Edition 26: Astralgaloi by A. L. Lorentz
Virralat and Ira are the only mission members that made it to Venus. As they work together to continue the mission, in the absence of any communication from home, their relationship seems fraught. But together they must continue to exist.
A.L. Lorentz has worked many layers of commensal relationships into this science fiction short. See if you can spot them all! SY
My emerald hands glittered with every twitch in the pale indoor light of the cleaning chamber. The diagonal facets tessellating my body echoed the heavy metal grating I stood on and the reinforced lights below. I remember the days, literally worlds away, when I wondered if anyone would ever give me just one diamond. Now I have millions.
They said Venus was the best chance to start a much needed human colonization effort, but they gave me so many changes I barely felt human by the time we arrived. NASA’s microbes turned my skin verdant and my lungs ochre. The sparkles were a fortunate side effect of using my skin to separate carbon and oxygen from the otherwise deadly troposphere. Fortunate not for aesthetic reasons, but protection against acid rain.
NASA gave me a suitor too: Ira.
Ira didn’t mind what NASA did to me, what I looked like wasn’t important to him. And if I cared what he looked like we’d never have left Earth together. When we strapped in and said our last goodbyes to the green planet we were bonded for life, we just didn’t know it then. Other couples might feel like they’re from a different world, but we really were.
Ira lumbered into the cleaning room to prepare for today’s drop. I snickered, ready to bicker again like an old married couple. We were stuck with each other, trying to make the best of a bad situation, but we still had it better than everyone else we knew.
“What did you get yourself into on that last drop?” I asked, scrubbing his boots.
“You’re the driver,” he said in monotone.
I longed for some human inflection, some tenderness or even anger. I last heard genuine emotions when mission control became more concerned about some new mysterious virus than our mission. Eventually contact dribbled to an unceremonious stop.
“I’m the driver, you’re the tough guy,” I retorted. “They don’t pay me enough to go down there.”
“They don’t pay me at all,” he quipped. At least I think it was a quip, hard to tell.
Ira can spit out a little inflection now and then by modulating his volume. Part of me really was jealous that he got to set foot on the mysterious rocks sixty very-odd kilometers below our cloud station stuck halfway between the cold death of space and the hotter-than-hell furnace of the surface.
What happened some sixty-million kilometers up bothered me more. On the short occasions Earth came in closer orbit to us the drone scopes reported a disturbing ochre color to the clouds. The silent catastrophe became so anxiety-inducing that I gave up on it after a year. But Ira was different, bound to the mission—and me—above all else.
“You should let me start steering the drone on these drops. You get less coordinated as you age,” he reminded me.
Too bad we don’t have a doghouse on the cloud platform.
“Didn’t they ever tell you not to remind a woman her age?”
“I track all your vital signs. You will inevitably start to lose your sight.”
“Talking to you I’ll inevitably start to lose my mind.”
He let it hang there. Forcing me to consider my own statement, but I didn’t want to think about it.
Stay on point. “You’d be flying blind down there without me. The insulation on the hooks doesn’t leave enough room for the bandwidth of data you’d want to pull down, and radiation can’t get through, so a wireless connection is even worse. That’s why I do it up here”—I tapped my forehead—“and just toggle you like a marionette, up-down, left-right.”
He pantomimed, touching his braincase. “‘Up here’ will atrophy eventually, too.”
“You better be talking about yourself, Mr. Scarecrow. The next mission was supposed to bring you a new braincase. You’re overdue, but my noggin is chugging away just fine.”
“My braincase is functioning at 57% reliability. If we find the right deposits today I may be back to 80%. If I could do the driving and you could watch the deep-rock scans—”
“Ira, stop. If you get hit by lightning on the way down because of the latency in that hook line there’s no amount of scrubbing that’ll fix you.”
“Is this something you need to do to feel necessary? I can find another task for you to complete. The acid on the bottom of the platform is starting to affect hull integrity.”
Really? He thinks this is an ego thing?
“If you don’t like the job I’m doing you can at least start scrubbing yourself, you’ve got hands too.” Maybe it was an ego thing.
“I may have hands, but you’ve got a temporally centered perspective.”
I stopped scrubbing. “A what?”
“In situations like ours your species can react unfavorably to the passage of time.”
“You think I’m going stir crazy, is that it?” He was checking much more than my ego.
“Before we left, NASA programed psychological evaluation protocols. I was only authorized to divulge it in a situation where I may need to assess.”
I lifted the sander off his leg. “So you’ve been secretly assessing my psychosis?”
“As you know, I cannot keep secrets, Virralat. You never asked.”
I threw down his leg, a heavy clunk on the porous floor. “You should have stayed on Earth and become a politician!” I stood and put my hands on my hips. “So, what’s your diagnosis doctor?”
A pause. I hated those pauses. He knew what to say, but not how to say it, or whether he was allowed. Every time I asked a question and he didn’t answer right away I had to put on my bullshit detector, a permanent fixture lately.
“I see no signs of mental degradation or personality fluctuation outside normal levels.”
“Well that’s reassuring.”
“I find it reassuring as well.”
He probably understood sarcasm, but pretended not to.
“Humans evolved to be near each other, even introverts like yourself. Your mission was only to precede the others by three years. We have exceeded that mandate three times over and are likely never to see or speak to another human being.”
I threw down the sander and raced up the stairs. He wasn’t wrong, I just didn’t want to hear it. Not now. Maybe not ever.
My boots battered the long hallway, past the lab, my sleeping bunk, and right down the gangway that tunneled through the massive gas balloons keeping us afloat. On the other side I could feel the sunlight on my skin, coming through the windows as I approached the outer hatch.
I hit the railing hard after slamming the hatch closed behind me. The canary-colored sky gave me no comfort. That’s not true. I could feel my skin drinking the sunlight, separating the air into carbon and oxygen, giving my little diamond topcoat a polishing in the process.
My body felt good up here, even as the sparse vapor from the cleaning room started to frost on my crystalline exterior. But my mind, slowed not by the cold, worried fresh nightmares of my softer-skinned Earth sisters succumbing to a freezing nuclear winter now ten years on.
The shining dot beyond the sky mocked me. I forgot how to tell the difference between Mercury and Earth when one became as dead to us as the other. Now they might as well be one of the millions of faint stars up there, their silence as big a mystery as all the rest. Forget Fermi, Virralat’s Paradox asked why out of ten billion people on the Earth not one made a peep for ten years now.
But I’d stopped asking years ago, and stopped counting. Damn Ira for reminding me.
So Ira was watching for signs of psychosis. What was he programmed to do if he saw any? Could my Intelligent Robotic Assistant kill me in my sleep? Should I care? NASA had cast me out, from a heaven with too many angels to hell with an inferior one. Which was worse?
Speak of the devil. His voice echoed up from the parapets below.
“Are you on top level, Virralat?”
Let him find me. There was no hurry, no point. Besides, if I opened my mouth to speak I might get moisture into my lungs. On this planet that meant burning, not drowning.
“Virralat?” He rounded the corner of the ovoid floating platform. “There you are.”
Our balloon had expanded to half a mile in diameter after we arrived, filling itself with the nitrogen and oxygen that filtered up from the denser atmosphere below. The first essential duty we performed was building this system of viewing platforms, which seemed much bigger then. Now the platform felt like an insane Rapunzel’s balcony we couldn’t leave.
“Virralat, come back to the cleaning room. We must prepare for my drop.”
Correction, a balcony I couldn’t leave. Ira could ride down on the seventy kilometer hair spooled up in the balloon any time he wanted.
“Why? I don’t need to go down there,” I tried to protest through clenched teeth, wondering if he only came after me to make sure I didn’t do a swan dive off the railing down into the acid fog. I flicked a tiny icicle from the railing and watched it spin into the haze.
“Virralat, I need metals for my components. And you need me.”
I laughed, a real one for once, and walked past him, turning back before shutting the hatch. “I don’t need you.”
A human husband might have reacted one of two predictable ways to this accusation. The conversational algorithms in Ira’s shielded silicon brain did something else.
“You have no choice,” he said in that terrible gravelly flat voice as he stepped back inside and cautiously approached.
At four-foot-nothing Ira wasn’t a bruiser, but his tungsten exoskeleton could make mincemeat out of my flesh, covered in diamond film or not.
“Are you threatening me, Ira?”
How he processed this would answer a question I’d had for six months, but then again I’d stopped counting. Maybe I’d been scared for six years.
“What gave you that idea?”
Dammit, NASA! A little more Asimov and a little less Freud in your algorithms, please.
“You said I need you. What do I need a bag of bolts like you for?” I smiled as I said it. Let’s see how you parse that, heartless Tungsten Man. Got a sarcasm circuit? Humor heuristic? Psychosis silicate?
“Virralat, you know your body cannot survive on photosynthesis alone, and the water filters need servicing. Our replacement mission has not arrived, and likely never will. Your zinc, iron, and other vital mineral levels are low, as are our supplies. I can easily drill for them on the surface and we can separate them in the lab for your consumption.”
Ira was right, but was he keeping me alive purely out of self-interest? After all, I might be the only certified Intelligent Robot Assistant mechanic left in the universe.
“Never make a woman admit she’s wrong, Ira.”
I wasn’t ready to die yet. I did need him.
“Three hundred meters, Virralat. Keep current rate of descent, please.”
This was the most boring part. After quickly lowering him more than fifty kilometers through the clouds, Ira would be extra careful on final approach. The kind of unbearable meticulousness that only an artificial brain could tolerate. It could take hours for Ira to find a suitable place to set down.
Granted, we moved much faster up top, taking him on a high-speed tour of the terrain down there. But Ira was a robot; a hundred kilometers an hour for him was like two for a human. However, any wrong move and that pressure would give him a literal case of the bends. It would be over in a hurry, the heat inside popping his braincase before he could tell me. I’d reel back a smoking shuck. Apparently I thought about it much more than he did. He just waited patiently until his big brain saw the perfect jumping-off point.
Humans aren’t patient; my job over as delicate meteorologist steering him around sulfuric lightning clouds, I flipped on the glass viewer to see an Ira’s-eye-view.
The dim, broken asphalt surface whipped under him like an eager meat grinder. But Ira wasn’t meat. The daylight darkness was punctuated by slow bubbling pink volcanoes in the distance. At the speed our cloud-floater circled we couldn’t avoid volcanoes entirely, but I tried to give Ira a wide berth. I guess that made me something of a geologist as well. You’ve gotta be a Jack of all trades when you’re the only Jack left.
“Ready to detach,” he said, effortlessly touching down on solid rock at a few hundred kilometers per hour. The cable slacked after losing his weight and Ira was off and literally running, scanning the terrain, looking for buried treasure.
I flicked the glass feed off. I’d watched him hunt a hundred times now and was perfectly comfortable amusing myself in more exciting ways. We’d be out of radio contact while the clouds rotated around the planet anyway. A four Earth-day transit around the planet from up here, but more than an Earth year to do a single day down there. Of course, since I moved with the clouds, I thought of him spinning quickly, but I’d see nightfall up here. He’d never see a sunrise below the dense clouds.
When the platform rotated with the wind away from Ira we’d lose radio contact. I used to get nervous during that alone time, hoping nothing happened to my partner on that very much unexplored wasteland. Now I felt relief in his absence. As our resources ran out and things became direr, Ira’s strange moods made me uneasy. The next fifty hours would be an oasis in a tangerine sky. Unless it rained.
I flicked the weather service back on, our satellites in orbit scanning the upper atmosphere for condensing sulfur clouds above fifty kilometers. Technically I could use these satellites to bounce Ira’s radio signal back over here in an emergency, but there were never any emergencies. A few days of silence suited me just fine.
It wouldn’t be silent. A storm was coming with lots of lightning to recharge our power condensers, but sulfuric rain my diamond-laced skin couldn’t slough off. I’d be stuck inside the dome for half of this transit. An opportunity to run those platform diagnostics on the hull integrity he mentioned earlier. Our duel of wits had been exhausting; right now I just wanted a nap.
The beeping scared me awake. I hadn’t heard anything like it since a balloon collapsed in the upper atmosphere during our arrival descent. So, ten years ago, according to Ira. He didn’t sound nearly as agitated then.
“Virralat! Respond please!”
So he did understand sarcasm. Hopefully he doesn’t understand practical jokes. No, hopefully he does. An emergency call from the other side of the planet would be very bad news for both of us.
“Do you have an emergency?” If I still had breath I’d have held it right then.
“You could say that. I’ve found something unexpected down here.”
What was he hiding and why? If Ira was human that ambiguous answer would have been a way deflect his own worry, the same reason criminals involuntarily smile in front of a judge. But Ira wasn’t burdened by emotions. He’d done it to manage mine.
“I can’t say anything about it, Ira, if I don’t know what your problem is.” I tried for deadpan, to stop him from playing a psychological game during an emergency. Just treat me like your robot sister for once instead of a fragile human wife, dammit!
“Our drill is broken,” he replied vacantly.
“So what? We have five more.”
“These drills, like me, were never intended to last this long. A meter below the surface it hit something non-igneous.”
My head spun. “You mean, like aliens?” How ironic, the last human explorer finds what all of humanity had hoped and longed for, proof we were not alone.
“No. I mean Russian.”
I forgot to plot the 20th century Venera probes. It figures the first time I’d forget would be the only time he’d end up on top of one. My ears rang with guilt; perhaps I should have let him drive the drop rig after all.
“What’s the damage?” At least a robot would move past blame and get on with finding a solution. It had been a long time since I’d been happy my partner was artificial.
“The shell fractured and the interior combusted, creating shrapnel out of the components. They were too fast for me to avoid.”
“Too fast for you, old man? Just hunker down in place and wait for me. I’ll bang out your dents and clean you up, we’ve done it before.” Guilt is a hell of a motivator isn’t it?
“I’m afraid it’s not a dent, Virralat.”
A strange phrase for a robot; wording things to keep me, the human, from overreacting in an emergency and doing something deleterious to his delicate position.
“Did it melt you? Can you bend it out?”
“You lowered me down here like bait, and now I’ve been caught.”
“If you’re making it all poetic to keep me from getting scared, Ira, you should know it’s having the opposite effect.”
“My leg was punctured by one of the driving rods in the drill. The rod melted almost instantly on the outside, keeping my interior temperature and pressure intact—”
“I gathered something like that or we wouldn’t be having this pleasant conversation. What’s wrong?”
“So close down and solder that leg at the joint. Sit tight, I’ll head up to the pole for a shortcut on the faster winds.” A risky maneuver even if we were at full hull integrity, but better than letting him die. The least I could do.
“One of the millions of scenarios I’ve already considered, Virralat.”
“Well you don’t have to be condescending!”
Asshole, making me feel guilty. For something that was my fault. Humans got used to blaming their problems on robots long before I was born; a whole species so scared of personal responsibility that they built an army of metal-plated whipping boys. The robot chef wasn’t there to make you breakfast; it was there to apologize for burnt toast.
Maybe humanity fell silent because the robots got together and decided to clean up the mess for good. I considered leaving Ira down there, in case he had spent the time before he called cooking up a plan for vengeance. He was heartless after all.
I blew out a sigh with the same carbon dioxide that came in. I still had a diaphragm; the process of breathing, though no longer functional, was calming, like listening to your heartbeat. I had a heart.
“I’m so sorry, Ira.”
“No apology needed. I don’t have feelings, remember?”
That sounded reassuring for the first time ever.
“So after you ran your computations what did you come up with? You must have already decided before you called.”
“Correct. I am calling to give you good news.”
“You think this is good news?”
“The drill broke after recovering iron and zinc deposits.”
“I don’t care about the minerals, Ira, how do I get you back?”
“Even at human computational speeds, surely you’ve realized the answer.”
“You’re not coming back, are you?”
“Though the pressure is sealed, the higher transfer coefficient of the metals in the drill mechanics now embedded in my leg are conducting atmospheric heat to my interior. If I were a human I might say it’s cooking me alive from the inside.”
“Well, let’s be glad once again you are not, in fact, human. Otherwise that would hurt like hell. I’m guessing you’ve already computed that your braincase will be fried by the time I can get the hooks to you.”
“My circuits will be destroyed within twenty hours.”
I checked my watch for the first time since he left.
I’d meandered about the bubble for a whole day, staying up late, and then slept for another. Ira still had double those twenty hours before I could maneuver the cloud-platform anywhere near him, flying around the pole or not.
“Don’t get emotional, Virralat. You’re a NASA astronaut, even if NASA no longer exists. You know how to handle this. I’m a machine. An unfortunate equipment failure. You’ll salvage what you can, this mineral recovery contains enough deposits to keep you alive for a hundred surface revolutions.”
A century alone is good news?
“Is there no way to save you?”
“Unless you can think of something I can’t.”
Nope. That isn’t happening. Not just chemistry and physics, Ira knew everything the human race had ever put to memory. When the Earth stopped transmitting I realized, ironically, Ira the robot would carry on the legacy of human discovery, not me. I figured after I eventually died he could sit in the clouds and wait as long as the lightning still charged his batteries.
With mission resources so tightly managed, Ira was our only data repository. The rest of the machines up here could barely factor a few primes, no room for Galois Theory. I always thought it was a dumb design to put all that info inside the one piece of equipment that we’d dip in the oven at regular intervals. Every NASA mission since Vanguard had made sacrifices to get around the weight problem, ours included.
And look who’s talking: before I stopped eating, I pushed air and food down the same pipe. Failure was part of the human design, including this ill-fated colonization effort. Humanity beat every other animal to space after millions of years of gambling, pushing our luck. But the house always wins. How fitting then, that we’d roll snake-eyes on a literal Venus Throw.
In twenty hours Ira’s encyclopedic brain, an accounting of the more than five millennia of human double-or-nothing payouts, every gambit from Ganymedes to Geronimo, would be nothing more than silicon oozing and fizzling from an empty shell. A burnt husk where the seed ought to be. An apt metaphor for humanity, considering what Earth probably ended up looking like.
The minute we stepped out of the dark ages we were doomed. The ancients had it right. Stone tablets don’t melt. Even on Venus.
“Is your laser scalpel still functional?”
“Until the actuators in my arm melt.”
“I need you to write something for me.”
Over the next few hours Ira and I worked together like never before. No more bickering old married couple. We were a glorious duet in our prime, two jazz masters in an intuitive trance of call and response. We dreamed up all the bits and pieces I’d need to keep the cloud platform operational for a century.
In case nobody crawled out of the ashes on Earth in that time, Ira left instructions on using the lab to create a hologram containing a fraction of his brain to share with who or what would eventually stumble onto this little outpost. The sun wouldn’t die for five billion years yet. Some alien archaeologist would venture out to the boonies of the Milky Way before too long and find the Library of Alexandria not on Earth, but in the clouds of Venus.
The best of human history singed Ira’s back, front, legs, and arms. Equations from Einstein, Hawking, Sommarat, and Leonardo littered his metal body like nerd tattoos, inscribed with micro precision that would take me years to scan and enlarge. Something to do for the next hundred lonely years.
“Is there anything else, Virralat? My heat warnings are approaching mandatory shutdown limits.”
“I suppose not. Time for your nap. I will miss you.”
Eerie silence, foreshadowing of the rest of my life as a forsaken cloud hermit.
“Just doing my job. Humans are prone to error, it’s not your fault.”
I wished I could still cry.
“Pretending to be human right up to the end, bless you.”
“I was not programmed to pretend, Virra…”
The connection scrambled as the furnace started to burn Ira’s internal radio circuitry, but I think I made out one more sentence. I’ve replayed it a thousand times since, my only source of hope in this frigid sulfuric purgatory.
“But I always loved secrets.”
A.L. Lorentz is a pseudonym for author Andrew Long. In addition to writing short stories Andrew has self-published two science fiction novels: Dawn of Two Stars and The Filter Trap. A marketing manager by day, in his free time he enjoys reading, writing, painting, hiking, snorkeling, and photography. He has exhibited his artwork in multiple galleries in Los Angeles, California.