Back in Sol Again: Part 3

3.

Dinner and a Show

The stressful nature of the preceding few weeks, both pre-flight and en-flight, assured some crew would require a few days of R-and-R before Homer continued on. Too much remained to be done aboard both the ship and the outpost to indulge too much, but luckily, a full twenty-four hours of rest was mandated for to keep crazy at-bay. That time was then doubled to ensure everyone let their hair down. In uncharted space, with a few thousand people working day or night, and hundreds more disgorged at each outpost, crazy needed to be at bay.

Thus, Ingstrom gave all but his skeleton crew their promised forty-eight hours. Everyone but Simon, Niala, and Lina. Others had pulled short straws too, but none knew the ship better, leaving them the only crew qualified to oversee the next, most hazardous twenty-four hours. The same twenty four hours before their own R&R was scheduled, and the same they would be forced to power through without sleep.

The ISC mused that the twenty-four hours following the docking, idle-cyle of the Homer’s sub-light engines was the time frame supposed by the ISC for anything to fail catastrophically, if ever. Their logic ran that anything not-yet catastrophic, but eventually catastrophic, would be caused by manufacturing or assembly defects encountered via the final, untested ship’s abilities. Such problems would be irreparable, even despite the extensive pool of repair parts and know-how.

In other words, what the ISC was deliberately not saying but meaning was; if Homer hadn’t blown up on launch, or during travel, it might still blow up in the next twenty four hours after docking, but if it didn’t blow up by then, it probably wouldn’t. At least, not of its own volition.

What that also meant was Simon’s hopes for Uruk station could be premature. Certainly, Ingstrom might’ve taken the ship to a safer distance, but he trusted his intuition that Homer was just fine. Everyone else trusted his intuition too, and there own where his fell short. Personally, Simon wasn’t sure he cared one way or the other, seeing as how the ship blowing up meant it taking him with.

In response, he took to paranoid anxiety and excessive coffee intake. Something in the back of his mind told him, after his eighth cup, not much of his insides would remain if he continued on his way.

He heard the concerns… he certainly didn’t heed them, but he heard them.

He silenced the voice with the childish challenge of chugging the last of that cup, then vibrated to the break room for another. By his return the voice, and his better sense, were silent. The act was, paradoxically, more an indirect self-preservation than challenge. With more hours than he wished to count left between he and real sleep, Simon pursued his caffeine intake on a kamikaze run.

Risking the only ship presently within a few dozen light-years capable of reaching them in an emergency wasn’t on his list of priorities. While he doubted the ship could suffer catastrophic failure– in other words, explode– from his slacking on the job, he wasn’t willing to allow even the remote possibility an opening. Before long, he found himself incapable of doing more than sipping coffee and staring intently at his console.

Fatigue wasn’t so much the issue. Suns knew Simon’d pulled enough all-nighters at both college and the ISC to function roughly as long as necessary without sleep. He was one of the few, lucky souls still capable of deriving energy from coffee and caffeine. (Unlike most other Solsians, whom were generally becoming immune to its effects.)

Rather, the issue was one he didn’t wish to admit. Given his place on the first, interstellar colonization voyage, billions of kilometers from Sol, even more from Phobos and “home,” it was understandable. His need for caffeine, coffee, anything to keep him awake, was even simpler than fatigue:

He was bored out of his mind!

The fact was, Homer was at its peak. The ship was brand new, resting and recharging from its first interstellar jump and extra-solar flight. Journeys it had made with the ease of a hot knife slicing butter. Everything was so nominally “green” Simon felt at ease concluding the ship was perfect.

The outpost was another matter. Like most things he had his hand in, he was confident in the ISC’s maintenance bots. Robotics was more a hobby for unwinding than a secondary occupation, but that only made him better with it. He’d overseen the various robotic units at the ISC for years now, a pass-time that had begun innocuously months after his minor fame was imparted and he’d found himself strung out, utterly overwhelmed by stress.

His fame had afforded him more lab-techs and interns, and thus more projects and responsibility– and, quite frankly, more people to screw things up. Things he was always forced to fix somehow. The stress caused a slight break down, so bad for a while that he’d have relished the idea of leaving Sol. He’d have signed on to the expedition in a heart-beat then, despite knowing he’d have regretted it later. So far the actual outcome of the expedition was beyond expectation, but in the interim he’d found peace in the mindless electronic tinkering and tedium robotics required. It had been his go-to ever since.

Presently, he was having a silent argument with himself. One side argued against things going as well as they seemed. The other argued he was an ungrateful twat for looking gift-horses in the mouth. Mostly he agreed with the second part, and mostly from wishful thinking.

Calling Rearden down from Niala’s post in comms was more an act of defiance against those two, argumentative brain-parts. Inner-monologues had a way of making him tired; like talk-radio with smooth-voiced DJs. Rubbing that vocal silk along his hyper-sensitive brain was akin to something primal, intimate, but the other side of sexual. It was comforting, as if a paternal voice read to him from a favored physics text-book to lull him to sleep.

By the time the argument passed fully, he’d torn himself from the throes of his ebbed attention span. Rearden appeared, its rounds done and its cells charged. Officially, Rearden had no station. It wasn’t even really under the ship’s manifest, however it took residence in Comms to act as go-between for techies Sol, Uruk, and ship-side. Rearden too, was both willing and able to come and go as it pleased. Between its general acceptance as crew-member, and the built-in comm-system Simon had given after the events on Ganymede, Rearden could do its job from anywhere.

To say the little bot enjoyed Simon’s company missed how extremely complex and sophisticated its programming was. It was sentient, in a way, but lacked the higher functions of AI that allowed them to run rampant. Rearden could learn, certainly. It could even react much like a normal, living being.

But in the end, Rearden wasn’t alive. It did not feel, though Simon was loath to say it had no feelings. Certainly Rearden had a self-preservation instinct. More than that, it was capable of reasoning and logic. Saying one hated the bot (so long as not in jest) would make it react as if fearful of that state. It would work to correct it. It was loyal, willing to go the extra mile to ensure the safety of its so-called friends, (though one would be hard-pressed to argue it, it technically had none) but wasn’t above trading jabs. It also, as a rule, had no problem harming other living creatures, though it wasn’t programmed to kill intentionally.

Simply, Turing’s eponymous test wasn’t applicable to Rearden. Thus, it couldn’t be said to live. Then again, Turing would be hard pressed to examine its history– life– and admit that it did not.

Rearden’s neural-mapped memory meant it was nearly indistinguishable from Solsians on a fundamental level. Rearden could think like a Solsian with all the same power of abstract thought, however rarely used. It also had Solsian definitions, memory included. Its memory, like its thought processing, was based on Solsian neuronal storage, effectively giving it the same memory limit and speed of every Human’s three-pound gray matter-glob. It remembered. It reminisced. It joked.

While not technically living, through a roundabout method of rationale it thought of itself as such. Everyone else did too, and most called it “friend,” or “Rearden.” Whether it could ever become more than it was, for instance a true AI, didn’t matter to it. Not because it was incapable of something resembling ambition, but rather, because it further separated it from the people it cared about. (If “cared” weren’t so grossly misleading.)

Rearden had proven, with its existence alone, that simple inclusion and friendship– daresay love– was the tool to temper the want of ridiculous power. Whether it truly understood that mattered less and less as it aged. It believed it did, if belief were accurate, and that was enough. That, and the ability to be a superhero sometimes…

Which it could sort of do. From time to time.

Those two things kept it from wanting too much change or power.

Rearden liked its place in things. Like all the varying species it met and occasionally befriended, it had certain advantages and disadvantages, certain uses and failings given context. But it had a place, a niche, and it knew it. It even found others nearby that enjoyed its presence. Even when forced to call on its abstract thought-processes, it could do so despite danger. And sometimes, it got to do cool things that made it seem more superhero than ten-pound, hovering gourd of wires, sensors, metals and plastics.

Simon liked Rearden’s place in things too. That was why he called it in to begin tinkering with its hover-jets and testing its internal connections. He ensured everything vital (and some things not) was up to snuff. Were it not for his robotic tinkering during his worst days, Simon might’ve lost his mind. Rearden especially had given him more than its weight in solace.

Commanding interns and techs and researchers was a wonderful thing when everything went smooth. The other ninety-nine percent of the time, it was chaos enough to bring even the most experienced anger management specialist to a boil– or to the end of a noose, depending on the day. Rearden was excellent at tempering that boil and helping to avoid the noose.

Once more Simon wiled away the hours tinkering with Rearden. They passed in a forgettable haze, until he was able to sleep. Having surpassed even his post-grad thesis coffee records (already miles beyond anything a normal Human could ever achieve) he managed to keep himself alert long enough to reach his bed, then collapse face first into it. He was out before Ingstrom sounded over the comm, never even felt the F-drive engage.

In a blink, Homer was gone, nearer Gliese 867 than before and only two days’ sub-light from arrival. Unlike most drives, the F-drive was sensitive to the immense gravity fields of nearby stars. As a result, every fold required targeting the extreme limit of a system’s gravity while ensuring it remained within reach of the ship’s sub-light speeds. Spending too much time between stops was as yet inadvisable, given the F-Drive put them more and more light years from Sol and its resources.

Eventually Gliese would prove to be more than anyone anticipated, but before then, Simon would have to live down one, last proof of his being an ass.

Unlike before, this one began with waking up. Also unlike before, nothing signaled the idiot’s coming save its deep, internal knowledge of being one. After the previous night, it wasn’t as conscious of that fact, and as such could be somewhat forgiven for what was to transpire… but only somewhat.

The hungover stupor that accompanied binges of most types greeted Simon on waking. The throbbing headache and dull-eyed fatigue followed him through his morning routine of showering, shaving, cutting himself shaving, and imbibing more coffee. Then, in anticipation of the date ahead, which he confirmed more than once through the day, he readied for his coffee and dinner with Lina.

The recent disgorge of ship’s passengers coupled with its immense capacity meant Simon could spend the better parts of his morning and afternoon transforming a recently-emptied cabin into a cafe-like compartment. He brought in various electric cookers, hot plates, coolers, and other appliances; replaced the generic art and dressings that lined the digital view-ports, (glorified televisions playing pretty pictures) and put up various, old-time picnic blankets. (He still didn’t know where Rearden had found them and wasn’t sure he wanted to.)

To doubly ensure nothing went wrong, Simon prepared a variety of foods, coffees, and other items to cover as many bases as he could. Then, after another shower, and a wait in which he expected he might need of another from worry-sweat, a knock sounded at the cabin-door.

He flattened his hair, did his best not to pant, then kept from sprinting or stumbling to the door. It opened on Lina, as beautiful as ever, standing before him in casual, hip-hugging denim and a long-sleeve shirt.

“Hey,” she said, half-waving one arm. The other clutched it.

“H-hey,” he said breathlessly, once more moon-struck.

“Can I–”

He managed to shake off his stupor, “Y-yeah. Sorry. Come in. Please.”

She stepped in, rubbernecking, “Wow. You did this?”

“For you.”

“It’s… lovely,” she said with a breathless smile. It lit the room, Simon with it. He led her to the various hotplates, burners, coffee, and coolers to reveal the buffet. She charmed him with her accent, “And this? All for me as well?”

He fell under her spell and nodded mindlessly. She smiled again, wider this time. Simon felt it infect him. Simon was certain he was dreaming as their eyes met and her face glowed. He thought it an angelic apparition, then recalled the overhead LEDs. They twinkled in her eye while he, less dully than he believed, stared back mesmerized.

A conversation took place without words as she gave a coy look away, as if to say no-one had ever done something so selfless nor romantic for her. He replied with a look that said he did it only for her, and could never for anyone else. Her look back sealed his doom.

No matter how ecstatic the next moments made him on later recollections; no matter how amused, or grateful, or even aroused; his doom was sealed.

She took his hand in hers, and in the way that such things happen, moved with slow-motion swiftness to kiss and embrace him. And he, being the fool that found himself in love, yet still a fool, kissed her back and once more prepared to reveal the fate-string sewn.

They kissed deeply and passionately. Long enough to stamp affection into one another’s minds. Lina pulled away. Simon was frozen; his dullard look in full fashion; mouth-open, as if trying to comprehend something baffling– or perhaps, from stroke’s wonderful hallucination. The foremost was clear as she moved forward in hopes of preserving all of his obvious effort. He returned to reality to follow her…

And could never be certain, no matter his subsequent recollections, if the coffee-hangover stupor was at fault, or the stupor of Lina’s wonderful, English kiss. The outcome remained immutable, for in a few deft movements, he swiftly destroyed everything save his hopes.

He stepped carefully over various cords strewn about before a moment like an eagle-eye nightmare crossed with a cartoon cat-mouse hunt: He tripped. A hot plate went with him. Its pot of spaghetti launched skyward. He dodged it unconsciously, managing to knock a tray of meats from atop sterno-burners. They collided with bowls of dip and potato salad. The jumble of food tumbled toward the floor as he rapidly deduced the universe’s nightmarish joke–

Just as the spaghetti pot deduced its gravity.

It shifted in an arc, tumbling end-over-end, tomato-laden contents emerging like a past-monster exploding across the room. The pot aimed for the coffee’s glass decanters and struck. They shattered, loosing their contents like the blood-flood of an ancient horror film spilling from elevators. The liquids followed the spaghetti pot’s final dance with gravity to its terminus-bow on the floor.

Simon stood, utterly frozen, staring. And just like that, felt he’d ruined everything. Forever.

But just like that he’d sealed in Lina’s mind– as she doubled her over in utterly uncontrollable laughter– that there was no-one in the universe she loved more than him.

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