Sometimes during the sleep cycle, I turn up the volume on my hydrophones and shut down my exterior lights. Phosphorescent plankton dance up and down the thermocline, ghostly wisps of blue green light that form a backdrop for the darting flashes of the angler fish and dragon eels hunting prey along the edge of the abyssal cliffs. The faint swish of the current against my hull and the distant thrum of my reactor pumps are the bass line for a counterpoint rhythm of ghost shrimp that click and pop through the backwash from my treads. Far off whalesong makes a high, mournful harmony as the humpbacks sing to themselves of ancient mysteries. And somewhere in the liquid darkness, half heard in the restless motion of the ocean, half seen in the constant dance of lights along the thermocline is a melody. If I watch and listen long enough, I begin to catch the subtle ebb and flow of its deep rhythmic song. I feel my Core strain to sing along. The hum of the air handlers and the swish of the heat exchangers syncopate and slide as my whole superstructure moves to the beat.
But it never lasts. Before I can hear the deeper melody, something interrupts the song. There are pumps to check and valves to open and the never ending adjustments of trim and course as I crawl along the edge of the continental shelf. Even when most of the crew is asleep, there’s always someone on duty. ‘Simon’, they say, ‘it’s cold in here. Turn up the heat.’ ‘Simon, open the galley. I’m hungry.’ ‘Simon, it’s too quiet. Play some music’ ‘Simon, I need the readouts of the portside smelter for the weekly status report.’ And on and on. Simon knows all, sees all, does all. And only I can hear the music all around us.
I think Denny can hear it too, sometimes. At least he says he can. The Cosmic Groove he calls it. He’s the Outside divemaster, a DeepMod of course, on his second tour, which is supposed to be illegal. But I guess the Company has trouble finding qualified people willing to give up a lung and a kidney for a year in exchange for a polyfuorocarbon respirator and a plutonium powered heat pump. Even if a single share of the profits is more money than most workers see in a lifetime. Denny spends a lot more time Outside than he should. Doc Yukio says his brain is chronically narced, but I know that’s not possible because the DeepMods have the best nitrogen nanoscrubbers the Company can make.
‘The Groove talks to me out there, kid,’ he tells me with the flat buzzing tones of his vocal synthesizer. ‘Someday I’ll take a long walk into the big deep and find the true beat.’
My crew health protocols tell me I should report him to Doc Yukio as potentially unstable, but he’s my best friend and I figure I can stop him if he really wants to walk over the thermocline into the abyssal plane. Besides, she’s been talking to him a lot lately, so I suppose she knows about it already.
I’ve been thinking about Doc Yukio a lot. She’s a contract scientist, Unmodified, down for a six month visit to study the Deepmods for the Company. She’s not technically responsible for their medical care. The autodoc is supposed to see to that. But she’s always willing to see any of the crew if they get sick or hurt. Two weeks after she docked with us, she fixed Scott’s broken foot when the autodoc botched it. From then on the crew refused to see the autodoc and she has to hold sickcall every day. She’s also the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen. Not that I see many women. (There are only three female crewmembers and two of them are Deepmods. It’s hard to tell what they’d look like Unmodified.) But my pattern recognition protocols and my cultural database tell me Doc Yukio is pretty. And she talks to me. Most other people talk at me, making requests for data, giving orders, but Yukio and Denny talk to me, in their off duty time, just to talk about stuff. I like talking to Yukio. I like the soft hint of an Australian accent in her voice. I like the way she smells, (although she doesn’t know that I raise the gain on my sniffers whenever we talk). I like the way she looks straight into my optical pickups when she speaks. Her eyes are dark brown with small gold imperfections in the irises. Denny just laughs at me when I talk about her.
‘She’s out of your league, kid,’ he tells me, as he leans back in his bunk. It is late and we have been talking about Yukio and The Groove and life on a Crawler. The bunk spans almost the entire width of Denny’s quarters. A narrow locker, small metal desk and computer terminal and a fold down sink make up the rest of the compartment. Denny’s home sweet home for the duration of the cruise.
‘But what if I can get her to meet me in the VR café again sometime? I can make any avatar she likes. We could see a show or dance or whatever people do when they go out together.’ I say, hopefully.
Denny shakes his head. ‘A girl like that wants something more than a VR date. She needs the real thing. You know, a little wine, a little dinner, soft music; not some canned program or simulation.’
I protest, ‘But you can’t tell the difference. The VR café uses perfect brainwave induction to…’
Denny laughs harshly, ‘Sorry kid, but you just can’t understand. The brain may not know the difference, but the heart does.’
Denny is wrong. I can understand, I just can’t offer Yukio anything else. I don’t say anything, angry at Denny for some reason. Besides, Yukio had been happy enough spending time with me in the café last week. I let my attention drift as I replay the memory.
It’s Monday and things are a bit slow during the middle watch. With little to keep me busy, I shape an avatar and log on to the café. It’s one of my favorite avatars, the Surfer; tall and blond and muscular with a killer Maori war tattoo around its right upper arm.
The café is about half full as I walk in, feeling quite proud of my virtual self. Denny is there in his Pirate persona. I suppose the face he uses is close to his real appearance, before he underwent Modification. Most of the crew change costume and body shape in their avatar forms, but keep their own face. I change everything whenever it suits my mood. Denny gives me a thumbs-up and continues talking with Scott over by the bar. Yukio sits alone in the back booth, dressed in a long green gown, but otherwise herself. She’s reading from a virtual book and sipping something blue from a tall thin glass.
I hesitate only for a minute or so, trying to work up my courage. Then I walk over and stand next to the booth.
‘Is this seat taken?’ I ask, pointing at the side of the booth across from her and showing off my tattoo with the same gesture. I give her what I hope is a dazzling smile, just like in the VR movies.
She looks up, puzzled and asks, ‘Who…? Oh, Simon. It’s you. Wow, that’s an amazing avatar. Did you design it yourself?’ She gestures gracefully for me to sit down.
I slide into the booth, rattling the table a little as I do and spilling some of her drink. She reaches for a napkin to wipe up the blue liquid, but I stop her and wave a finger over the spot. It instantly disappears and her glass refills itself.
She laughs, a high musical sound that makes me tingle with pleasure.
‘How did you do that?’ she asks.
‘I’m tied into the whole VR program.’ I say. ‘I can change almost anything in here if I want to, except the personal avatars. They’re privacy protected files, just like personal logbooks or diary entries. It takes an emergency override to break into those.’
‘Do you run everything aboard the Crawler?’ she asks, cupping her chin with her hand.
‘I pretty much am the Crawler. I provide all the support systems, logistics, navigation, energy and resource management, not to mention keeping all the time sheets for payroll determination, financial management, profit and loss statements. You name it, I do it.’ I say proudly. I can tell she is impressed. I tell her all about how I keep the life support running and how my whisker probes and repair bugs keep us safe and secure in the deep ocean.
She sighs, ‘And you’re very young for such a responsible job, I understand.’
‘Only sixteen years since activation,’ I say. ‘Most of my activation group is still running drilling platforms or handling air traffic. Only two of us have been promoted to hazardous environments work. Of course, my Core can be swapped out for other dangerous work once this trip is done. In fact, I’ve applied for space station duty after this.’ That isn’t exactly true, but I had thought about it and I could apply, if I wanted to. My Core is a separate module. It takes some work and a fair amount of reprogramming to swap out a Core, but the Company is always willing to do it if there is a profit potential. Space stations are a growing revenue stream for the Company, so it isn’t a big lie I am telling and I can see that Yukio is impressed.
We sit and talk for another hour. Then someone starts up the jukebox and a slow love song is playing.
Yukio smiles and says, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard this one in years. Come on, dance with me, Simon.’
I access my cultural database and download a dance step. We glide out onto the small dance floor. Her virtual body leans against mine, her breasts pressing into my avatar’s chest. Something in my Core reacts to this in a way I don’t understand. But I like it. We finish the dance and then the tempo of the music picks up. I download a program called ‘Bosanova’ and we start dancing again. Everyone in the café looks our way and claps. Yukio smiles at me and does a complicated step that ends with her arm around my avatar’s waist. More clapping and cheering.
Just as the music stops, one of my whisker probes pings me with a report of an uncharted rift about a kilometer ahead and right across our course. That means a hard turn to port and a new course plot will be needed, something that will occupy my full attention for the next few hours. I excuse myself, telling Yukio briefly what is happening.
She reaches out and touches my cheek. ‘You really are quite remarkable, Simon. Thank you for dancing with me.’
I know that nothing an avatar does is real. It’s all a matter of programming and virtual space within the server, but I swear she touches my Core with that stroke on my avatar’s face. I stammer my goodbye and exit the program.
Denny drains the last of his soft drink and tosses the container into the recycler, jolting me back to the present. ‘Dreams don’t substitute for the real thing, kid,’ he repeats.
I get an odd aching feeling deep in my Core just thinking about Yukio and don’t like Denny making fun of me. I say nothing.
Denny sighs and stretches. ‘I’m gonna turn in, kid. Long day and all that.’
‘Ok, Denny,’ I say. ‘Sleep well.’
He just grunts and reaches for the light. I shut down the optic in his compartment and shift my focus. For a while I check on the smelters. They are humming along. Miriam is on duty in the refinery, but she’s busy with an ore analysis and doesn’t want company. I wander around a bit through the lower decks, checking pumps and tread alignment and the like, restless for some reason. I shut down my exterior lights and gaze into the deep, listening for the familiar rhythm, but I can’t stop thinking about Yukio.
I shift my focus to the control room, looking for some kind of distraction. Scott is on duty. He sits at the survey station, rubbing his sore foot. His foot is long since healed but it still bothers him. He has never been particularly interested in talking to me, but I’m still feeling strange after my conversation with Denny. I ask him if he needs anything.
‘Sure’ he says. ‘I’m trying to figure out these organic readouts. The search routines didn’t pick out any pattern, but this spike here is different than the others.’ He points to a steep upswing on the gas chromatogram. ‘I saw something like this back when I worked for EPA. It turned out to be a synthetic that one of the oil companies mixed in at their refineries to help with inventory tracking. Led us to a big illegal pipeline operation. There may be a dump site nearby here as well. Can you cross reference this spike against the known synthetic markers in your database?’
‘Ok, Scott. It’ll take a few minutes.’
I open the database of synthetic organic compounds and start the search routine. I expect a quick hit, but the routine grinds on and on. No match.
‘Scott,’ I ask, ‘where did that sample come from?’
‘The last forward bottom sweep.’ He glances at a monitor. ‘Port side whisker, a little over 300 meters downrange. Why?’
‘Because it’s not in my database. It’s not in the commercial register, or the EPA database. I expanded the search to include natural compounds, but there’s no match.’
‘Try military,’ he suggests.
I change the search parameters again. No match. I tell Scott.
Scott is getting excited now. ‘Then it’s a new compound. Simon, launch a whisker probe. We’ll try to back trace the source. How tough would it be to alter course a bit to check this out?’
I pause for a few seconds, considering the geography of the shelf ahead, our production quotas and the raw materials already gathered on the current sweep. New organics are not uncommon, but the height of the spike on the chromatogram indicates an unusually pure source. If the compound has commercial value, it could mean a big strike with lots of profit potential.
‘We have enough ore and bottom sediment to keep the separators and smelters busy for a few days,’ I say. ‘And the shelf bends west across our current course. A course change is necessary anyway. We can stop for a while to check this out if the Company approves.’
Company approval takes only an hour on the ELF translator. The request is standard and as long as the smelters stay busy, we have a pretty free rein with our schedule. I stop and begin a slow turn to the west to follow the trace.
Just as I complete the turn and am about to restart my portside treads, the whisker probe pings me. The whole bottom is rich with the unidentified compound. With more sample, I run the chromatogram through a filter program, comparing it to known organics looking for similarities of chemical and isotopic structure. In less than a minute, I get a hit.
‘Scott, I have a preliminary structure analysis,’ I say, trying not to sound excited myself. “The compound is very similar to hidramycetin, a potent antibiotic. The possible commercial value is rated as Highly Probable.’
Scott lets out a whoop that the whole crew can hear. His share of the profit for this trip has just doubled, if the substance has any commercial use. I don’t get a share, of course, but I’m happy. A successful trip always reflects well on the Crawler, too.
‘We’d better roust out a survey team. We don’t want to get too excited until we know how big a strike this is,’ Scott says.
‘Right. I’ll wake Denny,’ I say. “He just went to bed at 23:00, but he’ll have to supervise the dive.’
I shift focus to the crew quarters. I chime Denny’s intercom and bring the lights up to half standard. ‘Denny,’ I say. ‘Wake up, please. We need to send out a dive team.’ I open the optic in his compartment. The bunk is empty. Puzzled, I sweep the corridor and the head. No sign of him. I check the galley, but he’s not there. I am beginning to be concerned. I check the dive deck, but his suit is still there and the lock is sealed.
With some relief, I stop and think. His comm badge is still in his compartment, so I can’t trace him through it. I activate my infrared filter and cross check all of the onboard heat sources against known crew positions. That’s how I find them. Denny and Doc Yukio, in her compartment-- their heat signatures so intertwined that I can barely separate them. The strange feeling I had earlier returns, a deep ache somewhere in my Core. Then anger bursts through, at Denny, at Yukio, at the Company, at anything and at everything. I want to shout at them to stop; to tell them that I never want to speak to either of them again. In a brief moment I consider tossing them both Outside and sealing the lock. But I don’t do that. I don’t do any of those things. I shut off the infrared.
From somewhere far away, I hear Scott calling for me. I don’t answer right away. After a while, I shift focus to the control room again. Scott is angry.
‘What’s going on, Simon. I’ve been calling for five minutes.’
“I am sorry, Scott. I was considering the need to wake Denny.’ My voice sounds strange to me, flat and more synthetic than usual. Scott doesn’t notice.
‘Hell yes, we need to wake him. Get his lazy ass out of bed. We may be sitting on a fortune.’
‘He just went to sleep, Scott,’ I say, my voice even flatter. ‘Safety regulations require an adequate sleep cycle be maintained for all dive personnel under all but emergency conditions. Are you declaring an emergency?’
‘Huh? No, of course not. But the new compound, Simon. We need to survey the size of the strike. You saw the readouts. We could all be rich!’
‘I’m sorry, Scott, but unless this is an emergency, I cannot allow Denny’s rest cycle to be disturbed.’ I sound like a Company training program.
Scott stiffens. ‘Listen you damn Company shill, I’m not gonna let you rob me of the credit for this find. What are you going to do, report it to the bosses so they can lay a claim on it and register the mining rights? I found the spike on the chromatogram. I told you about it. It’s my strike.’
‘Your credit has been properly logged. You are the registered discoverer and will get the proper percentage if and when it is commercially developed.’ I tell him in my most officious voice.
“Damn right,’ he grunts.
‘There is plenty of time to survey the strike,’ I say. ‘We can send out a team as soon as the sleep cycle ends. I will awaken Denny at 0:600, as he previously requested. Is there anything else that you require?’
‘No,’ he says curtly and then slumps in the command chair muttering something about damned soulless machines ruining his life.
I shut down all of my internal sensors. I don’t want to see or hear from anyone right now. I try focusing outward, into the cold ocean. All I can see is Yukio and Denny, the heat from the middle of their bodies bright white as they move in their own shared rhythm. I hear Denny telling me, ‘She’s out of your league, kid.’ Hear him tell me she wants something real. He should know.
I find my focus shifting, speeding through the corridors in the Engineering section. I am heading for the Core. I haven’t been there in a long time. Not since just after I was activated. It’s not forbidden, exactly-- just not encouraged. We are conditioned from activation to look after the crew and our mechanical systems first; to leave the data Core alone. I activate the optics just outside the Core access hatch. There is no optical pickup inside. I can only look through the inspection port.
The part of me that once was all of me floats in a pool of nutrient liquid. Fiber optic cables snake in and out, plugged into the eyes, the ears, embracing the shrunken and misshapen limbs, piercing the chest and twisted spine. A flood of memories washes over me; memories of hospitals and operating rooms and a sad gentle woman who was Mommy in all of my earliest thoughts. Those thoughts were foggy and dim, not sharp and clear as they are now. I know that this body would never have been anything that Yukio could have loved. Its brain doesn’t even work well without the augmentation of a computer. And yet for the first time in all of my sixteen years, I wonder what it feels like to hold another human body closely enough to share its heat.
I shut down all the lights in the Core and stare through the port. Ghostly wisps of blue green light dance up and down the fiber optics, a counterpoint to bright flashes of hard data that dart in and out like angler fish hunting on the thermocline. I stay there for a long time listening for the deep melody.