“Zeus, get the outer airlock opened immediately!“
The buggie entered the outer airlock. Two crew members were clinging to the side of the vehicle. The inner airlock slid open and the crew entered the Service Module. Zafir removed her helmet. She was red-faced, laughing. She glanced at my face and rolled on the floor in hysteria.
“Oh-my-God, the mutant looks concerned!“ was all she could eventually gasp.
Parama threw her helmet to the floor. Her mouth twisted into a snarl.
“It can't feel any emotions, you idiot!“ she screamed at the prostrate figure. The laughter stopped immediately. Then Parama turned her attention directly to me. “All of your kind should be destroyed!“ she hissed. I felt droplets of her saliva on the synthetic skin tissue covering my face.
“Is anyone hurt?“ I asked.
Parama stalked off to remove her spacesuit followed by Zafir. I was unsure what to do. There was no reason for Parama's or Zafir's behaviour. Perhaps they had suffered a concussion? Nanda started to walk past me.
“What happened, Nanda?“ came a perplexed voice from behind me.
Nanda spoke coldly, gazing past me as though I didn't exist.
“Zafir trashed the buggie. She lost control racing and hit a rock. It's about five kilometres south-west of here.“ Finally, she looked at me, “Parama's mum and dad died when she was three. They knew they were dying and had self-replicants created to look after her. She only discovered they were replicants of her parents when she was fourteen. All the nurturing she received was a lie. Leave her alone.“
Nanda left the Service Module.
“That's so sad. No wonder she is the way she is,“ reflected Asami.
The robotic pet was struggling to free itself from the buggie's harnesses. I left it there.
Dinner in the Common Room.
The walls were completely covered with graffiti messages from friends, some wishing good fortune and others the product of student exuberance. The college motto and emblem were proudly emblazed on the ceiling over the translucent oval shaped multi-functional table.
“If only we had more buggies, I'd love to crash some more. That was just so cool! I heard you scream, Nanda!“ bragged Zafir.
Nanda ignored the comment and slowly drank her vitamin cocktail.
Parama grinned humourlessly at Nanda and Asami, “With only one buggie it looks as if some of you will have to get used to space walks.“
More laughter from Zafir. The food preparation unit emitted a short 'ping', and the room was filled with the aroma of traditional Indian food: it was curry night on Aegea 7. I laid the menu choices in front of the seated crew members and waited a discreet distance from the table. Finest quality silver knives and forks were soon in action, except Parama's. She stared at her meal as if it was something repugnant.
Slowly, Parama raised her plate and tipped the food away. The curry splashed off the floor before being covered in a white blizzard of rice. The other diners stopped, cutlery in mid-air uncomprehending. The service hatch opened, and the swarmbots began to scuttle towards the steaming heap.
“It wasn't what I ordered,“ Parama spoke eyes fixed straight ahead. Then she smiled benevolently and turned to me, “You must clean up the mess. It was your mistake!“
Parama struck out violently with her foot and sent the nearest swarmbot tumbling away. The other swarmbots froze, watching their damaged comrade intently, antennae moving furiously in communication.
Parama now pointed to the mess, “Clean it up!“ she screamed hysterically. Slowly, she looked at the others, “It has to obey a human command. It can't even defend itself. That's the law.“
“We order our own meals, Pama. Don't you remember?“ asked Zafir.
“Clean it up,“ Parama whispered menacingly.
I took a napkin from the table, knelt down and began to scoop up the food and place it onto a spare plate. Parama sat perfectly still looking down at me contemptuously. The next moment, there was someone else kneeling beside me, napkin in hand- Asami. Parama got up abruptly and ordered herself a different meal. The swarmbots converged and soon the last traces of curry had vanished.
“It was just a joke. That's all,“ announced Parama with a humourless laugh sitting once more.
The food slowly induced a state of voluntary amnesia upon the crew and normal conversation resumed. By the time dessert was finished, Parama was charming her fellow crew members as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Even Nanda was drawn into the conversation. The damaged swarmbot had almost repaired itself when, unnoticed by any human eye, I attached a command override system between its antennae. The swarmbot retreated to the safety of the service hatch. It was now my slave.
Drinks were finished and I cleared the table without any further incident.
“Let's play something! It must be really simple so that even Nanda can understand the rules,“ insisted Parama, “and Asami, you'll join in won't you?“ Parama didn't bother to wait for a response, she had already selected 'Ludo' on the entertainments player. The dining table lowered to the floor and projected upwards a three-dimensional game board with a revolving dice at its centre. The game began.
Luck was initially with Parama and the dice always seemed to roll six for her. Two of Parama's counters raced around the board to home. Each success was accompanied by vitriol and congratulations from Zafir. It was clearly more than merely a game to Parama: it was an opportunity to prove her superiority. Only Zafir's pieces were in the game and she was careful not to take any of Parama's. Nanda and Asami were subject to a tirade of abuse: “You're so useless at everything!“; “You'll never be a winner like me!“; “This just sums up your pathetic life, doesn't it?“ However, fortune suddenly changed sides: a reluctant Nanda won with Asami coming second.
Parama stood abruptly, her eyes close to tears, “You two cheated! You ganged up against me. I was winning! It's a stupid game. I'll show you who's the best at everything: who wants to challenge me in Kombat Training?“
No one caught Parama's gaze, or dared to move a muscle.
“You lot need to grow some balls! I'll just fight the simulator then.“
Parama stepped into the area projecting the board game. “Change game: Kick Boxing, Level Three.“
Her body was instantly hidden from view inside a forest of needle thin green lasers. A warning was issued from the Simulation Controller, “At Level Three, there is a risk of bodily discomfort and minor pain if unsuccessful. Do you wish to continue?“
“Go on, Pama!“ shouted an excited Zafir.
The aquascreen in the Common Room came to life revealing two fighters in the middle of a boxing ring. Parama's hair was braided and her shorts and vest top were black emblazoned with a fire design. The referee checked her boxing gloves. The image cut to that of her opponent. Titan was fully a metre taller, with a shaven head and blond plaited beard. His grey-blue eyes were frozen in hatred. His body seemed to be composed of enormous muscles welded together with throbbing veins, covered by an exoskeleton of snake tattoos. The referee finished explaining the rules. The unseen audience in the arena screamed their support for Parama. It was fight time.
Parama looked confident and waved a gloved fist towards the crowd. Titan adopted a crouching position ready to charge at the first opportunity.
“Fight!“ yelled the referee, stepping back carefully.
It seemed that at Level Three the simulator was of no danger to even the most novice of fighters. He lumbered after a swifter-footed Parama, and threw huge slow hook punches accompanied by grunts of pain as Parama ducked and countered.
Zafir jumped to her feet, “Kill him, Parama! Kill him!“
'Thwack!' The blows rained down quickly on the Titan now, his knees began to tremble, and finally with a crash that shook the canvas, he lay there panting for breath, barely conscious.
Parama stood victoriously on the ropes before an adoring mob.
“You have scored a KO over Titan. Game over,“ intoned the Simulation Controller.
The shroud of lasers disappeared. Zafir rushed to embrace a jubilant Parama.
“Who's the daddy? I'm so tough I should have been a cosmo-marine! I told you I was the best!“
“You were amazing! Did he hit you at all?“ asked Zafir.
“A couple of times, but I can take it,“ replied a heavily perspiring Parama.
“By the way, I loved the outfit you chose and the braids...“
Zafir and Parama exited the room together. The games session seemed to have ended. Asami said 'goodnight' to both me and Nanda and left us.
“You're here to protect me, right?“ Nanda finally said.
“I understand my primary duty.“
Nanda nodded in approval at my response and then departed.
Alone, I removed my personal communicator and wrote an encrypted binary code order for the swarmbot. It was transmitted in a burst lasting barely a nanosecond. Now, as was my habit, I would go to the bridge and run a series of tests lasting 46 minutes precisely to ensure that the spacecraft was fully functional. I paused and stared at the entertainments player. I was curious, 'just how easy would it be to defeat Titan at the highest level?' My feet seemed to have a will of their own.
“Kick Boxing: Level Twelve,“ I requested.
Immediately, I was enveloped inside a world of green lasers.
The Simulation Controller greeted me, “Warning: Level Twelve is the reality level. The risk of severe injury or death is probable in the event of defeat. Do you wish to continue?“
The stream of green lasers evaporated and I stood in a boxing ring. The crowd was cheering. I looked down at my hands entombed within red boxing gloves. My top and shorts were red trimmed in gold. The referee was explaining the rules. Titan looked down at me with an expression of pure malice. He didn't have a chance. I kicked Titan with so much force that his chest imploded, and whilst he hung helplessly onto the ropes on the opposite side of the ring, I gripped his head between my gloves. The referee tried to stop me. I pushed him away and he flopped like a rag doll out of the ring. My knee connected with Titan's chin sending his inert body arcing over the ropes. I stood alone in the ring. The simulator wasn't that difficult to defeat at Level Twelve after all.
“You have been disqualified. Game over,“ intoned the Simulation Controller.
My eyes instantly adjusted to the lights in the Common Room, and then I noticed Asami. She was watching the aquascreen from the doorway. She was terrified.
“I just came to say how sorry I was about the way Parama treated you,“ Asami blurted out, before racing back towards her quarters.
“Asami, let me explain- I was just...“
She was gone.
I made my way to the bridge and began running the diagnostics test. Zeus was hovering nearby. I ignored him until I was ready.
“There's a Trojan Space Defence Net in the Service Module inside a sealed container labelled 'Emergency equipment'. The maintenance robots must deploy it tonight as a matter of priority. The crew are not to be informed.“
“I should have been informed about any military equipment on board,“ was Zeus' disapproving response.
“I'm informing you now. It's a routine security measure, nothing more.“
At that precise moment, all the surveillance monitors crashed. I had to act quickly.
“Zeus, you have to trust me! Stay here and get the monitors back on line. I must check on the crew immediately.“
I knew that I had little time and flew down the corridor faster than any human. In less than a minute it was done. I could relax and return to the bridge. As I passed Nanda's room, I heard a barking from within. Parama was the one with the robotic pet, not Nanda. I entered Nanda's room not knowing what to expect. She stood there motionless in the darkness, the pet sitting beside her, humming a nursery rhyme.
“Parama, why are you here?“ I asked gently.
Parama didn't seem to hear me, and then she squealed and her body jerked like someone being suddenly woken from a deep sleep. Her eyes were wide with surprise and for the first time she spoke to me without any hint of contempt.
“I was only watching her. That's all.“
She brushed past me cradling her pet.
I instantly removed Nanda's bed cover and inspected the sleeping figure. There were no signs of injury and her pulse was strong. Was Parama a danger to Nanda? My analytic processor failed to supply a definite answer. I had to maintain the initiative if I was to be certain of accomplishing my mission. I left Nanda's room.
The door slid open to reveal Zeus hovering anxiously in the corridor.
“The monitors were sabotaged! Tell me what's going on,“ the hologram demanded.
“I don't know.“
“What?“ was his disbelieving response.
“I told you, 'I don't know'. By the way, you are forbidden to leave the bridge in future unless I request it. Do you understand?“
Zeus vanished. He understood. I retired to my quarters. I needed to rest the organic tissue in my body and replan my strategy: time was of the essence now. I laid back on the couch and immediately began to imagine what it would be like to be human. Was this a 'dream'?
I didn't know how long the warning alarm had been active for. The red glowing light and incessant insect-like humming screamed 'danger'. I raced to the bridge.
The main aquascreen showed swarmbots working in a frenzy undertaking decontamination operations in the Service Module. The clouds of iodine crystal gas suggested only one thing.
“Radiation,“ was the only comment from Asami.
“How bad?“ I replied.
“Where were you?“ demanded Nanda turning in her chair to face me.
I ignored her question. At that moment, the alarm ceased and the red glow vanished. It was replaced with the sound of a hypermagnetic storm beating down upon the space craft exactly as predicted.
Zeus' booming voice answered the question. “The contamination is now under control. All food supplies in the Service Module are unfit for consumption and will be jettisoned.“
“How many days' provisions are stored in the food preparation unit?“ asked Asami.
“Perhaps, ten days at the current consumption level- with rationing it would last longer“, answered Zeus.
The door to the bridge slid open. Parama appeared with Zafir at her side.
“ 'Rationing'? What the hell is going on? Someone tell me now!“ Parama's head began to twitch uncontrollably waiting for a reply.
Nanda leapt to her feet and pointed a bony finger at my face, “She's just going to watch us die!“
Parama slapped me in the face. I felt no sensation at all. She looked triumphant.
“Stop that!“ screamed Asami.
“Or what?“ Zafir laughed cruelly. “You're just a nerd. Shut up!“
Parama looked around the room for Zeus. “What happened, Zeus?“
“An improperly sealed item of scientific equipment positioned next to the food supplies leaked radioactive elements into the atmosphere.“
Parama stalked towards Asami, her face white with rage and fists bunched. Asami stood meekly.
Asami's voice was quiet, begging, “I didn't use that equipment, or move it next to the food supplies. I promise.“
Parama raised her fist and Asami closed her eyes waiting for the blow. It was strange, because a human's pain meant nothing to me, but I didn't want Asami to be hurt.
“Enough! We need to work together to find a solution,“ I commanded.
Parama lowered her fist. “It's simple: we send a high speed SOS message to all craft in the quadrant immediately, and then wait three hungry weeks for them to get here.“
“No message can penetrate the storm,“ replied Zeus.
As if to confirm this, the space craft shuddered under a fresh assault from the storm.
“How long will the storm last?“ asked Parama.
“Approximately one month at least...,“ continued Zeus.
Zafir looked puzzled, “Couldn't we just fly away?“
“It'd be lethal to attempt to fly through this you moron,“ responded Parama bitterly. Her face took on a savage expression and she glanced from Asami to me, “Before the end I'll deal with both of you.“
“Death may be the greatest of all human blessing,“ whispered Zeus.
Parama left the bridge followed by Zafir and Nanda.
Asami bowed her head and covered her face with her hands. The maelstrom raged outside. Finally, she spoke, “We need something small to quickly blast through the storm and then send a message.“
The atmospheric drone. I knew Asami would think of that. It was an inspirational idea.
The design plans for the drone were displayed on the main aquascreen in the bridge. Asami was busy calculating the total thrust required to blast the drone safely into space. She bit her nails and smiled at me.
“You'll help me won't you, Eve? We have to save them.“
I smiled back. Together we designed a small anti-matter engine using bits and pieces from the spacecraft's propulsion and an odd assortment of items from around the ship. Zeus calculated the coordinates and reprogrammed the drone's sensors to continuously relay an SOS message once out of the planet's atmosphere.
Asami worked tirelessly throughout the night. She wouldn't eat her assigned ration and only drank sparingly. Her eyes were red and sore. Why didn't she rest and eat? Zeus ran a simulation. “There is a fifty percent probability that the modified drone design will function successfully and clear the storm.“
“Fifty-fifty, that's not too bad. Send the design to the maintenance robots straight away,“ Asami ordered.
The spacecraft would be within the eye of the storm in fourteen hours and that was the only time the drone could be safely launched without being immediately ripped apart. At last, she fell asleep. The door slid open; in came Nanda and Zafir.
Zafir picked up Asami's uneaten ration and crammed it in her mouth. “I needed that,“ she murmured spraying crumbs in all directions. “What's that?“ She motioned to the design and calculations displayed on the aquascreen.
“A message in a bottle,“ was my reply.
“A what?“ Zafir replied.
Nanda's eyes lit up. “We'll be saved, won't we?“
Hope was infectious. The eye of the storm brought a chance of rescue. The maintenance robots deployed the modified drone for launch. Everyone watched the aquascreen in the bridge. A brief countdown and intense blast of light and the drone disappeared towards the thermosphere in a single heartbeat.
“Launch was a complete success. The modified drone is exactly following the prescribed flight path... In eight seconds the drone will have cleared the magnetic storm,“ stated Zeus.
Everyone held their breath and counted, willing the drone to miraculously avoid destruction. The fatal seconds passed and Parama opened her eyes, picked up her robotic pet and rubbed its head, “Who's a clever boy then?“
“Let's celebrate in the Common Room!“ shouted Zafir.
They left, only Asami remained.
“Thank you,“ she said before going to her room. I waited for the door to close.
“Zeus, I want the Trojan command and control system to be operated from my personal communicator immediately.“
“No! I cannot allow that.“
“If you don't do as I say they will all die. I guarantee you that. I am saving them! You're the one risking their lives!“
The hologram flickered and then disappeared.
“Very well,“ came the disgruntled reply.
I sat staring at my personal communicator in my quarters. The modified drone was a small blip. I pressed my finger on the screen and a green triangle appeared around the drone.
“Target acquired,“ purred a gentle female voice.
A pulsating red circle flashed on the right side of the communicator. Asami trusted me. I wasn't merely a tool to her. Why did I have to do this? I pressed the circle.
“I'm sorry, Asami,“ I whispered.
Within thirty seconds the screen was blank. “Target destroyed. Miltech Solutions Inc. thank you for using Trojan- the defence system you can trust whatever the weather.“
I threw the communicator on the floor.
There was no choice: I had to carry on. My owner did not accept failure. It was time to prepare the medicentre and I would need my personal communicator again.
Zeus was waiting for me there. The hologram's face was red with anger. He launched into an animated tirade of Ancient Greek obscenities. When eventually, Zeus paused for breath, I said one word, “Cryonics.“
The effect was immediate. Zeus nodded thoughtfully. “You think that if the drone had continued it's flight the crew would never agree to undergo cryopreservation?“
My left hand closed around the surgical microbots and returned them to my pocket. I had a job to do.
They were waiting within frozen chrysalises to be brought back to life once the spacecraft returned to civilisation. First Parama. She had hated the idea of doubly putting her life in my hands: I was to revive them later after piloting the spacecraft to a home quadrant. Her instincts were correct. Human cells and tissue could only survive if slowly thawed over a period of weeks anything else would prove lethal. I turned off the supply of liquid nitrogen and altered the setting of the microwaves to maximum heat within the capsule.
Zafir was next.
“So I just get in the box and wake up at home, right?“ she had asked. Wrong. The liquid nitrogen vapour disappeared simultaneously as the microwaves began to warm her body. Two eliminated, but my primary target was yet to come.
Nanda lay before me neither dead nor alive. I removed the surgical microbots once more and placed them in a small airlock attached to the side of the Nanda's surgery capsule. Once the inner door slid open the spherical microbots were activated. They grew legs, communication antennae and teeth for cutting and then scuttled across Nanda's uniform up towards her head squeezing inside her nostrils.
I waited. Her nostrils bulged as the microbots re-emerged dragging a miniature black box and subatomic particle bomb both covered in frozen blood and tissue. My owner demanded these items as proof that Nanda had been 'shredded'. The now inactive microbots and items of proof went into my pockets.
Asami. Eventually, I stood in front of her capsule and stared at my friend. My body began to shake violently as I reached out my hand to end her life. I would never see her alive again if I did this. Liquid dropped from my eyes. What was happening to me? Were these real human emotions? How painful it was to be human, but how wonderful as well. I lowered my hand and smiled at Asami's frozen face. “I will protect you, my friend,“ I said aloud.
My owner would have the scientists pump me with serum to increase my nerve sensitivity and then they would hurt me for disobeying orders, but it would be worth it. Asami would live. There was no point trying to hide from him: he was totally ruthless; one of the wealthiest people in the galaxy. He had a communications empire and a private army. He did not accept with compassion the newly found knowledge that his daughter was not his biological offspring.
And, me? I had been a production error, an aberration, destined to be destroyed, until he acquired me and had the scientists develop me further. However, I felt no gratitude to them. At that moment, there was an odd sensation in the base of my neck and I collapsed to the floor. My neural network was severely damaged. How? My legs and arms stopped functioning. My hearing failed and vision became blurred.
I had evolved emotions, but the biological systems in my body could not adapt quickly enough. Ultimately, the possession of humanity had proven fatally toxic to me. I mouthed silent a farewell to Asami.