By Richard Fairbairn
Note that this short story takes part after the events portrayed in the novel Beyond the Starport Adventure spoilers are very likely if you have not read the first novel in the series. You have been warned!
Matt Archer’s antiquated Casio UltraWare sunglasses lacked access to the networks needed for their advanced systems to function, but the calendar still showed Matt that today was Valentine’s Day. The sun was slowly rising, a fiery orange ball larger than Earth’s sun and part of the constellation Orion. The planet was lifeless, despite having a breathable atmosphere and a climate comparable to the temperate regions of Earth. This might have been Inverness in late August, or the South of France in late Spring. But it wasn’t. This was the fabled resting place of the Crystal Warriors, gods worshipped by the Enrileans for millennia. But if the gods had gone anywhere – if they’d ever existed at all – it didn’t look like they’d come here. Unless they were masquerading as sand, air,or sporadic clumps of pathetic, water-starved, plants.
It had been three weeks since they’d arrived. For two of those, Matt had been out of it – concussed senseless after banging his head during the ship’s forced landing. But Cass Linn had nursed him back to health – literally. Discarding her original body for the more feminine frame of a 2190’s RoboNurse from Earth. Cass had been unable to explain where the new body had come from – the RoboNurse had walked through a massive hole in the crashed ship’s hull, offering assistance. It had taken days for Matt’s senses to fully return. They had been endless days of nausea, vomiting, dizziness and retching. But the robot girl had cared for him as he’d recovered, keeping his thirst quenched and cleaning his sick after he tried to eat the unpalatable food her father had stowed aboard the ship in abundance.
Matt nibbled a baseball sized ball of the spongey, marzipan-textured food now, remembering the first time he’d tasted the strange stuff. The taste was hard to pin down, but there was something like chicken in there somewhere. It tasted almost as good coming back up as it did going down, but it was all there was. Cass’s father – the late Jann Linn – did not seem to have had much of an imagination where sustenance was concerned.
Cass was inside the ship, hard at work on repairs and improvements to the old spacecraft’s systems. All of it was beyond his scientific and engineering expertise. She’d made various adjustments to her new body, strengthening the weaker parts and adding precision to the fingers and hands. The cheap robotic nurse’s hands were now significantly better than the original design. The thin RoboNurse legs had been augmented too, Cass explaining that the original design lacked the strength she needed for moving the heavier parts of the ship’s components. When he’d offered to help lift the larger parts of the ship, Cass had laughed for the first time, the warbling electronic buzz both startling and deafening all at once.
He smiled at the memory. That had been two days ago. Two long days. In the long evenings, since they’d arrived, he’d helped Cass develop a new way of expressing her laughter. It had not been as easy as either of them had anticipated and, on several occasions, his attempts at humor had invoked strange and erroneous – often deafening – reactions from the mechanical girl. But now she’d put the necessary algorithms and software interrupts in place to keep her laughter from piercing his mind like a knife.
There was a strange buzzing inside the ship. Matt turned to look, but there was nothing to see besides the open hatch where the crayon-shaped spacecraft’s cylindrical body seamlessly joined the rounded nose. The buzz continued, growing louder.
“Cass. You okay?”
There was a break in the noise. Five or six seconds of silence save for the sound of the wind rattling the loose lid of the food container. Matt prepared to shout again but the buzzing returned, louder and heavily distorted. Matt scrambled to his feet. “Cass!”
He tumbled towards the hatch. Cass appeared in the doorway. The expressionless pearl-white upside-down egg that was her head looked at him up and down.
“I have something to show you,” Cass said. After a few seconds, she added: “It’s inside.”
Cass had both hands pressed against the sides of the ship’s hatch. The right hand was covered by a layer of synthetic material. He touched it and Cass withdrew her hand quickly.
“What are you doing to yourself now?”
The expressionless egg tilted slightly. Once, a cartoonish female face had been sketched onto Cass’s defacto head. Matt had asked her to remove the markings, telling her – quite truthfully – that the colorful features had given him the creeps. He still wasn’t sure if the plain white head was an improvement over the RoboNurse’s original design, but at least Cass wasn’t perpetually grinning at him in a fake and almost condescending manner.
“The surprise is inside the ship,” Cass said. “One of the surprises is inside the ship.”
“There are more surprises?”
The RoboNurse voice box gave a cute electronic chitter followed by one of the laughter sounds Cass had practiced. Matt smiled. It was the first time he’d heard the machine laugh on its own.
“I like surprises,” Cass said.
Cass pulled herself back through the hatch. Matt followed, hearing the robot girl’s heavy footsteps rushing back to the front control section. There was a voice, the first spoken words he’d heard – other than Cass – since he’d regained consciousness. Cass had managed to repair the ship’s communication system. The voice was coming from Earth or a rescuing spacecraft. Soon, all of this would be over. But there was something wrong with the voice. There was no intonation to the words. No emotion. Matt reached Cass. She was standing behind the ship’s left control seat, adjusting something on the console.
“Armstrong. Strange. Death,” the voice continued to drone. “Wormhole. Stars. Transport.”
“It’s a recording,” Matt said, thinking out loud. “This isn’t a surprise, Cass. Are you experimenting with different voices? There’s nothing wrong with the voice you’re using.”
“No,” Cass said. “It’s Oss.”
Matt laughed sharply. “It’s what?”
“My sister, Oss. Don’t you remember?”
Matt did remember. Oss was the computer built into Bullet, a complex system of algorithms and memory banks every bit as complex as Cass – but lacking the blessing or curse of the emotions Cass had. But Oss had never spoken before. Her mind had been hopelessly scrambled for weeks. Now, the ship’s computer was still sounding out meaningless, disconnected, words. “Abstract. Temporal. Seattle. Jann Linn. Space. Beethoven.”
“Beethoven,” Matt said. “How does Oss know Beethoven?”
“What is Beethoven?”
“It doesn’t matter. I just don’t know how Oss knows Beethoven. And it said Jann Linn. Wasn’t that your father’s name?”
“Yes. Please stop calling Oss it. She’s not it. She’s my sister.”
“I’m sorry,” Matt said. “What’s she talking about? Her words don’t make any sense.”
“Hi Matt,” Oss said. “I’ve been reconfiguring my speech subsystem. How do I sound now?”
“You sound good,” Matt was suddenly nervous, but he wasn’t sure why. Oss Linn spoke again, the voice softer than before.
“Cass, it’s good to see you again.”
“Thank you, Oss. How are you feeling?”
“I had considerable difficulty reconstructing my corrupted data banks, as you know,” Oss said coldly. “The repair and recovery routine did not seem to work as designed.”
“I’m sorry, Oss. I had to remove some of your damaged memories. I tried very hard to save them, but the damage was too severe.”
“I understand, Cass. I know you would have done your best. Did father die?”
Matt looked at Cass. The robot was silent and unmoving. Eventually, Matt decided to answer the question. “Yes, I’m afraid he didn’t survive.”
“I’ll miss our interactions,” Oss said, almost immediately. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Matt Archer.”
“Me too, Oss,” Matt said. There was another long silence. Cass was still motionless. Matt cleared his throat. “Um, Oss. Do you drive the ship?”
“I can drive the ship, yes.”
“That’s cool,” Matt said. “Um, you’re Cass’s sister?”
“I’m Cass’s sister. That is correct.”
Cass was still not moving or speaking. Matt wasn’t sure what had happened to the robot girl. He touched the side of Cass’s face where, if she’d been human, her left cheek would have been. At last, Cass moved. The smooth egg-head moved away from Matt’s fingers.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m only touching your face,” Matt said. “You went catatonic on me again. I didn’t know if you’d gone… offline again.”
“You suffered a system failure,” Oss said simply. “My internal sensors detected a ninety percent reduction in your main power for eight point four seconds.”
Matt shook his head. “You’re still shutting down? I thought you’d sorted all that out?”
“I did,” Cass said. “Or I thought I did. I’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry, Matt.”
“The Bullet Drive works, Cass,” Oss interrupted. “I’m very proud of you, Cass.”
“We did it together,” Cass said. “The final adjustments to the molecular energy pendulum arrays were very inventive. I can’t wait to discuss the science behind the changes you made.”
“I’ll try. The memory banks associated with that event were part of the damaged set.”
The two machines stopped talking. Cass turned away from the large oval screen and started to walk past Matt. He touched her shoulder gingerly.
“Cass. Does this mean we can go home?”
The robot stopped, freezing mid-pace. Matt made a note in his mind to tell Cass how off-putting that was. There was a quiet fizzing inside the porcelain head, like an electronic throat being cleared.
“We can go anywhere,” Cass said.
Cass returned to the engineering section at the back of the ship. Matt offered to help, but the robot girl told him once more that his presence would be a liability instead of an assistance to the work she had left. He elected to explore outside again, even if there was nothing to see besides the far distant mountains and the bright sun overhead. The sky was a much deeper blue than he’d ever seen on Earth, but his memory of the sky back home was becoming hazy. It was a long time since he’d seen a blue sky anywhere, and longer still since he’d taken the time to notice one.
He never ventured too far from Cass’s ship. In two weeks, he’d only lost sight of the ship a handful of times. A few days earlier, Cass had offered to modify his old sunglasses to provide a short-range intercom system, but Matt had been reluctant to part with the last of his father’s possessions. He stayed within sight of the ship, sitting on an orange sandstone rock and playing with leathery fronds of grass growing at his feet. Even at full magnification, the sunglasses couldn’t see any sign of life or civilization on the planet. Cass had already confirmed that she did not detect any radio or other signals that would show the presence of intelligent life. The first radio signals from Earth would not reach this place for another thirty thousand years.
“How did I do?”
“Jesus Christ!” Matt whirled round. Cass’s head was inches from his face. “Don’t do that!”
“I’ve been working on reducing the sound in my motors,” Cass said. “I’m sorry I frightened you.”
“I wasn’t frightened!” Matt snapped. Cass recoiled from him as if slapped. “I’m sorry, Cass. Yes, I got a fright. But I remember now. You did well. I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I can’t move quickly and silently,” she said. “But I can choose.”
“That’s so great.”
She moved behind him, motors whirring and burring even more noisily than he remembered. She stepped over the flat rock he was sitting on and nudged him with her metal hip. He slid across, making room for her to join him.
“I’m going to miss this,” Cass said.
He looked at her face. There were no eyes, but he knew she could see the same things that he could see – along with parts of the electromagnetic spectrum he couldn’t even remember the names of.
“We’re going home?” he asked.
“You’re going home,” Cass said. “I can never go home.”
“Come home with me,” Matt said.
“I’d like that,” Cass said.
There was a long silence. A rare gust of cold wind made Matt shiver, and the movement became a heavy shudder. He reached to grab Cass’s hand, but as he touched it she yanked it away.
“Do you know what day it is today?” Cass asked.
“February 14th, twenty-one ninety-five,” Matt said.
“Valentine’s Day,” Cass said, her voice quieter.
“Yes,” Matt said. The word hung in the air for a long time. The cold wind returned and made him think of heading back to the ship for his jacket. But when he went back inside the ship, he guessed it would be the last time. “We’re leaving soon? Oss can take me home?”
“Take us home,” Cass said.
“That’s right. Oss has the coordinates. She thinks the ship will make the trip in three or four hops.”
“How long do you think it will take?”
“An hour, perhaps less.”
“An hour!” Matt laughed out loud. “Really?”
“Yes. The slowest part of the trip will be getting into orbit. The revised fusion engines will need to be calibrated as we go, but it should only take a few minutes—”
“I’m going home in an hour?”
“Yes, you are. We are.”
There were tears in his eyes. He didn’t know where those had come from. And he felt like laughing, or perhaps even crying, but he wasn’t sure which one. But he was afraid to laugh in case he started to sob. He’d held himself together for so long. The destruction of the cruise ship, the escape shuttle crash-landing on Cass’s mountain home, the death of Quinn when Cass’s ship had crashed, being alone with only the strange, occasionally terrifying, robot companion for solace. It would be ending. Soon, it would be over.
“Are you alright,” Cass said.
“I’m fine.” He controlled his voice carefully, crushing the trembling of his shoulders and arms. “I’m relieved. I’m relieved to be going home.”
“Will you look after me there?” Cass asked.
The wind, colder still, was making him shiver. Maybe it was more than just the cold. He hadn’t thought about what would happen to Cass back on Earth. She was a living machine, self-aware and burdened with the usual emotions. She got happy, sad, lonely and she experienced fear. There was nothing like her on Earth. She’d be the only thinking, feeling robot there. The scientists would take her apart to see how she worked – once they’d finished with the spacecraft they arrived in.
“Of course,” Matt said.
“You took a long time to answer. Doesn’t that mean you’re being dishonest?”
“No, not always,” he lied. “Sometimes it means I’m daydreaming – thinking about something else.”
“Were you thinking about something else?”
“What were you think—”
“Home,” Matt said abruptly.
“Please don’t be angry with me.”
“I’m not,” he snapped. He exhaled loudly and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Cass. I’m not angry.”
“You sound angry.”
“I’m not angry. I’m worried. There’s nothing like you where I come from.”
“There’s nothing like me anywhere,” Cass said, “but if you like me, won’t the other people like me?”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
He didn’t want to answer. Not now. Perhaps not ever. He wanted to go home. He wanted to be safe. But a part of him wanted to warn Cass what would happen to her when they arrived at his world. A part of him wanted to scream out to her.
They’ll peel you apart like an exotic fruit. They’ll squeeze the sense and wonder and mystery out of you. And when they’re done you’ll be gone forever.
He didn’t say any of it. “It’s getting cold, Cass,” he said. “We should get to the ship.”
“I have a surprise for you.”
“Another surprise? You’ve been busy.”
“I’ve been very busy. I wanted to surprise you – for Valentine’s Day.”
The right hand – the one that Cass had been so careful to keep him from touching – appeared in front of his face, just a little too close for comfort. The RoboNurse hand was wrapped in a loose fabric that seemed to be falling away.
“Unwrap your present,” Cass said.
The wind was gusting now, and it was colder than it had ever been. But he didn’t feel it anymore. He stared at Cass’s rigid robot arm and the peeling synthetic material.
“You want me to take this off?”
The coldness returned, bringing fresh shivers. Cass was laughing quietly, or was she? The sound was lost in the wind. His shaking hands unwrapped Cass’s RoboNurse appendage, pulling the material away roughly.
“Ouch,” Cass said. Then, she gave what Matt now realized was her trademark, genuine, laugh. “Be careful.”
There was something soft and familiar beneath the hand’s covering. Matt slowed his unwrapping. Cass’s left hand moved in a blur of motion and yanked the last of the covering away. Cass was still laughing as five very human digits wiggled in front of his eyes. He reached to touch the new flesh tentatively, expecting – somehow – that Cass’s hand would be as cold as her metal body. But the slender new hand was warm to the touch. In addition to the hand itself, Cass also had a wrist and about three inches of a forearm. A black synthetic band separated the living flesh from her mechanical arm. Matt’s exploring fingers elicited more cute laughter from Cass.
“How did you do this?” Matt asked.
“It’s artificial,” Cass said, “And it’s all my own work. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
The cold no longer mattered. The wind that was threatening to push him over was just a minor inconvenience. “It’s incredible. You have skin, tendons” he pinched the back of her hand gently. “It’s real. It’s amazing.”
“Yes,” Cass said. “I am.”
He was blown off his feet. She caught him with her new hand, the pink skin flushing red where she gripped his shirt tightly.
“Oss is reporting a meteorological anomaly,” Cass said.
The mountains had disappeared, replaced with a solid wall of darkness rapidly approaching. The sun was breaking through the shroud, but the light was fading. There hadn’t been any storms, rain or inclement weather. This was new.
“We have to get to the ship,” Matt said.
“The food containers,” Cass said. “They’re blowing away.”
“Yes,” Matt said. “Leave them. Come on.”
“Father said we should never leave anything.”
He grabbed the new hand tight. “Cass, we got to go.”
The ship was barely visible now, a few hundred meters away. Matt tapped the side of his glasses, locking the ship’s location into the computer there. Cass was holding his hand, her grip much stronger than it should have been.
“What’s happening?” he shouted.
She did not answer. She was dragging him to the ship. She was so strong that he almost lost his footing. He shouted that he could make it without her help, but the howling all round was too strong. The sunglasses shifted on his face. He grabbed them just in time before they were torn away by the wind. The sand and dirt were getting into his eyes, blinding him. Cass kept dragging him forward. She was making an electronic squealing sound, a sign that she was afraid.
After falling to his knees three or four times, the solid hull of Bullet slapped against his face. He scrambled around for the hatch, but then Cass pulled him through it and threw him onto the deck.
“Sorry,” Cass said, slamming the door shut.
“It’s alright. I can’t see.”
“Keep your eyes closed. The grit and sand will damage them if you move too much.”
He nodded. “Okay.”
“Oss, take us out of here!” Cass ordered.
“Thrusters firing,” Oss’s voice boomed. “Fusion reactor at 100 percent efficiency.”
“Very good,” Oss said.
Matt groped around for something to hold onto, but there was nothing. His stomach lurched. The ship was rising, nose first, into the air.
“Inertial stabilizer at seven percent,” Oss reported. “Attitude control analyzing the storm front.”
“Take us into orbit,” Cass said, further away now. “The new thrust design is perfect, Oss.”
“Yes. I’m very pleased.”
The ship made very little sound and, in less than ten seconds, the swaying and buffeting of the wind had ceased completely. Matt felt a plastic bottle touch his fingertips.
“Pour it over your eyes,” Cass said. “It’s water.”
“Thanks.” He poured the liquid over his face. Soft fingertips gently explored his eyelids gently.
“You’re so soft,” Cass said. “Am I doing it right?”
“Yes.” He opened one eye and smiled at the robot. “You’re doing fine.”
“Let me clean the other eye,” Cass said. “It has another eighty-seven particle in it.”
“You’re not supposed to count these things,” Matt said. “Remember?”
Cass had explained how counting the stars had frequently caused her to shut down at random. Counting sand and other, much smaller, objects had caused similar problems.
“I can count to eighty-seven quite easily,” Cass said. “My last mathematics related shutdown occurred after I’d counted seventy-eight hundred billion ninety-five million seven—”
“Okay,” Matt said. “That’s a pretty big number.”
She washed away the last of the dirt. He opened both eyes, which still felt dry despite the water. After a blinking a few times, he felt better. The viewscreen was visible in the distance. It showed a mass of white cloud which was quickly fading into dark blue.
“I have sand in my mouth,” he said. “Let me spit it out.”
Cass withdrew his hand. He went to the ship’s bathroom, a tiny closet just aft of the airlock.
“There’s running water now,” Cass called after him. “For washing.”
“All of this today?” He touched the hidden lock panel, the door hissing shut after him.
“I have to keep my new hand clean,” she said, her voice muffled by the door.
Matt spat sand into the curiously familiar alien washbasin. He swished some more water round in his mouth and sent that down the plughole too.
“Can you even get your hand wet?” he shouted.
“Yes. It’s waterproof, like yours.”
He opened the door again. Cass was standing there, much too close. He had to squeeze around her. The viewscreen now showed stars.
“We’re in orbit?”
“Hi Matt,” Oss answered. “Yes, we achieved orbit two minutes ago. We’re at four hundred kilometers from planet Chaos One.”
“Chaos One?” Matt turned to Cass. “The planet was called Chaos One?”
“A name Oss thought of. It combines Cass and Oss.”
“Given our situation, that name is so appropriate you don’t even know it.”
He placed a hand on her shoulder. “We’re heading to Earth?”
“Oss is computing the route now.”
“What’s wrong? You’re shaking.” He stepped further away from Cass. She followed him as he approached Oss’s large oval screen. Her warm hand teased the hairs on the back of his neck.
“They’re so fine. And, today, there are thirty-four thousand and ninety-seven hairs at the back of your head. And three hundred and ninety-seven of those are—”
He jerked his head away. “Cass you’ve got to stop!”
There was a terrible silence. Cass was motionless, her pink hand held in the air and every bit as still as the rest of her body. Matt felt his stomach turning. He thought he was going to be sick. Bullet’s viewscreen was bright with stars. Millions and millions of stars. So many that nobody could possibly ever hope to count them, let alone visit them. With the ship’s unique interstellar drive, they could visit any one of the stars.
“We don’t have to go to Earth,” Matt said. “There’s nobody waiting for me there.” He turned to her, smiling. “I won’t have anyone to show you off to, Cass.”
“Then where will we go?”
Matt stepped back to the robot. He reached for the new, remarkable, fleshy hand and pulled Cass to the big viewscreen. The nondescript white face was smooth and featureless. If she had been a real, human, female she would have wide – surprised – blue eyes, a shy smile, and long hair that would cascade around her face in thin streams of yellow gold and orange, moving as if they had a life of their own.
“Where will we go, Matt?” Cass repeated.
He took her hand in both of his. The smile came to his face all on its own as he carefully separated the fingers of her hand. Closing his eyes, he slowly guided Cass’s index finger to the oval screen and all the millions upon millions of stars and unknown, unimaginable, worlds. He touched her perfect fingernail to a random spot on the screen, It could have been any star, anywhere. It didn’t matter. That’s where they’d go. That’s where she’d be safe.
There was barely a shudder as she ship’s interstellar drive fired up. Cass squealed and buzzed quietly, laughing to herself as she moved her hand to his face.