Awake the Snorting Citizens by Trent Walters

awakethesnortingcitizensrevised

Faceplate cracked, the human kid was dead. Or nearly. You can’t breathe vacuum. No doubt the kid tried.

I sleeved him into an Emergency Ambulatory Stasis Field. Supposedly you could ship a stasis field to Alpha Centuari to save a victim, so long as doctors waited when it opened. I had a much shorter run from the asteroid belt to Phobos.

I nudged the stasis field back into the pressure antechamber. I sealed the hatch and popped off the fishbowl helmet. One perk of being cyborg was less bulky equipment to schlep.

On my tablet, I calculated the odds that the kid could have by chance broken his own faceplate. And the odds someone aided his departure to the undiscovered country. A million to one, in favor of a computer assist. My partner, Godwin – formerly human, now an AI uploaded into the ship’s data bank – was the probable killer.

The door swished open. An eye appeared on the screen. “How’s the kid, Roberto?”

“He’ll make it to Phobos.” I thrust into the main cabin like a torpedo, grabbed a handhold near the computer, holding on. I popped open the main panel and plucked out his comm chip. “He’ll be better now you can’t communicate.”

The screen’s eye followed me to the next panel where the AI processor was held. The panel locked. I should have pulled this one first, but he needed eight minutes each to hail a comm, receive permission, and fire data off to preserve his personality. I also wanted to give him a piece of my mind.

I calculated the angle and force to crack the panel without Newton’s third law breaking my handhold and tossing me backward.  A holographic screen flashed before me and read, “Wait.”

“A million to one, Godwin. A million to one.” Nothing annoys a computer more than repetition. I gripped a handhold and cracked the panel.

The eye blinked as it did when Godwin was surprised. “He lowered our profits and asteroid-mining productivity, raised our costs.”

I swept the panel pieces away. “He was human. Like you used to be.”

“You’re too soft.”

“Remember college? We found old steam tunnels that criss-crossed campus. We snuck into the library, climbed the scaffold, drank beer and read poetry until the guard caught us. He let us go.”

“Beside the point. We aren’t human now. The past is gone. Move on.”

“You’re hurting your case to let you live.” My glass fingernail slid back, and a pair of tweezers sprung open, and clamped on the chip.

The sun filled the screen, flames roiling across its face. I thought he meant to blind me until I read his words: “A solar flare is coming. I’m the only one who can get the shielding up. You’ll die if you pull that chip. The kid, too.”

“You planned this?”

“My contingency plans have conting –”

I yanked the chip and dove behind the counter that held the most metal. Better to die. Times like these one wished one were a different person. The temptation to crush my best friend’s personality weighed like slowly colliding asteroids squeezing my chest.

#

Dim emergency lights flickered on. Sparks scattered across the deck plates. Smelling of burnt resistors and semiconductors, the cabin spun slightly. Synthetic tuna mac and cheese – my last meal – sat at the back of my throat, waiting to be regurgitated.

I called up the holoscreen. It flickered on and off. After three attempts, I drifted to a screen and asked it to assess damages. It said too many sensors and software systems were down. Either the flare had knocked them out or Godwin’s embedded subroutines had before I snuffed out his existence. Or a combination of the two.

Frustrated, I pounded the counter and spun backward. My robotic arms moved too slowly to brace my fall. I stopped the spin, in part, with my forehead. My mechanicals were failing. I ordered a systems check. Like a toddler, my limbs didn’t quite work in unison.

In a mirror, my reflection caught a red bruise blooming on my left temple. Blood trickled out my nose. I nabbed a suction bulb and told the computer to scan my human parts for radiation poisoning.

“Pending further study,” the mirror said, “preliminary data suggests organic death in three weeks, with a range of two weeks. Ship recommends upload into nearest intelligence repository.”

I could die in a week. Did I want to be all computer like Godwin? A machine without sympathy? Maybe Phobos could restore the kid and whatever biological parts I had left. To travel 150 million kilometers in a week meant accelerating at half the moon’s gravitation. It was possible. I ordered it.

“Navigation and thrust offline.”

“Commence repair bots.”

“Repair systems offline.”

I cursed and pushed off the wall. If you wanted something done…

One arm released, the other did not. One leg pushed, the other did not. Neither arm moved fast enough to stop my headlong collision with the bulkhead.

A mirror check showed a black eye.

To call help, I pinged nearby repair vessels. Not a Mayday since I didn’t want to explain the dead body. With multiple bruises, a body would be difficult to explain.

Hailed by a repair vessel within thirty seconds was a good sign. With a full crew, the repairs should be done inside a day. I opened the comm.

A spider man appeared on screen. He sneered. “A machine.”

“Cyborg,” I corrected, modulating out my desire to reciprocate his disgust. A machine would have noted the modulation. “I am grateful an open-minded spider gene-mod answered my call.”

“My brother’s ship was destroyed by one of you… inhuman AIs. We altered our operating systems so no AI could run on them.”

My face cloaked impatience with sympathy. “I am so sorry. I called –”

Two left hands opened their palms. A pair of spiders peeked over his shoulder. “It happened thirty years ago.”

I nodded, concerned with life’s injustice. “The hurt still stings. I called –”

Two right fists smashed into open palms. Three more spidermen appeared behind the lead spider. “I remember like it was yesterday.”

“I see.” I continued my sympathetic nod and grim smile, waiting for him to finish.

“Let’s see your net worth.”

“That’s private.”

“Employ the next repair vessel, then. Three days from here.”

writing-contest-logo-with-trademark-e1432910614435I checked the ping responses. He was right. They were in the middle of a job, which left a day to make it to Phobos.

I nodded for the computer to data-burst my assets. I composed my face, breathed deep as data for their bank transfer poured back.

The spider man glanced over the data on his holoscreen. He tut-tutted. “That will be our fee. Up front.”

I clenched my jaw. “That’s my retirement.” I breathed. “Half. On completion.”

“All. Up front.”

“You’d strip a man of his livelihood?”

“You’d strip a man of his life?”

I released my jaw. I didn’t argue. He’d attributed someone else’s misdeed to me. He was right though. I had removed Godwin’s chip. It wasn’t biological, but life was life. “Half up front. Half after. I need your word.”

“You have my word as a spider, from one living creature to…a machine.” He cut off communication.

I hesitated before wiring the credits. Worst case scenario: another repair vessel drifted near if delayed. While I had a mind to refuse on principle, I wanted to live. I transferred quickly before I changed my mind.

Tapping the mirror screen, I activated a countdown clock for how long before the spiders received my credits. I watched it for two minutes before preoccupying myself with getting sensors online. From the medicine cabinet, the ship’s autodoc offered me a potassium iodide/DPTA/Prussian Blue cocktail to treat the radiation sickness. It tasted coppery.

I glanced at the countdown. Two minutes past the time the spiders should have received the credits and responded.

I checked the monitor for the spider-ship. Red thrusters flared as it blasted in the wrong direction.

#

My ship conducted a follow-up exam and moved my death up a week, plus or minus a week and a half. That gave me three to twenty-four days. I was dubious about the optimistic date.

I switched batteries for my cyborg suit. The charged ones were nearly dead.

Godwin, the bastard. If I inserted his chip, he’d sort out the mess, but he’d also arrange another accident.

I stretched across the deck plates. I couldn’t wait for the second ship. Could things get worse?

The hull thudded, reverberated like a dull gong. Someone pinged to communicate. I waved the holoscreen on. “Open the pod-bay doors, Hal.”

Pod? Bay? My name wasn’t Hal. “I’m sorry. You have the wrong ship.”

“Nope, Roberto, boyo. I’m the hired help. Open up, and by Jupiter, bone up on your 2001 trivia.”

I nodded and yakked blood globules – demonstrating again Newton’s Third Law as I spun backwards.

#

Her name was Handi, and was she. She only knew genetic modification, but she was a quick study in ship mechanics. She charged my batteries on her escape pod, and we repaired sensors, solar arrays, and processors the flare knocked out.

I told her about Godwin, how he’d secured the ship and made me a full partner even though I didn’t have the funds or knowledge he had. We were so afraid of the ship’s AI, that we incorporated all of these fail-safes. Ironically, we became what we feared: man-machines, replacing organic parts for mechanical. Handi talked of how she was glad to be doing something different, away from the racist spider crew.

I nodded. If she hadn’t had all those arms and no legs, she might have been pretty. Maybe that was the radiation-poisoning talking…

Then I was out. Unconscious.

I woke inside her tiny escape pod, strapped into a wall bed.

She hovered over me, stroking my hair. She must have looked like a spider talking to a fly. “I have good news and bad news. Maybe it’s all bad.”

“I could use some good news.”

She leaned down, her face sideways to mine, resting her head between two palms. “While you were delirious, I – you hadn’t much time to live.”

A whimsical nose accentuated her pretty face. Too bad she was a gene-mod. “So…”

“You know how we gene-mods live through high radiation?”

“No.”

“We shed radiated body parts as other people doff clothes. Like a starfish. Cut off a limb, grow another.”

“So…”

“That’s what I did. I gene-modded your blood first.”

“Without my permission?”

“It was either that or death.”

I unleashed myself from the bunk, examining my torso for unnecessary appendages. “What news could be worse than becoming a spiderman?”

Her glare said I hadn’t chosen my words wisely. “Those sensors and arrays we repaired? They’re back offline.”

“Meaning?”

“I don’t think Godwin is ‘snuffed out.’ Computers are ubiquitous. He could have slid his personality to a dinner-plate CPU or a drawer. To kill him, you must kill the ship, but you can’t kill it and go to Phobos. He won’t let you. He planned to wait out your death and bring the systems back online. My escape pod with its primitive tech doesn’t have the thrust yours does. We’re screwed.”

I rushed through the hatch into my ship, grabbing my fishbowl helmet along the way. “Godwin!”

The holoscreen eye flickered on. It blinked. “You got me. But I also got you. You’re going nowhere without me.”

“Remember our failsafe? I’ll slave your operating system to the escape pod’s.”

“Not without oxygen you won’t.” Godwin opened all hatches, tumbling me into cold vacuum. I would have died without my helmet. I barely had time to seize the hatch. If only I had more arms…

My mind spun through various possibilities of extra limbs, things I hadn’t yet considered as I fastened on the fishbowl, and set to turning my ship’s computer as slave to the escape pod’s. Pretty Handi.

 

Copyright © 2016 by Trent Walters. All Rights Reserved.

Artwork Copyright © 2016 by Darryl Knickrehm.  All Rights Reserved.


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