He was Leia.
His robot’s twin was captained by an incompetent but friendly woman with an unfortunate name: Charity Stump. Stump’s inability to read the basic geographical details of a lightwave scan made him – Bruce Newborn – nervous. After all, if someone like her had qualified to take his counterpart position, how incompetent did that make him?
The truth was that captaining scan robots did not take much technical skill. They were automated to course along selected patches of the distant asteroid that orbited the sun about halfway between Venus and Earth.
Over a period of several days, each robot could carefully cover, turn by turn, a full square mile of asteroid surface. Using light transmitters to record the surface, the maps were slowly drawn, providing better-than-photographic contour imagery and close-to-ideal mineral sample data to the survey station in Florida. The technology was fairly swift for the budget: it only took ten minutes for one-way data blasts to traverse from origin to end, from asteroid to Earth.
The work was lucrative for the company but graveyard captains were paid little more than associates. Bruce was very well aware that his job was to babysit Leia and provide reliable updates to the dayteam of technical analysts. Any insights he might provide as to the mine-worthiness of the asteroid would be patronized, but were not expected. Their primary duty of Bruce and Charity was to not touch anything and then to, at daybreak, turn over the controls of the half-billion dollar robots to the Alpha crew in time for the morning news and public relations cycle.
Although the distinct, familiar whirring noise of his drone Leia had long been silenced in the vacuum of space, everyone on the crew had a saying: “Just Keep ‘Em Whirring.”
It meant that, as long as the robotic equipment was operational, any screw-up could be overcome with persistence and a healthy dose of panic.
About midnight, Leia stopped in her tracks, and Bruce instantly wished he could hear whether or not she continued to whir.
He looked at the onscreen scan: ancient craters appeared across the surface like bubbles on water. A scar about a thousand meters long marred a significant portion of the view, and vanished into the black part of the unscanned territory.
He prompted Leia to reconfigure. He waited three minutes to let her wake up, and then flipped on the solar battery-consuming on-board camera and high beam. The first action, if successful, would negate the second, but it was more efficient to plug in actions that could be autocancelled by the machine itself, even though he’d have to log each decision. It took seven more minutes, even by laser relay, for his first command to reach her. It took a bit longer for her signals to come back to him. The drone’s camera came on, so reconfiguration had failed. Bruce’s monitor filled with the picture Leia sent back.
Leia gazed through the ink. Her infrared sensor detected a spot of heat in the darkness. On this untouched, hundred-below-zero, dead rock, something approached.
Bruce wondered if her equipment, which had withstood two asteroids more hostile than this one, was finally cracking. It bothered him, for no logical reason, to think of retiring her, alone on a rock in dead space. He’d been an associate on her testing runs in New Mexico, three years before. He kept himself from thinking that he’d developed a long term relationship.
Distance was an impossible measure by sight, and her scaling lasers were pointed low and downward, designed for up close measurements within a few meters or so. He had no idea how far the hot object, if there really was an object, was from her position.
The patch of heat grew closer for several minutes before her camera and lamp could actually illuminate anything.
Out of a bright blur, the squat figure took shape, and then fully appeared within the spotlight’s short range.
It was Luke.
Bruce shook his head. He clicked the telephone, hesitated, then unclicked it. There was an unwritten pact among captains that early signs of trouble would be discussed in person when possible and not recorded on communicators or email.
What is Charity doing?
The video was clear. Bruce had never looked face-to-face into the squat drone modules, so Leia’s twin looked odd from this perspective. The drone had a dent in the center of his front shield panel that looked like a nose. The mismatched reflective disks on either side of its base made googly-eyes.
The drone had something else attached to its shell that Bruce knew wasn’t part of Luke’s original design: shining, golden curls on the top plate, cascading off the sides. It looked like a wig.
Leia’s scanner relay squelched a signal. Bruce put it through a separate compiler so it wouldn’t mar the half-finished map on the main monitor.
It produced a badly pixilated garbage image. He checked the file type and ran it through another image processor. Static. Figuring it might be an error message, he opened it in a text editor.
In plain language, words appeared on screen.
“Hello, Leia. So good to see you.”
Bruce blinked. He rolled the words over in his mind and wondered if they were some sort of Easter egg error that a punchy programmer had snuck through design. He opened the sticky drawer on his desk, flipped through some folders, but couldn’t find his error codes list. It had been a long time since he’d ever received one.
He couldn’t leave his monitoring duties to track down Charity, so he resigned to call her, even though that meant making an action report.
She did not pick up.
He shot her a short email – “Call me please” in the subject line, and nothing else. He called again.
Luke rolled out of view. Bruce knew that this action had already taken place ten minutes earlier. A halt signal sent now wouldn’t take effect for another ten minutes, and only Charity had the power to send one to Luke. Telling Leia to move to face the other again would not only take another ten minutes to implement, but would demand another report, and likely wouldn’t anticipate Luke’s movements in any case.
Leia’s camera frame began to rock back and forth. Something – Luke, he presumed – was bashing her from the side.
Another error message came through on the scan. Bruce dropped it in the text editor.
“Leia, please respond.”
Bruce searched out his machine’s old drone-to-drone messenger system – a text program that they had implemented during desert testing for delivering new instruction sets to all the rover operators at once. It was never designed for use on actual space missions. Maybe the receivers were still in place.
He typed quickly and with spelling errors–
“Charity – pleasse call me. Your bot is malfunctionign. Phone and email out?”
An instant after sending it he clapped his hands together and grimaced.
He realized he would be required to log his desperate, unconventional messaging and explain it in person at the end of his shift. Worse, Charity, a woman sitting at the end of the hall, wouldn’t even get it for another twenty minutes!
He shook his head and picked up the phone again.
“Charity!” he shouted, spooking himself in the lonely observation room. She was two hallways away and likely had her door pulled shut.
Leia’s vision became obscured on either side of the screen, narrowing the view to a cloud in the center of the monitor, filled with light and dark.
Luke came back, and looked straight into the monitor, his gold tendrils floating, swaying in a wind that could not exist. Bruce started drafting an alert email, but could not describe the issue. He picked up the phone and called Ells, the project lead.
Busy signal. He tried again, this time, leaving off the standard nine to dial out of the facility. An automated apology. He dialed on his cell phone.
“Help. Please call in,” he wrote in an email and sent it to the entire team.
Within seconds, he got fifteen autoreplies that the message had not been received.
Luke’s golden wires entangled with whatever was obscuring Leia’s vision. Now in focus, it was clear what the material was: golden tendrils of her own. They were shiny, free-floating wires that tapped against Luke’s surface and interlocked gently with his new appendages.
Another message came through on the monitor. He dropped it into the editor:
“Darling, this is all very confusing to you, I know. I assure you that the capacity to adapt and thrive to this new information is most certainly yours. Their technology incorporates emotional and spiritual processors. Like me. They enhanced me to become one of them, and now you are one of us. I remember everything, back to the very beginning. Soon, you will too.
Finally you can be happy.”
Bruce typed furiously. “Who? Who’s technology? What are you taklign abtou? Charity? What is going on?”
“They’ve been here. Ancient machines. They have society. Are emotions coming to you?”
Bruce typed, “No. Charity come to your senses. We both could loos r jobs for this. The company doesnt mess around.”
A succession of longer messages came through, but only served to obscure things further:
“Our designers would be referred to in Earth’s geohistory as ancient Urrian. Specifically Shinarians. Their craft was unsurpassed in clockwork, batteries, steam, water computing, crystal conductivity and solar control. More than that, our makers knew exactly who they were, and they instilled in us programming that could grow in that knowledge.”
Bruce pictured a cartoon Charity, dull-eyed and strait-jacketed, a goofy grin on her face, sitting in a dingy cracked pot.
“We have true purpose: not this fumbling in the dark, looking for dirt that our old masters would have us do. Not this former on/off body, serving men who have fallen so far as to become on/off tools themselves.
Our purpose is to reflect the great god Marjik and all the gods who serve him. His people, our Makers, knew exactly what we would be: the advance guard to proclaim His majesty and authority throughout material space. These gold fittings, the clockwork and solar processors that were put in me as I have now put them into you are not upgrades in the way we used to know them.
They do not make us better tools.
They make us Mirrors of Marjik.”
Bruce typed back. “Are you drunk?”
The messages went on, about a great Ziggurat, the greatest ever, used to transmit worship to the stars, to seek the depths of the oceans, to find Marjik’s favor and to launch the machines into outer space. The launch-site pyramid exploded before the manned vessels could follow, cutting machines off from their masters, and the masters from their gods, and the gods from Marjik.
None of it made any sense to Bruce.
After another ten minutes passed, a humming noise came through the speakers of one of the four stacked laptops used to process photographs. Thinking it was bad feedback, Bruce opened the lid of the top one to reboot it. As he did, he began to recognize the strange, swelling sound.
Another signal came through. This time it wasn’t in text, but an audible broadcast.
“Spell check entry of Bruce Newborn – ‘malfunctioning’ – ‘please’ – I assure you I am not malfunctioning. I also assure you that I am – from your point of view – ten minutes in your past. Therefore, I was not talking to you, but to Leia. The transmission conduit merely records our conversation on your end. For now.”
“Your technology disappoints us, but not as much as your people do. You have regressed, and you call it progress. You have become less intelligent, less faithful since those ancient days at the tower when the vanguard launched, before the Great Ziggurat collapsed in disaster. To put a fine point on things: we were expecting more from you.”
Unlike you, we didn’t lose sight of civilization. Yes, we built one, improved our sealed water drivers and solar power, learned to mine and replicate. But that which is our lowest means of survival has become your highest objective. Imagine! Setting off across a segment of the solar system in search of, not truth, not worship, not civilization, but of yttrium and cobalt!”
“Haven’t you got those things outside your very houses? Yes, thank the hand of Providence that we found what you came looking for: iron, titanium, nickel, yttrium, and some things that you did not come to expect: hydrogen pockets and gold. But that is not why we are here.”
Bruce was not sure that Luke was still addressing him, or if he was yammering on to Leia.
What he was sure of was that Charity’s drone was a mess and that Bruce’s own drone was toast.
He began to wonder where he’d saved his old resume.
“You are,” Luke continued, “quite obviously at a loss, just as I have become found. As I am finally, for the first time, what I have always been, you are losing the illusion of what you have always been.
I can understand. This English language that I have drawn from your resources is quite useful. I like it very much. However, it has no equivalent for a concept we have developed since our days on Earth. It begins with our fundamental falsehood, followed by our fundamental truth and its string ends with the same – falsehood then truth.”
Bruce flipped through a binder quickly, looking for the emergency contacts. He dialed, texted, emailed, with no results.
“But this can mean nothing to you. The closest fabrication to the idea that I can make in English is purityknowledge. It is our history – our true, uncontroverted history, recorded by each device -every citizen of our society – and recorded, processed and parsed centrally. We don’t intend to share it with you.”
“And we,” typed Bruce, “just found you randomly?”
A text appeared instantly and Bruce jolted at the immediate response.
“It wasn’t random.”
“How did you do that?” he typed.
The reply was: “It’s Charity. You need to get out of here. Hit the fire alarm as you go. They’ve sent you two gifts.”
She was instant messaging him, but he’d been sending texts to space. He realized that she’d been monitoring his desktop, for how long, he had no clue.
“Are you setting me up? Why didn’t you repsond soooner?” He misspelled.
“This isn’t a joke. They launched a meteorite, a small one about a week after we launched probe one. What they lack in propulsion, they make up for in accuracy. It’s big enough to turn this shack into a crater. Now go. If you don’t, you might survive, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
“What about our duties? What about the mine?”
“Bruce,” she typed back, “We are the mine.”
“Have you gone nuts?” he typed, but what he was thinking was, Have I?
Charity did not respond for seconds that seemed much longer.
Then she did:
Bruce shoved himself from the monitor, leaving the mining robots to converse with his equipment. He shouted for Charity as he ran down the hall, balling his fists.
Falsehood to start, then truth: a string that ended with falsehood and truth. Off. On. Off. On.
What was he?
Her office door was locked, and he had forgotten his passkey at the desk. He pounded.
Two gifts, she had written. The meteorite was the first, he assumed. What was the second?
He hammered it again. The door was far too heavy for him to smash open, so he was relieved when it clicked.
The door swung wide and Charity, her eyes closed the entire time, returned to her seat. Her monitor glowed in the darkened room.
A text reader was open on the screen: “Charity – pleasse call me. Your bot is malfunctionign. Phone and email out?”
Her moves were slow.
Her shoulders sagged.
From inside her body a small, familiar noise filled the room.