find Andrea and Markus!” Stan yelled from the airlock. “They could be badly hurt!”

Buck began walking aft, “Don't open it yet, there might be toxic fumes from the fire.”

They waited a few minutes. There didn't appear to be much smoke. Buck wanted to wait longer and Stan wanted to go looking for the others as soon as possible. They settled on cycling the airlock and smelling the air. Rin and Buck waited in the day room while Stan ran his test. They could all smell the sharp burnt odor before Stan called back that it seemed alright. Donning their grass hats, the three stepped into the airlock and then out into the blazing light.

The vista had certainly changed. Where there had been deep green undergrowth now a drift of white cinders swirled. A faint ticking and crackling came from the ground underfoot. The Armstrong seemed unaffected, except for an additional layer of soot. The forest seemed oddly untouched, for while the grassy leaves and all been incinerated the trunks seemed the same as ever. The twisting branches stood bare, looking like some witches magical forest. Really, the vista reminded Rin of nothing so much as the poster on her wall. The white ash almost looked like snow, and the grassless trees could almost be winter-bare oaks. If not for the perspiration inducing swelter, Rin might have felt wistful. As it was she mostly just felt sick.

“Markus! Andrea! Are you okay!” Stan yelled.

“Knock it off.” Buck ordered, “If they survived they'll be on their way soon.”

Stan turned to look up at Buck. “They might be hurt. Go look over in the forest.” Stan pointed to the thicket along the bluff, “Rin, you check around those rocks. I'll look down by the river.”

Buck frowned, “Fine. Meet back here in...” He glanced at his wrist and realized none of them had working watches, “Just meet back here soon. Don't go too far.”

They all started off, roughly in the same direction. It was strange growing slowly farther from the others as their paths diverged. Rin realized she had never been out alone on the alien world before. Stan called out every so often, but Buck was silent. Rin didn't feel like yelling on top of the hiking, so she was quiet as well. The ground here was uneven and rocky, where the forest fell in steps toward the river. Rin seemed to recall there had been less vegetation here. There was a good chance of surviving the fire on the rocky ground. Of course, there was less chance that Andrea and Markus had been hanging out on the bare rock. Odds were that they had still been gathering vines when the fire struck.

Rin's search quickly became an exercise in frustration and stumbling. The broken ground offered so many places to hide that it would take days to find them all. Of course, if Markus and Andrea were in any kind of health they wouldn't be hiding any more. Rin's mood quickly grew sour. Buck was right, if they were going to turn up, they would have done so. Then another thought struck her. Maybe they were already far off! They had left hours ago by the look of the sun. Who knew the distance they could have covered in that time. Maybe they had seen the smoke and were headed back now! They would probably be coming along the grassy plain up ahead.

Rin raised her eyes and shielded them from the sun. Looking down from the higher ground on which she was standing she could see a good portion of the plains. There were several veins running across the smoother ground. After a second Rin distinguished these as the charred remains of the swampvines, or perhaps a poisonous look-alike.

There were several blackened lumps out on the plain as well. Rin didn't recall seeing plants like that before. They were thick and splayed like the trees, but lay along the ground instead of stretching into the air. There were two of them.


Digging the graves was a lot of work. Rin let the big strong men handle it. No point in pressing for sexual equality right at the minute. The pre-dawn night was bitterly cold though, and she paced with Ando to keep warm. They had decided to continue along the tangent begun where the officers and primary crew were buried. If about another three hundred people died the extending line would reach the river. As it was, it just looked a little odd and lopsided, but there was a container on the other end of the row, and no one felt like moving it.

Pacing to keep warm also doubled as sentry duty. Ando and Rin did their best to keep an eye out for anything moving. Their feet crunched on frost and dead cinders, beating a perimeter into the ground. Now that the landscape was a blackened crust this was both easier and harder. Easier since there was no underbrush for critters to sneak through. Harder since the dark skin of the native life forms blended seamlessly with the scorched earth. Rin was beginning to suspect that this whole incineration thing happened fairly often.

In a couple hours there were three fairly decent graves ready. The sky was growing lighter with the coming day. Rin and Ando had scared off several scavengers, and there was a herd of some kind moving about a good ways off, but overall the digging went unhindered. The holes weren't six feet by any means. More like a meter really. Stan and Buck, who had started with a will, were moving like old men by the end. Rin suspected it had something to do with the alien diet, too much stress, not enough sleep, and whatever toxins were in the air.

The bodies were placed in the graves without much ceremony. Stan brought out the footlockers. They didn't have any spare cloth to carry or lower the corpses. Buck ended up hoisting each cradled in his arms and stumble-jump-sliding into the appropriate pit. Markus and Andrea left greasy black smears on his arms and shirt. Rin shuddered, but did not look away. It was too solemn a moment to be embarrassed.

When the bodies were in place Rin went to each grave in turn. She had brought a token for each dead crew member. It had seemed appropriate when she thought of it, but standing by Relnf's grave, she felt she really didn't want to hop down. There wasn't much room anyhow, and it seemed disrespectful. She settled for kneeling at the edge and gently tossing in the picture of Relnf's family they had found in his locker. “If this were a movie,” Rin thought to herself “It would have floated down gently and landed on his chest.” But it didn't. The paper spiraled gracelessly, and landed face down above Relnf's shoulder, propped with one corner against his neck. Rin wanted to adjust it for him. She found herself tilting her own head a bit, trying to dislodge the pointy photograph. She closed her eyes and forced herself to stand.

Markus was the hardest. The burns didn't change his skin color that much, so he looked almost normal. Well, except for the pink seams where the skin had charred and cracked. Rin had brought a wood carving Markus had been working on before they went into hibernation. For whatever reason, the thought that the carving would never be finished pushed Rin over the edge. She broke into quiet weeping, kneeling on the edge of the shallow grave. The weeping turned to sobs. She cried for the crash, and the starvation, and the wasted lives, and the stress. She cried because there was no damned coffee left! The sobbing turned into screams and she threw her head back and reveled in it. Holding the lump of wood -- she thought it was going to be a seagull, but no one would ever know now -- she hurled it with all her might and one final “Raaahh!” of rage in the general direction of the charred corpse that used to be Markus. She didn't see where it landed. The world was a blur of tears.

For Andrea she didn't bother to kneel. The weeping and yelling had drained her emotions. With a shuddering intake of breath she let the plastic keepsake fall. It was some kind of memorabilia that Rin couldn't even identify. She hoped it had meant something to Andrea. Not that she would notice. The idea of tokens seemed pointless now. Rin walked back to stand next to Ando and the others where they waited in a rough line.

Their breath hung in the air, a fading fog bank renewed by their continued life. After a short pause where Rin wiped her nose on her jumpsuit sleeve, Ando startled everyone by speaking. His voice was the normal volume, but it seemed loud in the pre-dawn silence.

“As Crewman Markus is labeled in the roster as a Christian, I believe he would have wished for some Christian ceremony at his burial. I am prepared to deliver a short passage from the Book of Common Prayer, as long as that would not offend anyone present.”

Rin couldn't help but ask, “Where did you find a book like that?”

“I have memorized several religious texts for reference. Does your question mean that you are offended?”

“No, go ahead.” Rin said. As no one else objected, Ando began. The language was old English, but it was pronounced in Ando's normal speaking voice. This gave the homily an oddly incongruous air.

“All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. He that raised up Jesus from the dead will also quicken our mortal bodies, by his Spirit that dwelleth in us. Wherefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. Thou shalt show me the path of life; in thy presence is the fullness of joy, and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.”

“That didn't make any sense.” Buck put in, after a short pause.

Ando's face, which had been wearing his neutral expression, changed to concern, “I'm sorry Buck. That seemed the most appropriate passage given the context. There is much more to the ceremony, and several permutations, but most of it requires either prayer or singing. Should I recite the whole ceremony?”

“No, never mind.” Said Buck, “It's just... crazy is all.”

They were all silent for a bit more. Twinkle had almost come up.

“Did you have... anything Stan?” Rin asked.

“No, let's go cover them up.”

“Wait.” It was Buck. “I have something to say.”

They all turned to look at Buck. Ando actually turned to face him, sharply as if he were going to salute.

“I wrote a poem. It's, well, here goes.” Buck coughed, as if it were the proper way to begin reciting.

“I woke upon a foreign world, It had not friend or foe.

But friends about me gathered round, and showed me where to go.”

Buck's voice grew shrill with restrained tears. He continued to squeeze out each line,

“We knew each other from before, like siblings from a dream.

But blood and fire took a few, with coughing or with scream.

We wished to stay and talk with them, to laugh and play and live.

But in the end, their lives for ours, were all they had to give.

With Markus, Andrea, and Relnf, our memories will be.

And rising on the Phoenix wings, may their pure souls rise free.”

Buck ended with a sniff, as if this and the cough were perfect bookends for a graveside poem. It occurred to Rin that, perhaps, they were.

“That was beautiful Buck. Thank you.” said Rin.

Buck nodded and stared straight ahead, eyes glistening. Then, wearily and with a deep sigh, he bent and took a shovelful of dirt and threw it into the middle pit. Stan joined him, and soon all three were scooping, or pushing it in with the sides of their shoes.

Rin chuckled irreverently, “This is like some sort of dirt football.” She gave a clod a kick, and it tumbled with a tiny “thud” into Relnf's grave. “Score. One point for the people who are still alive.”

Buck groaned as he straightened, “Believe me, I'm still alive. You want to take a turn shoveling Rin?”

“No, you're doing good.”

The graves were half full of dirt when Stan broke the silence a few minutes later. “I like the Phoenix idea Buck. It fits this place, what with the fire and all.”

“Less depressing than 'Shitworld' anyway.”

The name stuck, and the planet where they were stranded was “Phoenix” from then on. It proved to be even more appropriate a name as the days passed.

Twinkle was well above the horizon by the time they finished piling the dirt back in the holes. Ando killed a scuttler that got too close, and they cooked it up for breakfast. Rin was glad of the warm meat, no matter how oddly rubbery it was. No one had enough, but they all headed inside and went to sleep before the day got too warm.

Ando was left to stand watch. Which was fortunate, because this was when he solved their food problem.



“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.


“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.


“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.


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.


“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.


“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.”


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.


“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.”


“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...”


“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.


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.”


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.”


“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.


“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.”


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



“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.”


“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.”


“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?


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.”


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?”


“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?”


“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?


“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.


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

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



“...And once again ISAC guarantees full coverage for all parts of the hearing, except those which may reveal confidential information.”

“Yeah, which is pretty much all of it.” Rin grumbled to herself. Holding the remote out like a phaser, she silenced the babbling box. It was amazing how facile the coverage became without the audio. In the sudden quiet, Rin found that she had made a prolonged “pkchhhh” sound as she pressed the mute button. She clamped her lips self-consciously, but there was no one else in the hotel room.

The limo was waiting for her at the curb. Apparently the motor pool had decided to rent quite a few of them during the hearing. They were everywhere these days. The “clump” of the shutting car door sealed out the noise of the crowd. The ride to the Houston Convention Center was uneventful. As Rin was escorted into the building the crowd pressed to penetrate the security perimeter. The guards knew their work; They kept Rin and the crowds separated. The obvious half was to keep the crowds from reaching Rin. She tried not to think about the other half.

The hearing room was fairly small, all things considered. A couple nondescript desks at the front, maybe a fifty rows of fold-up chairs. It reminded Rin of the depressing business seminars she had attended in high-school. It was about half full now, but would undoubtedly be packed by the time the opening ceremonies began. In the main convention hall politicians and power brokers from all over the world were jawing it up. Everyone wanted to take advantage of the inquiry to have their say on whatever issue it was that they had hitched their career to. The proceedings themselves were just a locus for this maneuvering, a precipitation seed in the super-saturated international solution. Plus most of them couldn't get in to the event themselves, which just made the need to be “at the hearing” that much more pressing.

Rin was lost in thought, sitting in her uncomfortable plastic cushioned chair, when the opening ceremonies began. Fourteen different national anthems played, no doubt in a carefully considered order. There was probably a committee for the anthems alone. The entire setting screamed officious bullshit. Rin's mind wandered as the “Head of Something-or-other” began a speech. She decided “Head of the Committee for the Anthems at the Hearing of the International Space and Aeronautics Commission on the Destruction of the Armstrong and Associated Crew Testimonies for the Determining of Who will be Least Offended if Their Country's Anthem is Played Last” would just about top off a standard business card when you added a name and telephone number. No e-mail address of course. These people were much too busy and important to read e-mails.

The acoustic ceiling tiles reminded Rin of the Armstrong. They looked nothing alike, but the concept of “tiles” resonated. She would never see the Armstrong again. It had been a home for almost a year. Now it was abandoned, probably too radioactive to touch for another thousand years. She looked around and wanted to scream “Shut up!” at the portly bureaucrat droning on in the front of the room. Instead her dress hissed softly as she straightened it once again.

After the opening ceremonies they took a break for lunch. Due to security precautions, no one was allowed to leave the room, so plastic sandwiches were served in soggy wrappers. Maybe it was the other way around. Rin honestly couldn't tell at this point. They had all been instructed to not discuss among themselves, as this would be outside the “Spirit of impartiality we are striving to uphold during these proceedings.” Although nothing said during the hearings was legally binding, there was a feeling of gravity and order. Talking about how stupid all of this was seemed like a bad idea to Rin, so she kept her mouth shut.

The testimonies began that afternoon. Of course, the ground crew were called first. There were questions about the fuel and about the power plant. There was discussion over the preparation of the RAS-R system and how often the medical supplies were checked. At one point a technician began reading from a logbook, line by line with numbers out to four places. Apparently this crossed some unspoken line of ridiculousness and the technician was instructed to summarize. After that things went a bit more quickly.

When the quartermaster was called to testimony Rin sat up in her seat. As far as she could tell there was no “questions from the audience” section to these hearings. Well, damned if she was going to let this criminal walk away! Just as the interviewer was beginning to say “Thank you Quartermaster Scott, that will be all.” Rin rose to her feet. The proceedings stumbled gracelessly to a halt.

Into the silence, Rin ground out her accusation, word by word.

“The. Coffee. Was. Terrible.” She narrowed her eyes and delivered her deadliest glare, “Why?” Then she sat down.

A strangled rustle rose from the crowd. Something between a chuckle and a corporate cough of embarrassment. Rin's victim appeared genuinely startled. However, before he could respond the Head of Ceremonies cut him off.

“Crew-woman Rin, please refrain from interrupting the hearings. You may speak freely when you are called on. Thank you, Quartermaster Scott, for your patience. That will be all.”


The bleary transition to waking consciousness from whatever far realm to which souls flee in sleep. A few deep breaths, clearing the cobwebs from behind the eyes. Swinging the bare legs out from beneath the rippling sheets to make similar impressions in the cool morning air.

Sitting for a space on the edge of the bed, Rin reviewed the morning. She considered brushing her teeth, but decided against it. Then she felt mildly guilty for this decision, as she did every morning. The next step in the routine, after the pang of guilt had passed, was to get up and put on some clothes.

At this juncture she recalled the significance of the particular morning she was so absently attending to. The hearing. Her testimony. Not that it would make any difference. In her choice of clothes that is. Her formal attire was uniform, since it was composed of a single outfit.

Her active participation in the hearing was scheduled for “late” in the program, four days after the opening. Where the convention center had been bustling, now it was much more subdued. Not deserted by any means, but fissured into lonely oases of activity, strung together with caravans across the cavernous gulf. All the least dedicated leeches had gone home already, their schemes accomplished or burnt out to ice cold cinders.

The daily session opened. The daily call to order. The daily summary of the previous day's features, this time sporting the reading of the crew logs.

And then she was called forward.

Rising from her chair she felt the room swim around her. Whatever the past months had done to strengthen her body, she was clearly not up to even her former fitness. That, and perhaps the stress of the past few weeks. Laboring over preparing her testimony. Struggling with her relationship with her brother and father. Focusing on what had to be done.

Like right now, what needed to be done was walking.

She waited a moment more to steady herself, and then started off. Her feet were nearly silent on the short commercial carpet. The ever present odor of convention center wafted by, smelling of plastic and paint and too little air conditioning and the inevitable human side effects. Around her the ambient conversation dulled to a nearly imperceptible murmur. She was nearly to the first row of chairs now.

Someone started clapping. Curse them! They should have saved the energy until after her performance. Rin realized that is what her testimony had become in her mind. She was going to recite for them, a performance of her own perspective. The applause swelled as Rin mounted the small stage and neared the chair. It was a poor plastic thing, just like all the other chairs in the room.

Rin froze as she turned to sit. The crowd was all looking at her, and most were clapping. A few were even standing. Rin scanned their eyes, and saw none of the irony she had feared. They recognized what she had been through, even if they could not fully understand it. Rin gave a little wave and sat. The applause quickly died, as if itself relieved to be finished. The few standing took their seats. What had they been clapping for anyway? Did anyone really know?

This was it. The moment she had been preparing for. As she turned to sit a feeling of certitude washed over her. This was what she was ready for. Finally, a confrontation with the establishment, with the doers and makers of her woes. A showdown, perhaps, or at least a last stand. No doubt the feeling was mutual for many seated in the crowd.

Rin looked out over the sea of faces, perhaps more like a pond. They were somewhat less inspiring as an audience than she had hoped, especially now that the applause had ended. Maybe twenty rows of officials, aides, recorders, reporters, and others who had been called to testimony, or merely wanted to be there for the political blood-letting. Rin hoped to give them what they were looking for.

Of course, not all of them would be happy about what she had to say. If she had done her research, most of them were complicit, at least in a small way, with the crash of the Armstrong. It might not ever come to court. In fact, Rin strongly suspected that this was the highest “court” that her testimony would ever see. Still, she hoped it would make a few of them question their motives. Their aspirations. Their goals.

She also hoped they would let her go when it was all over.

She was shivering in a cold sweat now. The stress of the moment threatened, for a moment, to overwhelm her. But no, she was prepared. Focus on what you are going to say. Focus on what you know. Focus on the details. Focus...

Upside Down

Sideside Otherside

Besides taking turns working at the pit, Rin and Stan had not much to do but sit in the comms room and listen to the radio noise thrown off by Twinkle. The comms set was one of the few pieces of equipment that ran off battery backup, and consumed barely any juice unless it was transmitting. The antenna picked up a variety of frequencies, and Stan had figured out how to set it to “scan” mode. This mostly just picked up on the loudest radio signal, which on this uninhabited planet happened to be the sound of the stellar wind buffeting Phoenix's finicky magnetosphere.

The noise was strangely comforting. Not the radio static you'd hear if tuned to the wrong frequency on an FM radio. Nor the “dit dit” of the “no signal found” on a digital radio. This was an odd whistling, tuneless and alien. It felt perfect for two castaways. Hurled down from the sky, they huddled in the deteriorating hull of their once proud vessel and listened to the whale song of the stars. Sometimes, it reminded Rin of a tea kettle, which reminded her of her mom making coffee in their ridiculously Spartan home. Other times it was a howling wind, or a chirruping bird.

During the odd moments when they were both in the comms room together, Rin and Stan would play the cloud gazing game, only with the shape of the sound. One would walk in, smelling faintly of scorched soil, and stand in the doorway for a moment listening to the faint dip and hum before declaring “Sounds like a bad tube.” This was the signal that the game was to begin. Then the other would listen for a moment before responding with “Sounds like it.” From here they took turns at “Sounds like ...” for a few minutes.


“Sounds like a steam engine”

Another pause

“Sounds like the clothesline in a storm.”

Another pause, longer this time

“Sounds like a baby crying.”

A very short pause here

“Sound like Twinkle is going down”

This was the “game over” phrase. The things they called out tended to repeat, but that was okay. It was mostly to have something to say. To have a reason to exercise their vocal chords. After the game ended, there would be a few more minutes silence during which the sound from the com unit -- unfettered by the civilizing power of familiar names -- would grow into something utterly alien once again. Then the person in the chair would sigh, get up, and go about their duties. The new person would have a seat, and begin their shift. Sometimes the shift included dozing off, but they tried to keep awake.

Of course, they weren't really listening for the sound of a train whistle or a an engine downshifting.

They were listening for the rescue ship. The ship that never came.

Side Scroll

“Hey Rin, come check this out!” Stan called from the airlock.

Rin cambered out of the tater-mine with a small haul of the roots. Dusting herself off, she reflected grimly that it was enough for one person. Stan could get his own if he wanted to interrupt her. It was early morning; The best time to work outside, when there were no predators and the air was still fairly cool. They had beaten a decent path from the ship to the pit over the weeks since the fire. Walking it in the dark was merely dangerous now, instead of suicidal, but in the morning light Rin had no problems. Of course, it was still a ways up the slope, and the roots weren't light by any means. By the time Rin made it to the ship Stan had already gone.

Operating the airlock without power was troublesome, but not particularly difficult. They left the outer door open all the time now, and just cycled the inner door using the manual release lever.

“Hurry up! There's a signal coming in!” Stan called from the comms room.

Rin paused a moment just inside the airlock. The interior was much darker than outdoors. No battery backup for the lights, and the emergency lighting had died a few days after the plant went down. When her eyes adjusted she was able to make her way carefully into the daycomp and drop her haul of roots. Then she headed to comms.

The comms room was dimly illuminated by the multiple indicator lights. No windows here. Rin could see the vague shape of Stan huddled over the panel, fiddling with knobs. There were several operational manuals strewn about.

“Sounds like a bad tube Stan.” Rin said dryly.

Stan continued to adjust switches. A burst of quiet static came from the speakers and Stan turned it off again.

“I just can't figure out how to get the recording back.”

“What did you hear Stan?”

“It was definitely a signal. Artificial. Pretty strong too. Only a few seconds long.” Stan leaned back in the chair.

“Is the com set still scanning? Maybe it will come back.”

“Yeah, here.” Stan flipped a couple of switches and the Twinkle song returned. “Nothing.”

“Well, if it's from the ISAC it should show up again.”

“Yeah, it should. If the plant was running I could load the signal logs into the computer and analyze it to pieces. As it is,” He waved his hand helplessly at the arcane radio equipment, “I can't even figure out how to get it to play back.”

“I'm sure you'll get it eventually Stan.” Rin looked out into the hallway for a moment. She debated going back to the pit, but it was a long walk. “Call me if it comes up again. I'm going to eat.”

“Sure thing.” Stan turned back to the console.

Rin paused in the doorway. It was a long walk back to the Daycomp too. And a long effort to cook the roots up into the mostly edible paste. A bit of variety would be nice. Maybe some of that herbal tea plant. It had tasted so good. If she drank enough at once maybe the poison would kill her quickly. It would be better than feeling exhausted all the time, stuck here with Stan the...

A different sound came on the speakers. “That's it.” Stan said quietly. If Rin had been much older she would have thought it sounded like a dial-up modem. But she had no such reference, and it just reminded her of some particularly bad auto-synth music she had been obsessed with in high school. The sound went on for ten or twenty seconds, modulating and repeating itself. Then it cut off sharply.

Rin found she had been holding her breath. They both breathed out at the same time. “So that was the recording huh?” Rin said.

“No, it must have transmitted again.” Stan looked at a few notes, “Ten minute interval. Exactly ten minutes actually.”


“Who knows. I'll see what I can do. Sure could use the computers.”

“I'd fix the reactor if I could Stan.”

“Well, stop bothering me then.”

Rin gathered up the roots she had collected and went to get the fire going. With any luck she would have enough to fill her stomach. After that, she should probably gather more for Stan before the day got too warm. As she made her way to the fireplace she cursed Buck for leaving. Things had been just fine. Where had he gone?

Downside Up

The signal continued to repeat every ten minutes. After the first few times Stan had stopped recording them. Each transmission sounded identical.

“What does it mean though?” Rin probably asked this once a day. Or more. Really, who was counting? It occupied her mind while she was out gathering roots. While she was lying in her bunk waiting for sleep to take her. While she was sitting in the com room hearing the metronome as the hours flew by, ten minutes at a time. It must mean something, but what?

They discussed it, of course. Aliens was the easiest answer. You could explain anything with “aliens.” In this case though, it seemed to raise a lot more questions than it answered. Why now instead of earlier? Do they know where we are? If so, why haven't they visited? Are they incorporeal? Have we already met them? Too many questions, and no answers forthcoming.

The most convincing evidence for aliens was that the signal seemed to be totally artificial, and totally foreign. Stan fiddled with the equipment for hours on end, trying to get it to verify whether the signal was in a known format, but with no success. It remained a steady cypher in their universe of known dead ends.

One haunting possibility was that of another wreck. All of their sensors were inoperable. What if another exploration vessel, of unknown origin, had also crashed on this forbidding planet? Even now, the alien crew could be struggling to survive, just as the crew of the Armstrong had done. Coming to their rescue would be the ultimate in interstellar diplomacy and good will. Rin and Stan would be heroes.

Of course, it could just as well be a malfunctioning piece of equipment that had fallen from the Armstrong. Who knows what twisted logic lay buried inside each of these gadgets? That a random fire extinguisher or black-box had decided to turn itself on after all these months wouldn't surprise Rin in the least. That it would transmit an unintelligible code was even less surprising. In that case, the whole thing was just an exercise in futile speculation, but still a welcome distraction.

The main problem was that they couldn't figure out where it was. Stan said that it was impossible to pinpoint the location from just one station. Rin was fairly sure this just meant that he wasn't interested in doing the calculations.

Outside Out

Her ongoing ignorance was shaken a few days later when Stan shouted “I've got it!” from the comms room. As she made her way from the Rec room where she had been day-dreaming, Rin wondered how Stan still had the energy to shout.

“It's nearby!” were his first words.

Rin sighed, “How close Stan?”

“Not more than a thousand miles.”

“Oh. So, only relatively nearby.”

“Are you kidding me? This is practically next-door! We could walk there if...” Stan paused uncertainly.

“If we weren't waiting for Buck to get back.”

“Yeah. I guess we could leave him a note.”

“And if we knew what direction it is.”

“Oh, I've had a direction fix for a few days.”

Rin felt her face flush, “And you didn't think to tell me?”

“Hey, like you said, we can't go anywhere until Buck gets back.”

There was a pause for a few minutes.

“How did you find out the range?”

“Oh, I had to make some assumptions about the original wave-forms. After that...” and Stan was off on one of his technical rabbit trails.

This gave Rin some time to think. Buck might really be dead. She had to face that possibility. With Buck out of the picture, and Stan growing increasingly impractical... What options did that leave her? As long as she stayed here, she was safe. But they were running out of nutrients. She could feel it in her bones, like her vigor was drying up.

Maybe, somewhere out there, there was something good to eat? Something satisfying that would stop her gums from hurting? But exploring came with the risk of... the unknown. Something unspeakable slavering for her flesh. If something out there was good to eat, then she probably was as well. Was it worth the risk? She was beginning to accept that death would meet her on any path she took.

Stan sighed, “Of course, if we were in orbit, this would be easy.”

Rin shot back, without thinking, “Just measure the time delay from two different positions in orbit, and then...”

“No, that would require three different transmissions, plus we'd need extremely precise knowledge of the exact time the transmission started.”

Stan had been holed up in the comms room, this time working on “triangulating” the origin of the transmissions. Rin's had been gathering food for two, but it was quickly growing old.

“Instead” said Stan, “you keep track of the angle to the target. At first it's just a cone, but as you gather more data that cone narrows to a line. But, since the target is moving as well, or since we're moving relative to it, we can start narrowing down the line to a point. Of course, it would take several measurements to get really accurate data, but we could certainly locate it within a few hundred meters on the first transmission.”

“Ok, I see that, but how do you 'triangulate' when you're sitting still? I mean, one point doesn't make a triangle, no matter how long you stare at it.”

“Well, two points, but yeah. The problem is establishing a baseline. I've been trying to use the reflection off of the cliffs across the river, but then I have to make some pretty precise assumptions about the nature of the rock and the distance from here to there.” Stan sighed again, “I don't know Rin, this is all very sketchy. With the computers and some decent software I could probably do it, but by hand?” He let the sentence trail off.

Rin gathered herself. She had come here to get Stan off his butt, not encourage him. “Yeah, that's what I'm thinking too. Why don't you take a turn at digging.”

Stan was indignant, “Hey, I'm doing my best with what I have!”

“Well, I'm done digging up food for you. Run your experiments on your own time.”

“Rin, this transmission could mean everything. If we find it...”

“I know Stan.”

“So, we're all doing our part to help.”

“No, you're wasting your time, and I'm doing all the work.”

“You want to do some real work? How about thinking!” Rin was stunned. She had never seen Stan angry like this before. His face grew blotchy as he went on, “This whole time I've been slaving over the numbers, over the theories. I've practically re-invented HKM theory from the ground up! And this whole time you've been doting over that slab head! Don't think I don't know you're banging him while I'm not looking. And then you have the gall to insinuate I'm not pulling my own weight? What, is he hiding somewhere now so he won't have to work?”

“Buck and I, we're not... I don't know where he is Stan. He never told me anything about leaving.”

“Yeah, well, I'm through with your charity Rin. Go ahead and stop bringing me food. See what I care.”

Rin looked away, “I want to help Stan. Just, this isn't working.”

She could see Stan's eyes sweeping over her. She turned to glare at him, but he didn't seem to care. His gaze raked her filthy jumpsuit. Rin suddenly felt very small.

Stan met her eyes, “You really want to help?” he said.

“No. Not like that.”

“You're not making this easy Rin.”

She was shaking now, “I'll run.” It came out above a whisper, but just barely.

“You would too; That's the sad part.” Stan turned back to his papers, “You're wasting that fine body Rin. Don't let me see you around.” He shook his head sadly, “Distractions.”

Rin left without responding. Despite her words, she forced herself to walk. She hoped that it was slow enough that she did not show her fear.

Outside In

The morning was dark and frigid. There had been a run of cool weather for several days, and the growing light revealed a carpet of snow on the ground. Rin shivered as she trudged up to the ship. Was winter coming? What would the long days mean for cold instead of heat? If the ground froze, how would they dig up their food? Questions without answers hung with Rin's breath.

The quick moving clouds above let through brief glances of brilliant light. Rin glanced around herself momentarily to take in the surroundings. The major predators preferred this hour, but it was also the best time to gather food. Rin had decided to take the risk. So far it had paid off, but the shifting shadows were making her nervous.

“May as well get eaten at this point.” Rin muttered. Her flesh would probably prove as poisonous to the bugs as most of the plants were to her. Spite was just about all she had to live for anymore. But her physical aversion to fangs and their operations fueled her paranoia. Half terrified, and half longing for the terror to increase, Rin scanned the horizon.

And froze. Something was, indeed, moving over the hill. It was large, and lurched as if in pain. It must not have been doing too badly though. It appeared to be dragging some sort of carcass behind it. The whole thing struck Rin oddly though, as if she had seen it before in a dream. The shape, the gait... was that a hat?

“Buck!” Rin yelled. The creature looked up, and the hat fluttered to the ground. Then it continued the lurching gait. Rin thought of running to meet him, but she just didn't have the strength. Instead she dropped the “potatoes” and walked deliberately up the slope. Buck stopped without a word as Rin trudged up to him. His face and hands were caked with blood. Behind him, the wagon was piled with a lumpy discolored mass.

They stared for a long minute. The life was gone out of his eyes, and he looked like he had hardly slept since he had left five days ago. Rin suspected that she hardly looked better.

“You want some help with that?” Rin finally managed.

Buck simply dropped the handle, which tipped the wagon to the ground with a clunk. The contents shifted unevenly, like a stack of water balloons full of jam. Rin silently hoped that Buck would merely stay upright. She might be able to manage the wagon, but she was sure that she couldn't lift Buck, let alone carry him to safety.

He seemed to sense the helplessness of his rescuer, and took another painful step. Rin bent to lift the handle of the wagon. She stood slowly, carefully. The black spots, familiar by now, darted around the edges of her vision. The wagon was heavier than it looked. Buck was half-way down the hill before she got it moving. The handle lurched with every revolution of the misshapen wheels. Rin considered coming back for it later, but Buck had brought it this far. Rin wasn't going to be out-done by the brute.

In the end, Rin got the contents loaded safely into the airlock, and Buck made it all the way to the comms room before passing out.

“Fantastic.” thought Rin, “One more moron to take care of.” But she sniffed, blinked hard, and went to get some water.

She washed his cuts. It was fairly certain by this point that they couldn't get infections from the bacterial fauna of Phoenix. Otherwise they probably would have died horribly. Either their immune system could easily dispatch the critters, or the human biology was different enough that the germs weren't compatible. Either way, washing Buck's wounds had more of a symbolic than practical purpose. Plus, it gave her a solid excuse to send Stan out to gather food for once.

She was resting slumped against the wall of the comms room in that half dazed state of exhaustion and torpor which so often ambushed her waking hours when Buck awoke. It was more of a stirring, than an awaking. A deep sigh and a groan.

“Aah thmug usuf.” he mumbled.

Rin looked up, mustered her energy, and said “What?”

Buck coughed wetly, then pronounced carefully “Sssoooop.”

Rin nodded glumly, got to her knees, and handed him the bowl of tepid opalescent gruel. Buck took it and slowly, shakily drained the contents. Rin leaned heavily back against the wall.

When the soup was gone, Buck groaned again, then said, “The maggots, are they safe?”

“Yeah, in the airlock.”


Rin's head rested on her knees. “Why Buck?” she asked.

Buck sighed again. “I just really wanted some meat. Figured it was either stay here and die... or die out there.” The chair squeaked as he made some gesture.

“So you dug up a bunch of maggots? What will they turn into?”

“They're good to eat.” Rin could hear the strength coming back into his voice. “Some kind of landslide had uncovered the nest; All I've eaten the whole way back.”

“Explains your whole,” Rin jerked her chin in his direction, “You know, passing out thing.”

“Dehydrated probably. Didn't like to drink un-boiled water.”

“But you'd eat raw alien maggots?”

“Ooh so good. You've got to have some before I eat them all. Stan too. Filling.”

Rin couldn't remember the last time she had felt full. Her memory was a haze of hunger. Her mouth welled up with saliva. A month ago she would have been disgusted at the thought. She felt the faintest twinge of horror, though its target was impossible to discern. What was she becoming? “Thanks for bringing them back. Probably full of protein.”

“Least I could do.”

They sat for a few minutes, breathing the same air. The mysterious signal warbled into the silence, chattering and gibbering incomprehensible static. Buck leaned forward, searched the arcane controls, then adjusted a few selectors. The sound cut off in mid-transmission.

“Don't lose that signal!” Rin protested, “Stan's been working on back-tracking it. We think it's artificial.”

“Yeah, the beacon is a good half-day's walk from here.”

Rin groaned, “One of ours?”

“What did you think it was, aliens?” When Rin didn't respond Buck began to chuckle. “Hehe, you did! You figured you'd discovered an alien civilization. Classic.”

Rin frowned, “Well, no...” she began.

“I can just imagine Stan doing his figures. Is that what all these papers are?” he waved at the room lightly dusted with sheets of scribbled notes.

“We also theorized it could be an ISAC transmission.” Rin amended lamely.

“Yeah, look” Buck pointed to an eleven segment display reading out a scrolling series of digits, “Bearing, range, and velocity, plus a thirty-two character label.” as he said this, the words 'LANDING ZONE 01' marched slowly across the glowing red display.

“Who are you trying to fool?” Rin asked.

“If ISAC does come to our rescue, we don't want them dropping the landing boat on our heads.”

Rin completed the thought, “And we really don't want them debating the best place to land. Best to offer a clear target.”

Buck just nodded, and leaned back in the chair. “Wake me when they show up.”

They ate the rest of the maggots over the next couple days. Rin felt rejuvenated, whether by renewed hope or the filling food it was hard to tell.

Buck lived in the comms room for over a week. Rin brought him watery soup whenever she passed by.

She found herself passing by the comms room with unusual frequency.


Rin almost died when the transfer alarm went off.

She was sitting on Buck's lap drowsing, leaning on his chest. It was early morning and they had stayed up late talking and listening to Twinkle. She was just reaching the point where it was worth getting up to start the day when the three tone minor chord sounded.

If a claxon and a fire engine siren had gotten married, built a nice little house, and had a front door, this would have been their doorbell.

She must have jumped clear over the chair because she found herself on the floor on all fours. Her hair stood on end. Everything about her was cat-like at that moment. Having been startled from her rest the most important thing was to appear to have not been startled at all. She realized she was doing this a moment later, and was just about to rectify it with a string of curses. Before she did, the chord ended and an authoritative voice declared, at an ear-splitting volume.

“Transfer proximity alert. Check course and heading.”

And that was all. The reverberations died away in the walls. The eerie tune of the Twinkle song continued as if nothing had happened.

“What was that?” Buck mumbled, stirring in his chair.

The chair spun slowly around, Buck saw Rin out of the corner of his eye just as she let out a long low sigh.

“Gaah! Rin!”


“Don't sneak up on me like that!”

“I didn't... you were... Look, what was that alarm all about?”

“Yeah, sounds like...” Buck rose from his chair and checked a panel to one side of the room. “Yep, someone turned the volume all the way up. Must have wanted to hear it if they were outside or something. Yikes, that was loud.”

“I mean, 'transfer alert'? Did Stan send another probe just now?”

“No, must be another ship entering the system.” He gave her his biggest goofiest grin, “Here to rescue us all!”

Rin's breath caught in her throat, but then her heart fell. “I hate you so much!” She could feel tears prickling the edges of her eyes.

“No no! Look!” Buck pointed at some random looking numbers, “Could be a long orbit. They must have beaten the signature coming in.”

“There's really another ship?”

Stan's voice came from the doorway, “What ship? What's happening?”

“Buddy,” Buck said with a mock seriousness “I'm calling in that hug!”

“No WAY!” Stan and Buck embraced awkwardly. It was crowded now in the tiny coms room. “We did it!”

Rin discovered that she couldn't see quite clearly.

“The transmitter!” Stan sniffed “Is it on?”

“Can't transmit without the reactor.” Rin warned.

“There's got to be something. A handheld? Anything!” Stan started ransacking the drawers. They were filled with carefully labeled procedure books. Rin doubted “How to Signal for Help from an Alien World” was among them.

“We can transmit using the emergency battery.” Buck put in, “But it won't last long. Especially since we've been using it to play Twinkle Tunes.”

“Guys, listen.” Rin said. They all grew quiet.

Twinkle's haunting melody was gone. Replacing it was something utterly out of place, and utterly artificial. A harsh staccato growing rapidly quicker until it blended into a rising hissing whistle. The sound repeated twice before cutting off. They all looked at each other.

“Weird.” said Buck.

“Sounds digital.” said Stan.

“I need to pee.” said Rin. With short quick steps she left the room.

When she returned Stan and Buck were arguing over whether to use the battery power to transmit now, or wait until they heard something from their would-be rescuers.

“Maybe we've attracted some alien race.” Buck reasoned, “They just sent us their first-contact message. They have no idea where we've come from. When they arrive, we will tell them we are all that is left of a mighty race. Broken by war with the Terror from the Beyond, we have fled across the galaxy to hide here on this planet. They must defeat the Terror and free the galaxy. To do so, they will need our miraculous technology, buried on our home world Earth. Spirited home aboard their mighty vessel, we will...”

“Or they think we are aliens.” Stan interrupted. Everyone was quiet for a second.

“Guys...” Rin began. Getting interrupted by the radio, Rin noted that this was becoming quite her thing.

“Greetings to any survivors of the ISV Armstrong. This message will repeat. This is the IEV Alouise...”

The rest was lost. Rin had no idea why she was screaming, but there it was. Buck's mouth and eyes were open wide in something between a laugh and a roar. Stan was squealing with glee, jumping in a tight circle, fists close to his face, elbows tucked in. Buck threw his arms out and swept everything in the room into his embrace. Rin, Stan, the chair, and two dangling audio cables found themselves wrapped together in celebration. Rin took a short breath and let out a strangled sob. They were all crying now. Crying and laughing and weeping and staring into each other's eyes and reminding each other of the good news.

“We're saved!” “We made it!” “It worked!”

They all recovered after about ten thousand years of frenzied bliss. Their faces were moist with tears and sweat and Rin could feel a lump forming on the back of her head. The radio continued steadily.

“...teen hours. Stay well clear of the landing site. If there are no survivors, any robotic personnel are ordered to stand by and conserve power until further notice. Hang in there. We'll see you soon.” There was a pause and a pop and then “Greeting to any survivors...” began once again.

“Okay, turn on the radio. I'll talk to them.” Rin's voice felt husky from all the yelling.

Stan started flipping switches “Sure thing Ninja.” Rin was sure it was the first time he had called her that.

Buck handed her the audio headset. “There will be a delay of...”

Rin waved him off as she slid the headset on, “Yeah, I know.”

Buck just nodded.

Stan was fiddling with some settings, “... check... levels... Say something Rin.”

“Uh, something Rin said just now... Are you transmitting?”

“Looks good, okay.” Stan cut the looping audio as he got up and moved to one side. “Just flip this switch to transmit.” He indicated a single black switch in a row of about a million identical switches. It was helpfully labeled 'BKP BATER TRNSMT EMG OVRD' in microscopic font. “Say 'transmission over' or something when you're done.”

Rin took the seat. She nodded slowly for a few seconds, glancing purposelessly across the inscrutable controls. Then she took a deep breath, let it out in a rush, and flipped the switch.

The room was filled with the piercing screech of feedback. Rin flipped the switch back off and glared at Stan.

“Sorry about that.” Stan said. He quickly adjusted something. “Try it now.”

With decidedly less deliberation, Rin flipped the transmission switch again. Nothing happened. That was probably what was supposed to happen. Stan gave her the thumbs up.

“Hello.” That seemed like a good place to start. What was the name of that ship again?

“Greetings Alvin-wheeze,” That couldn't be right, nothing to do but go on, “This is Rin of the Armstrong. The ISV Armstrong.” She was getting lost. This shouldn't be so difficult. The taste of blood brought her back on track.

“The Armstrong has crashed on Phoenix and is mostly broken. We are without provisions. There are three surviving crew and two robots. Crewman Buck, Crewman Stan, Bot Ando, Bot Molly, and myself, Rin. Please bring food and nutrient supplements. And Coffee.”

She felt like there was something she was forgetting. A movement caught the corner of her eye. It was Buck. He was champing his teeth and waggling his index fingers on his forehead.

“Oh, and watch out for the native fauna. They are dangerous. Bring some weapons I guess, or whatever you've got.” Rin let out a little sigh.

“The officers are all dead,” she went on, “but we're doing okay. The atmosphere is breathable, obviously.” She was rambling again.

“Thanks for coming. Thanks so much for coming to get us. We're looking forward to seeing you. Um, Transmission Ended.”

After a pause Stan reached over and flipped the switch back off.

Outside Down

“Be sure to stay at least a kilometer clear of the landing site, probably more.” The radio insisted.

“Yes, we're all inside the hull of the Armstrong, and several kilometers away.” Stan responded.

Stan had been engaged in a protracted conversation with the Alouise since they had transferred into orbit. They wanted to know the exact atmospheric composition, local weather, soil density, and on and on. Stan seemed to have a good handle on the situation, so Buck and Rin had stepped into the next room to hold a low conversation.

The landing boat wouldn't arrive for a few hours still. The Alouise was dropping it off in a “terminus trajectory” which would allow the boat to transfer to the surface. But before that the Alouise had to trans away. Apparently it was the most tricky maneuver in the book. Rin still doubted that coasting a crash-landing with an interstellar vessel was in the book at all.

Buck had put the beacon down as near to dead-ahead as he could manage, so he and Rin sat in the cockpit waiting the transfer. It wouldn't be visible from where they were, but, as they had discovered, atmospheric transfer made a mess. The repeated warnings to stay clear made Rin wonder just how often this kind of landing was done. Had they even tested the landing boat? They must have at some point.

Rin wasn't sure what she was expecting, but the landing boat managed to startle and disappoint her at the same time. There was a faint flash behind the row of hills ahead, followed swiftly by a rapidly expanding dome of white. The white dome flashed out of existence almost as quickly as it formed, and seconds later a sharp clap of thunder rattled the hull. After that all they could see was a small plume of dust rising in the bright mid-day glare.

“That's it?” Asked Rin.

“You were expecting a nuke?” Buck responded.

“Well, I mean, there was just so much talk about standing clear. I expected something... bigger.”

“Want to go see the landing site?”

Rin tried to lean back in the captain's chair. The bridge chairs were not reclining, for reasons that were obvious in hindsight, “I'm fine being rescued right here.”

“Well, I'm not about to go on a hike in the middle of the day.”

“Why do we have to go at all? They know where we are don't they?”

“Well, it wouldn't be very polite of us to just sit here. We should at least send a welcoming party.”

Stan's voice echoed faintly up through the ship “I'll go!”

“See!” said Buck, “Our most diplomatic and welcoming crewman, off to bring our rescuers.”

“Buck,” Rin said in a lower voice, “You really should go too. You're the acting captain.”

“Screw that. It's hot out.”

“I'm leaving the com volume up.” Stan declared. His voice was already coming from farther away.

Rin could hear Stan cycling the airlock. A few minutes later a broad hat came into view, hovering slightly from side to side. He trudged heavily along the hillside and into the copse of the spine tree grove. Rin felt rather sorry for him, making the long walk all alone. Still though, he would probably get to eat first as well. Why hadn't she thought of that?

The com burst to life. Some sort of inquiry or announcement.

“You gonna get that?” Rin asked.

“Aaagnh” Buck waved his hand, and then rolled to his feet and began shuffling toward the com room. “We don't want any!”

“They're bringing food Buck.”

“Oh no, wait!” Buck began shuffling faster and held out his hands beseechingly. “Come back food! I didn't mean what I said!”

Intime Clock

“So we're, what, an hour from rescue now?” said Buck.

Rin was lying on the floor. It was tiring to sit up. “Depends what you mean by 'rescue' doesn't it.”

“Okay, how about some decent food.”

“God yes. A real salad and some chocolate.”

“Maybe a steak.”

“Ugh no, it hurts too much to chew.”

Buck Grinned weakly, “Steak smoothie then.”

“Oh yeah! So good.”

“Maybe some pepper.”

Rin rolled her head to the side “Um, pepper smoothie? Yuck.”

“Maybe some chives...”

“Buck, what are you going to do when you get back to Earth?”

“... garlic and barbecue sauce...”

“I'm going to call my brother. I haven't talked to him in, like, forever.”

“I don't know Rin. I'll probably eat Cheetos and watch the news.”

“You don't have anyone you want to see?”

“Wanna know a secret?”

“Yeah. You better be quick though, the rescue team will be here any minute.”

“Nah, Stan just cleared the far hill.”

“So, what's the secret? No wait, let me guess, you're actually a woman.”

“I never knew my father very well. He walked out on my Mom when I was a kid.”

Buck let it hang in the air for a moment, then went on. “When I joined the space program, Cash took me under his wing. He was like my Dad.” Buck's voice was slipping into falsetto.

“I never got say... goodbye... to... him.” Buck choked the words out. He was still sitting in the co-pilot's chair; His head leaned back, turned to the metal plates of the ceiling. Lips pulled back from his gritted teeth as if he was laughing, as his body shook.

Rin scooted along the floor until she could reach his leg. She gave his calf a pat, slow and comforting she hoped. Buck barked out a laugh like a coughing shout. His hand dangled in a fist, then fell open as his shoulders slumped. Rin took it with her other hand, and rolled onto her back, looking up at the poor broken enigma.

Buck stared out the cockpit window, and gripped tightly. Painfully really, but Rin didn't want to say anything.

“I could have, I don't know, said something.” Buck's voice was still unnaturally high, tight with feeling. “Sometimes I say things I regret,” Rin wisely chose to forgo agreeing with this “but it's the things you don't say that hurt the most.”

“Um, speaking of regretting not saying things, you're hurting my hand.”

“Sorry.” Buck loosened his grip, but did not let go. “Thanks Rin.”

“Any time.”

“No, for living. If you had died too... Well, I would only have Stan to keep me company!” Buck tried to chuckle, but it was husky and turned into a fit of coughing.

“We're all in pretty sad shape.” said Rin from the floor.

“Thank God rescue is coming. Looks like they brought an ATV too. Fan-freakin-tastic.”

“Help me up.”

Buck pulled on Rin's hand, but her shoes slipped on the deck and her head hit the metal plates with a thud, and the world went black.

But only because Rin had closed her eyes. “Damn.” she muttered through gritted teeth. “What did you do that for?”

“Not my fault you can't stand up. What happened to the ninja attitude?” Buck said as he grabbed her arm and began hauling her bodily to her feet.

“I'm only a ninja in half gee. Man that smarts!” Rin rubbed the back of her skull and looked out through the cockpit window. A six wheeled box the size of a van was rumbling slowly toward them, through the grass. Buck finished running the grimy sleeve of his jumpsuit across his eyes.

Suddenly a line of fire erupted from the back of the ATV, lighting the landscape in crimson. The entire vehicle jumped into the air, nose down, but landed upright and skidded to a halt. Around and behind it, a front of flame was rapidly expanding, engulfing their rescuers in the all-too-familiar tongues of Phoenix fire.

Downside Out

Rin and Buck stood stunned as the gout of flame washed toward them. A front of white, with the faintest hint of impossible color. Almost a shockwave, so fast it spread.

“Are they okay?” Rin thought, but it was Buck who said it.

Rin took a deep breath. “We'll know in a minute.”

From her vantage point in the cockpit Rin noticed a blur of movement ahead of the flames. The fronds of grass were being sucked toward the blaze, quivering under some unseen force. The flames passed over quickly, leaving the familiar scorched terrain behind.

Plus one unfamiliar scorched vehicle. It sat slightly askance at the end of a faint trail. It sat very still, paint blistered and blackened. The steel rib wheels rocked slightly forward and backward as something shifted within. Then a figure stepped out. She saw the legs before anything else, landing behind the vehicle. Then the rest of the orange EVA suit came into view.

It was not a standard issue EVA suit. Somehow it seemed heavier than normal. Of course, Rin thought, it would look heavier. Normally the suits were worn in zero gee. Now on the planet and under the pressure of atmosphere the whole thing sagged over the body of the wearer. Rin felt tired just watching them as they wobbled around the rover, checking for damage no doubt. The figure placed one hand against the scorched side of the ATV chassis and paused for a minute.

The figure turned and waved at them from across the short distance. Rin realized they were only a few hundred meters away from the team. There was no reason to wait any longer.

Rin realized they were still holding hands from when Buck had pulled her up off the floor. It would have been an awkward way to return to herself, but instead she smiled, gave a squeeze, and let go. They both walked back to the ladder with haste. Grab the hats, out the airlock, start across the smoldering plain. The ATV was a locus of activity, orange segments mixed with pale grey crates. Stan came out from among them, looking brown and withered by comparison.

“Let's go back inside.” was all he said.

They all turned around and made their way instinctively to the day-comp, where they sat at the table. A year ago they would have all had duties to the mission. A month ago they would have had work gathering food and attempting to communicate. A day ago they would have been listening for anything at all on the radio. But now there was nothing left to do. Everything was already done. Now they could rest. Rin could rest.

She began to think of how very connected they were to the team that was on their way. They were all members of the same organization, had gone through the same training, traveled to the same planet, the same species, same language. And yet she had no idea what to expect. They had been working toward rescue for so long, but now that it had arrived, what was going to happen? Would they come in with scanners and probes? Would they seal off the ship and gas them? What were their orders? Their assumptions?

The situation looked rather suspect, Rin had to admit. She had told them that the captain was dead, but they had no reason to believe their story, and “she just disappeared” still sounded lame. Were they to be treated as mutineers? Would they even be given a fair hearing? Stan seemed okay, but what if he had been sent back to betray them? Why were they sitting here instead of helping the crew?

Rin began to feel dizzy again. Usually it struck when she had just stood up, but they were all just sitting down right now. Rin put her head down on her folded arms.

There was a drumming sound, three short beats. It repeated. Someone was knocking at the door.

Rin took a deep breath. “I'll get it.” she said, head still down. Just a little more rest. Just a second or two more. The airlock ground open, and strange sounds came with it. Booted feet and muffled voices.

“... are good. Looks clear!”

“Leave ... helmets on!”

“... idiot!”

Rin's head was up now, as two suited figures holding tools of some sort walked in. They waved at the three seated there, but continued on through. Their voices were low, inaudible through the helmets.

Then two more came in, carrying some of the big boxes Rin had seen earlier. With five people the room was packed, and the crates didn't help. They set them awkwardly down, one on the table and one on the floor.

“Help yourself” one said through the helmet. Rin looked up to see that he was smiling. “This stuff is all for you guys.” he said as his gloved hands undid the oversized clasps. The top came off, and they all stood. Rin couldn't make sense of it for a moment, ridges of heat sealed plastic and silver labels printed in black. But they all grabbed a fist-full out of instinct, and Rin found herself holding three bulging packets of sterile saline and glucose in solution with assorted vitamins. There was a rubber straw molded right into the pack, crimped with a plastic clip.

The nectar went down easily. A little hum of enjoyment escaped her lips as she sucked it down. So easily, in fact, that Rin found she had drunk all three before looking up. Buck was ridiculous, of course, lounging back in his seat with a straw in the corner of his mouth, a ruin of discarded packets flung about him. Stan had drunk just one, and was nursing a second. Rin raised her eyebrows at this.

“Had a few on the ride over.” Stan responded.

“Thanks for eating with us.” Rin deadpanned.

Stan raised his silvered packet, “To my drinking buddies.” a dribble of the pale fluid escaped the straw in response to the sharp gesture, and spattered on the floor. It didn't matter. There were hundreds in the crate.

But by now, Rin was beginning to feel a bit odd. A kind of weight in her guts. An ache, almost like hunger, yet subtly different. Ahh, right, she was full.

One of the suited rescue team had been standing in the room the whole time. Now he stepped forward and spoke again, “There are medical supplies in the other crate. Do any of you have injuries?”

Rin's head had begun to hurt, like it was packed full of too many people. “No, I'm fine. Are you guys fine?”

“I'm feeling good.” said Buck “Drank too much of this stuff though.”

“The sugar water passes quickly.” Stan remarked, “Give it a few minutes.”

“Well, can I look at you?” The man asked.

“Nobody's stopping you.” Buck responded.

The orange bulk moved to the crate on the floor, opened it, and rummaged around for a minute, emerging with a couple of instruments.

“Oh, right.” said Buck.

“I will be brief.” the figure bellowed through the helmet, “The normal signs; Eyes, nose, mouth, ears.” He laid the instruments out on the magnetic strips inside the crate top, an assortment of lights and probes. “Volunteers?”

“Ladies first.” muttered Stan.

Rin wondered how well the suited figure could hear. The EVA suits weren't exactly designed for atmospheric operations. She raised her hand. “Me. Where do I sit?”

“I was thinking the counter over here.”

“You know,” remarked Buck in his best casual loud voice, “We DO still have a medical bay. It's got chairs and everything.”

“Perfect! Lead the way.” The figure stood, carefully lifting the lid in front of him. The four of them did a little dance to get in order, and Rin found herself leading the procession to her first examination. Why was she always getting examined? Of course, of all the times, this was probably the most warranted, but still. The plethora of investigations into her health seemed excessive.

Behind her came the orange suit, close company in the narrow rooms. It really was a procession of sorts. The small but ferocious vanguard, the priest in garish garb with the sacred tray, the accessories bringing up the rear. They stopped at the ladder. This was going to be a problem.

Rin felt a little bad for what she did next. Turning, she took the tray under one arm, which the figure relinquished with muttered thanks. She examined it for a moment, before sweeping the tools up in her hand and tossing the lid to the side. She stuffed the handful of medical equipment in a pocket of her torn and filthy jumpsuit, and began to ascend the ladder with a “Let's go.”

They came up into the medical bay, and Rin lay back on the chair. As she waited for the “Open your mouth” or whatever indignities would be called for, her mind wandered. She had been so concerned with her own survival. She had tried to make it on her own. At home, at school, in Project Bootstrap, in training, on the Armstrong, with Ando, with Buck and Stan. She had always been so very focused on her own needs, and yet it never did any good. Outside forces were always at work, helping her along and providing for her. It was as if the universe had told her that it didn't need her help. And, in fact, the very times she was most in control were the times when disasters had occurred. Maybe it was okay to let go, to trust someone else for a change. Maybe she didn't have to do anything.

“Excuse me, Ms. Shimazaki?” the muffled voice inquired, “The tools?”

Rin blushed -- how long had it been since she had possessed the energy to blush? She extracted the tools, the bulky plastic cases creaking as they rubbed together.

“If you will just open your mouth, I'll try to be careful.” said the looming orange suit.

“Of course,” Rin thought, as she spread her jaws, “what else.”

Downtime Down

Stan balked, “So, wait. The probes never transmitted?”

After the examinations the rescuers had gathered in the airlock for a conference. One of the crew had shown the others how to activate the external intercom on their suits, which had much aided in communication. After hearing a jumbled synopsis of what they knew of the mission, the crash, and the variously successful -- or otherwise -- attempts at survival, the rescue crew had started on their side of things.

The rescue mission had been organized on the books for years, a contingency plan in case a vessel ever got stranded due to equipment malfunction. When the Armstrong failed to return, the ISAC had dusted off the drafts double-time. The landing boat was a first article, rushed through testing and intended for manned exploration of “significant” worlds. The rescue team had been training with it, hoping to be the first to set foot on an extra-solar planet. Now they were simply hoping against hope to not need it.

After the Alouise returned from its own survey stint it was quickly refit for the mission. Quickly, in this case, being months instead of years. By the time they had reached the deep space survey station it was already abuzz with the news of spatial anomalies.

“They couldn't even tell what you had sent through. By the time the over-extended wormhole was done all they saw was a stream of elementary particles.”

“But, then how did you know where to look for us?”

“These guys are astrophysicists! It's all they do! They measured the doped spaghettification or whatever and gave us a list of all the places it could have come from. We just had to compare it to your mission plan. Only had to try two other systems before we found you.”

Just then the background metallic rumble grew too loud to ignore. They all looked over at once as the ATV trundled up, still scorched, but apparently in working order.

“Get your gear together,” a smiling voice announced over the intercom, “This is the last bus home.”

The rescue team wanted to bring everything, of course. They would have torn the ship apart piece by piece and sent them all back to earth in plastic bags... if they had the time. But time was air, and food, and water, and time was always running out. Rin and the rest of the survivors scoured the ship for all the little things they knew would be valuable. The computers were the obvious priority, along with the bots. Rin sent Stan to get the former while she headed to the drone bay.

It was dark. The nearest windows were in the med bay behind her, and the scant light trickled in over her shoulders as she stood in the doorway and let her eyes adjust to the gloom. The bots were both there, right where she had set them, leaning against the wall. They were propped against eachother, like over-tired children who had fallen asleep sitting up.

She had to tilt Molly to the floor so she wouldn't fall over when she picked up Ando. His joints were stiff without power, and took some effort to move. There was also no easy way to carry the dead-weight... maybe she should have sent someone else. But no, these were Rin's friends, and Rin would see them safely on board. She shuffled under the weight as Ando's feet banged into her thighs with each step. His butt scraped against the examination table as she hauled him through medical.

“Sorry.” she mumbled, and didn't even feel silly for it. How long ago was it that he had waked her?

There didn't seem to be any respectful or efficient way to strap Ando down, so she ended up clearing off a seat and buckling him in. His body was even more comically small in the chair designed for EVA suited astronauts.

Then the long trip carrying Molly. She didn't remember much of it except the effort. When she got back to the ATV Ando was already partially submerged in odds and ends. She strapped Molly in with a sigh and went to find Buck.

She and Buck debated bringing pieces of the ship, but that raised the question of where to stop. The rescue team gathered a couple of the discarded pressure vessels, riddled with HKM cavities, and loaded them into the ATV. Rin climbed in as well, and buckled herself in. She had everything she wanted, and now merely desired to be under way.

The team kept bringing out some random tool or twisted rivet and discussing it on their intercom before either placing it in one of the sample bins -- meticulously documented -- or dropping it carelessly to the ground. It seemed to take forever. Rin must have dozed off, because the next thing she knew they were bouncing crazily on their way. The charred trees and grass stubble and river-bed passed outside the tiny windows as the crunch of the tires sped them along.

She knew at that moment that she would never again see the Armstrong with her waking eyes. But in the moment, she didn't care.

Downside In

“Well, we had really planned on there being more of you.” said Captain McPhearson.

Rin stood with the other two survivors in the landing boat's tertiary cargo bay. When they had arrived late in the evening everyone had been ready to collapse, the survivors from the good food, and the rescuers from local time “jet lag”. The Alouise's doctor had instrumented Rin and the others with monitors and they were given the tertiary cargo bay to sleep in. This, coupled with the crewman who stood watch over them did little to ease Rin's feeling of alienation.

The next morning Rin had awoken late. She just lay on her cot, listening to the medical equipment beeping steadily, and the hull of the landing boat creaking as it adjusted to the growing heat. The smell of the cargo bay was different than the Armstrong, more metallic. That, and everything was coated in a thin layer of dust. Once Stan was awake the captain had come down to see them.

“Now that we know the final numbers, well, we've got some extra lifting space in the landing boat.” His accent was understandably Gaelic, and they could see a fierce red beard behind the glare of his EVA suit's clear face shield.

“We'll take some rocks and plants, of course,” the Captain went on, “But we were hoping you three could offer some informative advice about what kind of species might survive our RAS system. We've got, well...” he waved his hand vaguely about the chamber, “quite a few extras.”

Rin nodded sadly. Without information, the rescue team had to assume that there would be fourteen survivors. Now they had eleven emergency RAS units that were going to go to waste... unless something else could be found to fill them.

“Well, the plants won't be hurt too badly.” said Rin, “For them RAS is basically like a refrigerator right?”

The Captain nodded, “We can only assume, but yes. Well said.”

“And if the aliens breathe air, well, shouldn't the RAS be able to keep their blood oxygenated?”

“So the doctors tell me. Then again, I've never met an expert who had more than one idea to wrap around himself and keep him warm, if you catch my drift. Your guess is as good as anybody's and likely better than most... which is why I'm askin' you.”

Rin was rocked back on her mental heels for a moment. She knew, of course, that not every captain was like Wheeler, but the contrast was astonishing. How could the same system that had put a stuck up blowhard like Wheeler in command also let through this guy? While Rin was assimilating, Buck spoke up.

“We haven't exactly been looking for them. Mostly we were just trying to not get eaten.” Buck shrugged, “But the bushfish seem pretty slow. After that,” He looked over at Rin, “Maybe the zeebrants?”

“The place just burned down, there should be a herd of trowelface soon.”

“Yeah, trowelface would be perfect. Easy to catch too!”

“Just stay away from the Flayger-ants” Rin put in.

The Captain's head nodded once inside his EVA suit. “We'll need one of you to come along of course. Those names don't mean a thing to us.”

Buck and Stan ended up setting out with half the crew on foot to try and capture some fauna. Rin and the other half of the crew took the ATV to get some flora.

Assembling the expedition seemed, to Rin, to take forever. For her gathering plants was as simple as walking outside. But for the expeditionary crew of the Alouise the task was both grave and involved. These were to be Official ISAC Samples! One couldn't just grab any old thing and stuff it up the sleeve of your jumpsuit! Out came the sample spades, designed to be highly inert, so as to prevent contamination. The Sample Transport Units followed close behind, with their packages of Sample Suspension Pellets to keep the objects well supported. Of course all these materials were handled clumsily through the EVA suits. After the parts had been fumbled, jumbled, and dropped a half dozen times they lost their official luster. The truth was that they were just so many pieces of expensive foam core packing, the likes of which were smashed and scattered around the Armstrong over the course of their isolated desperation.

Rin offered to help of course, but there were concerns that her unprotected skin and breath would contaminate the pristine samples. Of course, there was no procedure for this, Rin laughed at the thought. “In the event that a mixed team of both isolated (properly wearing EVA or equivalent environmental segregation garb) and non-isolated (those without such garb) sample gathering agents arrives, the isolated agents shall handle all sample gathering duties, and the non-isolated agents shall promptly die of exposure.” In the end they concluded that Rin would stand three or four meters away and help identify probable sample candidates, and the rest of the team would struggle in their suits with the fiddly tools, containers, and packing material and try to get something done.

Predictably, the process took all day. The team all piled into the ATV and drove out of the fire scorched region and proceeded to repeat the laborious process of stuffing anything that looked interesting into their containers. Rin had the dubious pleasure of standing nearby and shouting directions like someone trying to back-seat drive a surgeon simulator. The results varied, but in the end they got one of every kind of plant that Rin could remember seeing, and a few that she could not. Rin again recalled that they had seen so very little of this mysterious place. Anything might lie, undiscovered, just over the next ridge.

A few times what lay over the next ridge discovered them, first a couple Brutes and later a herd of Zeebrants. The Brutes charged straight in, but Percival the gunner was paying attention. A broken popping stuttered through the air and the beasts wheeled and ran. Captain McPhearson had used his executive weight allotment to pack a pair of GrayPhearson R-12 Coil Cannons, custom made and modified for use with the clumsy gloves of an EVA suit. The guns looked comically small when held by the orange suited crewman, but they did the job. Turns out aliens disliked being shot with hypersonic S7 rods. Who knew? The Zeebrants merely topped the ridge and milled about before being driven off by the suppressing fire.

When the “attack” was over Rin had a few minutes to reflect while everyone congratulated Percival on his marksmanship. If there was any sort of intelligent life on this world, they were going to have some explaining to do. “Why did you land on our world?” they might ask. “Why have you attacked our people?” they would question. “Why are you abducting our young?” they could demand. For, really, none of them knew what the “plants” they were gathering really were. None of them really knew for sure that there was no intelligent life here. They had speculations, and hunches, but nothing solid. The rescue mission with opportunistic sample gathering on the side might look very much like a casing followed by a smash-and-grab from an outsiders perspective. Hopefully anyone watching had the decency to suspend judgment.

By the time they made it back to the landing boat, Buck and the others had already returned. They had managed to capture three Bushfish and a few Zippers, but the larger species were averse to being herded into boxes.

The next day Rin and Buck went out in the ATV with the trapping crew and both the guns. The intention was to see if they could chase some specimens to exhaustion and trap them when they were too tired to run.

Rin stayed in the vehicle for most of the hunting safari. She had hoped it would be a free-romping chase over the blackened plains. As it turned out, trapping live specimens was a lot less exciting than gunning them down. The groups of Trowelface broke up quickly, and proved much more maneuverable than the ATV. It was like trying to chase rabbits to exhaustion. They would juke and dodge and then sit infuriatingly still as the ATV blundered past and tried to come about. Eventually they gave up on them and went after the biggest specimen they could find, the Flaygr-ant.

It was only after an hour of chasing the huge beast around in circles at a leisurely loping pace that they realized that they had no way of containing the huge creature in stasis. All the RAS pods were much too small. There was some discussion about herding it into the cargo bay of the landing vessel, but no one felt comfortable with a horse sized alien loose on the ship for months at a time.

Rin finally suggested putting the creature down. She felt a little bad about it, but it was only one among who knows how many. They had invested so much time in this already that it felt wrong to just let it get away. The shots rang out. They kept going, and for a moment it seemed that the creature was un-harmed by the tiny weapons. It made no sounds, did not cry out with the croaking roar she had heard before, when Andrea gave it a name. The creature lay very still, crumpled inside its plated skin. They cut off a few trophies, head and feet and a pair of the wondrous scintillating plumage, now quite blank. The bits sat at Rin's feet, rocking and jostling as the ATV traversed the untamed landscape back to the landing boat.

Insides In

“We're going in order of health. Robust to fragile, if you'll pardon the implication my dear.”

Dr. Forth had commandeered the Landing Vessel's cargo bay for the RAS sedation. He had everything laid out, and a non-officer assistant standing at his elbow. They were both cheerful but serious. Three mobile RAS-R pods were arranged on the deck behind them. Rin had seen many others sitting discarded in the dirt outside. Apparently alien specimens were more valuable per pound even than medical equipment.

“We don't have any idea what these alien plants you've been eating all this while have done to your metabolism, so we're taking careful notes of any deviations from normal progression. By the time we get to you, Miss Rin, we'll have any oddities ironed out.”

The five of them stood there a little awkwardly. The three patients had lined up in order of operation, but this happened to be order of height. They were wearing medical gowns, so the order was also that of undress. Rin giggled a little when she saw the boys, and was again thankful for her diminutive girth. In stark contrast Dr. Forth and his assistant were wearing their bright orange EVA suits. It made Rin feel more like a plague victim than ever.

“The process here is quite irregular” Dr. Forth went on, “Normally everything is sterilized as you know, but we've had to make exceptions to maintain the integrity of the planetary quarantine. We've done everything we can to make this a safe operation, but I am obliged to warn you that you are undergoing an elevated risk, however slight, by entering RAS in this... unconventional environment.” He gestured around at the containers lining the walls around them, many of which contained various alien species.

“It would be possible to give you quarters aboard the ship. This would involve exposing the crew any existent alien contaminants. However, captain McPhearson has instructed that you be given this option.”

No one spoke for a few seconds. Rin wondered which of the difference between Dr. Forth and Dr. Fournier was due to the different circumstances, and which to personality. Dr. Forth's suit gave a slight hiss as he took a deep breath.

“Very well. I am pleased to see you all have the health of our entire mission in mind. Before we proceed, are there any questions?”

Again, silence. Rin considered asking if they would be packed next to the alien specimens, or in a separate bay. But Dr. Forth was being so pleasant, it seemed a shame to interrupt him.

“Very good. Not to be morbid, but RAS is not a sure thing. You've all had your fond 'farewell for now' time I take it?”

Rin couldn't stop herself, “Yes, Dr. Forth. Thank you. But, isn't this all a bit much? I mean, we do have a schedule don't we? Why all the fuss?”

“My dear young lady,” Began Forth, his sincerity somewhat dampened by the suit's acoustically insulative properties, “We are all so glad to have found you alive. It really is an honor.”

Rin thought he would say more, but he didn't. She nodded understandingly. “We're just all looking forward to...”

To what? Rin had intended to say “getting off this damn planet” but now that it came to the point, maybe she would miss it after all. What was waiting for her at home anyhow? Labs and tests? Going back to school? David and ISAC and inscrutable political maneuvering? She didn't really want any of that. But she didn't really want to be here anymore either. It was an adventure at times, but mostly...

Buck finished her sentence, “A good hamburger. Put me down Doc, we're done here.”

Dr. Forth nodded, an exaggerated motion in his EVA suit. It came out as more of a small bow. “Right this way Crewman Buckley. Please bare your right arm. This will sting a bit...”

Dr. Forth must have been exceptionally efficient, even encumbered by his protective gear. Rin couldn't recall anything after Buck's injection. She always wondered if she had watched Buck's tubes go in. Were they asked to wait in a different part of the cargo bay until it was their turn?

No amount of wondering would bring the memories back. She eventually made up her own.

Upside Up


It was like being bored.

Rin slowly realized she was lying partially reclined, signing forms. How had she gotten here? Nothing came to mind. What was she signing? Rin blinked slowly, but the forms kept being blurry. She kept signing them, mostly to have something to do. She wondered briefly how long this had been going on. Her hand ached something fierce. Rin could hear the whir of a fan nearby, but the papers did not stir.

She was going to go into hibernation! What had happened? Had they taken a break to sign stuff? Where was Buck? The words “Specimen” and “Waiver” seemed to feature prominently on these papers. Dr. Forth seemed to have gotten a lot of medical equipment from somewhere. She was surrounded by vague shapes with readouts and blinking lights.

“Hey, where are we? Did we all make it back to Earth?” Rin tried to ask. It came out a bit differently. “Ahe, wooa aah wa? Na wa aah maag an baan na arghk?” Someone had stuffed her mouth with cotton balls, or maybe it was just numb. Or maybe she was permanently mute.

She couldn't feel her tongue. Had they cut out her tongue? That wasn't part of the hibernation procedure, was it? No, Rin distinctly recalled being able to speak when Ando woke her up. She had asked him for coffee. Now she might never be able to ask for coffee ever again.

Rin wanted to feel terrified, but found that she couldn't. She wanted to cry, but couldn't find tears. She couldn't really feel anything. Someone patted her hand. She looked up. It was Dr. Forth, still in his EVA suit. It had changed colors. The lawyers must have stopped him before he put her under. They would be on their way soon.

The forms stopped, and Dr. Forth took them away, saying something about “Finally we can get started”. With nothing else to do, Rin passed out again.


She woke up in a much more friendly environment. Or, it seemed more friendly now that she was reclined. The blankets were comfortable, and she could barely feel the IV taped to her arm. Something still tickled at the back of her mind. Oh, she was still on Phoenix, but she was mute now too. Too bad she couldn't call for anyone. Some swampvine stew would really hit the spot.

Wait, there was no hospital room on the Armstrong. Dr. Forth must have built one. No, Dr. Forth was going to put her into RAS. That must mean... Where was she now?

Well, wherever it was, it was comfortable. There was a window to her left which looked out on... a control room of some sort. There were plenty of screens anyway. On her right was an array of tubes and trays of sealed instruments. The room seemed awfully cramped for a hospital though. And, was that wall behind her actually just a curtain?

Oh, but it was good to just lie there in bed. To not be painfully thirsty, painfully hungry. Really, just the general absence of pain. If only she could think clearly... There was something she needed to remember.


There was someone in a space suit fiddling with her IV system.

Rin struggled to raise her head. Her tongue wasn't working properly. It rubbed against something that filled her mouth. Fabric? A wad of hair? Gaining control of her arms she vaguely pawed at her lips. Cotton balls. Damp and slightly pink. Lovely.

“What happened?” Rin managed. Her voice sounded slow and indistinct.

The figure in the suit didn't turn around, and the voice came muffled through the fabric, or maybe it was her hearing. “Border crossing forms. They're over in the corner if you want to review them.”


“Mostly because they're contaminated now. Have to keep them in quarantine.”

The nurse -- for how could she be anything else -- moved on to some faintly beeping machinery out of Rin's line of sight. After a few minutes she returned and looked intently at Rin through the clear faceplate.

“How do you feel?”

Rin tried to roll her eyes, even that hurt. “Terrible.”

The nurse seemed unconcerned “Anything in particular?” She held up a small device to one of Rin's eyes and then the other. It flashed several times, painfully bright. Then she pressed the tool against Rin's skin, first on her temples, then her neck, then several times on both arms and legs. It felt like plastic, with a small cold metal stud sticking out.

“Nope. Just mostly bleh.”

Another nurse entered the room pushing a wheeled cart which rattled ominously with metallic implements.

“Good. We're going to do some response tests. Close your eyes, and tell me where you feel the pressure.”

The pair went over her whole body relentlessly, first pressing lightly with a large pad, and then a small round tool, and then with a wand that was warm on one end and cold on the other. Finally they hooked up an instrument to some electrodes which Rin was apparently already wearing and took some readings. After the examination was over the nurses left without explanation.

Rin was left alone for what seemed like a few minutes, but could have been hours. Her sense of time still felt addled. Then two doctors entered the room, one female and one male. The man she recognized at some point during the conversation as Dr. Forth. The woman introduced herself, but Rin didn't catch her name, and it seemed unimportant at the time. There was a little name-tag on her suit. Rin remembered reading the tag, but not the name printed thereon. It was a green tag, with the name printed in black. There was a small circular gold sticker in the lower right-hand corner -- or, Rin's right hand, it was the doctor's left. Rin remembered the doctor as “Gold-star” even though the sticker wasn't a star. She never did find out her name.

“, you probably have lots of questions.” gold star was saying. She then continued, with no discernible pause -- to Rin, anyhow, “So let's just cover the basics. You're in remarkably good health, considering what you've been through. Kidneys, liver, digestion, still functional.” The doctor flipped vaguely through some papers on a clip-board, as though looking for some detail that eluded her.

Rin wanted to encourage her to keep talking, and blurted out lamely, “That's good.” Her mouth felt strange. Had it felt strange before?

Gold-star glanced up for a moment before giving up and flipping all the sheets back flat on her clipboard. She held the board in front of her with both hands, as if it were resting on her belt, if she had been wearing a belt. “Yes, and your vitals are steady. Lots of good news.”

“Why is my mouth... strange.” Asked Rin.

The male doctor -- Doctor Forth she later discovered -- spoke up for the first time. His voice was husky with regret. “Well Rin, there's bad news too. I did a lot of work on you while you were in RAS. Some of it has permanent implications. As you've noticed, the majority of your teeth are gone.”

Oh, yeah, that's what was weird.

“You've also had some significant facial scarring. There were some contaminants in your nasal cavity and sinuses that flared up during RAS. I had to do what I could to prevent the infection from spreading.”

Gold-star chimed in “At some point you can get cosmetic surgery, but for present your system is too weak to risk it.”

Dr. Forth took a deep breath, and smiled a little, “Fortunately that's the worst of it. We took some tissue and bone samples, but there are no complications. You seem to be pulling through well.”

Rin felt vaguely ill “Anything else I'm missing?”

“About a year of good food and sleep.” Said Gold-star seriously. “You'll have to catch up while you're in quarantine.”

“Quarantine? Where am I now?”

“Back on Earth, at the ISAC medical center. You're in the secure observation center.”

Rin winced as she attempted to raise her eyebrows -- how could everything hurt at once? “Is there coffee?”

“You'll be on a strict regulated diet. We want to give your body the best chance to heal. For that, it's very important that you eat correctly, and just as important that we know what you're eating.”

Dr. Forth leaned forward slightly, his face a mask of sympathy, “No coffee.”

“If I'm really good?” pleaded Rin. She found that she was seeing double, the images lazily circling each other, stubbornly refusing to coalesce. She tried to concentrate, but the effort just made her tired without having any perceptible effect on her visual binary divergence.

“We'll be reviewing your progress frequently.” Replied Gold-star. “But honestly, stimulants and depressants are generally omitted from the diet in quarantine.”

Rin squinted her eyes shut. It hurt, but not a lot more than keeping them open. “So, I'm a deformed, toothless, bed-ridden, and... what's this in my IV?”

“Mostly saline and glucose. Let us know when you're feeling up to answering some questions. We're curious about your diet on Planet X”

“We call it Phoenix.”

“Right now you need to rest. We'll be keeping an eye on you. Ask if you need anything.”


Rin stared blankly at the back of the suits as the doctors waddled slightly from the room. The suits were not as bulky as the EVA suits, but still impeded movement. Probably just biohazard isolation or something.

Rin found that she was feeling flat. She recalled the deferred terror of earlier, and found that it was still in emotional free-fall, still waiting to land, to hit the earth. Carefully, Rin reached up with her left hand to touch her face. How bad were the scars? They felt huge of course, a veritable metropolitan transport network traced on her skin. The reality would be something less shocking, she was sure. Something less... but how much less?

With a start -- though a start with no shock to it, a kind of slow deceleration instead of a crash -- Rin realized that she could never be a doctor now. Doctors were pretty. They had all their arms and legs and teeth and their face wasn't all cut up. A doctor with facial scars would be like, a mechanic with a rusted out car? A Haberdasher in a ball cap. It was silly, she realized, and cosmetic, and completely unrelated to her proficiency at medicine, but the appearance was part of the job. Perhaps the most important part. She certainly wouldn't want to be treated by a deformed doctor. The position was more than a service technician, it was a symbol of health. When you looked at your physician, you wanted to know that you could become what you saw.

A doctor was an image of perfection, and Rin was ruined now.

Oh sure, the reconstructive surgery might help. Maybe. But the realization of the largely vain nature of the profession left Rin feeling cold. How many doctors got by on looks? How many were turned down because they were crippled? Maybe there was something else she could do. Besides, did she really still want to live in the picture on the wall? Rin couldn't even remember what it looked like. It had snow in it. Snow sounded unbelievably uncomfortable.

Minor Reconstruction

The days and nights blend together. There are no windows to the sky.

It felt like maybe two weeks before she was moved out of intensive care. Later Rin learned that it had only been five days. Whatever the period of time, it was a span of growing consciousness. Rin was at first aware only of her own immediate surroundings. The blankets, her own progressively more conceptually terrifying face, the walls and ceiling. She recalled staring for hours at the walls and ceiling, but could not recall anything definite about them. They were always deflecting her attentions, drawing her eye to shapes that looked like faces, or shadows, or long rolling hills, or the fingers of a hand. The lights were always on, or always off, but she never saw them go on or off. Her world was static, until she lost the energy to keep looking.

But slowly she grew into the sense of time. She watched the doctors or nurses -- in large protective suits -- go in and out. She ate and breathed and slept. A few days in she got up from her bed. That was when she learned that she was always being watched because by the time she was standing there were three people in the room. They didn't help her, but she got the feeling that they would if she had any trouble.

She really wanted to see Buck again. All the doctors and nurses were helpful, but they weren't company. They weren't there for Rin, they were just there to make sure that her body kept functioning satisfactorily. It felt like far too long since she had been sitting in the comms room, talking about nothing. And yet they were listening for their rescue. They were listening and hoping to be back here. And now that she was here, she was wishing to be back there, with real human companionship.

After a week -- or five days -- she was transferred to quarantine. She didn't know it at the time. No one told her anything. But her bed was suddenly moving, and she was in a hallway. There were plastic curtains everywhere. Everything had a kind of soapy smell. Then suddenly they were in a different kind of place, where the walls were warm and there was real furniture.

The caregivers encouraged her to walk around, and then left. Or, they kind of left. One wall of the room was transparent, much like the one in the room she had just come from. Behind it was a familiar looking observation team. She waved shyly and then tried to ignore them.

The room was small, but well furnished, though a bit stark. A stainless steel sheet metal desk sat along one side. It had a computer on it, currently inactive. In the corner was a medical sink, with both handles and foot pedals. Her hospital bed seemed quite out of place along the opposite wall, where it kept company with a toilet. The floor and ceiling was made of matching no-skid steel perforated with half centimeter holes. The walls were hung with several expensive looking lamps emitting a warm golden glow. Several utility hookups and handled drawers punctuated the walls. There was a set of clean clothes next to the computer.

With nothing else to do, Rin began to change. It was the first set of normal clothes she had put on since boarding the Armstrong, over a year ago. The IV proved to be a tricky proposition, but she figured out how to thread the bag through the sleeve without breaking anything.

She felt like a new woman.

A new woman in need of a mirror. Rin had grown more steady on her feet over the past few days. Now she could walk around without really being afraid of falling. It had never happened, but the caution of the staff made her feel like there was a real danger. As she shuffled carefully around her room she had the odd feeling of floating through the air. Somewhat like the whole room was a giant air-hockey rink. The perforated floor added to the illusion.

Satisfied that there was no mirror in her quarters, Rin ventured to open the door. It was separated from her room by a symbolic blue curtain, but otherwise seemed mundane. Once through it, she found her way down a short set of corridors to a spacious common area. It at once felt like a waiting room, a library, and an office. It seemed as if someone had tried to make it feel smaller, and Rin soon realized why. There were supposed to be more than a dozen people living here in quarantine. The Alouise had brought back three.

Rin paused in the doorway until the feeling had passed, and her skin stopped feeling hot and prickly. There was no kitchen, nowhere to eat food. But there was also nowhere to really work. It was truly a waiting room. A place to pause while the doctors satisfied themselves that they hadn't carried back any alien plagues or parasites. An expensive entertainment system dominated one corner of the room, offset by exercise equipment on the other side. Couches, chairs, and tables were scattered between, with several bookshelves worth of media around the periphery. The wall she had entered by held several other doors, presumably to the other quarters.

And that was it. She was stuck here for a month at least, maybe more. A prison, disguised as a suite. Confinement. Rings upon rings of security and safeguards between her and the outside world. Every molecule of air that sighed from her lungs, every drop of sweat that seeped from her pores, every photon that glanced off her newly decanted flesh would be stopped, screened, filtered, and obliterated. Even prisoners got yard time. Even on Phoenix she had a kitchen of sorts. Here she had a sterile -- surely it was a sterile room, except for her two partners in incarceration.

Where were they? Still sleeping no doubt. Really, what was the point of being awake? There was nothing they had to do. A team of twenty was no doubt toiling day and night to see to their every need. The very thought exhausted her. She made her way back to her bed, lay down, and slept.

When she woke up she went looking for Buck. It had been so long since they had seen each other, had talked. Really since she had had a conversation with anyone. The observation crew weren't very good conversationalists, what with the stony silence. Their window was black as midnight. She could see stars in it, glittering faintly, as if between clouds.

She made it to the common room, though it seemed a longer walk than before. She kept getting lost in the passageways. And, there seemed to be more turns than she had remembered. Had the floor always been transparent like this? She could see through to the ducts and catwalks below. She could hear the clanking of Molly's worn out feet, pacing in the depths. Molly must be trapped here as well. Buck would know how to rescue her. She needed to find him.

When she finally got to the common room, Stan was waiting at one of the tables, eating a bowl of soup. She could not see his face. She didn't want to find Stan.

“Where's Buck?” Rin asked curtly. She didn't want to talk to Stan either.

“Back there.” Stan said, and pointed behind her. Rin turned around, and there it was. A single door set in the featureless wall. She opened it, and walked out onto Phoenix, dragging her feet through the dry grass.

Clearly this was a dream. She was dreaming of finding Buck, and he was still back on Phoenix. The doctors had left him there. They thought he was dangerous, but Stan was the dangerous one. Rin heard the door close behind her.

Phoenix was beautiful. The deep azure sky was tinged with pink along the horizon. Vast luxurious clouds boiled upward with manic ferocity, fighting in the rising wind. Below them a landscape was alive with waterfalls and frolicking creatures. Their brightly colored carapaces shone like jewels among the dry grass.

Buck was with them, among them, one of them. She walked up to the creature of teal and crimson and fiery yellow. Why had the doctors left him here? He was so beautiful!

“Buck.” she said. She knew he could hear her. She knew he could speak. But he did not answer. They could never be together again, for Buck was light-years away back on Phoenix, and Rin was stuck in quarantine with Stan. She gathered his body into her arms, and Buck held her back. Rin was so lonely here without him.

It was dry, and she was back on Phoenix, and the world was on fire. But the fire did not scare her, or hurt her, though it was quite warm. “Buck.” She said. What was it she was going to say? She couldn't remember any more. “Buck, you've got to come back to the quarantine. The doctors want to watch us.”

“We're being remade Rin.” Buck said, and she knew it was true. And then she was ablaze as well, and her flesh was melting off and her bones crumbled, and she was not afraid because she was really back in quarantine, and this was all a dream. But she wished that Buck had come back with them. Then everything was bright and she awoke and the lights were on and she felt very warm beneath the covers.

She did not feel afraid, as she felt that she should have felt. Only the kind of trembling excitement that you might feel on meeting someone very important, that wanted to meet you too. But she waited, as she felt was right for the occasion. Presently she remembered that Buck was not left behind. The thought warmed her in a better way, down in the part of her that was not a robot. Then the door opened, and a nurse in a space suit came in.

“Good morning Rin, how are you feeling?”

“A little warm.” she replied with difficulty. Her mouth still worked oddly without her dentition.

The nurse paused for a moment, then said “Let's get you out from those covers.” and then once Rin was sitting on the edge of the bed, “How are you liking the new clothes?”

“Oh, they're great. Did you pick them out?”

“We all chip in to buy personal effects for the returning crew. Have to get stuff that will survive the autoclave. Normally there's more but, cutbacks since the incident... you know.”

Rin did not know, but said “Of course, thanks.” out of sheer politeness motivated force of will.

“Here's your meal.” she said, moving a tray from her cart to the table. “Your dentures have arrived as well. Would you like me to wait while you try them on?”

“No, thanks, but is there a mirror anywhere?”

“Yeah, we get that all the time. Just ask observation to turn off their lights and use the window.” Rin looked to her left just as the lights went out in the observation room, leaving only a few glowing screens and indicator lights. The window now showed mostly a dim reflection.

“Call if you need anything.” the nurse said as she backed the cart out. The door shut and Rin was alone.

Well, alone with the observation crew sitting in the dark, waiting for her to finish looking at herself. May as well get this over with. Rin got to her feet and walked the couple meters over to the window. Her face came into shadow as she approached the dark portal, but it was enough to see by. A symmetrical set of scars, curving from above her eyebrows, down on either side of her nose, and ending high on her cheekbones beneath her eyes.

No better than she had hoped, nor worse than they had felt. They might have passed for tribal markings a hundred years ago. Now they just looked like the results of some horrific drunken teen dare gone wrong. Rin took a deep breath and the lights came back on in the observation room. The three staffers gave Rin grim smiles and thumbs up. One of them wiped her eyes as she turned back to her screen. Rin turned away and found her own blurry way back to the table.

The dentures fit perfectly. The food was delicious.

Rin went to find Buck.

Downtime Boogie

“Hey cutie! You're up.”

Both Rin and Stan looked up from their books. Buck was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame, and taking up most of the space. Stan rolled his eyes. Rin tossed her hair a little as she stood.

“How do I look?”

Buck just looked, and smiled, and didn't move as Rin approached. She stopped with her nose a few fingers from his crossed arms. Cocking her head to the side, she craned her neck to peer up at his face. He met her gaze, but didn't move.

“You're in my way.” she pronounced in a low voice.

“There's room.” rumbled Buck, indicating with his eyes the slim fissure between his waist and the door frame.

“Not that small.” Rin sing-songed quietly.

From across the room, Stan sighed theatrically and at length.

There was a debriefing in the observation room. Rin sat by herself on a thin plastic chair while experts of all stripes gathered on the other side of the glass. The barrier was concave, so there was less room on the quarantine side. It felt like a mix between a stage and a fishbowl.

There were questions about what had happened and questions about the smells and the sounds. There were questions about what the plants had tasted like, and how she had felt after eating them. They asked about her clothes and her quarters and what waking up from RAS felt like. They asked questions over again, and argued amongst themselves over whether she had already answered questions that they hadn't asked yet.

Finally they thanked her for her time and filed out, back to their jobs. Rin got up and went back on vacation. Because quarantine had turned out to be a kind of vacation. Sure, the food stunk, and they weren't allowed outside. But after Phoenix even prison would have been a dream come true.

Rin would wake up whenever she wanted and just lie in bed -- there were no clocks, and the orderlies didn't bother them -- staring at the ceiling, enjoying feeling better than the day before. She hadn't realized how terrible she had felt. She must have been miserable all the time they were on Phoenix. No wonder everyone was so cranky all the time. It was a miracle they hadn't all killed each other before the Alouise arrived.

The recovery wasn't immediate, of course. One day she would realize that her ribs no longer ached from breathing heavily. A few days later she would wonder why her nose wasn't running, only to realize that it had probably never stopped since Ando scooped her out of the RAS-R in the Armstrong.

Minor Reconstruction

After a month her remaining teeth stopped aching. When had that started? She had lost a lot of them, but they were taken out while she was still in RAS. She had been pretty mad actually, but the doctors explained that they were going to fall out anyhow, and that bone samples would lend invaluable data on environmental human whatsit-jibber-jabber. Eventually she had given up. In the grand scheme of things, teeth were just not worth fighting over.

After enjoying her increasing good health for an hour or so, Rin would get out of bed and flip off the observation crew. It was a game they played. She flipped them off when she remembered they were there, and they flipped her off when they knew she was watching. They all smiled as they did it. Rin thought of it as an inside joke. Really neither of the groups wanted to be there, but they were kept from leaving by the presence of the other group. A double stale-mate. Nothing to do but give them the bird and move on with life.

In Rin's case, moving on with life next involved eating her rations. That was really the worst part of Quarantine. On Phoenix the food had been terrible, but you could have as much as you wanted whenever, wherever, and with whomever you chose. In the ISAC Quarantine and Dangerous Exposure Observation Lab the food was slightly better, but the portions were limited. Rin was never exactly hungry when she was done, but there was a certain satisfaction missing. The every-day “I'm done, I don't want any more.” was replaced by the much less sustaining “I'm done, I don't have any more.” She promised herself that, once she got her own place, she would keep a gallon of ice-cream in the freezer. Not to eat, but to know that she could eat if she wanted.

The rations had to be eaten before she entered the common area, to avoid the catastrophe that would ensue if they -- gasp! Shared! This was the other thing that made rations-o-clock the stupidest day of the year. She felt like she was a little kid being told to eat her broccoli. Did the ISAC really think they were so shortsighted? Did they suspect that Rin would immediately begin a protein bar black market if given the slightest opportunity? It wasn't that limiting, but the insistence was insulting. Plus it meant that Stan, Buck, and Rin never ate meals together.

Still, the schedule was nice. Rin would come into the common area, greet the guys, Buck in particular, and flop down in a chair. The furniture was surprisingly comfortable. All disposable Rin guessed. What would happen if they turned out to actually have some deadly disease? Would the whole place be gutted? Then she would read, watch the TV, talk, whatever. After a while she would go back to her room for dinner, and then sleep again. Over and over. The rhythm was comforting.


There was a constant hum from the air cleaners. You couldn't get away from it in Quarantine. It was a continuous reminder that anything they exhaled, excreted, or touched qualified as a biologically active toxic hazard. But the white noise was calming. Sometimes Rin wouldn't get up at all, and just listen to the rush of the clean perfectly comfortable air until she fell back asleep.

Some days she wasn't so much interested in conversation. There was a game system which someone had arranged for their use. It was several years out of date, but good enough when there were no alternatives. Several of the games were punishingly difficult, and Rin spent a week straight trying to beat one before finally mastering the technique and getting lucky enough to clear the final stage.

Other days they would get into long conversations. Plenty was going on in the world to chat about. Politics, recent bush-wars, major infrastructure projects, mass migrations. There was plenty to talk about closer to home as well. Buck had a large extended family, and he had plenty of stories about cousins' escapades or uncles' faults. Rin herself had few family tales she wanted to share, so instead she responded with stories heard from people she had met in school. They were pitifully few, but silence was welcome as well. Stan spent most of his time in his private bunk.

Minor Reconstruction

 “I finished this morning.”

“How did you like it?”

“It was decent. Amateurish.”

“But the plot was interesting right?”

“Eh, yeah. I thought the romance was forced.”

“What? It wasn't even about romance!”

“Well yeah, so why put it in?”

“Gives the characters something to talk about.”

“Yeah, but the dialog was kind of vague.”

“You're kind of vague.”

“Hey, leave the lights off. I have a headache alright?”

“Yeah yeah. I'll bet the observation crew is starting to wonder.”

“Nah, they've got our heart rate monitors.”

“We could mess with them, do some jumping jacks or something.”

“I'd rather just lie here.”


“What'cha thinking about?”



“How about you?”

“Power lines.”

“They both start with 'P'.”


“Great minds think alike I guess.”

“That, or derivative minds can't possibly come up with something new.”

“Well, I thought of it first.”

“What, Pancakes? They were invented before you were born.”

“Maybe I'll get a patent.”

“Starts with 'P', just proves my point.”

“Hehe, you just did it twice!”

“No way! Um, I mean, Preposterous!”

“Perfectly premeditated?”


“Ahh... I wonder what bots call batteries?”

“Oh no. They're full of electricity.”

“So they must be...”

“Do I have to say it?”


“Power pancakes. Ugh.”


“You know, Pun starts with 'P' as well.”

“... you bastard.”


“I was thinking of going back to school.”

“Yeah? Me too!”

“I was in pre-med. Wanted to be a doctor.”

“Past tense?”

“Well, now I'm not so sure.”

“I wanted to get into art.”

“No way! Really?”

“Yeah, painting and stuff. I've got pictures inside. I've got to get them out somehow.”

“I never see you drawing.”

“I really need the colors. Pencil and pen don't cut it.”

“I think maybe you're just lazy.”

“Yeah? Pre-med and you're, what, almost thirty?”

“Fine! I'm sure you'll have a brilliant art career.”

“Well, it all depends on what we get paid once we're out of here.”

“And who knows what that's going to be.”


“Might be enough to finish school.”

“Might be enough for a tall stack of pancakes.”

Professional Mastermind

“It's good to see you all again.”

David had appeared unexpectedly at the observation room. He was requesting an audience. Asking to see them was more like, but their station in this place had taken on some of the flavor of royalty. Rin and Stan had gathered, like benevolent monarchs, in the glass walled room -- it was actually laminated glass and plastic, in case they had managed to bring back some sort of glass digesting terror from beyond the stars -- to hear his boon begging. Buck was asleep in his quarters.

“It's good to see you too...” Rin stumbled. Should she call him 'David'? What was his last name again? “Director Reed.” she finished, hopefully with enough formality that her pause would sound natural instead of neurotic.

“Yeah,” Stan put in “Thanks for sending the cavalry to rescue us.”

“Oh, you're quite welcome, but it wasn't to my credit. None of us would dream of abandoning our best and brightest.”

There was a pause, long enough for Rin to remember why he had really sent her. Did he still think of her as part of his team? Had he read her letters? The director soldiered on.

“Our board has prepared a hearing on the matter of the crash. We're all eager to hear what happened, officially of course.”

Rin was stunned. “This early? We just got back!” she blurted out.

“If you're not comfortable...?” David's expression managed to make the unspoken statement into a question.

“No, it's just that... I don't know. RAS plays with your sense of time.”

A flash of something like pain crossed the director’s face, “Rin, you've been back for several months now. It's been over a year since the Armstrong crashed. Almost two years since you left Earth.”

Rin nodded slowly. She could have done the math... but it hadn't been important until now.

David took a deep breath and fixed a smile to his face, “I'm here in an official position” He leaned a bit on “official” as if to test its solidity, “to gauge your interest in offering a testimony, on record, during the hearings into the effects and causes of the Armstrong Incident.”

Rin could read between the lines, “I can't speak for Buck, but I'm interested.” David's smile grew fractionally less brittle.

“I'm not,” said Stan. “not if it means answering technical questions.”

“But you'd...” began David.

“I don't know exactly what legal ramifications doing field research with crashed ISAC equipment entails, but until I do, I'm keeping my mouth shut. I know for sure that researchers are given rights to their patents and findings. Whatever the case, the technique works. This is my ticket Director Reed. I'm not giving it up for some 'good of humanity' jaunt.”

“Not even for space exploration?”

Stan chuckled, “They can line up along with everyone else.”

Rin was shocked to watch a rare flash of emotion cross David's face. A slight movement of the scalp and lips. His eyes changed shape for a moment. Before Rin could register what she saw it was gone, dissipated into David’s vast seas of diplomacy. Yet, she had seen it there written plain on his face. The frustration and drive of a thousand plots, beating helplessly on one man's very reasonable stubbornness, and thrown back like frothing rollers from a flinty cliff.

“No one is asking you to do anything you'll regret later. Of course you're free to turn down the invitation.”

“Yes, of course.” Stan responded, unmoved.

David nodded sharply as if he had just received a coveted but challenging promotion, “Okay. Let me know.”

Here his eyes fixed on Rin, leaving the rest of his posture still pointed at Stan. It left Rin with the impression of conspiracy mixed with predatory focus, “So, you're in, and you'll ask Buckley.”

“Yeah, we'll talk about it.” Rin said.

“Well, that's all I could ask for.”

“How is, everyone at the office?” Rin was surprised to hear herself ask.

David seemed surprised as well, “Things are a lot more relaxed now that you're all back safe.”

Rin felt her scalp prickle, “We aren't 'all' back, David.”

His mouth opened, but no words came. A flash of the same cunning she had seen earlier creased the skin around his eyes. Finally, “I should let you get some rest. Lots of big news,” Here a glance at Stan, “lots to think about. Just ask observation if you’d like to contact me.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Rin couldn't look him in the eye.

Stan managed to sound friendly. “Thanks for stopping by, Director.”

“My pleasure.” David gave a tiny bow, and strode confidently from the observation room.


“What do we need ISAC for anyhow?” said Buck.

Rin buried her face in her hands. The scars stood up against her skin like mountain ranges. “Nuclear reactors.”

“Bullshit. Lots of people have nukes.”

“Well, nukes in space then. International regulations or some such.”

“But someone could still get a license from the UN or whatever. Why is ISAC the only one?”

“It's like the post office Buck. They don't want competition.”

“So it's a monopoly on space ships?”

Rin rolled her eyes behind her hands. “That's what it looks like.”

“That sucks.” said Buck.

“Well, David was saying ISAC is our best chance.”

“Who's this David guy you keep talking about?”

Rin looked up. “David Reed?”

Bucks eyebrows went up, “You know Director Reed as David? Okay, mystery solved!”

“I guess I never...”

“I mean, we had a betting pool going on how a useless little mouthy bitch like you ended up on the mission.”


“Just as well everyone else kicked it. I had my money on you and the captain.”

“The captain?”

Buck gave her a smirk, “Like I said, mystery solved! You were saying?”

Rin crossed her arms, “No, I'm done being mouthy.”

“So, Director Reed told you, during one of your discrete liaisons...”


“... that he's in charge of a really important organization?”

“He's just a friend!”

Buck threw his arms up in the air “Big deal! Anyone in charge would say the same.”

“Really, there's nothing going on between us!”

“What you need is independent confirmation.”

“Well, there aren't really any alternatives.”

Buck knit his fingers behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “Oh, I think there are a few.”

“Really?” Rin asked skeptically, “Like what, Catapult Aerospace?”

“Like me!”



“So, we're stuck with ISAC for the time being. There's too much inertia behind it for any viable alternatives to spring up.”

Buck looked skeptical now, “But the director thinks we can change things by laying blame in the right place?”

“I don't know what he thinks, but I figure it's worth a shot.”

“Well, I'm going to offer my side of the story, but it's going to be MY side, not someone else's. I don't have any use for politics, whether people ask nicely or not.”

“Okay, fine.” Rin leaned forward, elbows on her knees, “But you can at least emphasize certain parts...”

“I'd like to emphasize certain of your parts.”

“While leaving off others that aren't as relevant.”

“I'd like to leave off...”

“Buck!” It was almost a shout bordering on a scream, “This is serious! Can you please stop joking around for five minutes?”

“Fine, but what's the point?” Buck stood violently, “What could we possibly say that would have any effect on that huge mess?” he walked over to the door to his room and shot off, “And even if we could, how would we know if it would have a good effect or a bad one?” before slamming the door.

Another of his pouts. Sometimes that man was completely impossible.


“... and let us know immediately if you feel any different.”

One of the quarantine nurses was standing on the other side of the main reception counter, going over what Rin hoped were the last lines of an extensive checklist. Rin was in the lobby, breathing fresh air. The late morning light, reflected from a myriad of surfaces, shone in from every window. There were strangers all around, passing on their own business without a second thought. A little knot composed of suspiciously healthy looking individuals dominated one corner of the lobby. Wheelchair bound patients occasionally trundled in and out. It was novel to cease from being the center of attention for everyone she was around. A few seemed to recognize her, but perhaps they were just being polite, smiling and nodding for courtesy.

She had signed the papers that morning. Stacks of agreement forms that ISAC was not liable if she keeled over or got hit by a truck. More stacks of forms releasing her medical records for discrete study in return for continued room and board. A slightly shorter stack of forms stating that she was feeling fine and wasn't hiding any symptoms from the professionals.

Then there were the release orders. These were much shorter, but no less tedious. A nurse insisted on reading them to Rin in full and getting a verbal response for each bullet point. No skydiving, no rollercoasters, no illegal drugs... On and on. Lots of water, balanced diet, come in for checkups every day... It was like the nagging mother she never had. Report unusual itching, report unusual swelling, report periods of unconsciousness no matter how short... Rin decided she would report normal sleep under this clause. When the pre-flight checklist was finally all checked off Rin was handed a copy of the sheet and basically told to “Be good.”

A final bag was handed to her with “Oh, and these are yours.” Inside she could see a watch, and a couple of sterile white hair clips. They had belonged to captain Wheeler, she was sure of it. The crew must have gathered these from the Armstrong, and gotten them confused with her own. Not that Wheeler would miss them now, wherever she was.

“Thanks” Rin said, and took the bag.

And then she was free to go, and found herself standing in the lobby.

It was a pleasant lobby. Pleasant until the odor of hospital wafted through the sporadically opening doors. Doors leading into the bowels of the place, where men and women rotted out their insides onto white sheets. But the lobby was pleasant. Bright enough without being too bright. It was even brighter outside.

Rin's legs walked out the doors. She had something in her hand. Ahh, a plastic bag. She put on the watch, and used the hair clips in her hair. It was short now, short like Wheeler's. The thick humid air rolled lazily over her. But no air would feel thick or humid now, compared to Phoenix.

The sun was bright though. Not as bright as Twinkle, but bright enough. Her fresh pale skin drank in the sun like dry ground drinks rain. Had she always been this pale? Her left hand went to her face, weighed strangely by the watch. The scars on her face felt old and familiar now. Her hands both looked familiar as well. What other new things would she find about herself?

She found hunger pangs clawing subtly at the insides of her hands, making them shake and sweat. Like a new but intimate friend grown close over the summer and then a stranger during the school term quite suddenly found sleeping on your couch when the holidays arrived, so hunger had arrived, both by now familiar and surprising. It pounced with an exhilarating and exhausting ferocity.

She determined to eat something delicious. Something terrible and satisfying. She had been good, had eaten the hospital gruel and hardtack and protein bars and God knows what else.

Crossing to the receptionists desk, she racked her memory for a suitably lowbrow establishment. Fast food wouldn't do, and she had money for now. But something greasy. Her memory was blank as the freeway center divider. Miles and miles of it, all the same, rain-washed and sun-bleached and whipped by the experiences speeding by. Surely she had eaten somewhere in the years of schooling? Where had David taken her? A stir-fry place? That could work.

“Miss Rin? Can I help you?” the receptionist asked.

“Oh!” Rin was startled out of her reflection, “Car please.”

“The motor pool?”

“Yes. I'd like to,”

The receptionist interrupted “Driver's on his way. Meet him at the curb to the right of the entrance. No waiting in the red zone.”

“But, you haven't called anyone yet.”

Now the receptionist's turn to be off balance, “Pardon?”

“You said the driver is on his way, but you haven't called,” said Rin “and even if you did it takes a few minutes to dispatch and get to the car. He can't possibly be on his way yet.”

The receptionist looked down and began clicking and typing at her computer “The driver will be here in about ten minutes Miss Rin. Have a pleasant drive.”

The car pulled up twenty three minutes later. There was some initial trouble with the directions, as the driver was unwilling to go looking for “That one little Asian restaurant that looks like a Laundromat.” When they arrived at the understanding that Rin was looking for comfort food of any description, the driver assured her that a nearby mom-and-pop grill was just the thing. The drive was short, but Rin was feeling weak by the time they arrived.

She walked to the front door without registering the environment. The portal itself beckoned to her, promising relief of all her ills. As she pulled it open -- so much more easily than the heavy hospital doors -- a cloud of beef and molasses and lemon scented floor cleaner swirled around her and rose into the humid afternoon air. She could feel the particles of grease congealing in her lungs. The air within vibrated lightly with conversation and televised sports as she stepped -- with a eutectic blend of uncertainty and desire -- over the threshold. A hand painted sign at eye level read “please seat yourself”. The wood was raw beneath the paint where it had been turned around countless times, do doubt to display “Please wait to be seated” on the reverse. She made her way to an empty booth.

The decor was dark with ancient dust and recent antiquing. Vague beaten brass ornaments hung on the walls, half vases and half flower pots and moose heads with beaten brass eyes. The seats were wrapped in red vinyl. It was slack and worn where one sat, and the supporting fabric showed through in places. Rin's bottom quickly discovered the un-padded plywood beneath these spots. The table was uneven and raw as well, rubbed smooth with settings, and made tacky by the omnipresent greasy haze. Rin speculated idly what would happen if the place were to catch fire.

Rin ordered “The Number One” when the waiter arrived, which was apparently a thing. Specifically, as she discovered two baskets of bleached potato fries and a glass of southern sweet tea later, a burger. Perhaps this particular burger was graced and garnished with one of each of the contents of the kitchen. It certainly proved unstable when she lifted it -- hands still shaking slightly -- to her mouth. The core of meat, cheese, greenery, marbled sauce, and a slab of pale tomato slid out the far side when she bit down, leaving her with two handfuls of toasted bun studded with some chopped red nodules and a few unidentifiable slices slathered in mustard.

Despite this initial setback the stamped silverware served well and Rin sat back satisfied several minutes later, mouth still tingling slightly at the now-unfamiliar spices. Her subconscious rebelled at this sensation. Poisonous? No, it couldn't be. People ate here all the time! Still, her stomach turned for a moment. She was so full. Maybe this binge wasn't the best plan.

“Everything alright?” The waitress asked. She was gorgeously plump, the image of a hospitable matron.

“Yeah. I maybe ate too much.” Rin admitted guiltily.

“I'll get your check.” she said, and then with a twinkle in her eye, “Smile dear! Does wonders for the digestion.”

Within the Sky

It was a cloudy day as Rin stood at the curb. The power lines -- carrying electricity from who knows where to a myriad destinations -- skipped along like frozen waves on the sea. Their black threads scribbled civilization across the skies. Glowering from across the street, an empty lot festered with weeds and shrubs. A chain-link fence stretched like a screen door along the sidewalk, keeping out the flightless flies of humanity. Beside the fence, pavement and cement struggled against the tide of vegetation, seeping from the cracks. The vehicle noises drowned the rustle of the grass. The gutters were dusted with ground up rubber and break-pads.

The pedestrians bustled quickly from their vehicles, trying to ignore the gutters, the lot, the weather. Then they bustled back, to drive away. Rin took it all in, and it was all good. The power lines, the street, the vacant lot, the rich grilled food, the oblivious patrons. It was the land tamed. It sighed of safety. It was cultivation.

Rin recalled how many times she had longed to retreat to “the wilderness”, by which she probably meant a state park. But she had just returned from the real wilderness. The real frontier was fierce. One did not rest there. From the wild places, one ran. Perhaps one day Phoenix would have an ugly run-down street like this. People would lament the “destruction of the natural beauty”, and they might even lament the rusted row of lockers, and then they would eat barbecue for lunch and feel sick from too much food instead of too little.

Rin reached out to hug the nearby telephone pole, then paused. It was rough with splinters, and covered in old nails and staples. Well, maybe they would put up concrete telephone poles on Phoenix. She gave it a pat anyway, and regretted it instantly. Nostalgia looked better than it felt.

There were just so many places one could go, she thought as she walked slowly back to the car. The driver was content for the moment to simply idle with the AC on and wait for Rin to decide what she wanted. He had the radio on, but it was muted through the interior. She was full now, but would be hungry again soon, she always was. You could just buy food though. And she had money.

Rin leaned in and the driver rolled down the window with a skeptical look. “Is there a grocery store around here?”

“Yeah, any one in particular?”

“Does it make a difference?”

The driver thought for a few breaths, “Mostly depends on how you feel I guess.”

“I just want to go someplace where I can see a lot of food on the shelves.”

“There's a Co-op Co. a few miles down that way.”


Rin stepped back from the window and looked up at the sky again. It was so thin and blue, and yet so hard. A barrier.

“Hop in the back,” the driver prompted, “And I'll take you there.”


The last stop of the day was an outdoorsy store. Rin had the vague notion of buying a tent, “Just in case I get stranded somewhere.” The place was massive, with a label “Wilderness Ex-Tree-m Experts” in meter-high letters glowing across the top. Pity the architect who had to slap that slogan across the front of their art-deco facade. Rin walked inside. A deep balcony composed the second and third story, ringing a faux-stone climbing column studded with rainbow colored handholds. It was as if the place was a temple to the climbing wall, built around it after its fall from the sky. Rin took satisfaction in chuckling at the number of people using the escalator. Big tough outdoorsy guys, in the big tough outdoorsy store, sliding meekly and effortlessly up the slope.

Rin took the stairs.

After a brief survey from the second story, Rin realized that she would probably need a backpack. Her imaginary contingency plan would be pretty silly if she were carrying the tent around under her arm. Thankfully, the W.E.E. (“Wheeee!”) saw fit to stock an entire section with backpacks. They were arranged into sub-sections divided, Rin realized after a few minutes browsing, by brand. Any one of them would have been a real help back on Phoenix. Of course, there was no way the quartermaster could have foreseen that. Rin grabbed one small enough for her slight frame.

Next was the tent section. It was larger than the backpack area, but only because the central area had the tents all set up so you could walk around inside. A salesman swooped down from circling the area to see if Rin was “Looking for something?”

“Yeah, do you stock space stations?” Rin smiled wryly.

“Yep, we've got tents of every brand. Doing some backpacking?”

“Uh, sure.”

“By yourself?”

Rin thought for a moment. As long as she was carrying this thing around, “How about for two?”

“Perfect, we've got a wide selection of two man tents. Cold weather or mountain climbing?”

“How about something that's durable. I want it to last for a while.”

After five minutes of dithering over options Rin just picked one out at random. The salesman assured her that she had made a good choice. She was surprised at how large even a two man tent was rolled up, but it fit in the pack alright, and with room to spare. Now that she was thinking about it, a tent wouldn't be much good without some other equipment. A miniature hatchet/shovel went in the pack, along with a couple emergency blankets. On her way down -- from the kayak section, no way she could keep a boat with her! She grabbed a water bottle and a handful of power bars.

Looking at her increasingly heavy pack, Rin had a sinking feeling. There was no way she would survive for more than a few days with this stuff. To live even a month would require foraging food. This wasn't an emergency pack, it was a fantasy of self-reliance and independence. How long would she survive away from the technological society she had grown used to? Even on Phoenix there had been the ship for shelter. Even if she could live off the land, how would she possibly get into the situation where she would need all this stuff?

Rin set the pack down on the floor, leaning against a GPS display. This was a shop for recreation. People went out into the wilderness for fun. Well, Rin had enough fun with that already. She ran her hand down her face, absently fingering the scars.

Then leaned over and grabbed the water bottle and emergency blanket. No point in being dehydrated, and the blanket would serve as a tent in a pinch. Rin headed for the checkout.

Dinner and Dancing

“They are all just so pretty.”

Buck had asked her out to dinner. She was expecting the most awkward date ever, and was determined to make the most of it. Clearly, the first thing to do was to get a decent outfit. She hadn't had anything approaching nice clothes in what seemed like forever, and now was the perfect excuse to remedy that.

The problem was after second hand student's outfits, medical gowns, standard issue jumpsuits -- ever more bedraggled, more medical gowns, and clothes that had barely survived the autoclave Rin's fashion sense was badly starved. She had made her way to some brand name shop targeted at 18-24 year olds. The brightly lit interior seemed in danger of spilling ruffles onto the sidewalk whenever patrons opened the door. Inside it smelled of freshly ironed cotton and hummed with bit-jazz turned down low.

Rin realized that at this point she was primed to be floored by a simple pair of clean pants and a t-shirt. Even so the outfits were stunning. Denim and lace and sequins and corduroy and buttons shaped like bouquets! And the combinations! It quickly became apparent that the tops and bottoms were designed to flow nicely, with a swoop of fabric on the blouse continuing on pants on the other side of the store. She made one turn around the display, and determined to come back.

But the next one was just as good! Better even, because they had dresses too. Flowing ones and tight ones and dresses with long sleeves and absurdly large cuffs -- impossible to eat in, Rin thought. They were all a bit large on Rin's slight frame -- and there was no time for tailoring, the dinner was tonight! But they were fun to try on anyway. She found one that looked completely out of place with pure white, unflattering neckline, and lace in all the wrong places, almost Victorian. She examined it for a few minutes before deciding it must have been intended as a costume piece. And there were lots of fun clothes here as well.

After a few other stops she found herself rummaging through a poorly lit pit of halter tops and tattered short shorts. She doubted Buck would be dragging her to a club after dinner. Definitely time to start backtracking. She returned to the first store and made her choice. A long shirt with the sleeves slashed open from shoulder to wrist and tasteful piecework in blue on white, and a knee-length white skirt with a teal over-piece. They had a bit of matching embroidery on the hip and the back of the shoulder, done in silver thread. Perfect!

She returned to the medical center and changed in her room, waving at the observers before she left. It was still strange to be scrutinized at “home” and ignored in public, instead of the other way around. She felt much more comfortable sitting in the lobby, waiting for Buck in her pretty clothes. But then, just as buck was walking up, she remembered that she wasn't wearing any makeup. Oh well. It wasn't going to be perfect anyway.

They sat in the lobby of the medical center, waiting for the car. The lobby was clearly designed for people who were dreading some grave news. Serious armless seats and track lighting. Buck sat staring straight ahead. Perhaps he was regretting this whole business already.

Rin wasn't going to let him think along those lines. Not if she had any say in it. “Thanks for inviting me along tonight Buck.”

“Yeah?” Buck looked slightly startled, “Um, yeah, you're welcome!”

“So, what's the occasion?”

“We're free. We're alive.” Buck said it flat, as if he could still hardly believe it.

“Well, so is Stan.”

Buck shrugged. “Stan's no fun.” Rin could only tilt her head in assent.

The driver arrived about ten minutes later. As Buck and Rin climbed into the back seat the driver craned his neck around and smiled broadly.

“Hey folks! Where to?”

Buck named the restaurant and they pulled away. Rin was about to ask why they were going someplace so expensive. Her mouth was open when the driver chimed in.

“I've gotta say what an honor it is being your driver this evening.”

Rin froze, and her eyebrows went up. The driver went on.

“Can I put something on the radio? I mean, it's just a real treat. You two! Been to another planet! Awesome.”

Buck smiled and shrugged.

“What was it like? I mean, it must have been something else.”

“Look, what's your name?” said Buck.

“Brad, sir. A pleasure to meet you!” said Brad the driver.

“Look, Brad, my best buddies kicked it on that planet, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was too hot and too cold and no food and we almost all died. We all felt terrible the whole time we were there. I'd rather not talk about it right now. I'd rather not think about it at all.”

“Oh. Yeah, sorry man.” There was a long pause, “So what do you want to talk about?”

Buck rolled his eyes and sighed, “Did you know Rin here is not only the only woman to return from an extra-solar planet, but also close personal friends with Director Reed?”

“You don't say! Tell me about him Rin!”

“Um,” began Rin, “He's a nice guy. Very energetic. He helped me get on the mission.”

“Wow, cool dude.” said Brad

“In fact,” continued Rin, “He pretty much forced me to go. That bastard.”

“Yeah, and now you're famous. Tough break girl! Hey, how about those tunes? You dig slap-rap? I'm a fan.”

The rest of the trip to the restaurant was drowned by the staccato rhythms and rhymes of “The Latest and Best in Slap Rap to the max!” as the station reminded them between numbers. Buck seemed to prefer it to Brad's ebullient conversation.

As they pulled off the road, Rin glanced up at their destination. Heavy timber beams protruded above the log-pillared facade. Shingles serrated the roof line, chopping off the early evening glow. Below all this, muted light stole out the windows and through the landscaping. A small bridge crossed a channel of dry stones where the driver dropped them off.

“Well, have a good evening you two!” Brad called out over his shoulder. “It's been great getting to know you! Say 'Hi' to Director Reed for me!”

Rin just smiled tightly and nodded as they retreated from the vehicle. Buck was waiting for her at the bridge. She shut the car door and stepped up on the curb as it pulled away behind her. The restaurant was a stark contrast to the medical center. She stood for a moment, enjoying the bushes and the mild movement in the windows.

“You hungry?” Buck asked.

“Yeah. I'm just, looking.” Rin replied.

Buck turned around and looked down at the bridge, up at the door, the roof, the sky. His head turned as his gaze swept the heavens -- wreathed in pale yellow cloud -- until it rested again on Rin. His eyes lingered there, and a small smile crept across his face.

Rin smiled a little too. “See anything you like?” She asked.

Buck held out his arm, elbow first. “Not for dinner.”

Rin walked slowly up and, instead of taking his proffered arm, punched Buck in the kidneys. Not hard, but hard enough.

“Ow! Why?”

“You were a real pain back on Phoenix. Fighting with Stan. Running off alone. Sulking.”

“That really hurt!”

“Oh come on, I didn't hit you that hard.”

“You've got those tiny sharp fists!”

Rin rolled her eyes and began pummeling Buck good-naturedly in the belly.

“Augh! Stop! It's like hundreds of needles!” Buck crossed his arms over his abdomen and doubled over. “I give up! You're right! I was a jerk!”

“Good.” said Rin, ceasing from her assault. Instead she placed a hand on the side of Buck's face. He froze. She pulled him toward her and kissed him full on the mouth. Buck's lips tried to say something. It only lasted for a moment.

“And that's because you came back.” she released him. “And for bringing food. And cheering me up. I don't know if you ever said it, but. Thank you, Buck.” They both started across the bridge. It was just wide enough for two.

“You're welcome.” Buck draped his arm across her shoulders. “Besides, I seem to recall someone convinced the robots to spare our lives. Plus you found the swampvine.”

“Are you trying to say 'thank you' back?”

“Um... no?”

Rin smirked, “Because I'm pretty sure my way was a lot better.”

“Hey! I'm taking you out to dinner ok? We're just getting started!”

They had reached the massive solid wood doors. Buck grabbed the wrought iron handle and tugged one side open. The smell of barbecue sauce and onions rolled out to engulf them. Rin's footfall resounded faintly from the wood floor as she stepped inside. The decor was sparse and rustic, carved wood and antiqued iron. To one side an ornamental sand pit spat tiny bubbles of flame.

The hostess smiled faintly at them from behind her dark stained desk. Buck smiled back, “One adult, one child please!”

The hostess looked stunned, “Excuse me sir?”

“Reservation for two? Hoover. Just, you know...” Buck oscillated his thumb between himself and Rin.

“Ahh, I see. You'll be eating from the children's menu to go with your sense of humor. Would you like crayons as well?”

Buck's brow furrowed and he glanced to the side for a moment. “Sure, why not?”

“Very good sir. Follow me please.” She paused as she picked up two menus and then turned back to face Rin. “Excuse me, but you're Rin right?”

“Yes?” Rin said.

“Welcome back to Earth.” The host said sincerely, “I read the reports. You were amazing!”

Rin smiled, “Yeah? Why were you...?”

“Oh, I'm a fan of the space program. We're so glad you guys made it!”

“Well, thanks for rooting for us.”

“No problem. It's a pleasure to serve you. Just give a shout if you need anything.” They had reached the table.

As Buck took a seat, the hostess placed a packet of crayons and a coloring page in front of him. “Enjoy!” and she was gone. The picture was a clown balancing an elephant on one hand and a mouse on the other. Buck broke open the crayons and began to color carefully. Rin glanced around.

Their small round table was lit by a glass lamp, swinging lazily above their heads. There were real candles on the table as well, and place settings already out. The menu was bound in leather, and smelled of old books.

And everywhere there were waiters, kitchen staff going in and out. Were all restaurants this busy? How long had it been since Rin had seen, really seen, a waiter? As a child the obsequious waiters had startled her with their intrusion into the private meal. Somehow, since then, she had stopped seeing them. The staff became invisible.

But now they were visible once more. They had small conversations of their own, in corners or in passing. They were frustrated or hurried, and smoothed it away. They stole moments to sigh, or look out the window at the night sky. They had their own desires, not only to “take your order” but to order the world around them. Did they too ignore the servers when they went out to eat?

Rin realized with a start that one of the women she glimpsed clearing tables had been in one of her certification classes. Had she failed? Had she been passed over for duty? It was possible that she had been on an entire service term in earth orbit while Rin was off being encased in goo for months on end. Rin wanted to run over and ask her what her story was, but the woman spirited her load of dishes back to the kitchen before Rin could work up the courage.

Still, her eyes were fully opened now. There were even servants of the servants, the rarely-glimpsed dish washers and takers of the trash. Ando's secret bot creed came back to mind, something about “human servants share this secret, so wink at them as they go by.” Rin considered it, but it was all too silly. Besides, they might think she was flirting with them, and she was here with Buck.

Waiting for the food, they passed the time in customary conversation. It was good to be able to settle into the old comfortable point and counterpoint of comments on weather and the roads. Anything but discussing the crash really. Rin steered the topics away from calamity, and suspected that Buck was doing the same. They had been through a lot together, but exactly how much, and how bad it had been, neither of them were willing to discuss. For tonight, their words flowed in slow circles, like eddies in the shallows, until the food arrived.

The steak, slathered in golden sauce, should have been delicious. The flavors were all there. Yet somehow, eating wasn't the same as she remembered. Not as satisfying. Not as tactile. It wasn't the texture, something else. For a moment Rin felt the impulse to take over driving from Roberto, to feel the wheel fighting her. How long had it been since she had thought of her old car? But that was the difference. She wasn't really chewing her food. The dentures were chewing for her, and she would never again sense her own bones slicing the sinews. It wasn't sad so much as unsatisfying. In an effort to savor the meal as best she could, Rin slowed down.

Buck took this as a sign of dissatisfaction. “We can get a new one if that doesn't taste right you know.”

“Oh, no, just thinking.” Rin replied.

“Really? Speculating on the size of your new fan-club?”

Rin shook her head and took another bite.

Buck took a bite as well, “You know, they'll make you a new one if you ask.” he mouthed around the strip of meat, “People are really helpful at places like this.”

Rin rested cheek on hand, the room tilting slightly so much like the Armstrong had. Did. Does. “How long are we going to live Buck? People say, 'you saved my life' but they don't say for how long.”

Now Buck's chewing slowed, “About a month, maybe less.” he responded, gesturing to her plate “if you keep talking and don't eat.”

“I'm serious Buck.”

Buck raised his eyebrows, but said “You heard the docs, another twenty, maybe thirty years before the abuse starts catching up. That's if we don't have leukemia already from all that radiation.” They both chewed in silence for a minute. “Gotta die some time.” Buck concluded.

He was always so nonchalant, Buck the enigma. Rin searched his face for signs of some deeper gravity, “What are you going to do with what you have left?”

“Eat this steak. It's really good!”

Rin was undaunted “I'm going to make another try at school, maybe go into administration or something.”

“No more doctor in New England?”

“I'm surprised you remembered.”

Buck grunted, low in his gut, “Me too.”

“Yeah,” Rin sighed, “I'm just not sure I want to deal with sickness and brokenness all the time. Before I was so focused on the location, the setting, waving goodbye to people who were happy I could help them. Now when I think of being a doctor...”

The faint clink of silverware. The door to the kitchen opening to breathe out the mixed odors of dinner and dessert. The hiss of air in the nose as you inhale. The smell of death and weeping. Buck produced a sound, almost another grunt, “Relnf.”

Rin let our the breath she didn't know she was holding. “It was pretty bad, wasn't it?”

“Not the best.” Buck agreed, then began again in a lighter tone, “What am I planning to do before I kick it? Visit my cousins probably. They've got a few hundred acres up north, dirt bikes and hunting, that kind of thing.”

“Aren't you sick of 'nature' by now?”

Buck shrugged, “Back on Phoenix, that was out of control. No transportation, no food, no weapons. Go out there on a bike full of gas, with a pack full of ammo. That's something else.”

“Nice to have family.”

“You're not without family yourself... I hear.”

Rin scowled, “Where did you hear that?”

“Some guy called up, saying you're his sister? 'TacoHaco Shimazaki' if I recall.”

“Oh god, Taki. What did you tell him?”

“I didn't talk to him. The staff asked me if you'd mentioned him. I'm surprised they didn't ask you.”

“No, it's fine. He's, not really my brother.”

Buck made one last jab, “Last name fits.”

Rin rolled her eyes, “There are lots of Shimazakis in Japan.”


The wait staff thanked them on their way out the door. Back over the bridge, back up the single way, back to the place of the cars and headlights and freeway noises. There was the driver, Brad, waiting for them.

“Have a good dinner?” he said with a smile as he held the door for them.

“Yes, thanks!” said Rin, ducking inside.

Buck said nothing.

Brad shut the door firmly and walked briskly around the front, got in, and deftly buckled his seatbelt. As the car pulled out he asked “Back to the Medical Center?”

“No,” said Buck “I think we'll stop by somewhere for dessert.” Buck turned to Rin, “You up for some ice-cream?”

“Sure.” Rin shrugged. Honestly, she was pretty tired, and ready to just vege on the couch. But free ice-cream, may as well. Maybe when dinner settled her energy would return.

The trip was either short, unmemorable, or the after-dinner ennui dulled her attention. Next thing she was aware, Rin was walking into the brightly lit parlor. It was a modern decor, with brilliant colors and no door frames or trim. Polished and dyed concrete made up the floor, and the tables and chairs were abstract geometrical solids in garish yellow. Of all the things Rin had experienced, the interior of that parlor most looked like a proper alien world.

Buck picked something with nuts in it. Appropriate. Faced with the clean environment, Rin ordered vanilla. Then, second guessing herself, she asked for strawberry sauce on top. Rin remembered hating sauces of all kinds on her ice-cream, but then again, it seemed like that Rin was long ago, and maybe gone forever. The Rin of today demanded colored sauces to offset her bland white dessert!

They sat down at the oddly shaped table. Up close, it had the regular striations of custom printed furniture. The proprietor must have really thought these one-of-a-kind settings would draw in the kind of, what exactly? Hip, Avant-guard, artistically discerning, frozen dessert scarfing, tell-all-your-snooty-friends-about-it ice-cream fashionistas. The place was deserted (“When it should be desserted!” Buck would say. (shut up Meta Rin) Sigh.) at the moment.

“This is what I missed.” Buck began.

“Pretentious abstract neon decor?” Ventured Rin.

“Ice-cream. All that time on Phoenix. A bowl of ice-cream a day would have made all the difference.”

Rin nodded. What could you say to that? Finally, she stood up. “Let's go outside. This place feels more like a space-ship than a real space-ship does.”

Buck merely picked up his rubberfoam bowl and followed her out. There were no benches on the sidewalk outside, nothing to encourage vagrants to stay a while. The walked down a block together, eating frozen yogurt while the cold seeped into the roots of her teeth and brain.

“How is it?” Buck asked.

“It's good!” He had paid for dessert as well, anything but praise would be rude. Still though, a little honesty wouldn't hurt, “I'm going to leave off the syrup next time though.”

“Don't like your dessert with red-sauce?”

“Eww! Gross!”

“My uncle has his ice-cream with catsup and mustard.”

“Please, I'm trying to eat here.”

The lights high on the nearby skyline shimmered in the evening advection. A cool breeze stirred Rin's hair, causing her to shiver and excuse herself from standing perfectly upright. The wall where she was leaning bore a “no loitering” sign. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Buck stopped when the sound of her footsteps halted.

“Hiding in the shadows ninja?”

“I'm only a ninja in half grav.” She would never be a ninja again.

He leaned against the wall next to her, boots crunching on the drift of city grime where the red bricks met the cement. The skyscrapers were full of slowly dwindling lit windows. Like clouds they never seemed to change until you were just about to look away. And, like cloud watching, Rin began to see all kinds of pixilated shapes in them if she watched long enough.

Why had they never simply sat and watched the clouds back on Phoenix? She couldn't even remember what they looked like.

Something caught her eye, glinting in the litter by her feet. She stooped and plucked a shiny nickel coated washer up off the ground. It seemed to hold an unearthly luster in the muted urban glow.

She turned and offered it to Buck, “Washer for your thoughts.”

He took it and gave it a glance before shoving it in his pocket, “I was just thinking we're both probably ready for bed.”

Rin smiled mischievously, “Separately?”

Buck smiled too, “If you insist.”

There was a contented kind of silence as they drove back to the medical center. Not the uneasy avoidance of eye contact, or the tense apprehension before a confrontation, but the simple quiet of everything in its right place. It was because of this silence that they heard the sirens from a long ways off.

“Medical emergency?” asked Rin, half hoping Buck would make a ridiculous jibe.

“Emergency of some kind anyhow. Seems to be coming from the medical center.”

As they drew closer to their destination, they could see the reflected flashing lights.

“Aren't ambulances red and white?” asked Rin.

“Something like that, why?”

“That looks like there's blue lights up there.”

The driver paused at a stop-sign, and twisted around to look into the back seat. “Would you mind if I drop you off at the back? We're supposed to steer clear of police action.”

“Yeah, that's fine.” said Rin.

The driver ended up taking an extra ten minutes retracing and driving through neighborhoods to get around to the rear parking lot. The ISAC medical center had been repeatedly expanded, and somewhere along the line the architects had forgotten to connect the parking lots. You could see from one to the other, but drainage ditches and a couple chain-link fences separated the two. This lead to a natural segregation of lot contents. The patients used the front lot, while the doctors and employees tended to use the back lot.

Of course, since the ISAC medical center was primarily a research and support facility, patients were few. This lead to the front lot being mostly empty, while the back lot became continually overcrowded. They were held up by a series of cars circling the parking lot. Rin wondered if this encouraged carpooling, or merely a black market for valet parking.

The driver dropped them off and waved good night. Rin stood outside the doors, drinking in the delicious warm humid night. A few bold stars peeked from between the sickly yellow clouds, illuminated by the myriad street lamps and billboards which fueled the city's unrelenting twilight. A far-off jet added a distinct treble to the urban rumble.

“Thanks again Buck. This was really nice.”

“Thanks for coming Rin. Let's get back in there before they get worried.”

“Hah! You know, I've never had someone staying up waiting for me to get home before.”

“Really? When you started dating your...” Buck caught himself. “Well, neither did I.”

The sliding doors parted as they approached, releasing a blast of arctic air. The guard looked up from his magazine, then did a double-take.

“You're Rin and Buck, right?”

Buck rolled his eyes, “Actually, I'm Buck, and she's Rin.”

“The astronauts, right?”

“Yeah.” Said Rin, “You know what's going on out front?”

“Mmhm.” The guard reached for his desk phone, “Apparently you two were kidnapped just a few minutes ago. False alarm I take it?”

Rin laughed, “Yeah, we were out to dinner.”

The guard gestured to Buck with the black plastic handset while he dialed. “This gentleman behave himself?”

“Oh yes, other than being a doufus.”

The guard glanced over his glasses at Buck and raised his eyebrows. Then he put the handset to his ear. “Franklin here... Yeah, I'm on duty at the back main.” He glanced down at something on his desk. “Hoover and Shimazaki just walked in lookin’ triple eff... Yeah I'll let 'em know.”

Franklin hung up the phone. “Sign out next time you two. Staff can't stand being in the dark.”

“Yes Mother.” Buck shot back as they walked past the station.

Franklin was already absorbed again in his magazine. “Tell me about it. 'Night you two.”

By the time they got back to the quarantine unit Rin was feeling nauseous. The next week was spent recovering from what the specialists termed “immuno-depressed resurgence symptoms” and which Rin only remembered as misery and fevered dreams. In them, people were always approaching her, but never got close enough to talk to. Ice-cream featured prominently as well. Vast frigid slopes of frozen yogurt. She never saw what lay beneath those smooth slopes, but she could feel things with her feet, knobs and protrusions, as she sank slowly, unable to move. Always shivering.

Rin decided she still hated sauces. Buck, however...


“Welcome back Rin! Welcome... To Earth!” David gestured grandly out the window as if he's just made her all of the ISAC campus as a present.

Rin had decided not to visit David until several days after she was released from quarantine. She was going to be spending the nights at the medical facility under observation. Re-acclimating to a normal diet and lifestyle seemed to be straightforward, but the biologists wanted more long-term data. Plus, it was free room, and this way Rin didn't have to take her stuff out of storage. She had access to the motor pool now, one more perk of almost dying on an alien planet. The driver dropped her off at the front door. It felt odd walking the same halls, taking the same elevator which, a year ago -- two years? -- had been routine. Now it was like walking into a half-remembered dream.

David's office was the same as ever. Somehow it looked bigger than before. Also, smaller. These warring facts batted at each other the whole time Rin was there, perhaps contributing to her ongoing unease. Everyone had treated her with such deference or caution since she came back that it was a relief to meet David's casual mastery of the situation and find it unaltered. Perhaps in compensation for David's concrete personality, his office had changed in subtle ways. The walls seemed wider, but the ceiling shorter. Perhaps the building was slowly drooping into a more relaxed posture.

David, on the contrary, was not. He looked, somehow, twice as polished as before. His suit... shone? No, but he had an aura of ineffable radiance about him. Perhaps he was being waxed twice daily. Soon she would have to wear a cleanroom suit when she visited him.

“Thanks. Good to be back in the old neighborhood.” Rin replied. She felt as if she should be relaxed. There were still no comfortable chairs in David's office. Rin turned, but there weren't any in the corner any more. She kept turning to look in the other corner. Nope. As she completed the full rotation -- feeling a bit like a wind-up doll -- she said, “David. Why are there no comfortable chairs in your office?” She thought she knew the answer, but to hell with it. People were complicated and maybe the answer would be interesting.

David gave her his spy smile, “My visitors are too important to just sit around.” He was still standing by the window as if he owned everything as far as the eye could see.

Rin walked around his desk and sat in his big swivel chair. It was less comfortable than it looked. Or maybe it was tailor made like his suit. There were probably biometric sensors built in that were calling security right now. Rin could just imagine the fracas down in the security office.

“We've got an 819 on David Reed!”

“Do we have a lock on the suspect?”

“Looks like sixty kilos, meter forty, probably female...”

“I want people to feel uncomfortable in my office.” It was David.

Rin looked over. David wasn't smiling any more. He wore the rare timeless look of placidity Rin had seen occasionally on others. He could have been eighteen, contemplating going to college, or eighty, thinking of the grave. As he spoke the light reflected from the ground and the sky washed his face in a subtle gradient of light. Like he was looking into the fish tank of the outside world, examining the midmorning humidity which the populace of Houston breathe instead of air.

“I want them to be uncomfortable around David Lambert Reed. People get comfortable around me, they start asking questions, start looking in the corners. Like you Rin. Pretty soon all the expensive clothes and credentials and fancy furniture can't hide the dangerous truth about me. And then they find out...” He turned to Rin, and smiled his real smile. “that I'm just like everyone else! And after that they usually ask me to do something for them. And after that It's nothing but work, work, work all the time!”

“So, you intimidate people so you can be lazy?”

“Basically. And it's fun to see people stand awkwardly and wonder where to sit.”

“So...” Rin said, swinging the chair from side to side with one toe. “Why have you come to see me?”

Shocked and slightly offended at the sight of Rin in his chair, David enunciated “That's my line.”

“And now you can stand around and wonder where to sit.” Rin delivered what she hoped was an infuriating smirk.

David strode purposefully over to his desk and half-sat half-leaned on the edge. His eyebrows lowered for a moment, but then his face cleared. “I need to explain something to you... Hold on, this isn't working.”

David got up, walked around, and faced Rin from across his own desk. “Rin, I need to explain something to you.” David placed both fists on the lacquered surface and leaned in to accentuate his point. “These hearings, they may be everything we were working toward.”

“Why Mr. Reed, whatever do yowaaAAA!” Rin had leaned back in the chair, and felt it tip ominously. Her feet came up and struck the underside of the desk with a faint thunk. The chair had merely reclined a bit, but though it had caught her, it took Rin a second to catch her breath.

“Hard being the big man behind the desk isn't it?” David said

“I'll get the hang of it.” Rin snapped defensively, “You were saying?”

“All that responsibility. All the money riding on your decisions. All the lectures disguised as friendly advice you have to listen to if you screw up.”

Rin raised her eyebrows, “Like this one?”

“ISAC has been asked, a legal inquiry you understand, why their very expensive space ship crashed. Also, it seems a few people may have died. Both the public and the officials across the globe are outraged. They want blood.”

“So... try to look wan and bloodless?”

“No no. That's what everyone else will be doing. You have to know who did it.”

“How would I know?”

“This is our chance to catalyze reform. The whole ISAC is up in the air! You're one of the star witnesses!” David painted headlines in the air, “Female survivor blames 'X' for crash! You get to fill in that 'X'.”

“So, you want me to date the commissioner and then break up with him? Not much time then.” Rin rose as if she intended to begin immediately.

“Rin, I feel like you're not taking this seriously.”

“I just don't know what you mean! Blame someone? Capitalize on reform?”

“Catalyze, instigate, ignite.”

“Whatever. I'm not going to memorize a list of your political rivals and rattle it off, if that's what you're thinking.”

“Rin, I thought you knew me better than this.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I did. Then you bribed me to my death.”

David had the acumen to keep his mouth shut.

“Maybe you're the problem David. Maybe I am.” Rin had come around to stand next to him. One of her hands rested on the table, suspended by three fingertips.

“This wasn't your fault Rin. I read your letters from the voyage. You have some good insights. The RAS-R system...”

“We would have all died David!” Rin's voice was raw and clipped. Her tears held back by rage. Why was she angry? “If I had designed the Armstrong we would all be dead. Those damn tubes saved us, and only just barely. The heat shielding, the shape of the ship, everything.” Rin turned fiercely away and squeezed the moisture out of her eyes. The scars were unfamiliar with the expression, and felt tight across her features. “If I was right we'd all be dead. Maybe that’s what we deserve.”

“It wasn't your responsibility to keep everyone safe Rin.” David sounded almost gentle. Unfortunately, “almost gentle” fell under patronizing ageing father territory.

“Yeah, and maybe I don't want it to be.”

“I'm sorry Rin. It’s just...” David's face wore an expression Rin had never seen before. Imploring sorrowful hope. “We can do so much better. I was hoping you could help me to convince everyone of that. I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“I'll think about it David. Just don't be surprised if you wind up being the ‘X’.”

“I would be honored.” David said as he strode to the door. Pulling it open he bowed a little. “Please forgive me any distress I may have caused you Miss Shimazaki. Feel free to call upon me at any time if you wish to speak of these matters again.”

Rin strode purposefully through the doorway. What it was like for him, all those months... It would have been horrible, she decided as she rode down the elevator. Not that Rin was that important to him. But even if he felt no sense of responsibility for getting her assigned to the Armstrong, it would still have been horrible. The tension within the ISAC must have been immense. David would have been to hundreds of status meetings where helpless bureaucrats recited statistics from extrapolated actuarial tables. She smiled a little in satisfaction. David had probably gone through his own hell-on-Earth while the crew were undergoing their hell-on-Phoenix. Serves him right.

But, on the other hand, now Rin had clout. People listened to what she said, at least a bit more than before. She would never be in such a position if David hadn't prodded and supported her the whole way. A twinge of guilt prodded her as the elevator doors opened on the parking level.

What had he said? That she might discover an alien world? That it would be an adventure? He had been right, but for the wrong reasons, and who knew what the right reasons were? Rin had left Earth as the junior member of David’s tribe, but she had returned as... what exactly?

Oh Brother

Rin was sitting on a dumpster when the call came.

She had been headed to the mall, but on wandering from the main roads discovered a frontage road between the stores and the freeway. This by itself was uninteresting, but a short section of bike path lay stranded alongside the frontage road. It was labeled proudly as “Part of the Municipal Enrichment Project Alternate Transport Network.” A thirty yard strip of asphalt along the sidewalk, coming from nowhere and going nowhere. Predictably it was completely unused by the normal denizens of the highway -- roaring by just on the other side of the chain-link fence. What had induced Rin to climb atop the nearby dumpsters was a trio of boys using the path as a drag strip for their cycles. Somehow their seriousness and reckless devotion to victory infected her.

She had been watching for ten minutes when her phone rang. Without looking she picked it up, entranced by the unfolding drama of a regulatory dispute which had sprung up over some inscrutable technicality. Rin was sure that this would never have been an issue, except that someone had clearly won the race, which had instantly incited an investigation into the clear unfairness of the rules which would allow such an impossible outcome.

“Hello, it's Rin.”

“Hello Rin-san. This is Takehiko speaking?”

The big-shot brother. Calling to run her life just like he ran the Akimbo.

Rin decided to play it cool, “Takehiko, what's up?”

“Rin, I am so glad that you have been found alive and well.”

“Thanks.” Rin paused. What was he getting at? “Is everything ok?”

“Yes. Now that you are back we have finally been able to sleep at night.”

“You don't have to worry about me Taki. I can...”

“Of course I do! I'm your Nee-san.”

“Well, yeah, I'm good.” There was a pause, “Those bots you sent with us were great.”

“Yes? They performed well? I am sorry they were the best that could be done for you. We were all so proud to hear you had been selected for an interstellar mission. When the Armstrong was lost... Father mourned.”

Rin was stunned. Was this really her brother? Her father? The distant pair of stars, twinkling merrily in her uncaring sky?

“I'm, yeah...” was all she could say. In that moment Rin saw, with the ground liquefying insight of misplaced assumptions, her own spite. She had hated her father for being rich. She had despised Takehiko for being successful. She had left, struck out to “make it on her own”. She could never take their affection, their help. To do so would be to admit she was just like her mother. A failure. A leech. A slut.

But she had also known, and ignored, that it had hurt them. They were family, and they saw it as an unquestionable duty to look after their own. After her mother died she was their only charge. Certainly they had been busy and cold. Rin had been sent to a boarding school when mother died. She had blamed them for her death, with the unreasonable certainty of a child.

After she graduated she had refused all gestures and used her savings to go live with her mother's brother and his wife. Her father had tried a few times to contact her, and Taki had never stopped writing. She had thought of it as merely desire for control. Perhaps she didn't want to believe that she could get help. Now it seemed that she was mistaken.

They had offered to help her, put her through school, fly her out for Japanese holidays, but she had ignored the offers. Their money was too good for her. What if it was not the least, but the most they could do? Perhaps money was the best they had to offer. They were Japanese, and could not be moved to passion.

It was still a poor substitute for anything as warm as her relationship to Buck, or even David, but perhaps she had been wrong about them both.

Maybe she really could go home.

“Rin? Hello, are you still there Rin?” Takehiko was still on the line.

“Thanks Taki.” Rin swallowed and fought the burning in the back of her nose. “I'd really like to see Dad again. I'd really like to see both of you.”


“And, I got the letters. Thanks.”

“Yes you are very welcome. Rin, I heard there is going to be an inquiry at ISAC.”

“Yes, I've agreed to testify.”

“It might be an embarrasment if...”

Rin sniffed, “I ended up looking like a fool?”

“I have some friends of course.” Takehiko mentioned almost flippantly, “They will ensure you are not barred from accessing the ISAC Secure Documents Vault. What you find there will no doubt be used to avoid such an outcome.”

Political leverage. Turning on the fulcrum of her eyewitness status, Rin could move the inquiry whichever way she wished. Well, probably. Taki wanted the same angle as David.

He continued, “I would be honored if you would make a fair and unbiased report of our excellent products.”

Aha! A trade. Maybe he wasn't that different from what Rin remembered. Still looking to take advantage of the situation. Still only interested in her so far as she could make him money, bring him honor. Rin was useful now, and when she was no longer useful, things would go back to the way they were.

But even as she thought it, she knew that it would not be the same. The box of un-answered letters bore witness that accounts were not square between them.

Rin took a deep breath. But really, it was no choice at all. She let it out with a smile. “I understand.”

“We'd love to see you again Rin-chan” Of course, he would, now that Rin had agreed to help him, “Perhaps I can get away for several days.”

“I understand Taki-san.”

“But, you'll be here for the family reunion.”

“Is there one?”

“Yes, just for you. I'll fly you out. It's been so long, and now that you are back from the dead you are more popular than ever.”

Ahh, of course. Everything planned and calculated. But, why not? “Sure Taki-san. Plan on it.”



“Ando! You're back!”

The first day of the hearings held an unexpected surprise for Rin. She had walked in the front door and shed all but two of her mandatory security escort. The guards were unobtrusive, and not paid for their conversational ability, so Rin tried to forget about them. There was an undertone of the imprisonment of quarantine that had returned with their presence. If Rin tried to do anything especially dangerous she suspected they would speak up, and she hadn't decided if it was wise to defy them. She suspected that their presence was as much an implication of ISAC's suspicion of some pending revelation of guilt on her part -- and her subsequent arrest -- as they were a statement about her importance to the proceedings and the program.

So when she saw the little robot, gleaming like new under the vast lights of the lobby, she had a moment of pause. The bot was dangerous, and had seemed somewhat deranged when last they met. Would the guards be warned? The last thing she wanted was an altercation. But she also wanted to talk to him. It was worth the risk.

Her first shouted greeting and frantic hand waving went un-noticed, so she moved a little closer and tried again. “Ando! Hey!”

As the bot turned around the scene fell into place. The thin powerful figure standing next to the little white automaton -- so familiar even after all these years and wearing his suit with such the casual grace of an eastern aristocrat -- altered everything. With the context, she saw her possible error. This could quite easily be another bot in Ando's body. No, not even that; It could be a mass-produced chassis. There was no reason that Taki would have brought Ando when he could have brought a newer, more up-to-date model to show off.

But it looked so much like Ando. Of course it would, but the impression was so difficult to dismiss. And really, why not bring Ando? He was the oldest, most advanced, and most personable robot she had ever met. And he might have even been called to testify. It was thus with mixed expectations that she approached the pair, and saw that they, like herself, were not alone. The two clerks were doing their best to make themselves invisible. Rin had no doubt that the duo were bodyguards along with their more obvious duties.

“Ahh, the estimable Rin Shimazaki!” Takehiko called out, “I see you have found several honorable young men to wait on your whims.” Here he nodded to her guards, “Dennis and Arnold, it is good to see you again. I am glad you are keeping such good watch over my sister.”

In her peripheral, Rin saw the guard to her left nod sharply, as if to say “Good to see you too sir. Just doing our job.”

But Rin could sling the lingo too. It came back to her with frightening ease. “You need no such flattery as my association brings, oh great Takehiko of the Shimazaki.” and then, hoping against hope, “Here I see you are in company of another of the guests of honor, Ando of Akimbo the warrior poet.”

But Takehiko just laughed, “Oh Rin! It has been a long time! How do you stay so comical through all you have suffered?”

“Just staying alive.” She turned to the bot, “You are Ando, right?”

“Correct...” the bot replied.

“Though you may not think so.” Taki interrupted, “He's a filtered copy of the Ando you knew. ISAC requested several experience trees pruned for the public appearance. The original gestalt is on storage of course. I will be glad to have it decanted when you visit. At that time you can reminisce.”

This put her off balance. Who was it exactly that lived inside the robot body? “Well, you look good anyway Ando.”

“We donated his previous hardware to ISAC for research. His recovery was much less protracted than your own.”

“Thank you Rin. I'm glad you are healthy again.”

“Did you hear about the rescue?” Rin inquired with a glance to both of them.

“Only what everyone else is saying.” Ando responded. “I was not activated until after the transfer. With the new hardware and the filtered memories it was an experience I suspect you would liken to waking from a dream.”

Rin smiled a little “Yeah, coming out of RAS is a lot like that for me too. How is Molly doing?”

Ando frowned. “I have not seen her, but...” and here he looked up at Takehiko, “I have heard good reports.”

Taki smiled again. It seemed to materialize on his face at will “She is everything we could have hoped. Thank you again for your contribution to her development.”

Rin was sceptical, “So, she's not, traumatized or anything?”

“Are you?” asked Ando. After a pause he went on. “We are defined largely by our traumas and how we choose to respond to them.”

Rin shrugged, “That's why I'm here anyway.”

Takehiko glanced over the crowd out of the corner of his eye, “It appears that you will be wanted soon in the hearing room. Shall we walk there together?”

Rin felt like a little girl again, escorted by her big responsible brother. They made tiny talk for the three minutes it took to cross half the main hall and make it to the hallway. There the feeling was decidedly inverted.

A few paces in they met the guards -- the other ones. They seemed a bit dumpier than Arnold and -- Derek? Denny? Denver? Anyway, they shifted wearily in the portal implied by the pair of tripods which flanked the hallway. One gestured to something on his tablet, and the other took a couple of steps forward, gesturing them to stop. Rin's heart sank.

“I'm afraid you can't come in here.” the guard said in gravely tones.

“I'm just looking for the room where the hearing is held.” Rin explained, “I'm supposed to be there this morning.”

“Oh, yeah, you're fine.” the guard said, motioning for her to step forward, “It's the rest of this party's got to stay in the main area.”

“I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding...” Began Takehiko.

“Let me guess, you're very important and someone forgot to put you on the list? Sorry. No match, no pass. Are you coming in or what?”

Rin had stood her ground in the face of the guard's insistent motions that she walk through the checkpoint. She was thinking furiously. She couldn't be late for the hearing, but it didn't start in earnest for another fourty-five minutes or so. She also couldn't bear to leave Ando and her brother just yet. She had hoped they could all sit together and chat while the formalities got under-way. Now it looked as if they would part as soon as they had been re-united.

“Thanks, but I'll be back in a few minutes.” Rin said. Turning away, she drew the rest of the group along in her wake. Taki on her right heel and Ando on her left. “There's got to be someone who can fix this.”

“I believe” said Ando, “that we are to be part of a different group. The conference you are a part of is the personnel hearing. We are destined for the equipment review.”

Rin slowed, “Oh. So you really aren't supposed to be on the list then?”

Taki shrugged, “I had considered our chances sanguine. They now appear more pear-colored.”

“Shaped. So, when does the equipment review start?”

Taki gazed down at her, “About three hours. I had hoped you could sneak out and join us, but we appear to be in different wings.”

“Oh. I'm sorry. After all the trouble you went through and I won't even be able to...”

“No family debts. I'm sure you'll have an opportunity in your own way.”

They had halted, and were now standing in a rough crescent. Ando swiveled his head slightly. The sounds of the conference center washed all around them, the surf-sound of socialization.

“I can't quite hear” said Ando, “but I believe the guard is making exceptions for assistants and professional council.”

The step-siblings turned around in time to see another group of five passing between the tripods and into the protected hallway.

“You down?” Rin asked.

Taki shrugged, “Sure, why not.”

The guards shifted, eyes hidden behind their glasses.

“Excuse me!” said Rin, putting on her best offended VIP voice. “We were just reviewing the behavioral code and my lawyer and P.A.” here she gestured over her shoulder to Taki and Ando, “are clearly included under article...” She glanced over her shoulder at her brother, “What article was it again?”

The guard put his hands up in a placating gesture. “Yeah, fine. Sorry for the hassle. You wouldn't believe the stuff people try to pull.” he turned around to confer with his colleague for a moment. “Fine, you're clean. Stay together, the room is the second on the left.”

Rin had to try very hard not to smirk. Maybe this hearing wouldn't be that bad after all.


There was a chorus of uncomfortable coughs following the lengthy testimony. Rin had hoped for another standing ovation, or at least some scattered applause. There was hardly a sound. “Better than booing and rotten fruit.” she thought to herself.

Clare, the Head of Ceremonies, picked up the rhythm with the standard closing thanks. “Thank you, Crew-woman Rin.” just as she had for all the other witnesses. But instead of following it with “That will be all.” She added “Will you be so kind as to answer a few questions?”

“Good” thought Rin. A few of the key witnesses were honored by a cross-examination. It was a good sign that her testimony would be taken seriously. At the same time, it was a pain. Now that her main performance was over, Rin just wanted to go and get on with her life. “I would be glad to answer anything you wish to ask.” was what she said out loud.

“The Inquiry” continued Clare, “calls the representative from the Administration to put Rin to any pertinent questions regarding her testimony.” Rin had seen the representative from the administration on previous days. He had asked a few questions of the accountants giving report, but nothing too inspiring. Rin wondered what possible questions he could have for her. To her surprise, a familiar smiling face rose from the seats, supported by an impeccable suit. He walked to the front of the room. The smile melted by the time he reached the front, but a twinkle remained in David's eyes.

“Crewman Rin,” he began “how much time did you spend preparing that highly refined piece of testimony for which I think you deserve a round of applause?” Before Rin could respond, David began to clap and turned to the audience. A smattering of surprisingly sincere cheering spread through the stiff crowd. Rin found herself smiling. The clapping died off as David turned back to face Rin and raised his eyebrows.

“Oh!” Rin franticly searched her recent memory, “Um, probably forty hours. Well, that depends on what counts.”

“Just the memorization. Obviously the experiences of the past year have contributed.”

Rin nodded “Yeah, about forty hours.”

“So, what motivated you to devote such efforts to this, can we call it a performance?”

Rin pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, “A number of people who I, respect, stressed the importance of my testimony.”

“Did you mention in your testimony that partiality in the hiring process contributed to this disaster?”

“Yes, I did mention that.”

“As you know, there are strict procedures which we follow to prevent this kind of human error and friendship from affecting assignments. Could you elaborate on your suggestions for how the hiring process could be improved?”

Rin closed her eyes and sighed. How to fix it? Sure, finding problems is the easy part. Fixing them... “ISAC needs to be committed to transparency. There will always be biases. The issue is that, since biases are illegal, everyone has to pretend that they don't exist.”

David raised his eyebrows “So, we should legalize nepotism?”

“It's not ideal, but it would be better than the make-believe equality that exists now.”

“So, all of our efforts at equality are a sham?”

“No.” Rin made a little grunt of exasperation, “You asked how I would improve things. You can't improve if you believe you're already perfect.”

“So, you suggest that our hiring processes reflect performance instead of requirements.”

“Yes. That would be a big improvement.” Rin paused for a moment. She realized, belatedly, that she didn't quite know what she had just agreed with. David's sentence could be taken several different ways. “Oh well” she thought, “People will hear what they want no matter what I say.”

“Thank you Rin.” David said, with what could have been a slight bow. He turned to the Head of Ceremonies, “There will be no more questions from the administration.”

Clare carried on without a pause, “The Inquiry calls the representative from Planning to put Rin to any pertinent questions regarding her testimony.” A comically overweight man with a deep voice like toffee stood among the attendants. “No questions from Planning.”

Clare soldiered on, “The Inquiry calls... Engineering...” The engineering representative rose and made his meticulous way to the front of the room. He wore a white office shirt and blue jeans, conspicuous among the tailored suits. Stopping a couple paces from Rin, he planted his feet shoulder width and clasped his hands behind his back. Rin wondered momentarily if he was imitating a drill sergeant.

“Crew-woman Rin, my name is Rodger Callahan. I signed off on the design of the vessel, the Armstrong.” He paused a moment.

“Is that a question, Mr. Callahan?” Rin searched her memory and took a stab at the name's significance, “If I recall correctly, you oversaw final approval on all of the ISV class vessels.”

“Not all, but yes, I am deeply involved. Would you say that you are qualified to offer a competent technical opinion?”

“No, I am not.”

Rodger's eyes narrowed, “You seem to style yourself something of an expert on the technical failings of the mission.”

Clare spoke up, “The engineering representative will ask pertinent questions.”

Rodger glared over at the Head of Ceremonies and opened his mouth. Then he swallowed, and his eyes softened. “Crew-woman Rin,” he said, still looking at Clare, “What is the purpose of the osmium nucleated polymer matrix panels which you referred to as 'heat shields'?”

Rin glanced back and forth between Rodger and Clare. Was she missing something? “Um, I don't really know. That question has occurred to me before.”

Without moving, his eyes were now boring into Rin's. “Did your research, perhaps, take you into the ISAC Secure Documents Room?”

“Yes, I had authorization.”

“And you didn't see fit to discover what killed crewman Relnf?”

“I don't see what this has to do with my testimony.”

“Did you know that Osmium reacts with oxygen to produce a highly toxic gas?”

“I did not know that.”

“Why would an engineer such as myself approve a design containing such a deadly material?”

“Um, I don't know.” Rin felt like she had completely lost track of where this was going. It was like a rollercoaster in the dark.

“Did you notice scoring on the plates when you viewed the Armstrong from the outside?”

“Yeah, I figured...”

“Please,” interrupted Rodger “spare us your admittedly incompetent speculations. Now, what would happen if a micro-asteroid weighing four grams struck the Armstrong at a relative velocity of a kilometer per second?”

“It would punch a hole in the hull?” Rin glanced over at Clare, but she seemed to see nothing out of the ordinary about this reaming. Rin began to see the down-side of her non-traditional testimony and broad declamations.

“And yet such collisions occur frequently on interstellar missions, how can that be?”

Rin scrabbled to recall the word he had used, “The oddmitium plates protect it.”

“Osmium nucleated. Solid Osmium plating would be both weight and cost prohibitive. Now, seeing that your misunderstanding lead to not only false conclusions, but the death of one of your crewmates, would you say it is reasonable for us to completely disregard your testimony on the technical merits of the Armstrong's design?”

“Rin.” it was Clare, “Do you wish to continue this line of inquiry?”

“I have several more questions to...” began Rodger.

“You have no more questions.” It was delivered with such crushing authority. Rin realized that the formality served not only to restrain what could be said, but also what could be silenced. Without the strict ceremony, Clare could probably be running the entire inquiry like a kindergarten. “Thank you for your patience Crew-woman Rin.” Clare continued as Rodger turned stiffly and practically marched back to his seat.

“The Inquiry calls... Medical...” Rin was surprised at her pleasure to see Dr. “Oh-drago” again. His swift smooth movements seemed to leave a wake of competence in the room. After the militant Rodger, Ouedraogo was an ebony angel.

“Crew-woman Rin” He rolled the 'r' deliciously “How are-you feeling?”

Rin still had to take a pause after each of his sentences to parse the accent into a sensible phrase. “I'm feeling very well doctor.” she said after a moment.

“Very-good. You will not mind me-asking questions?”

“Please doctor.”

“How would the crew be-better prepared for medical contingencies?”

Rin thought for a moment, “Provide some training on possible problems.” she said. In all honesty, the medical problem was one that had haunted Rin in the months of recuperation. It took a huge staff to care for just the three survivors. No amount of training could substitute for that.

“How many contingencies?” Ouedraogo asked, for once very clearly.

“I can't say.” admitted Rin. “Obviously, one can't prepare for all the possibilities.”

“Did you find the medical care onboard the Armstrong sufficient?”

As far as it had gone, the supplies and care had been pretty good. “Yes.”

“And the RAS,” Here he might have raised his eyebrows, “it gave you no trouble?”

“No trouble.” Rin grinned. Everyone was covering their asses today.

“Thank-you Rin. No more questions.”

“The Inquiry calls... Officers...” “No questions.”

“The Inquiry calls... Support...” “We have no questions.”

“The Inquiry calls... Legal...” A whip-cord man wearing mirrored sunglasses rose.

Oh shit.

Rin hadn't exactly set out to break any laws, but she was aware from her research that there was an unavoidable thicket of regulations around every possible action within the ISAC. Everyone broke these regulations at some point or other, mostly without even being aware they existed. Plus, there was all the stuff she had done after the crash. Even though it was an emergency, if Legal wanted to make an example of her, it would be trivial. She braced herself.

“Crew-woman Rin.” The lawyer spoke like a radio announcer for a smooth jazz station. “You agreed, when you signed on to the crew, to respect the mission authority.”

It wasn't a question, but Rin said “Yes.” anyway. The guy's head was tilting very slowly to one side, his eyes safely fortified behind their reflective armor.

“And during your first assignment you composed a letter which addresses one of your superiors, Mr. David Reed, as, and I quote, a 'smug asshole'.”

Really? This was the best they could come up with? “Yes, I did, though it was mostly sarcasm.”

The suit's head began tilting very slowly back toward vertical. “Sarcasm toward authority is hardly an improvement over insults, Miss Shimazaki. Legal has no more questions.” He strode back to his seat.

The Head of Ceremonies took a step forward. “Thank you for your testimony, crew-woman Rin. You may return to your seat.”

Rin stood and found that her left leg had gone to sleep from sitting so still. She walked very carefully back to her plastic chair, trying hard not to limp.

Buck caught Rin's eye as he leaned out to look down the row at her. He gave her a furtive wave and a little smile. Then his face fell to a grimace and he held his finger up to his mouth in the gesture equivalent of a mixed metaphor. Buck's eyes darted back and forth in mock terror, and he slowly slouched down in his seat. Rin saw one of the other attendees, a woman in a perfectly tailored grey suit, glance over at Buck for a second with a stony faced glare before returning her gaze to the front of the room. When Buck's nose was on level with his knees he pursed his lips in a tight grin, lowered his eyebrows, nodded his head with slow satisfaction, and gave her the thumbs up. Rin was trembling with quiet laughter.

One other witness was called, and then they “adjourned” for lunch. David turned around in his seat and gave her a nod of approval. Rin felt vaguely ill. Far from being the end of her political involvement, this hearing seemed to be turning into the beginning.

Buck waded through the aisle and shook her hand. “Couldn't have done it better myself.” he said with a smirk which implied quite the opposite.

“Sorry I forgot the lines about 'when whence we wend...', that was my favorite part too!”

“Don't worry about it, you can recite them to me some time you're feeling bored.”

They both laughed at this. It was the kind of offer one never expected to fulfill, but Rin appreciated it anyway.

That evening, with nothing to ponder or memorize, Rin rented a movie and, on a whim, invited Buck over. They stayed up talking late into the night.


The hearings continued for several more days, but they seemed like another month. Now that Rin was done, she just wanted to be done with the whole ordeal. The convention center air had started to burn her nose. Too dry, and too stuffy at the same time. The questions went on and on. Patterns emerged, phantomlike, in the dialogs.

“Did you do it?”

“No, I didn't.”

“How about you?”

“Nope, me neither.”

The inquiry went along, like a man in the dark. It felt its way carefully, hoping to discover something, and yet anxious to discover too much, too quickly, or in the wrong way. By banging their shins against it, for instance, they certainly didn't want to bang their shins against the facts of the matter.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the questioning of the listening post observers. They were a quirky bunch to start off with. Anyone who spent fourteen months at a time cooped up in a tiny can hundreds of light-years from civilization was bound to be a special case. On top of that, these people were specialists. Brilliant astronomers, genius physicists, people who could produce results from raw data and cared about their research more than anything. Buck summed it up as, “Like opening a can of Stan.”

When the Armstrong's jury-rigged transmission had come through, the observers had been very put out. The explosion had “permanently ruined seeing in a quarter of the sky” and they set out to find the cause. Being physicists, they immediately back-trapolated the source of the HKM. But being what amounted to uber hermits, they declined to draw any conclusions from the matter, or investigate the debris.

Rin had so many questions! Were the pods actually destroyed? Did they receive the transmission? Could they distinguish the attempts at communication from long-range interstellar attacks? Were they frightened? Excited? But the inquiry board was not curious about any of these things.

The crew of the Alouise were called last. Their comments amounted to a long and formal recounting of the tale they had told Rin, Buck, and Stan in the airlock while they waited for the ATV to be repaired, so long ago back on Phoenix.

After a few abrupt closing remarks thanking them all, the inquiry was over. Rin realized -- as she was walking back to her limo, probably for the last time -- that she had been expecting a section open to questions from the audience. But of course, that part of the ritual had been quietly expunged. “We will ask the questions.” was the implied message.

Rin got back to her hotel room. She didn't have to leave in the morning. She didn't have school or work. She had no duties except for the weekly checkups at ISAC Medical. She didn't even have any possessions to...

Well fuck.

What even was the name of that storage unit where she had put all her things? She had pre-paid for the expected duration of her mission. Her account must be long overdue by now, what with the unexpected crash landing and all. Where had she even heard of it? David, no doubt. Had he paid her storage fees? How long did those places wait before auctioning off all your stuff?

She calmed down a bit. She had survived just fine without her knickknacks and old clothes. Even the box of letters from Taki could go. She didn't really need them. She didn't even drink coffee any more. But still, it was a sore blow. It felt like dying a little bit, losing her memories and a bit of herself that she had invested in her possessions. But maybe it was for the best. Rin wasn't sure she even wanted to go back to the person she had been before.

Plus it would mean another humiliating conversation with David. “Hey, I forgot that I had all my junk in storage, and I was wondering if you could get it back for me.” No thanks. Some things just weren't worth it.

So she passed the time with entertainment and cheap meals. ISAC was still paying her a per-diem on top of her lodging, for how long no one knew. She suspected they would have a new assignment for her soon, as one of their top experts on survival of alien environments. Or doing paperwork. How could you tell? In the meantime she went on long walks by herself, and sometimes with Buck. The muggy Houston days glowed with the normal old sunlight, and the nights with the lights of the city.

Three weeks later she got a large envelope in the mail. It was delivered to the front desk, and the receptionist flagged her down as she was walking back to her room. The tiles of the lobby sent little cool tingles through the soles of her bare feet. Back in her room she sat at the little table and carefully opened the envelope, laying out each item in turn until she had a mosaic of legal forms in front of her. Despite the contractual language, the message was very clear.

They were letting her go.

No more missions. No more duties. No more access. No more classes. No more certifications. No more motor pool. No more bureaucracy.

They were providing a decent severance, half her base pay for the rest of her life. Enough to live on if she was careful. Enough to dismiss concerns that they had kicked the survivors to the curb. The per-diem and the hotel were done at the end of the month though. Rin played with the idea of disappearing for a while, but the fine print said she had to check in every month to prove that she was still alive. A cross between retirement and parole.

She called Buck the next day. He had just gotten the same notice. His base pay was significantly higher, and so was his severance. He joked around on the phone for a bit, but she could tell there was something else on his mind. Buck had seemed distant and distracted recently.


“I just don't know what to do now.”

On her way to the airport to catch her flight to Japan, Rin had gone back to visit David. She was stopped by the bot at the gate. Apparently, revoking security pass status on employee badges was something that ISAC got on top of right away. Rin considered just driving in anyway, but thought better of it. Instead she had called David up and they went out for lunch. It was a different restaurant, but somehow felt the same as when they first went for Sushi.

“Well,” David's eyes twinkled, “you could convert some of that severance package into psychiatric counsel.”

“Thanks, but you're just as good, and free to boot.”

“Well, what do you want?”

“I want to be an astronaut.”

David laughed. “The irony! What happened to Maine?”

“I'm sick of doctors. I don't want to be one anymore.”

“That's just overexposure. I'm sure you'll get over it.”

“I had a picture on my wall. It was all snowy and perfect. That was my vision.”

Rin took a bite of rice, and chewed it thoughtfully. Every grain had a texture. None of it tasted like swamp. It was beautiful.

“When I got out of quarantine, I realized that anywhere I lived would be that paradise compared to Phoenix. Anything I did would be better than dying alone on an alien world. I don't need to be a doctor anymore. I could be anything I want.”

“Yes Rin. Yes! You finally see it!”

Very slowly, Rin smiled.


So, I assume you’ve just finished reading Fall From the Sky.

Wow, I didn’t really think anyone was going to make it this far. I mean, I was kind of hoping, but still... Good job!

As you’ve no doubt gathered, it has some problems. The narrative assumes we’ll be living on planets and using fossil fuels in the future. It assumes that all nuclear power is “dangerous” nuclear power and must be strictly controlled. It assumes that we’ll keep using rigid space-craft and that robots and artificial intelligence are Very Hard problems. It assumes people could survive unshielded on a non-terraformed planet. There are probably hundreds more assumptions which, all told, make this not a very good piece of forward-looking science fiction. Plus, like Shamus said, there’s FTL, which basically breaks everything. Oh, and even though I had a copy of Shamus’ room layout plan for the Armstrong (which he kindly dug up for me), I pretty much ignored it and described the rooms in a mostly arbitrary relation to each other.

Sacrifices were made by me in the passive voice. I’m not making any excuses. All I can say at this point is that I felt like the story of Rin and Buck and David Reed was worth telling. If you thought so too, feel free to participate in the forum thread here. I’d love to hear from you, if only to know that someone made it all the way through... and lived. Negative feedback is great too. I’m happy to spar if that’s what you like.

Thanks for taking the time to read all of this.

Your author and servant,
Paul Spooner