Silence in the medicentre. There's no electronic hum in spacecraft in this century, nor vibrations from the anti-matter engines. A dim healing green light pulses from the walls, floor and ceiling. Perfect for maintaining the wellbeing of the four patients.
There's a glint of moving metal in my peripheral vision as the medidroid monitors the condition of the final patient. Four surgery capsules lie before me in a neat row. “Everything is always in neat rows“, I remembered Asami saying with a laugh. Through the liquid nitrogen mists I can see the occupants: young faces, dressed in red and blue uniforms. I can't see the badges on their chests, but I know the motto reads, “Not for oneself.“
The soothing voice of the medidroid interrupted my thoughts. “All cellular activity has ceased. Body temperature is exactly minus 196 degrees.“
I didn't acknowledge the information. I was studying the frozen faces from left to right: Parama, sneering with wild eyes even now; Zafir, the perennially vacate, yet confident gaze; Nanda, still scowling; and, finally Asami, my friend- the only friend I have ever known.
“Leave now and report to the robotic maintenance area for immediate decommissioning,“ I ordered.
My artificial intuition told me it wouldn't be a popular command.
“Please verify,“ was the soothing response.
I repeated the instruction and felt the machine exit the room. The moment the door had opened, in dashed the robotic pet. It identified Parama's capsule and sat with its head leaning to one side, whining. The primitive toy had been the only thing to which Parama had shown any humanity.
“Zeus, cease recording any activity in the medicentre.“ My voice had marginally altered its tone. Strange.
A grey hologram of the ship's supercomputer instantly appeared. The Father of the Gods had a wizened and bearded look.
“This is against standard procedure,“ was his stern admonishment.
“I have the authority.“ I confirmed the order. The hologram disappeared, and the robotic dog rolled over wagging its tail.
I am programmed to fulfil the mission assigned to me by my owner, and nothing will stop me. I looked once more across at Asami and then down at my unblemished hands, there was something wrong- they were shaking. The metallic grey surgical microbots rolled around the palm of my left hand. My only friend. The words echoed through my neural network. Seven weeks ago my hands hadn't trembled...
The four adventurers sat side by side in the bridge of the Command Module facing the bank of computers. Shifting 3-D images of starfields passed across the main aquascreen followed by a stream of numerical data and formulae. Parama appeared absorbed in the information nodding her head occasionally, elbows propped on the table in front of her. The ambient dull red light filling the room made her dyed auburn hair seem the colour of blood. Zafir yawned loudly and stared through the side windows.
“It's still dark blue. I'm bored.“
“Shh! I'm trying to read,“ was the annoyed response from Nanda removing the library access lens from over her right eye.
“The data says we'll be through the vortex soon and then it should only be a matter of hours,“ interrupted Asami excitedly moving around in her seat. Her lips twitched nervously hoping there would be no outburst from Nanda. There wasn't, just a scowl.
Parama smiled sweetly, “Since when were you an expert in deciphering computer code? I think you want to be quiet and leave the talking to someone with brains.“
Asami bowed her head, eyes downcast. My organic software enabled me to interpret her facial expression and body language.
Parama had become increasingly unstable as the voyage progressed. Perhaps the feeling of solitude as we travelled further away from colonised areas of the universe had an adverse effect on her mental health. Suddenly, her eyes took on an unnatural intensity.
“Stop thinking you know everything. You're only on my fraternity adventure holiday because Yusa dropped out at the last moment. Just be grateful you're here at all and shut up! I'm in charge.“ Parama glared once more at Asami and returned her gaze to the main screen.
The small image recorder in Nanda's lap was slammed on the table top.
“My father paid for all of this. I'm in charge and don't anyone forget it!“ The recorder now bounced off a wall and Nanda sat arms crossed, sullen.
An awkward moment.
“I thought the mutant was in charge?“ asked Zafir.
She meant me.
“Yeah, it was really great of your father to send it to babysit us at the last moment, Nanda. It's not as if we're in our second year at college, is it?“ Parama didn't expect a response, but still smiled at Nanda's silence. She flicked her hair in victory at an argument won. Nanda, left the bridge without a word.
I studied my reflection on the surface of a table. I resembled a respectable female teacher in her mid-thirties: neither old nor young. Slim, medium height, hazel eyes. My hair was pinned back and my face was kindly. I didn't look like a “mutant“. Parama had coined the term and Zafir had adopted it eagerly. I assumed it was meant as an insult of some kind.
“Welcome to the Cygnus constellation. Estimated arrival time on Aegea 7 will be 17:40 Earth Standard Time.“ Zeus paused, maybe he expected wild applause from the adventure holidaymakers. It wasn't forthcoming, and to make matters worse he imparted some wisdom from Aristotle, “Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.“
“What the hell is the hologram talking about?“ Zafir erupted. “Do holograms have friends?“
Zeus wisely disappeared.
Parama abruptly lost interest in the main screen. Her voice became monotone and eerie, her words out of sync with the conversation.
“Her father's one of the wealthiest people in our galaxy. His rare metals company owns planets; he has a communications empire; and, a private army. He's made enemies and is ruthless in business. That's why Nanda's fitted with a black box in the frontal part of her brain connected to her eyes. It records everything. If anyone hurts her, he'll find out and have them hunted down. It can't be safely removed dead or alive, and the mutant was sent because Nanda can't cope without a nanny. I deserve wealthy parents, not her.“ Parama broke the trance, stared into the bewildered faces of Zafir and Asami and laughed unnervingly. “I know I said that aloud... Don't look at me like that!“
Zafir stood and guided Parama to her feet, “On your feet, Pama, I'll take you to the Common Room and get some chocolate cake for you.“
They left. Asami picked up the image recorder.
“Nanda wanted a first image of the planet. I'll take it for her. Are we going to be okay?“ she said with a sad smile. I looked at her with a quizzical expression I had recently learnt. “I mean, no one's going to get murdered, or something are they?“
“I have everything under control. Don't worry, Asami.“ I smiled and Asami relaxed.
“I think it's great to have a real state of the art Advanced Synthetic Replicant on board. What name were you given?“ Asami inquired.
“And, is it true that you can develop real emotions?“ she continued talkatively.
“It's only a theoretical possibility, so don't hold your breath,“ I replied.
“You might even be funny one day, Eve. I don't think you're a mutant at all.“
Immediately, the red gloom was banished being replaced with white light in the bridge. Outside the windows, constellations shimmered and finally asserted their positions in the blackness of space. We were no longer travelling faster than light, and Zeus once again made an appearance.
“We will soon be entering the planet's atmosphere. An optimum landing site has already been identified. Please remain seated in case of turbulence.“ Zeus' voice was transmitted throughout the Command Module.
A whooping screaming noise could be heard from the Common Room and Asami started clapping and jumping on the spot. I checked the surveillance monitors and saw chocolate cake being thrown wildly around the Common Room in some kind of tribal celebration. The swarmbots were already scuttling across the floor from a service hatch to clean the mess. Nanda sat alone in her room: no emotions visible, either reading or meditating.
We descended through purple and green gas clouds. Asami faithfully took images of the planet for Nanda before buckling up in her seat once more.
“Have the maintenance robots ready the buggies for immediate use on landing,“ I instructed Zeus.
“As you wish,“ was his disinterested response.
The clouds parted and our descent slowed. The planet was covered in grey dust and rock. A final blast of landing jets and a creaking of stabilizers. We were down. No cheering now, just the hammering of boots as Parama and Zafir raced towards the Service Module wanting to be the first to explore a new world.
Asami now went to join the others struggling into their spacesuits. Nanda was last, somehow she seemed different, dispirited. They checked each others' suits and waited for Nanda to put her space boots on. I zoomed the surveillance monitor in on Nanda's face: again there was no recognisable emotion.
Parama, suddenly shrieked, “Merry, he's still locked in my room! I can't go without Merry. Who's going to get him for me?“
Pause. Zafir shrugged and was about to offer, and then Nanda spoke, “I'll get it.“
A minute later she returned followed by the robotic pet waddling along making a panting sound. Immediately, the pet leapt into Parama's outstretched arms.
“How could I forget you?“ she said affectionately, rubbing its fur. “Okay, you can open the inner airlock now!“
I nodded in approval to Zeus. The door slid open revealing the two buggies ready for use. Parama placed the pet in the rear seat of the nearest buggie and sat in front. Zafir sat in the drivers' position in the other buggie with Nanda behind her.
“What about me?“ was all Asami said incredulously.
“Sorry, there's no room, maybe next time. You can stay and do some of those really interesting science experiments we've been told to do. You like science. Bye,“ replied Parama smiling.
“Yeah, science is so fascinating,“ added Zafir. “Loser.“
The matter was settled. The outer airlock opened and with a thunderous start to the motors, the buggies proceeded down the ramp and away, gaining in speed, into the grey alien landscape. The airlocks closed leaving Asami standing motionless, deserted. I watched her for some time, removing her spacesuit and replacing it carefully in the locker, and then decided to help her assemble the science equipment. I should have devoted all my attention to monitoring the crew in the buggies, but I didn't. Zeus frowned as I left the bridge.
Asami was soon busy unloading the equipment from a container marked “Atmospheric Drone“. She used the Lifter's robotic arm with precision placing the larger parts in positions ready for assembly. Two maintenance robots waited nearby, redundant. My footsteps echoed throughout the Service Module as I approached. Her tone was matter-of-fact.
“Parama's right you know. I don't belong here. They're all members of the fraternity's privileged inner circle, and I'm an outsider. I'm trash in their eyes.“ Finally, Asami paused to look at me. “Am I worthless?“
“The life of every human is invaluable and of equal worth,“ was my automatic response.
“That's not true in the real world, Eve.“ She shook her head as if clearing the thought away. Once more the Lifter was in operation smoothly and relentlessly constructing the drone.
The drone was deployed on the launch pad a safe distance from the spaceship. We sat together in the Science Annexe. Asami wore the command and control helmet and I observed the monitor. A brief count down, then the control values opened and the propellants flowed into the combustion chamber. The drone streaked upwards, its small thrusters emitting flames and plumes of smoke. Data and images began to flow across the aquascreen in the Annexe.
The short flight was ended in the planet's mesosphere with images of coloured gases against the eternal darkness of space. The fuel expired and the drone became a high altitude glider. In the troposphere, the solar chute was released and Asami's retinas steered the drone back to the surface. The monitor showed it soundlessly impact on the planet's surface kicking up a cloud of grey dust. Suddenly, something burst through the dust cloud: a single buggie.
There must have been an accident. I rushed to the inner airlock.