Part 1 here.
The suit he flicked at her opened up to ten separate pieces.
“Where was it?” she asked and pulled it open. What went where?
“I’m still covered in gunk,” she said.
“It may help if …” He didn’t finish. His jerky movements sped up as he tried the pieces of the suit one way, then another, and all without letting go of the chalaza. “It doesn’t fit!”
“It will, it needs time to mould. Slow down.” But her suit didn’t fit properly either. It felt like neoprene, but thicker and heavier.
The undergarments would absorb and recycle waste, so they were the easiest to determine by purpose. She slid the first part of ten on via her legs, took the piece off and turned it around. Pulled it half-way up, then had to pinch it over her skin until the material buzzed and squished and expanded to cover her from waist to knees.
“Ow.” The material stopped shrinking, gripped her skin so tight she couldn’t get a finger under the edge to loosen it.
The air warmed a few more degrees.
“We’re going into orbit,” he said.
“Where are the survival packs?” Shera struggled into the next part of the suit, out of it, tried another piece.
“I don’t know, where?”
Each rotation of the pod was an opportunity for Shera to check the cabinets. The open door of the cleanser didn’t have anything, the suit box didn’t have anything else – she grabbed at each latch as she spun.
One pack. There must be another somewhere. She was hungry. It was a known issue – emergence created extreme hunger in the first few hours after release from stasis.
The next cycle showed two other open cabinets. One more survival pack, and one medic pack. What about a shelter? Or would the pod serve that purpose?
Shera connected one pack to her right thigh, and the medic pack to her left thigh, locked them into position with clips and locking mechs.
The bench wouldn’t be comfortable, but they could –
“Hold on!” Damasc grabbed her and pulled her against his body.
The bright expansion of white and blue light was startling, beautiful, if not for the knowledge that it was Mother. And now not Mother.
Were they the last of the frontiers?
But that meant the other pods had already landed – they couldn’t be alone. The ship would self-destruct only upon abject failure or end-projection. How could it be deemed failure if there was even one Goldilocks planet in the database they hadn’t reached?
“Is this a Goldilocks?” she asked.
“Yeah, 716,” he said. “But the records don’t have any preliminaries. None.” His body swung around to face her, his suit vest a tight constriction across his chest and neck. “No ground checks. At all. No data on existence for life forms. Nothing. Not even an analysis of the air, no atmospheric testing. Nothing.” His voice squeaked.
“Download everything,” Shera said. “We’ll find the other groups when we get down there, see what they know, what they’ve got.”
“And how do you think we’ll find them?”
“They’ll find us if they get down first – there are locators on the console, see?” She pointed, but her eyes flashed to the only tile with light behind it. The red tile. Was their situation an emergency?
And who would rescue them? The Mother ship that shat light particles into space?
Damn the Goldilocks Frontiers. Damn the Dream.
This journey was turning out to be what the naysayers had said. But she couldn’t remember what they said, only that she felt she remembered.
The downloads were buzzing into her nex, swarming like a hive of insects, crawling under her skin and into her brain.
“I’m overloading,” she said. “I don’t know what I’ve got, but I have to stop the data-dump.”
“I don’t know how to check how many pods are already out or down.”
“That’s the first thing we’ll do when we get down. We’ll set up the locators.”
Shera nodded. She pulled herself onto the table and reloaded the sides of the ovo. It wouldn’t hold her still, but there were attachments on the suit and she clicked her feet, hips, left shoulder – had to protect the nex – and right hand. Come hell or GL 716, she’d done all she could do.
His response was a word she didn’t know, but would add to the list of variables to express frustration, anger, and powerlessness.
The third orbit threw them under the atmospheric cradle and into the lower realms of the biosphere. There were clouds visible through the port view window, but not white clouds, not vapour. They looked like collections of crystals, dark brown or amber-coloured crystalline shapes that moved independent of each other and the air around them. Were they living organisms?
Their passage through the first cloud damaged the window. The crack widened and opened to the outer world. The suction almost ripped her arms off, and she shoved the loose edge of her life-support ovo-capsule to bench-height. Her attempt at protection didn’t work. The force ripped it from the hinges and the material stuck against the hole.
The pressure stabilised, but she couldn’t get a proper breath.
“Face-plate,” she heard from somewhere between the roaring in her ears.
Face-plate. Was there a face-plate. She grabbed her neck-piece, pushed and wriggled until a mask slid up and covered her face. She gulped in mouthfuls of oxygen, slowed down when the headache burned across her forehead.
“Hold on.” His voice sounded eons distant.
The hatch hissed open when the spinning stopped. Shera was still spinning. She couldn’t stop her eyes from swirling and twirling and sparking.
Or was that the holo-screen?
If it was, she couldn’t read it. If it wasn’t, she didn’t care. Nothing was going to make her move, not now. Nothing would make her move until her brain stopped doing cartwheels and imitations of being a massless scalar field.
The noise screeched through her ears. Not constant, a blast followed by a siren followed by the shape of words.
She heard that.
“Why did you do that?”
“Get up, now, or I’ll leave you here.”
“I’m the senior officer.”
“You’re dead if you don’t move.”
The siren increased in decibels.
“Self-destruct initiated. Final countdown commences in ten seconds. One minute countdown for quantum loop initiation. Please remove any items necessary for survival and seek shelter.”
She heard that, too. “Why did you do that?” Her arms wouldn’t move. Her hands flapped uselessly.
“I didn’t.” He snapped off her catches and threw her over his shoulder. The leap out of the hatch didn’t end on a solid surface.
Shera’s feet crashed through fluid. The pod slid away, deeper and faster with the hatched opening filling with liquid. It disappeared into the depths faster than she could take a single breath.
“I can’t swim,” she said. Her body wobbled in the medium, the suit flotation unstable for long seconds until her feet pointed down, and she sank under the surface.
“You can, find the data cube. Swim.” His voice came through the mask.
Water covered everything. Darkness enveloped her vision. The face-mask supplied her with oxygen, but Shera felt the crush of tonnes of water over her head. She sank into the darkness, closed her eyes and tried to focus on the knowledge, hidden somewhere in her mind, for how to swim in a liquid environment.
The whole planet couldn’t be water, could it?
The click in her nex showed her the memory, the bright holograph projection showed the movements. She imitated them, frog-like, and aimed herself for the lighter patch of –
The booming shudder in the water threw her upwards and out of the water. The face-mask pushed over her nose and half her mouth, leaving her exposed to the unknown air.
Water sluiced upward in a volcanic eruption. In the centre was the give-away white heat of the self-destruct core.
Shera spun herself in the air, tried to see beyond the splatter of water and detritus. Where was Damasc? She’d kick his backside for initiating the self-destruct … but he said he didn’t. What did that mean?
They had to talk, share info, scan through the data in the nex – she pressed her neck. Nothing happened. No click, no buzz.
She hit the water, sank into the darkness, slowed the descent by opening her arms and legs, let herself float up to the surface. The mask slid back over her nose and mouth and she took one breath before she breached the surface again.
Waves and wind battered her face, and she pushed herself up as high as she could. Where was he?
The humanoid shape in shredded silver neoprene floated closer. When she closed the gap and checked his vitals, the reality set in.
No blood or cellular structures beyond the three layers of dermis and a layer of muscles with blood-paths. The rest of him was wires and cables and oils and tiny boards with chips and circuitry.
Damasc was a machine, even though his details stated categorically that he was non-cloned and biological. She checked her details.
Exactly the same. Non-clone. She’d assumed a natural biologic. That’s what it should mean.
GL #716, the last of the Frontier GLs. Machines to pave the way for them.
Dead bits floated around her. Bodies of creatures she couldn’t have imagined – imagined! Can a machine imagine? – littered the surface of the large expanse of water. Whether they’d be good to eat was one thought, quickly replaced by another.
Shera wasn’t going to record data for them. If she were a machine, food wouldn’t be a necessity. It would be a service to those to come after. The real travellers. Not for this test-tube defrag-traveller.
Her dream of journeying to the far frontiers was due for termination and disposal.
When she got to land, she’d delete them both. Self-destruct any further expectations of their purpose. All machines contained a kill-code for their AI programs, didn’t they?
The final back-up protocol, as noted in the comment lines.
His body floated, which made it easier to get him to shore faster. She used the process of finding and fixing his damage to locate all the tracerss. Each one, both his and hers, went into the deep hole with the nex and eye-projectors. Along with the large masses that had no obvious purpose, except that the terminate code referred to their location and settings – as 0 or 1. Too obvious.
If the pod were here, she’d have information through the nex and her decision might be different. But there was no validity to a debate. They’d been abandoned.
A final check to discover anything that didn’t belong anatomically, and Shera placed the comatose body of Damasc in the entrance to the cave to complete the self-repair. It would take time without the requisite tools and knowledge, but it would happen. They were designed to maintain the basics, to protect the critical storage devices and banks.
The destruct timer went on as the sky darkened to deep orange with glints of purple and green streaks. Shera watched her connection to the memories that weren’t hers float away with the dust from the small, confined explosion.
Dust was good. Easier to see if anyone came. She had time to wait and watch and set a trap for any who came to collect the data, the only possible value from the high-cost expedition.
The likeliest result, and her deepest fear, was that the journey was no more than a policy promise made to appease, with no intent to do more. She had a tiny hope, smaller than the sense of self and worth and dreams given to an artificial information collection device.