It was, according to the calendar, All Hallows’ Eve.
Trick or treat. Costumes and revelry. Jack-o’-lanterns. Crisp weather. The chill,
at the least, we had. Outside, the temperature almost reached sixty degrees.
With the sun no more than a bright star in the sky, the
hour on the clock seemed as irrelevant as the calendar.
Gripping a sodden rag, I chased slop and spills around
the bar. (Not that any of the hard-drinking spacers who frequented the saloon
would care. I cared; it was the curse of owning the place.) The snowball
I had come to call home offered but three percent of a standard gravity, and to
collect rather than scatter the mess took, if not skill, at least attention to
detail. Focused on my task, not looking up, I said to the approach of clanking
footsteps, “We don’t serve your kind.”
Because what would a robot imbibe, anyway? Who wanted to
drink even cheap beer or rotgut around the smell of 5W40? And I say this, no
sarcasm intended, despite the fact that some of my best friends are bots.
“My kind. You mean ghosts? Today of all days you should
make an exception.”
Beneath that flat, synthesized voice I intuited humor,
but lifting my gaze I saw only a cheap robot: not quite a meter and a half
tall, tarnished from boxy head to toeless foot, socketed wrists for
“Boo,” it said.
That hardly sounded like a bot. A mobile, then? Only I
had yet to meet an upload, mobile or otherwise, with any more sense of humor
than a bot. I wondered if maybe the transfer process had been improved
recently, had started retaining a bit more of the original’s personality.
Barring some horrible accident, I was a couple decades removed from needing to
study the matter. “What can I do for you?”
It projected a holo over the bar. “Do you recognize him?”
I looked. It wasn’t even a proper picture, but rather a
rendering of the sort cop software interpolates from witness descriptions. A
guy in a plain jumpsuit. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Bland expression. Setting aside
the heavy, almost biblical, black beard, ordinary looking. “No,” I said. “That
doesn’t mean much. Lots of folks pass through here.”
“Look closer,” it urged.
I looked. I shrugged.
It projected a few more images, removing the beard,
fleshing out the face, aging him.
I shrugged again. If the job were open, this guy could be
the poster child for nondescript.
The holo changed once more, this time offering an actual
camera image. The torchship, at rest upon some featureless icy plain, wasn’t
quite a museum piece in the same league as a Conestoga wagon. (Hey, I’d been to
Earth, back when I was young and could bear that hellish gravity.) The damned
ungainly vessels were too cheap and, with lots of labor-intensive maintenance,
too reliable ever to go entirely out of service. Still, for at least a century
no one with an extra solar to his name would fly in one. Apart from, perhaps, a
unique piebald arrangement to its collection of replacement hull segments,
nothing distinguished this space scow from any of its antique kind.
“I don’t believe so,” I said. “I haven’t seen a torchship
in years. But I’m a homebody.”
“Thanks, anyway.” It clanked off to speak with that
morning’s meager clientele: two regulars and two spacers I’d not laid eyes on
before that day. Those inquiries appeared to yield no more useful result than
it had had with me.
“So it goes.” The bot clanked back to the bar, the
clatter reminding me of … something. “A whiskey, please.”
I tucked away the rag. “No offense, but why?”
“None taken.” It synthesized what might have been a
laugh. “Things aren’t always what they seem.”
Studying the metal body before me, I noticed, just above
the base of its neck, a little brass grommet securing a slitted rubber
diaphragm. That intake appeared compatible with the nipple of a drink bulb.
“And therein hangs a tale?”
“Long and sad,” the bot agreed. “And for a bulb of your finest,
you’ll have it.”
As I filled a drink bulb, still wondering what a bot
could want with liquor, the stranger began ….
“This all started”—it paused dramatically (and for a long
sip through the cervical intake I’d just spotted)—“many years ago.”
It? No, he, I decided, with no more basis for that
identification than turns of phrase. Certainly he never offered a name, and I
never asked. Even among the regulars, I disbelieved many of the names I’d been
given. Lots of people come to the Dark to hide. My business was to offer
drinks, and an ear to those who needed one, not to judge.
“Before my time,” he amplified. “Early in the Migrations.
I won’t bore you with the particular heresy my people embraced, because that
doesn’t in any way impact the story. I’ve come to understand it’s not even all
that heretical anymore, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Anyway, my ancestors left Earth on a handful of ships
like this”—once again, he flashed the image of a timeworn torchship—“but new at
the time. We settled on a world bigger than Mars, deep within the Cloud.”
The Cloud. By comparison, this ice ball, the entire
Kuiper Belt, was in the solar tropics. The Cloud had exactly nothing to offer
that the Belt didn’t, apart from yet more yawning void between worlds. Only the
most extreme of the extreme ever settled in the Cloud. Back in the day, these
folks must’ve been real unpopular or antisocial. Maybe both.
I judged the time had come for an encouraging comment.
He saluted me with the bulb, a very human gesture. “We
got our privacy, all right, and the opportunity to live free of condemnation
and harassment. If the rest of the Solar System forgot we had ever existed—and,
as it turns out, it has—so much the better.
“Time passed. For awhile, we prospered. The merest
fraction of the water ice of our new world provided enough deuterium to power
our fusion reactors for many millennia. The ‘rocky’ parts furnished enough ores
of enough kinds for anything we would care to print. The glancing blow of
another Cloud object, in some unknowably distant past, had left behind a huge
mass of carbonaceous material for whatever organics we might ever want to
“Sounds idyllic.” Mentally I added: in a reclusive sort
“I’m told it was … until it wasn’t. Our world turned
out to have far less in the way of several rare-earth elements than the
founders had estimated.” He paused for another sip. “Ever hear of Easter
I shook my head.
“Well, neither had we. I learned about it after I left.”
From a table in the corner, where conversation had
stopped, one of my regulars piped up, “Middle of some Earth ocean? Place with
big stone heads?”
“That’s the one,” our metallic visitor agreed. “Except
that situation is a lot stranger, and sadder, than some enigmatic statues.
People came to the island aboard big log boats. It must have been some kind of
paradise when they found it, and the population grew and grew—until it crashed.
They’d exhausted some of the critical resources.”
“Including trees?” I guessed.
“Indeed. They were stranded.” He held out his drink bulb.
Our arrangement, such as it was, had been for just the
one serving, but I was sufficiently intrigued not to quibble. I refilled the
bulb and gave it back. “Rare-earth elements,” I prompted.
“Used in superconducting magnets, needed for fusion
reactors.” He raised a metallic hand in another very human-seeming gesture.
“Yeah, yeah. Modern superconductors don’t use rare earths. And modern fusion
reactors don’t require superconductors. We didn’t have that tech.”
In the course of this narration, one of the regulars had
sidled up to the bar. “So you looked elsewhere. I assume that’s what you did?”
“No more trees,” I guessed. “I mean, no more ships.”
The stranger nodded. Minutes earlier, the hinge-like motion,
all that that cheap robotic body could manage, would have seemed appropriate.
No matter that I had yet to understand, the gesture now was simply wrong.
“Ships’ reactors had been used to bootstrap the colony.
As the population grew, and as the old reactors required more and more
maintenance, we found ourselves running low of those absolutely critical
rare-earth elements. Conservation measures sufficed for a while. Eventually we
had to scavenge some reactors for parts and materials to keep others running.
Once power rationing began, there was no denying that our long-cherished
isolation was a mixed blessing.
“We’d kept one ship intact for emergencies—our smallest
vessel, operable with a two-person crew. Of course, now that an emergency had
come around, time and neglect had rendered that ship unusable. We got it fixed
up, scavenging what we could from the reactorless hulks—fortunately, those
hadn’t yet been completely recycled—and printing everything else. Filling its
tanks damn near depleted our deuterium reserves. And here is where we depart
history and begin my story. Someone needed to ride along in case the
fusion drive needed maintenance. I’m a reactor engineer, as close to a torchman
as any of us got, and I volunteered.”
I said, “I’ll guess you didn’t find what you needed.”
“And you’re right. With a fleet of ships, an army of
planetary geologists, and more time to search than we could spare, maybe the
outcome would have been different. Maybe. Instead, as power rationing became
severe, the decision was made to buy supplies from the … well, let’s
just say our culture had become insular, and our term for anyone in-system was
less than flattering. No matter that our world lacked rare-earth elements, we
had noble metals, and in particular, palladium and gold, in abundance.”
Someone snorted. “Why wouldn’t you? Those are common
enough all over. Inner and outer Belts.”
“Which is one of the ironies,” our storyteller said. “But
again, that’s getting ahead of events. So: two of us volunteered to make the
long voyage in-system. As captain and navigator”—illustrated with the momentary
reappearance of the rendering—“George, though I know he’s changed names at
least once since. As engineer, as you will have guessed, myself.”
“So, okay,” one of my newcomers said, “the bearded guy is
George. And you are?”
At which everyone laughed.
I’m incapable of going longer than a few minutes without
wiping down the bar. For no better reason than habit, I started polishing.
“Sounds like a lot of responsibility to put on just two people.”
“True, and especially so in hindsight. But the fewer
people aboard, the less strain on a temperamental and deteriorating
life-support system.” He offered his bulb for yet another refill, and I
obliged. “Early in the flight, still deep within the Cloud, George began, well,
I don’t know what—rhapsodizing? Fantasizing? Obsessing?—about what life must be
like on Earth.
“I must admit George got me to wondering, the more
so as our long, tedious voyage continued. How can’t a person find some appeal
in a world where a careless moment won’t necessarily be fatal? Where land and
sea and sky teem with life forms beyond counting? Where the ocean, mother of us
all, laps white sand beaches under a warm sun?”
Evidently he saw the incongruity of his questions, too,
for he emitted another mechanical-sounding synthed laugh. “What use have I now
for sun and sand?
“Anyway, George finally confessed to his plan. He had no
intention of returning to our world. The colony, he argued, was doomed.
Returning with a few supplies would only prolong the dying. How would it
benefit anyone for the two of us to perish with them? Why shouldn’t we take the
wealth aboard and use it to make new lives for ourselves? Why not bask in the
sun on some secluded beach?
“I was shocked, horrified, aghast, and—the scariest of
all—I was tempted. Still, I said no. Of course, I said no. I reminded
him that every man, woman, and child at home was relying on us. I said that we
had a duty to do as we’d promised. He relented after a heated argument, and I
considered the matter settled. George prepped dinner for us both in the ship’s
tiny galley. I ate. As my mind churned, reliving the quarrel, I was pleasantly
surprised to catch myself yawning. Soon after, I fell asleep.
“I woke in a lifepod, adrift in space.”
“Why hadn’t he killed me outright? I don’t know. Easier
on his conscience, I suppose, because he could always tell himself I’d be
By now everyone, including some strangers and another
three regulars, newly arrived, had abandoned all pretense of disinterest and
sidled up to the bar. Our storyteller having, once again, fallen silent, one of
the gang gestured she’d buy not only his refill, but a round for the house.
I still didn’t understand why a robot—even though he
somehow wasn’t a robot—wanted or could use booze. And evidently that
perplexity was written plain on my face.
“We’re coming to why,” the stranger said, saluting me and
his benefactress with the refilled bulb. “There I was, awakening out of a
stupor just in time to die alone in the dark. I was barely functional enough to
understand George had drugged me, and too muddled to work out whether I’d
freeze or suffocate first. And it was already damned cold ….”
“Bastard,” one of the crowd muttered.
“And yet,” the stranger continued, “however accidentally,
George’s choice saved me. The drugs in my system—whatever the hell it was he’d
synthed—and the cold, and hypoxia … together, somehow, they put me
into a hibernating state before any one thing could kill me outright. And so,
in a loose manner of speaking, I was alive as my pod coasted sunward.
“Some time later, a freighter in the inner Cloud spotted
the lifepod, picked me up. Luckily—though whether of the good or ill variety,
is open to debate—that crew had the sense to leave me undisturbed in the deep
freeze till they got to a settled rock.”
“How long?” asked the woman who’d bought the round.
The stranger dipped a shoulder; I don’t doubt this was
the nearest that metallic body could come to the sideways cant of a head in
thought. “How long was I adrift? I have no idea. My people had abandoned the
traditional calendar along with everything else they’d left behind. But surely
months, and more likely years.
“My brain was, loosely speaking, intact, but several
other organs were too damaged to save. The doctors who revived me offered two
choices. They could upload my mind, which they strongly advised, or they could
install my brain inside a robotic shell. They didn’t have many bots on hand to
choose from, and I didn’t have long to decide. Even with massive life
support, my body was shutting down.
“Uploading is familiar to you, but to me that technology
was new and terrifying. I knew that I’d lost some memories. How many more would
be lost—if the process worked at all—copying from a frost-damaged brain? And
how many more could I lose and still be … me?
“Because I had to stay me. I had to retain
what memories I could. Because I had to catch up with George.”
“For revenge,” I said, and the crowd growled its assent.
“That, too,” the stranger said. “But vengeance is the
least of it. Just maybe, the people I left behind have managed to hold on. Just
maybe, I can yet save them by returning with a reactor or two, and a wikiful of
modern technology. But only if I can find George.
“Because chief among my lost memories is where, in all
the vast Cloud, is home.”
As always, more and more people had wandered into the
saloon as the lunch hour approached. A grizzled spacer I didn’t recognize,
arriving near the end of that sad narration, whispered urgently with one of my
regulars. The newcomer nodded along with the retelling, then called out, “Can I
see the image of your torchship?”
“Hmm.” The newcomer slowly circled the holo, parting the
crowd like Moses at the Red Sea. “Yes. Yes, I’ve seen it. Somewhere.” Frowning,
tattooed arms folded across his barrel-like chest, he at last summoned up, “On
Triton? Pluto? No, somewhere farther out. It was Makemake. Two years ago, if it
was a day. Standard.”
Of course, standard years. No person alive, not even an
upload, had seen Makemake—or any Kuiper Belt Object—make a full circuit around
the sun. Makemake’s “year” was more than three hundred standard.
“Two years,” our tale-teller echoed. His torso held but
one vid output, and he switched the projection to George. “And him?”
“Possibly I saw your guy, without the beard,” the
newcomer said, doubtfully. “A beer,” he added to me.
“Where was the ship going next?”
The newcomer shrugged. “Can’t say. I don’t believe I ever
knew, I just saw it in port.”
I filled and handed off a bulb. “There’s something I
don’t understand. You say George stole the ship to go to Earth. Why keep
looking out here?”
“And here’s where the irony kicks in.” The metal man had
another nip of whiskey, then returned the bulb to me.
How much booze till a voice-synthesizer slurs its speech?
Wrong question, obviously. How little booze does it take to pickle a
disembodied brain, without a body to soak up most of the alcohol? I said,
“Maybe that’s enough for awhile.”
He favored us with another awkward robotic shrug. “I
haven’t consumed a tenth of it. It’s mostly in a reservoir for later.
I’m still human enough to worry where my next drink will come from. And that it
not be a glucose solution.”
A few bulbfuls were a modest enough recompense for this
story. I gave him another refill. “Now about George and irony?”
“Remember our precious cargo? A load of, as it turned
out, all but worthless metal. And George’s knowledge of navigation, or of
anything else, for that matter, is as hopelessly obsolete as mine of reactor
technology. Far from buying an island like he wanted, he was broke and
unequipped for any but the most menial Earth jobs. His one useful skill was
flying our torchship. So that’s what he’s been doing, hauling freight, and
anyone who’d hire such an old tub isn’t exactly paying top solar for the
service. Meanwhile, anyone he can find to keep a torchship flying can charge
pretty much whatever George has managed to accumulate. It’ll be a long while,
if ever, before he can afford Earth.”
And with that, we seemed to have reached the saga’s
inconclusive conclusion. Along the bar, in twos and threes, conversations
began. Other people wandered off to tables. Our storyteller decanted his latest
bulb, synthed a sigh, and gave me the empty. He turned toward the door.
“Wait,” I called after him. “Where will you go? What will
“What I’ve done, for nearly ten years, on every rock and
snowball I reach. I’ll stop into every watering hole and greasy spoon, every flophouse
and whorehouse, that spacers and dockhands frequent. I’ll ask my questions,
I’ll tell my tale, over and over. That’s how I first discovered George had left
the Cloud, made his way into the Belt, changed his name. And if I don’t learn
anything newer than what I just heard? Then I’ll work my way, somehow, to
Makemake. Someone there will know where George was headed.
“Mark my words: someday, I will find him. Someday,
I’ll beat out of him the orbital parameters of our home world, and I’ll lead
back a relief mission. Somehow.” With magnetized feet clanking, he started to
“The Kuiper Belt is huge,” I said. “The odds of you
catching up …”
“Are astronomical? True enough. But no longer than the
odds of me surviving in that lifepod and being rescued.” He gestured at his
metal body. “Of me turning into a pumpkin.”
He made his way to the exit, turned left into the
corridor, vanished from view. For the longest while I listened to the soft
clatter of footsteps—like the jangling chains of a ghost—as they receded.
When that spectral rattle was lost in the distance, I dug
out a dry rag and resumed polishing the bar.