Bruce Davis

APHELION
Home
THE BOOKS
Ranting
Tales From the OR
SHORT STORIES
THAT WHICH IS HUMAN
QUEEN MAB COURTESY
GLOWGEMS FOR PROFIT
Serial
Chain Story
The Quality of Mercy
TITANIA'S PURSE
Benthic Rhapsody
Aphelion
Links

This is a love story set a long way from Earth. It's a companion piece to 'Benthic Rhapsody' set in the same universe and with similar issues.
 
This story and the two others in this cycle, 'Benthic Rhapsody' and 'Driving the Tranquility Road' are available as a download in the short anthology MACHINE DREAMS, available here:

MACHINE DREAMS

                    APHELION 

 

            This far out, 37AU and twenty degrees off the ecliptic, the Sun is just another first magnitude star. I have most of my external sensors turned away from it, toward Eris, but I keep one of the optical pickups trained on home most of the time. I’m not sure why. It’s not like I’ll ever see Earth again except from high orbit, but it comforts me to know where it is when we’re out here on the extreme edge of the solar system.

            Mike, my crew, my partner and sometimes virtual lover, is outside on an EVA to realign my high gain antenna. The automatic tracking system has failed again. Some mechanisms just don’t hold up in cold that hovers 33 degrees above absolute zero. So Mike has to go out and replace it, then reinitialize the tracking program. I can’t help him except to move the antenna on his command and open and close the lock for him. It’s one of the drawbacks of being hard wired to the Far Reach’s computer.

            “OK, Jenny,” Mike says over his suit comm. “Give me a ten degree arc on the main bezel.”

            I swing the antenna back and forth and am rewarded with an intermittent burst of carrier wave.

            “That’s the right sector,” I tell him.

            “Good. Reinitializing now. The auto detect should handle the fine tuning.”

            In a few seconds, I’m getting a steady signal from Houston. There are half a dozen burst messages in the queue. I acknowledge the message center and wait for the download. It will take almost six hours for the signal to reach home, so there’s no point in worrying about it.

            Reading five by five, Mike,” I say. “Come on in and I’ll fix you some dinner.”

            “On my way. Is there any of that chicken adobo from last night?”

            I laugh. “If that’s what you want. It’s all protein mash anyway, but I can make it taste like anything you fancy.”

            “Aw, Jenny,” he says. “Don’t ruin the illusion. I know what I’m really eating.”

            “Sorry, love. I wonder what you’d do if you really had to make all these tasty meals for yourself.”

            “Starve,” he says ruefully.

            I swing an optical sensor to cover the forward lock and watch him approach. He moves carefully, tethering his harness to the next hard point before disconnecting from the one behind. One slip out here and he’d be lost forever. I wouldn’t be able to retrieve him myself and there’s no one to rescue us. I breathe a mental sigh of relief as he enters the lock and gives me thumbs up. I cycle the lock, repressurize the EVA bay and spin it up to match the ship’s rotation.

            In a few minutes, he’s out of the heavy suit and lounging in the VR cube with a bottle of water. His nude body glistens with sweat, the lithe muscles of his chest and upper arms outlined sharply in the bright lights. Mike works out constantly in the Far Reach’s tiny exercise chamber. He’s more than a little vain about his appearance. Not that I mind. He’s certainly easy to look at. And here in the sterile womb of the Far Reach, he can walk around naked without fear.

            Mike has congenital SCID – Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Syndrome. He got his first bone marrow transplant when he was a week old. It failed and his first eighteen years of life were spent in a protective bubble. A common cold would kill him. He endured two more unsuccessful marrow transplants and a fruitless round of gene manipulation before giving up. By then he weighed only thirty kilos and was wracked with pain from coccidiomycosis. He was waiting to die when the witch doctors from the Company got hold of him.

            In exchange for signing his life away, they cured his infection and isolated him in a sterile environment. He didn’t touch another human being for two years. But he grew stronger and his body healed itself. The price was eternal isolation from anyone who might pass on an infection. Even his food was a potential threat. He lives on the same protein laden goo that feeds me in my biotank. Here on the Far Reach, 37AU from any other people, he is safe.

            I slide a table out of the bulkhead in front of Mike’s recliner. On it are the VR inducer, a spoon and a bowl of steaming protein mash. Mike refuses to look at the mash. Instead he puts the inducer on his head and adjusts the eye piece and the mastoid electrode.

            “Take me away, Jenny,” he says cheerfully.

            I activate the program and insert myself. The cube dissolves, replaced by a sunny veranda framed in pink bougainvillea. The walls are Navajo white stucco, the floor is red Saltillo tile. A cool breeze rustles the fragrant blossoms. Mike sits at a Spanish style table with wrought iron legs and a wooden top. He’s dressed in a white Panama suit and sips modelo negro from a tall glass.

            I’m wearing a full skirt with a ruffled hem and a low cut peasant blouse with bright swirls of embroidery around the bodice. I carry a tray holding a plate of dark, rich chicken adobo. I smile at him as I set the food in front of him and kiss his firmly on his full lips. He grins and touches my hand.

            “Won’t you join me, senorita?” he asks.

            “Of course,” I say with a small laugh. I sit and wave a hand over the table. A second glass of beer appears and I lift it, holding it toward his in a toast. He touches my glass with his and we drink.

            Mike eats the food, the VR inducer changing protein mash to rich spiced chicken and starchy red rice. I sip the beer, allowing the program to give me the taste of hops and barley. Part of my awareness remains tethered to the ship, feeling the slight tidal stresses on the hull, the biting cold of space, the heat of the reactor. I listen for the incoming message burst from Houston with one ear and to Mike’s conversation with the other.

            I make a small joke. He laughs and I’m suddenly struck by how beautiful he is. I realize that I am happy. For the first time since the explosion, I feel at home. Odd that I should find a home out here, five billion kilometers from the planet that gave me life, death and this hybrid rebirth.

            The comm signal chimes softly. I start the download, momentarily distracted. I realize Mike is looking at me.

            “What?” I ask with a nervous laugh.

            “Just looking,” he smiles. “Wondering. You always appear the same when we meet in here. Is this the face you had before …” he stops. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask.”

            I touch his hand. “It’s OK,” I say. And it is. “This is the face I remember; the one in the holoimages from when I was younger. After the explosion, there wasn’t much of my face left. Or my legs.” Mike looks uncomfortable, but I hold his hand tighter and plunge on. “Please. I need to tell you. Because I wouldn’t have chosen this for myself, at least not back then. I died that day, but my body didn’t give up. My parents are simple people. They just wanted me to live. I’m not sure they understood what they were doing.” I stop, momentarily lost in a memory of my mother running from the hospital room when I spoke through the vocoder and reached for her with my new robotic arms.

I shake my head as Mike reaches out his own hand to me. “Please let me finish. When I was reanimated, it was all a done deal. Me in the biotank hooked to the computer and the Company in charge. Iron clad contract and all that. But the truth is I don’t regret it. It’s better than being brain dead, especially since they gave me the Far Reach. And you.”

            He smiles and pulls me closer. I fade out the veranda and replace it with a bedroom. Dim lights, roaring fire in a huge stone fireplace and a big canopy bed. I know it’s my dream and not Mike’s; has been since I was old enough to be interested in boys. He doesn’t seem to mind. He lifts me and lays me down on the bed. The download is complete but I tune it all out, letting the bedroom program flood me with sensation.

            Afterward, Mike is asleep. I shift my awareness to the comm program and open the message burst. As I suspected, there are a handful of new science tasks to add to the schedule. Once we reach Eris we’re going to be frantically busy. I open the last item, read it. I stop, read it again. My heart seems to stop as a cold dread grips my core. I close the message and flag it ‘private’ and lock it away in a secure access file. I won’t tell Mike, I decide. I tell myself that it will only upset him and we have a tight schedule ahead of us. I’m rationalizing, I know. But I will keep this secret, at least for now.

            Far Reach is nearing aphelion, the extreme limit of our long elliptical orbit, the farthest point from the Sun. Our approach is carefully timed to match Eris at perihelion, its closest approach. Eris is the largest of the trans-Neptunian objects that orbit our Sun on the fringes of the system. What makes it special is an eccentric orbit which takes it inside the orbit of Neptune at perihelion and out to the very edge of the Oort cloud at aphelion. We hope that it picks up some comet stuff on its swing through the edge of the cometary nursery. Our job is to find out.

            Mike is looking forward to the rendezvous. In the five years it’s taken us to get here, he’s earned a PhD in astrophysics and planetology. It was a requirement written into his contract, but he’s developed a real passion for it, especially the planetology. I’m a little jealous. My only job is to drive. He gets to have all the fun once we reach Eris.

            The days pass quickly, the pace of work accelerating as we get closer. Mike and I share at least one meal a day in the VR cube, but the schedule keeps our free time limited. I am preoccupied with last minute course corrections. Eris is 2500 kilometers in diameter which sounds big, but isn’t. Hitting it after a five billion kilometer run is akin to threading a needle from orbit. I’m grateful for the distraction. I hate keeping secrets and Mike doesn’t seem to notice when I’m a bit distant.

            By the time we are close enough to see Eris, Mike is too excited to sleep. He spends hours studying the images. When I finally park Far Reach in a stable orbit 200 kilometers above the surface, he’s bouncing around like a kid in a toy store. We drop our remote probes and the data start rolling in.

            “I need to go down there, Jenny,” he tells me over and over as he studies screen after screen of remote sensor data.

            “You know we can’t do that, Mike,” I tell him. Eris may be a dwarf planet, but it still has a gravity well, one that is too deep for us. Far Reach is a creature of deep space. She was never designed to touch solid ground.

            “I’ve been thinking about it, Jenny,” he says. “I could go down on the Brown telescope. There’s enough fuel to handle the extra mass and enough room on the reactor shield for me to ride in a pressure suit.”

            “The Brown is a permanent installation,” I protest. “How do you expect to get back?”

            “I thought of that, too,” he says grinning. “We still have that carbon fiber cable from the towed array graviton experiment. There’s over a thousand kilometers of the stuff. We use it as a tether on the telescope, sort of like a fly-by-wire probe. Once it’s down on the surface, you reel in the slack and the cable becomes an elevator. I can use a battery powered winch to crawl up and down it.”

            “Even if it works, and I doubt it will, you’re talking about a 200 kilometer long string. How do we know it’ll hold your mass?”

            He waves a hand casually. “I’ve done the calculations. I don’t mass a third of what the graviton detector did, so even allowing for tidal stress on the cable, it should be more than strong enough. It will work, Jenny. I know it will.”

            Houston will never approve,” I say, clutching at straws.

            “So we don’t tell them. What are they going to do, anyway? Fire us? It’s not like they can stop us, even if we do tell them.”

            I’ve heard this tone of voice before. He’s getting stubborn. Once Mike gets on an idea he can be like a dog with a bone. I assign a subroutine to check his calculations and run a simulation.

            Meanwhile, I say, “You’re talking about an unnecessary risk. Why should we deviate from the mission profile?”

            “Because that’s why I’m here, Jenny,” he says with a note of exasperation in his voice. “Aside from keeping you company and playing maintenance man, I’m supposed to do stuff like this. To look at the situation and make decisions on the fly. We’re too far from home to ask mother-may-I before we try something new. I’m getting data from the probes I can’t explain. I need to get down there and see, close up.”

            The subroutine is finished running half a dozen simulations with different mass and velocity profiles and they all seem to indicate that Mike is right. His idea is within the tolerances of the cable, if just barely.  

            “OK,” I say. “Your figures check out. That doesn’t mean I like it.”

            “You don’t have to. Just help me do it.” He grins again and I know I can’t stop him.

            So for the next few days Mike spends less time salivating over the data from the probes and more in the EVA bay linking the towed array cable to the telescope. I try to keep my misgivings to myself and run the insertion profile over and over looking for potential glitches.

            Finally Mike announces that the work is done and he’s ready to drop to the surface when we deploy the telescope. I pretend to be glad and suggest a special dinner to celebrate. I have ulterior motives. I hope to make him think twice by revealing the contents of the burst message.

            Mike settles into his recliner and adjusts the inducer. The cube dissolves and we are sitting at a table overlooking the ocean. The waves glow with moonlight. Warm breezes waft through fragrant hibiscus. I am dressed in a white sequined gown, low cut in the front, the skirt slit to the thigh. Mike wears an open necked Philippine shirt. Candles bathe the white table cloth in a warm yellow light. Mike pours red wine into crystal goblets and passes one to me.

            “I love this place, Jenny,” he says as he sips the wine. “How did you find it?”

            “I came across an old travel poster in the archive for a place on Earth called Fiji. I knew you’d like it.”

            Mike smiles and I melt. We eat and drink and make small talk, all the while anticipating what will come next. I almost lose myself in the wine and the scent of hibiscus, but manage to pull back when he reaches for my hand.

            “Wait, please,” I say. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

            “It can wait,” he says, taking my hand.

            “No. It’s important, Michael.”

            That stops him. I only call him Michael when I’m angry or upset. He looks at me expectantly.

            “A couple of weeks ago, after you fixed the high gain antenna, we got a bunch of burst messages from Houston, remember?”

            “Sure. They loaded a bunch of crap onto our schedule. But most of it’s done already. What’s so important about that?”

            “There was one more message. I didn’t tell you at the time because, well, because I didn’t; I mean I was afraid,” I stop. He looks confused. “Oh, hell. Read it for yourself.” I open the message file and display in on the white tablecloth in front of him.

            He scans it quickly, then shrugs. “OK,” he says. “What’s so important about this?”

            “What’s so important?” I repeat his words, stunned. “Michael, don’t you understand? They’ve found a way to completely reengineer your X chromosome. They can cure you. For real this time.”

            “Maybe. But I’m out here, not back on Earth. And it’ll be five years before we see home again. Plenty of time.”

            “How can you be so blasť about this?” I’m almost shouting now. “Think Michael. You can leave the Far Reach. You can walk in the sunlight again, touch another person, breath unfiltered air. You have a chance at a real life. And all you do is shrug your shoulders.”

            “I thought I had a real life,” he says quietly. “Or have I missed something in the last few years.”

            “You know what I mean,” I sigh.

            “No, I don’t. I thought we had something here. A life with purpose and someone we care about.”

            “But it’s artificial, Michael. You don’t touch me, you touch a computer simulation. We live on gray goo and drink our own recycled waste.”

            “No,” he slams his palm down on the table. “You’re talking about where we work. This,” he waves his hand. “All this is where we live. This is where we see each other. This is as real as all the rest of it.”

            I stare at him. “Michael, listen to yourself. You’re losing touch with reality.”

            He shakes his head. “No, I’m not. I don’t care whether we’re really in Fiji or just in the VR cube. You’re real, I’m real. What we have in here is just as real as Eris and the ship and the whole damn universe. Nothing else matters.” He stares at me as if expecting something. I don’t know what to say.

            He sighs. “It’s late, Jenny. I’m going to be busy tomorrow. I think I’ll turn in.” He removes the VR inducer and I’m left staring at an empty chair.

            Morning and night are arbitrary in deep space. Mike sleeps eight hours and then is up and ready to go. He’s all business as we prep the telescope for launch. I try to talk to him about last night but all he’ll say is “Later”.

            We launch on schedule. Mike stays in constant contact over his suit radio as the telescope makes its way down to the surface. I monitor the cable. We spool out nearly 800 kilometers before Mike shouts, “Touchdown. Reel it in, Jenny.”

            I rewind the spools until the cable tension spikes. I back off 50 meters or so and the tension stabilizes. We’re a couple of milliradians off of the vertical, but well within margin for error.

            Mike whoops, “WooHoo! I’m on the surface, Jenny. It’s freaking beautiful!”

            “Great, Mike,” I answer. “Watch your air and the clock.”

            Mike’s suit has enough remaining air for about 12 hours. We planned for six hours on the surface, a four hour lift on the cable and a two hour reserve in case of trouble. Mike makes a rude comment but says he will.

            The next six hours are tense for me, exciting for Mike. We don’t talk much. He’s working hard in a pressure suit and conversation is not a priority. I watch the time crawl by. Finally he calls on the radio.

            “Checking in, Mom. I’m just about ready to come home. This place is OK for a visit, but it got old about two hours ago.”

            “Did you find what you were looking for?” I ask.

            “Yeah, I think so. I’ll review the samples when I get back. I’m hooking on now. I’ve got about twenty kilos of samples with me. Any problem with the extra mass?”

            I rerun a quick simulation. “No problem. Still well within tolerances.”

            “Starting ascent now.” His reply is accompanied but a high pitched whine; the vibration of the winch transmitted through his suit. It must be tooth rattling for him if I can hear it over the audio pickup.

            The ascent goes well for the first half hour. Then the vibrations start, subtle at first but building as the winch climbs higher. I try to adjust the tension on the cable with the main spool but the effect is temporary. I run some more calculations.

            “Mike,” I call. “Stop the climb. Stop now.”

            “Why, Jenny?”

            “The harmonics. We didn’t factor the effect of vibration on the cable. As you climb the oscillations will increase until they break the cable.”

            “So what do we do?” he asks.

            “I don’t know,” my voice is almost a wail of despair. “If you slow your climb, the oscillations will dampen out, but you’ll run out of air before you get back.”

            Mike doesn’t answer for several long seconds. When he speaks, his voice is flat. “When I give you the word, haul in the cable as fast as the spool will go.”

            “Mike what –“

            Mike interrupts, “Haul it now!” A deep thrumming twang echoes through the whole ship as the cable parts.

            “Mike!” My voice is a shriek that matches the squeal of protest from the main spool as I haul in the cable. I feel it shudder and bang against the winch housing as it whips back and forth. Mike isn’t answering. I can’t tell if he’s still attached or if the cable has launched him into the void. The cable reels in, meter after meter. I realize I am crying. I have no eyes; can make no tears, but the Far Reach shudders and throbs as I cry.

            “Mike,” I sob. “Please, Michael. Answer me.”

            The cable is almost reeled in before he replies. “I’m OK, Jenny.” His voice is pinched. “Broke a couple of ribs. Hurts like hell to breathe. Slow the rewind until I can use the suit thrusters to stop whipping around.”

            “Oh, Mike,” I cry. “Thank God. I thought I’d lost you.”

            “Hush, Jenny. Just reel me in.”

            I can’t stop talking. I apologize over and over for concealing the message. I tell him how afraid I was that he would leave the ship, leave me. I realize that I’m babbling, but I can’t help it. All he says is, “Hush”.

            I watch anxiously until he is safe in the EVA bay. I spin it up to one G. He strips off the pressure suit, the insulating long johns, even the skinsuit with its electrodes and monitors. He leaves the bay and strides purposefully toward the computer core.

            “Mike? Michael, what are you doing?”

            “Giving you real.” He reaches the core and keys in the security code.

            “Mike, don’t do this. The core isn’t supposed to be opened. It’s a sterile environment.”

            He laughs. “Right. And I’m so full of germs.” The access hatch hisses open as the positive air pressure around my tank equalizes with Far Reach’s atmosphere.

            “Michael, please. I don’t want you to see me this way.” My voice sounds strange, like I’m speaking from the bottom of a shaft. I realize that I’m hearing the synthesized voice the computer gives me. For the first time in years I am hearing through my own ears.

            My skin tingles as nerve endings long dormant reawaken. I feel the sloshing of the nutrient solution as another body climbs into my tank; feel the slight tugs as Mike moves aside the tubes and cables that link me to Far Reach.

            “Michael, please. I can’t see you.”

            His arms enfold the small part of me that once was all of me. “Hush, Jenny,” he whispers in my ear. “I’m right here. I won’t leave you. If this is the reality you want, that’s OK with me.”

            We lie there in the warm darkness for a very long time.

 

 

Let me know what you think of this one.