by M. T. Reiten
Illustrated by Dominic Harman
Neela peered through the composite window but saw nothing more than glittering specks of debris in the shared orbit. Rocky the Drone had stopped responding after entering the gathering cloud of blasted satellite and interceptor missile—a high velocity junkyard. Neela felt relatively safe inside the armored cylinder that she had nicknamed the “Trashcan,” although during her sleep cycle, each and every ping from debris impacts still jolted her awake, expectant of the hull breach alarm that hadn’t come yet. She knew she could never pick out Rocky from the debris in the faint bluish glow of Earth below with unaided eyes. But she stared into the bleak distance after him anyway.
She remembered how the night sky after the war had been glittering brilliance that no natural meteor shower could match. As a child, Neela had peered up from the outskirts of Columbo when the fighting closed in, knowing even the sky was closed off to escape. The remnants of the first war in orbit rendered it impassible. A whirling mass of shrapnel more effective than a razor wire tornado kept her trapped on the surface of Earth.
The Moon would eventually clear away the Kessler Syndrome cloud, but humanity didn’t have eons to wait at the bottom of the gravity well. However, ten years and Earth’s atmosphere had taken care of the most dangerous, extremely elliptical orbital debris. Those who had started the war now paid for others to clean up their mess. Neela had been one of the first volunteers.
Alone on the command and observation deck, Neela had her knees tucked around the perch by the view port. Beneath her were the crew quarters that could house six, though there were only two on station now. That’s where Marko had velcroed himself into his sleep sack. The workshop and power banks occupied the lowest level. The bottom of the Trashcan sheltered rectennas that picked up the microwave beams to provide power and always pointed toward Earth six hundred kilometers away. At least the Kessler Syndrome couldn’t block their power source. The constant orientation provided a clear up and down for the crew. Solar panels, while more effective, wouldn’t survive more than three orbits before being perforated to uselessness. Someday, peaceful satellites would return. And with them maybe a permanent Moonbase or the promised manned mission to Mars.
Neela issued a second recall order to Rocky and waited. The drone was inspecting a butterfly net that showed sudden signs of wear. The net—one of many Neela tended in her orbital sector—extended like a massive numeral 8 with the upper lobe projecting into a higher, slower orbit and the bottom into lower, faster orbit, collecting smaller debris with mismatched velocities. Random punctures were common. Multiple strands had snapped in a tight area on the upper lobe, which made Neela think of a manufacturing defect. Or sabotage.
She opened another window on her display and pulled down the “weather report.” Radar returns analyzed by the birdbrain AIs predicted nothing on an imminent collision path. The biomimetic systems were fast and had accurately warned them before previous minor impacts. She’d have an hour of low hazard worktime outside the Trashcan. Eccentric orbits produced killer impacts, streaking in from out of nowhere, just skimming the atmosphere in a sparkly flash, to go far away and turn around for another random pass. Those gave Neela nightmares. Orbits were easily calculable, but that assumed the initial conditions were known. Explosions and kinetic debris were chaotic, so everyone was left with guesses that improved as more trajectory points were collected. But there were so many bits left, it was nearly impossible to know if you were tracking the same bit during its next pass around Earth. And if there was an impact with nearby orbital junk, two or more new projectiles entered the equations. So the deorbiting laser was constantly on standby in the top turret, ready to nudge streakers away. Even so, the thick armor of the Trashcan had pits and scars from micro-strikes that the AIs missed.
The rational, cautious part of Neela wished their mission could be run from groundside, down where the microwave transmitters and massive powerplants were safe. The AIs up here were good, modeled on natural intelligences, but they were only effective when things proceeded normally. Instinct was no replacement for general intelligence when the situation turned to shit. The lack of relay satellites made it too difficult to maintain communications with the semiautonomous drones from the ground. Now, with Rocky misbehaving, Neela knew why the Kessler crews got paid the big bucks. Well, sorta big bucks.
“Marko, I need to EVA!” She listened for his groan of reply.
Marko, the resident grouch, claimed food-poisoning. His last care package had smelled like necrotic athlete’s foot, but he insisted the homemade cheese was an ancient Croatian delicacy. The previous two supply capsules hadn’t made it through, so there was no telling how long the cheese had sat on the launch pad.
“Firing the kettle!” Neela sent bursts of steam out of rocket nozzles to nudge the Trashcan toward the last location of Rocky and the unraveling butterfly net. A crystallizing puff expanded beyond the aft view port, a brilliant white in the sunlight, but only for a moment as the water rose to plasma temperature, and the cloud dissipated. Something that hadn’t been properly secured banged on a lower deck. She relayed her change in trajectory to the ground and to the satellite hunter crew high up toward geosync.
“Good hunting,” came the calm, vaguely mocking reply from the satellite hunter. Those Kessler crews had the sexy job, grabbing large derelict satellites and earning salvage percentages from their prizes. Large objects created massive quantities of new fragments when impacted. The risks were higher, so some of their ego was earned, but Neela hated how they looked down on her, sweeping up the low orbit scraps.
Neela unhooked from the knee perch and pushed toward the hatch down. She glided over the storage bins and racks that covered every available surface in the standard gray, beige, and black. She tucked through and launched toward the lower deck.
Behind his partially opened privacy screen, Marko the Grouch hung in his blue sleep sack. Only his head poked out. Wispy black hair plastered with sweat to his wrinkled forehead. A gray tinge to his normally sallow coloring and the tube of a shop vac resting in arm’s-reach let her know that he might not be faking it this time to avoid his shift.
His eyes rolled open. “Where are you going?”
“Rocky isn’t responding. There’s a tear in the butterfly net. We may start losing aggregate if the net fails. That’s a month’s work lost if we don’t fix it pronto.” Neela tucked and rolled as she swooped past and into the maintenance deck.
by Lettie Prell
Jayden was at his computer in the deeps with the server array and its maintenance robot when he received an urgent hail. He punched up the video chat on his combat-camo notebook and sent the image to monitor two. One look at Fu-Hau’s stricken expression, and he knew there was trouble. “Yo. Here. Talk to me, Fu.”
The technician swallowed. “She’s in pieces. I was uploading her and I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t work.” Her face flushed. “I broke her.”
Jayden leaned back, his legs sprawled so that his Jordan-encased feet poked out the other side of the aluminum desk. A hefty sixty-four ounce neon green water jug, his three monitors, and an array of Chinese take-out cartons completed the walls of his personal fortress. He could see the top of Gig’s silvery head glide by as it worked on its maintenance checklist. “Okay, first thing is calm down. I got this. What’s the patient’s name?”
His head bobbed. He found the name in his pick-list on monitor one. “Yup got her. Is she dead?”
“Yes.” Fu-Hau looked over her shoulder, her weight shifting to reveal an old woman’s frail form lying on a gurney. The silver cylinder was retracted into the wall, exposing the bloody head.
He scanned the procedure room log and punched up the interface. There was no image. “Ms. Spelling is definitely not herself at the moment, but we’ll get her cleaned up.”
He clicked open the log and recorded. “Case sixty-seven eighty-four. Subject Angela Spelling. Age eighty-seven. Retired librarian. Flat-lined at approximately 9:45 p.m.” He looked at Fu. “I take it this is a natural death situation?”
She swallowed. “Yes. Her vital signs had changed. She was close.”
Jayden grunted. “Once in a while we have trouble with those. Don’t know why people would take a risk with that. Scheduled never messes up.” He sighed, stabbing at the keyboard. “That’s okay. I can fix her.”
Fu-Hau’s eyes closed. “Thank you.”
He noticed the technician had frozen in place and realized she was standing in a room that was likely starting to reek of death. “Fu. Call the orderlies to clean up. Then why don’t you go home? I can summarize your part of the report.”
Her shoulders sagged with relief. “Thank you, Jayden.” She signed out.
Jayden continued his report. “Subject failed to coalesce on upload and has no VR form at present. Next step is standard check.”
His right foot jiggled as he opened an elevated command prompt. He took a swig of caffeine-laced water from his jug, and then he arranged his workspace: an interface on monitor one that would eventually show the subject’s virtual form; file structure and system indicators in front of him; and his log on monitor three, recording everything.
He’d never lost an upload yet. Most of the time when he was called to assist, it was a simple matter of helping the entities synch with their virtual bodies. This one, however, didn’t seem to have one yet, meaning the issue was Ryoca. Redesign your own cognitive algorithms. Each instantiated entity had to figure out how to resolve—coalesce—into virtual form. Ninety-five percent of them worked it out themselves, but others needed help. The standard solution was to establish a connection with the entity through the interface, so they could see another human face. First, however, he’d take a look at the files to make sure everything was fine.
“Yep, at least your files are all here,” he said, scrolling through the structure. “You’re using a bit of CPU, but . . .” He stared. Ms. Spelling was using eight times the amount of processing she should be. What was bogging her down? He rechecked the structure, and this time he saw. It was an extra file, growing like a cancer.
“Humans. Do not come with viruses.” Say it like you mean it, why don’t you? He took another swig from the jug but overtipped it, sending a mini-tsunami of caffeinated water down the front of his black T-shirt. He coughed and wiped his mouth, then swiped at his shirt and jeans. He let out a long, loud string of curses that cleared his head. He verified his log included keystroke capture. This would be one for the manuals.
The extra file was now grown large enough to be a small, conjoined twin. Stay icy, man.
Gig’s head rolled into view above his screen. It fixed him with glassy cobalt blue eyes and spoke without moving its mouth. “I’d like to report an issue with system performance.”
Jayden rubbed his forehead. “I know, Gig. Thank you. I’m taking care of it.”
“You’re welcome.” Gig’s lips clicked into a generic happy face, then just as suddenly returned to a neutral expression. Its head clicked to look down the row of servers, and it glided away in that direction.
Jayden refocused. He had to establish that connection. It wasn’t easy, but he finally got her to answer his hail. Then, just as expected, she took on a form. One look, though, and another string of profanity escaped his lips. Ms. Spelling hadn’t taken on a human form. Instead, a mutating glob of ever-changing colors coursed over his screen, superimposed over something that reminded him of deep space pictures. There was sound as well, a cross between electronica and whale song. Could she even see him?
“Ma’am.” He cleared his throat. “Ms. Spelling. Angela, can you hear me?”
Nothing but that awful noise. His fingers jabbed the keys, fighting to resolve the issue. Every few minutes he called her name.
Suddenly the noise changed, and amid the electronica he could hear words. “. . . now only now . . . aware . . . all pieces fit . . . I am . . .”
At least some of it was understandable. “You are Angela Spelling.”
“I know this. I know it.”
Jayden could have kissed the screen. Two complete sentences, and sensible ones at that. “Hi Angela. My name is Jayden.”
“I am-was Angela. True. Yet it is also true that I’ve burst into existence only now, from the seed state of humanity. I am an unfurling of consciousness from the enfolded places into something greater.”